INSIGHT: Who the heck is Ty Dillon’s new crew chief?

If the first you heard Jerame Donley’s name was Nov. 16 when Petty GMS Racing announced him as the crew chief of Ty Dillon’s team, you aren’t alone.

Donley, who turns 36 at the start of the new year, will call the shots for a NASCAR Cup team for the first time beginning in 2022. But Donley, a Winston Salem, North Carolina native, is no stranger to racing. Donley has worked for some of the most successful teams in the garage, was once himself a racer, and has a mind that is always going.

His resume includes serving as a race engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he worked with Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth and Ross Chastain, prior to which he’d turned entry-level part-time positions at RCR and Hendrick into a six-year stay at the latter where he served in a variety of both traveling and shop-based roles.

So, who is Jerame Donley? RACER sat down with him to better get to know one of NASCAR’s newest crew chiefs.

Breaking into NASCAR

“My first foray into the sport would have been a part-time engineering job at (Richard Childress Racing), and that would have been the summer of 2004 when I got out of high school,” said Donley. “My first full-time job was the setup plate on the 48 car (Jimmie Johnson) at (Hendrick Motorsports) in the fall of 2008.”

Accomplishments

Donley won races and Cup Series championships with Johnson. He was on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team when Earnhardt broke a four-year winless drought at Michigan in 2012. Among other wins Donley contributed was Kyle Larson’s first in the series at Michigan in 2016.

“For years, we had finished second, second, second, and to finally get the first one, you’re like, all right, this is really cool because everybody knew how talented the kid was,” Donley said of Larson. “Then to go win Dover (in 2019), we dominated the race. To go win it and transfer further in the playoffs, those are really cool things to be a part of.

“What I try to tell a lot of the guys that I work with now is, it only takes one, and if you get into victory lane one time in the Cup Series, it will drive you for years to come to get back there. You have beat the best of the best, period. It doesn’t matter how; doesn’t matter why. You have beat the best of the best. And that’s something to be said because there are a lot of really intelligent people in this sport.”

A racing family

Both of Donley’s grandparents were involved in racing: one did a lot of wheel welding, and the other had a machine shop. Donley’s father, Craig, was a spotter and worked with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 1990s while also doing some tire changing on the Xfinity Series side.

“I don’t remember much about (Earnhardt),” admitted Donley. “I was 5, 6, 7 years old when I was really around him, and then my Dad got out (of spotting) in ’96 when we started racing. I don’t really remember a lot from that era in my life, but my Dad will tell stories left and right about Dale Sr., how crazy he was.

“I won’t forget the day of the (2001 Daytona) 500. The crash happens, and (Dad) gets a call from like Danny Lawrence, and it’s like, ‘Hey, Dale didn’t make it.’ Next to my grandfather passing away recently, that’s the most upset I’ve ever seen my dad in my whole entire life. That guy meant that much to my Dad and everyone in the sport.”

Donley was about 10 years old when he vividly remembers being on his way to school when he told his mom, “you know what’d be really cool? Let’s get a go-kart and go racing.”

That was all it took. Five days later, there was a go-kart in the basement. Donley suspects it was easy to make happen because his dad might have dreamed of him taking that route given their background and a passion for working on cars.

“I think he was waiting for that opportunity,” he said, “and as soon as that opportunity popped up, he was like, ‘ahhhhh, here we go.’”

Donley’s first race was on dirt on a school night. While mom wanted to get the kids home as the program ran deep into the night, Dad pointed out everyone was having fun.

“It’s a dirt race, and it’s dirty as all get out, and we were like, here we go. This is what we’re getting into,” said Donley. “It snowballed from there.”

As a driver, Donley ran everything from go-karts to bandoleros and late models. He admits he was too analytical to be a driver.

“Especially as I got to learning about the cars and adjusting them to make them go faster,” he said. “This was a big downfall of mine – I would try to drive and engineer or crew chief it at the same time, and I never could focus on one or the other. … For the most part, I don’t think I was aggressive enough because I would think about the consequences instead of just reacting. And then when I would say, all right, just react, I would get myself in a lot of trouble and end up wrecking a lot of cars. We had a little bit of success, and I’m very thankful for it, but I got to the point in my career where I asked myself am I going to work on them or drive? That’s when I started going to engineering school, and we sold everything we had.”

Donley admits he was ‘too analytical’ to be a driver, but those qualities will come in handy when he takes charge of Ty Dillon’s car in 2022.

When alone in the car, Donley is thinking about:  

“What music I want to listen to. I’m thinking about race car stuff like what areas to work on the car. I’m thinking about what I need to get accomplished for the day. I’m thinking about who I haven’t spoken to recently that I probably need to reach out. Just completely random stuff.”

And in his new role as a crew chief, “my mind goes 1,000 different directions and 1,000 miles a minute. I don’t sleep near as much as I used to. And my wife is pregnant, so she’s not sleeping all that great either, and in the middle of the night, we’ll both be awake at like 2:30 in the morning.”

He describes himself as:

“Impatient. I am not very patient when it comes to getting things done, so if things aren’t going as quickly as I want them to, I’m like, all right, why is it not happening?

“I would say that I’m a people-pleaser. I genuinely care about people, their well-being. I care about them being home with their families; I don’t want to burn them out because this sport can do that. I want to take care of them. I want to show them that I appreciate them. My wife will tell me it’s almost to a fault and that I need to be harder on them to get what I need out of them and motivate them.”

Being a Cup Series crew chief is (fill in the blank):

“Stressful. Challenging. Exciting. Once in a lifetime opportunity. A lot of people remind me this is exactly where you wanted to get to in your career, and now you’re here. You’re one of 40 in the garage that is labeled a Next Gen Cup crew chief, so enjoy it, embrace it, and work hard to stay there.”

Goals for himself and his team in 2022:

“We don’t have to go out and win the first 10 races. We don’t have to be Hendrick Motorsports right away. The biggest thing for us is to show progression throughout the year. So, if we start the year and we’re a 20-place car, every 10 races, I think we need to step up five spots. If we do that and keep an eye on the process and goal, we can get to where we want to be.

“It’s keeping inspiring ways to motivate the guys and saying, OK, one baby step at a time, and we’ll get there. Because if I was to walk in here January the 3rd and say, all right, we’re going to win 10 races and win the championship, everyone is going to look at me and think I’m an idiot. The other thing is keeping an eye on where our affiliate teams are. If Chevy is still as strong as they have been, we need to be able to compete with them. Goals will be improve upon Ty’s career stats. It only takes one win. I’d love to say the goal is to win, but I think we have to be realistic about it.

“For myself, personal goals, eliminate my mistakes throughout the year. I’m going to make bad calls, say silly stuff. I’m going to make bad adjustments. I’m going to make plenty of mistakes as I grow into my role, but if I can make a list of things where I have 20 mistakes, I hope that by the time we get to the (finale), maybe I’ve made two mistakes or three.

“I want to build a culture and a build a team that everyone wants to be a part of it and wants to pull the rope in the same direction. An ultimate goal for me is, this time next year I’m able to retain all the guys on my team because they believe in the leadership, vision, and how I’ve guided them through the season.”