Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Charlie Langenstein: Championship Winning Crew Chief Comes Full Circle – DTD Exclusive (By Ken Bruce)
To dirt modified fans that have been around the sport like myself since the 1970’s the name Charlie Langenstein is a name most would recognize but to the newer generation of fans of our sport maybe not so much. Langenstein has had a career most of us would have loved to have experienced ourselves. Starting out on the dirt tracks of New Jersey and Delaware, then quickly moving to crew chief two of the best dirt modified drivers to every strap into the cockpit in Jimmy Horton and Brett Hearn to NASCAR greatness working for Hendrick Motorsports and then back to working with Brett Hearn in the latter parts of 2015. It has been an amazing career for Langenstein and he still is not done.
I have known Charlie since his days working with Jimmy Horton but with his move down south we sort of lost touch with each other for a long time but were reacquainted this past season when he came back north to work for Hearn at the end of season. I have to say it was a lot of fun to catch up with the award winning mechanic and crew chief.
The Early Years
For those of you who don’t know Charlie, motorsports has been a part of his life since he was a little boy growing up in southern New Jersey. Charlie first was introduced to the racing bug through his dad like so many others of us had. Charlie’s dad raced at tracks like Atlantic City, Pleasantville and Vineland speedways back in the. Charlie learned to work on his dad’s cars at a young age but like so many others he really wanted to be a driver. One way to be a driver his dad told was to learn how to work on the cars himself saying that the best drivers are the ones who know how to work on them and fix them. Unfortunately for Charlie but fortunately for us he ended up working on cars for the most part and never was able to fulfill his original dream of driving. However, he was able to master the craft of building and working on the cars themselves. After his father stopped racing Charlie hooked up with Larry Voss from his hometown area and started working on his cars at the local speedways. After that is when Charlie got his big break.
After working on Voss’s cars Charlie was starting to make a name for himself on the local racing scene as a smart hard working topnotch mechanic and other people were starting to take notice. Another local racing team had eyes on Charlie at this point and it was none other than the George Smith Sr. owned Statewide Racing Team out of Folsom, NJ with their driver up and coming superstar Jimmy Horton. It was the break Charlie was looking for as the Statewide team was a high profile racing operation. Charlie who was still in high school at the time was hired as part-time mechanic on the team and lived with the Smith’s during the summer and then moved back home when school started in September. After Charlie graduated high school, he moved there permanently and went to work full-time for team. With Horton’s driving talents along with his ability to work and build his own cars at the time combined with Charlie’s talent as a mechanic it is no wonder the team was a powerhouse and a favorite for the checkered flag whatever track they pulled their rig into. The potent Statewide team had phenomenal years back in the late 70’s and early 80’s winning anywhere from thirty to forty feature races per season on average running at tracks all over the Northeast. Charlie who had quickly moved up to the role of crew chief along with George Smith Jr. was the catalyst behind many of those wins and also was learning how to work on sprint cars as the Statewide team was dabbling with that for some years and also winning some races on the United Racing Club circuit along with All-Star Circuit. After leaving the Statewide team Charlie went to work for another superstar on the dirt modified circuit in driver Brett Hearn. Hearn’s who goes by the nickname of the “Corporate Jet” is known for his always beautiful looking cars and meticulously prepared machines. Working for Hearn made Charlie’s name around the garage even more well know than it was. Charlie seemed to be living the dream but only few people know the work that goes into maintaining a topnotch traveling dirt modified team
Charlie had made quite a name for himself along the way as a mechanic but deep down still wanted to give driving a race car a shot. Charlie hooked up with Walt Breeding who had made quite a name for himself on the Delaware modified circuit with many wins. Breeding was trying to get his “Bandit” modified chassis on the market and turned to Charlie to help him. While working for Breeding, Charlie came together with Howard Davis out of Delaware and started driving his modifieds at the local tracks. After driving for a little while it became apparent to Charlie that he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on just the driving aspect of the sport due to the fact that each time he got out of his car after driving his customers who were also running the Bandit chassis were over asking him questions leaving Charlie no time to work on his own car. “I realized at that time I was probably more cut for the mechanical end of this deal.”
The NASCAR Years
After working for Breeding for a few years it became apparent to Charlie that you are not going to get rich working on a dirt modified in the northeast. As was the dream of most racers or mechanics in the northeast area the goal was to really move down south and work on a NASCAR team. Charlie who also had some opportunity to do some work on an Indy Car team right out of high school but without a degree in mechanical engineering that wasn’t probably going to be the route to go. After the 1988 season Charlie had the opportunity to move down south and work for the Rob Moroso Busch Grand National team in North Carolina. After winning the Busch Series title in 1989 plans were for the young driver to move into the then Winston Cup Series and run for the rookie of the year title in 1989. The dream unfortunately ended for Moroso when the young driver lost his life in September on 1990 when he was involved in a highway crash. Moroso had still accumulated enough points throughout the season to be awarded the rookie honor posthumously. After Moroso’s death Charlie remained loyal to the Moroso family and stayed on to work with after most of the team had moved over to Robert Yates operation.
