As a beaming Kevin Harvick held a news conference after winning the NASCAR race in Las Vegas a week ago, the man to his right sat mostly expressionless, a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.
The man was Gene Haas, 62, who co-owns Harvick’s team, Stewart-Haas Racing, with three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
Haas might not have shown much emotion but he no doubt saw Harvick’s win as welcome relief to the turmoil that otherwise has engulfed the team in recent months.
The four-car Chevrolet team — with Stewart, Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick — simultaneously has become one of the most forceful in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series and one of its most volatile as the series holds its fourth race of the season Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Last August, the team was rocked when Stewart fatally struck a fellow driver who was on foot in a sprint-car race in New York. The incident, accompanied by amateur video of the event, was reported worldwide.
For the record: An earlier version of this story said Stewart fatally struck a fellow driver who was on foot in a sprint-cup race. It was a sprint-car race.
Three months later, after a grand jury chose not to indict Stewart on criminal charges, Harvick won the Cup championship for Stewart-Haas.
Then last month Busch was suspended by NASCAR on the eve of the season-opening Daytona 500 amid domestic violence allegations against Busch by an ex-girlfriend.
No criminal charges were filed and Busch’s suspension was lifted this week. The former Cup champion is racing Sunday.
And then there’s Patrick who, as the only female Cup driver, still routinely makes headlines while continuing to struggle on the track.
At the center of all this is Haas, a longtime racing devotee and owner of Haas Automation Inc., an Oxnard-based maker of sophisticated machine tools with about $1 billion in annual revenue.
With Stewart so preoccupied last year by the fatal accident — he missed three races immediately afterward — Haas and his senior executives were the team’s stable force.
“I’ve got to give him credit,” fellow NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi said of Haas. “There’s a lot of people over there with their hair on fire. Somebody in that organization, and I’ve got to believe it’s him, is a very calming influence and a steady hand.”
Yet even as the Stewart and Busch controversies roiled the team, Haas pressed ahead with a daring plan: Forming the only U.S.-based team competing in Formula One, the international racing series.
With shops in Kannapolis, N.C., where Stewart-Haas is based, and in England preparing race cars, the Haas F1 team said last week it was on schedule to join Formula One next year. It’s a venture that reportedly could eventually cost $1 billion.
Haas, an Ohio native who grew up in the Los Angeles area, is described as methodical, exacting and amiable if not effusive. “It’s taken me a little bit to get to know him because he’s a very quiet guy, but he’s obviously intelligent,” Harvick said.
Haas also is ambitious and a gambler. In addition to forging ahead with the Formula One plans, he personally recruited the mercurial Busch in mid-2013 while Stewart was in the hospital with a broken leg.
That expanded Stewart-Haas to a four-car team, and Busch’s No. 41 Chevy is sponsored by Haas’ company. The sponsorship is aimed at widening Haas Automation’s exposure, and the Formula One effort likewise is intended to boost the company’s overseas sales.
Haas declined to be interviewed for this story. But at Harvick’s news conference in Las Vegas, Haas acknowledged “we’ve had a lot of turmoil over the last year and we just kind of keep going.”
“It’s a challenge, and when things are thrown at us we just basically deal with it and try not to complain,” Haas said. “Things we have control over we try to control, and there’s just a lot of things we don’t have any control over.”
And turmoil, especially involving the law, is nothing new for Haas. In 2007, Haas pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion.
As the U.S. attorney’s office said at the time, the charges stemmed from Haas’ “orchestrating a scheme in which tens of millions of dollars in bogus expenses were put on the company’s books in an attempt to avoid the payment of more than $34 million in federal income taxes.”
Under his guilty plea, Haas paid $75 million in fines and restitution and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
“I stood up, I took responsibility for what happened,” Haas told the Birmingham (Ala.) News in 2009.
Up to that point Haas had owned a marginal NASCAR team, Haas CNC Racing. But Haas struck the deal to have Stewart, one of NASCAR’s star drivers, join him as co-owner to create Stewart-Haas, which began racing in 2009.
The team initially had two cars for Stewart and Ryan Newman, and Stewart won the Cup championship in 2011.
By 2014, Newman had left and Harvick, Patrick and Busch had come aboard. That meant the team had four drivers with strong personalities and NASCAR Nation wondered whether they could gel as teammates.
“There was a lot of skepticism last year about what myself and Tony — what we were up to?” Haas said after Harvick won in Phoenix a year ago. “I don’t know what we did, but I think we put together a great organization.”
When the green flag falls Sunday, it appears most of Stewart-Haas’ turmoil is behind the team — for now. Stewart is back, Busch is back and Harvick clearly is ready to defend his Cup title.
With Harvick also having won the last three races at Phoenix, and Busch fast in practice this weekend, Haas could end up sitting at the winners’ news conference again Sunday.
“I’m proud to have my signature on the side of a car that Gene Haas has,” Busch said last week, “and to carry his name into Victory Lane.”
Just don’t expect Haas to show much emotion one way or the other.