Reiser struggling with transition from crew chief to GM

FONTANA, Calif. -- The start of the Daytona 500 was 45 minutes away. Drivers were standing near their cars on pit road waiting out those anxious moments before climbing behind the wheel. Crew members were busy making sure everything on and around the pit box was in place for the next four hours.

Just out of sight of the prerace bedlam, alone in the garage in a director's chair behind the yellow No. 17 hauler of Matt Kenseth, was Robbie Reiser.

For the past 12 years, between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, Reiser was in the midst of the buzz as Kenseth's crew chief. His adrenalin would be flowing in anticipation of all the calls he would have to make to get his driver into Victory Lane.

But on this day, he looked like a lost puppy, slouched over like he would rather be anywhere but there.

"I don't like it that much," he said of his new job as general manager at Roush Fenway Racing. "If somebody came up and said you can do your old job again, I'd probably take it in a heartbeat."

This was Reiser's first weekend in his new role. He spent most of Sunday bouncing between each of team owner Jack Roush's five haulers, making sure the crew chiefs had everything they needed for the Daytona race and this weekend's Sprint Cup race at California Speedway.

"It's way different than I'm used to," said Reiser, who won the 2003 Sprint Cup title with Kenseth. "I'm really uncomfortable doing it. It's going to take me a while to get used to this style of work, compared to the hands-on type of work I used to do."

Roush considered moving Reiser into this role for several years. Reiser talked about the possibility in 2006 so he could spend more time with his family after his father, the general manager of Roush's Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck Series teams, lost his battle with cancer.

There was speculation the change would come last season, but Max Jones was given the job instead.

When the move was announced late last season, nobody was more surprised than Reiser.

"Everybody has made a big deal out of the family thing," said Reiser, a father of three. "I was set to be a crew chief until the end of my contract, which was 2009. Of course, it's great to spend time with the kids. My kids are that age right now where they're a lot of fun.

"On the other hand, I still go to work at 5 in the morning. I still come home at 7 at night. Other than a little time on Saturday, that's all I gained out of this."

Reiser stood at the back of the room where the driver's meeting for the Budweiser Shootout was being held. He watched as NASCAR officials instructed drivers and crew chiefs, sitting where he once did, on the dos and don'ts of the day.

"I probably could recite everything they say in there to a T," Reiser said.

Reiser didn't attend the meeting before the 500. He wouldn't have attended the one before the Shootout if it were up to him.

"Jack made me go," he said with a laugh. "I'm a person that if I'm not doing the job I don't want to be there. I'm not a stand-there-type guy. I'm either in the middle of this thing or I want to be somewhere else where I can make a difference. I'm a racer. I'm not a show pony."

As Reiser left the meeting, a crew member from another team yelled, "Hey part-timer."

Reiser forced a smile.

"I don't like that," he said. "I don't think I've ever been called a slacker or part-timer ever in my life. Now that I've got this new role, everybody looks at you like you don't work anymore. I don't take that real well."

Reiser is far from a slacker. He is one of the most respected members of Roush Fenway. Driver Greg Biffle believes the 44-year-old native of Allentown, Wis., will be the "key ingredient in catching up to these other teams."

"Robbie is a very smart person," Biffle said. "He's a very, very good organizer, and we've lacked that position, so to speak, in the past. We've had people, but not of Robbie's caliber of understanding the race cars, the race teams and how they operate and what they need to do technically behind the scenes.

"Robbie is gonna help bridge that gap and close up quickly to the rest of the teams."

Jimmy Fennig, the crew chief for David Ragan, agreed. He also understand's Reiser's frustration.

"Robbie is a racer," he said. "It's going to take a little while for him to realize what he does with all five teams is as important as what he was doing for the 17. It's a plus having him as a general manager."

Reiser can't say what his greatest contribution in his new job will be. He's always been one others in the organization turned to, so much of what he's doing is no different.

"Jack has always had me in a senior role," he said. "A lot of this stuff really ain't that new to me. Racing without the competitive side is very new to me when I just sit here. That's the biggest difference now."

Still partial to 17
Reiser sat on Kenseth's pit box at Daytona, assisting crew chief Chip Bolin the way Bolin assisted him since the Cup team was formed in 2000.

Reiser doesn't know how many races he'll attend. He has no plans to be at California, where Kenseth won the past two seasons.

"Jack would like me to go to all of them," Reiser said. "The important part of this thing is to build a structure back at home so we can support these guys at the track. That's what I've been working hard on. That's requiring a lot of work right now.

"I'm sure some weekends I'll go all weekend. I'm sure some I won't go at all. Wherever we have to focus our energy on is where I'll be."

Robbie is a racer. It's going to take a little while for him to realize what he does with all five teams is as important as what he was doing for the 17.

-- Jimmy Fennig

When he's not at the track, Reiser will spend Sundays hanging out with his kids on the 100 acres surrounding his North Carolina home. When at the track, there'll always be a soft spot for the No. 17, which came from his father when they were racing together.

"So you aren't going to unstamp the 17 from me," he said with a smile. "I'm always going to be a little partial. Everybody involved at Roush Fenway understands that 17 will always be special to me because of my family being involved in it.

"But in the two months [I've been in this role], I haven't treated anybody any less or any more in getting prepared for this season."

Much of what Reiser learned about cars and overseeing an operation came from his father, John.

"The thing I didn't receive from my dad was the personality he had," Reiser said. "I'm very different. My dad and myself had the same intentions. It's just my personality is very focused and driven. It's just my dad was friendly and open to everybody."

Reiser's personality was perfect for Kenseth, who beat him for the 1994 Late Model track championship at Madison International Speedway. They would disagree often, but never to the point it drove them apart.

They were the longest reigning crew chief-driver combination in the garage before this season, turning that title over to Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart.

Kenseth understands Reiser's frustration with the new job more than anybody.

"I think it's weird for him to be at the track, actually," he said. "It's just different for him. He's kind of a gamer. That's what he's always done; he's always been in the box calling the races, getting really involved in the race. ...

"To stand on the sideline, watch and listen, I think is probably a little tough for him at this point."

Jury's out
Reiser grew fidgety in his chair as Brooks & Dunn wrapped up their prerace show. The national anthem would come soon, followed by the "Gentleman, start your engines" command that would signal the start of the race.

"Obviously, you've got mixed emotions to sit here and do nothing in the first race," Reiser said.

Reiser says he'll give this role a few months before deciding if it'll become permanent. If he decides it's not for him, he won't hesitate to look for another crew chief job, at Roush Racing or another organization.

"When we get to April and May, I'll look at it," Reiser said. "If I still can't stand it, I'll go talk to Jack."

Adjusting to all the management meetings has been Reiser's toughest chore. He would rather have his head under the hood getting his hands greasy than pushing a pencil.

"It's really hard for me to get a grasp on it," he said. "I'm so used to being in the thick of it. Now I'm on the outside-looking-in thick of it. I'm not really enjoying it at all, but it is what it is and it is the job I have.

"A lot of people that know me know I'm pretty competitive. It's really hard. It's hard to explain because you look at things so different than what the manager or business side of this sport looks at."

That doesn't mean Reiser won't settle into his new job and enjoy it. He never thought he'd be a crew chief until he was paired with Kenseth in the Busch Series in 1997.

He knows there will be an adjustment period, and all Sundays won't be like the one he spent at Daytona.

"Most of the time you have all of our preparation work done by this time and you're getting ready for the race," he said as he leaned back in the chair. "That's way different for me. Normally in the morning I'm getting ready for what's in front of us and what we have to do.

"Now everybody else is doing that and I'm sitting watching."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.