After the Moroso family decided to close down their racing operation completely Charlie was once again looking for work and headed back up north and ended up working with Eric Koster at Kneisel Speed N Sport building cars for the legendary car builder. After working with them for awhile Charlie received an opportunity to go work for the noted Ray Bramall and his Freightliner team with driver Danny “The Doctor” Johnson after longtime crew chief Charlie DeAngelis left the team. Charlie had a good run working for the team but still had asperations of going back down south once again.
Charlie once again hooked with buddy Brett Hearn to run a few NASCAR Busch races and the pair even had a 10th place finish in first outing with the car at Dover International Speedway. But the plans never panned out for Hearn and he ended up going back to the dirt modifieds full-time once again leaving Charlie looking for employment. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Charlie who was hired to work for the legendary race team owned by Rick Hendrick.
It was the year 2000 when Charlie first started working for Hendrick Motorsports on the team of Jerry Nadeau who was driving the #25 car at the time. When the orgainizaition hired Jimmy Johnson to drive for the team in 2001 Charlie was moved over to the shop which housed the cars of Johnson and Jeff Gordon by Robbie Loomis who knew Charlie from his short stint at Richard Petty motorsports. Charlie was hired as a general shop mechanic and quickly moved through the ranks to the job of head mechanical director with job of overseeing well over 100 people who were working in the shop. The Hendrick years were quite successful for Charlie who was a big part of the team that won five Sprint Cup championships in a row with driver Jimmy Johnson. But all good things come to an end and after working for Hendrick Motorsports for twelve years Charlie called it a career and retired from Hendrick after the 2012 season and went to work for the much smaller team at Tommy Baldwin Racing. This opened up time for Charlie to help his son Austin get started driving race cars.
Charlie worked for TBR for a little while but was really concentrating his time on teaching his son the ropes of driving and also working at the Seat Time Driving school where Charlie worked as a consultant.
Return to the Dirt Circuit
After dabbling around for a couple of years working with his son to get his driving career started and doing some consulting for a Toyota truck team Charlie was talking to the David Reifenburg who owns Cedar Peaks who happens to be a sponsor of Austin’s team along with a sponsor of Hearn’s team. Reifenburg who has been a long time supporter of the dirt modified scene here in the northeast had been talking to Hearn during the summer when Hearn told him that he is very busy and has a lot of equipment to get ready for this year’s Super Dirt Week. Reifenburg suggested that Hearn get in touch with Charlie to see if he would be willing to come up and work on his cars for the big race and thus the two old friends were reunited. Charlie was very excited for the chance to come up north once again to work for Hearn but had a bigger goal in mind. Charlie wanted one last chance to win at the big 200 lap race on the one mile speedway at the New York State Fairgrounds. Especially with this was the last time the modifieds would ever run on the track after the state voted to renovate the fairgrounds with the race track not being included in those renovations. Charlie who has won every major modified race imaginable in the northeast wanted to be able to win the only major race that has eluded him in his lustrous career. Unfortunately for Charlie it didn’t pan out the way neither him or Hearn wanted it to but it was a successful reunion nonetheless. The original plan was for Charlie to return to his home in North Carolina once SDW was over but with some prodding from Hearn ended up staying up north and helping Hearn complete the season before heading home for the World Finals in Charlotte. The team came within a car length of sweeping the Eastern States 200 weekend and the big bonus that went with it. The team was able to win the 358 race and came up just short in the big block race and finishing second.
The pleasure of working with some of the best drivers on the Northeast Modified circuit in Jimmy Horton, Brett Hearn, Danny Johnson, Will Cagle, Kenny Brightbill, Larry Voss, Rick Schaeffer, Tom Corellis and Ray Swinehart among others.
Building a car for notorious owner Tony Ferraiuolo and his driver Ken Brenn Jr. to close out the 80s. “We built Tony’s first high-rail car for Ken to drive at Super DIRT Week in 1988 but never had a chance to finish the race,” said Langenstein, It was based on a sprint car and we even copied some of the ‘Batmobile’ design that dominated in 1980.”
Winner the NASCAR Busch Grand National championship in 1989 with Rob Moroso.
Designing and building a chassis at Richard Petty Motorsports that won in only its third race out with driver Bobby Hamilton in fall of 1997 at Rockingham Speedway.
The privilege of working at Hendrick Motorsports and being part of the Jimmy Johnson team that won five Sprint Cup Championship trophies in a row.
Having the honor to have worked with and become friends with Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson. “To know those superstar drivers off the track has been a blessing. They are both down to earth and genuine great guys who do so much for not only the sport but through their foundations.”
Working for and learning from two of the best crew chiefs in NASCAR in Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte.
Being inducted into the DIRT Motorsports “Hall of Fame” in 2008. http://www.superdirtcarseries.com/news/features/39-2008-feature-stories/185-charlie-langenstein-named-hall-of-fame-mechanic-of-the-year-2008
Rebuilding the infamous “Batmobile” car for the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Winning the very prestigious “Papa Joe Hendrick” award in 2008. The Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence award was founded in 1995 to honor a Hendrick Motorsports employee displaying leadership, teamwork, job performance and exceeding expectations to achieve the goals of the company. Previous winners of the award include Rick Hendrick, Kenny Schrader, Ken Howes, Randy Dorton among others.
Starting the “Riley and Friends Awareness Foundation” along with his wife Beth in honor of their daughter Riley who was born with special needs. Charlie was even voted one of the ten most beautiful people in NASCAR for his work with the foundation in 2008.