NASCAR engineers bring wins – and the end of ‘redneck technology’
A mechanic works underneath the Jimmie Johnson car in the garage area during a practice session for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, July 4, 2013.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Sprint Cup Series Kyle Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers runs the crew during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series NRA 500 auto race at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday, April 13, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
The notion occurred to Richard Childress at some point during the 2012 Sprint Cup season. By year’s end, the notion had become fact – uncomfortable, but undeniable. The year hadn’t been good enough. Two of three full-time drivers had missed the Chase for the Cup. A third, Kevin Harvick, barely made the cut. Without a win, Childress’s most successful driver limped into the postseason, the most lukewarm of
all the drivers with a crack at the title.
Childress had an agent of change in mind: a new competition director. But his choice didn’t have a background of competing in garages and on speedways. He came from the world of labs and computers. He had a degree from North Carolina State University – in aerospace engineering.
When Childress hired Dr. Eric Warren, he was contributing to a trend in the sport. He didn’t see a choice.
“It takes these bright, bright engineers and doctors to come in and put a program together to be competitive,” said Childress, 67. “I’ve seen so many changes, from the day we went from manual steering to power steering, and the shocks to the bias tires to radial tires, and I think this is just another change. But it’s a huge change.
“I think we are a lot more engineering-driven than the sport gets credit for.”
It’s become the new order in NASCAR. The days of garage workers using their experience to guess what would work on the track are gone, replaced by armies of engineers, up to 50 on a team, who use science and gather data so they can know for sure.
They use such sophisticated methods as finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics modeling and data acquisition to quantify how parts behave and where improvements can be made. They chart aerodynamic performance and figure out how pieces of the car can be both lightweight and durable. The heart of racing, once limited to the garage, now also features wind tunnels, seven-post shakers, computers and simulators.
There are a few detractors – proponents of an older trial-and-error system that Childress driver Jeff Burton deemed “redneck technology.” But in a sport that revolves around discovering advantages in millimeters and milliseconds, the move toward a science-based system of competition has been sweeping.
NASCAR has core requirements for how a car is built. But that still leaves wiggle room, turning today’s race preparation into a laboratory experiment.
“I think that’s the evolution of racing,” said Todd Gordon, Joey Logano’s crew chief. “NASCAR’s done a pretty good job of trying to define and refine the box that we can work in. . . . In order to work on the smaller pieces within the box, you have to be technically driven.”
Fans, drivers and officials couldn’t believe what they were watching. Jeff Gordon was making a mockery of the 1997 Winston All-Star race, his Jurassic Park-themed car pulling away from the competition and racing to the checkered flag alone.
There was a secret to Gordon’s domination. The car’s chassis was the brainchild of Rex Stump, a former General Motors engineer who had been asked by Gordon’s then-crew chief, Ray Evernham, to build a structure from scratch that still followed NASCAR’s rules.
It was the first race for Stump’s machine, dubbed the T-Rex for its promotional design. It was also the last, as NASCAR tightened the rules to prevent the car from returning to the track.
But the point was made: Engineering had an early, major victory in stock car racing. And it got another six years later, when Ryan Newman and crew chief Matt Borland, both with engineering degrees, won eight races during the 2003 season.
“It really brought engineering to the forefront because Ryan was an engineer and I was an engineer, so it got talked about a lot,” said Borland, who received his degree from the General Motors Institute.
By that point, there was no way around it. Years of competitive fine-tuning meant big improvements had to come from small changes, and teams began looking for the minds that could find those changes in areas that had never before been considered. First a few teams bought in. Then several. Then dozens.
The change wasn’t smooth at first. The presence of engineers meant progress, but they were the odd men out. They had degrees, but championships had been won without them. NASCAR wasn’t a scientific sport, and engineers faced resistance.
“When I first came to this sport, a lot of mechanics, who are really good friends of mine now, they picked on us a lot and told us the sport wasn’t for engineers,” said Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch’s crew chief and a former engineer for Tony Stewart. “A racer could out-race an engineer, you always heard comments like that.”
But what engineers were pushing – simulation and aerodynamics, breaking down performance through numbers – proved the quicker, more efficient route to victory. It was the best way to improve speed and control. So engineers were embraced, first by necessity, eventually as a valued part of the operation.
“It’s about relationships, it’s not really about titles,” Rogers said. “Once you develop that relationship . . . you’re able to communicate and use the knowledge of the experienced mechanic that’s been doing it forever, coupled with the engineering tools that you’re bringing in. Put both of those ideas together and you have a better race car.”
NASCAR has gone through adjustment after adjustment over the past two decades. Jeff Burton has been a witness to each one. He remembers the older days, when mechanics with lifetimes in racing and drivers worked together to build the best cars they could. He remembers them fondly – at times, even wistfully.
“It’s kind of more fun, because the driver can really get in there and get involved,” he said. “I personally think the driver had more involvement than he does now. We’re much more point-and-shooters today than we used to be.”
Burton calls the old way “redneck technology.” Preparing the car meant getting your hands dirty, tinkering with parts in the shop, testing the combination out on the track and, if the mix wasn’t quite right, taking it back into the garage and trying again.
Now, with resources upon resources dedicated to winning the race before even hitting the track, the driver sees his voice diminished in the crowd.
“It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. It’s like that now,” Burton said. “You’ve got aerodynamicists . . . you walk in and you have this little piece of the puzzle, you’ve got that much information and they’ve got that much, and you say, ‘Well, I want to do this because my ass tells me to.’ And they say, ‘Well, what about all this million dollars we just spent?’ ”
Despite the differences in the newer and older methods, it’s now understood that a union between the two – rather than a one-way-or-the-other approach – is the only way to field a winner. Engineers get the car ready for the race, but only so much goes according to plan once the green flag waves. The pit crews see which parts and pieces hold up better, and they advise which of the solutions proposed by the engineers will yield the best results.
“Those guys are your first line of defense,” said Chris Heroy, crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya. “A lot of engineers don’t get involved with the car, and you’ve gotta have good mechanics and you’ve gotta have good car chiefs that see the engineering applied on the car, and they’ll tell you if it’s going to work or not. Nine times out of 10, they’re absolutely correct.”
Just as the engineers have come to see what the pit crews bring to the team, the crews and drivers have embraced the benefits of science.
“I can outrun a lot of people,” driver Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve never been able to outrun that simulator. Ever.”
Here to stay
The communication goes smoothly at the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 39 team. The engineers talk race car preparation with Borland, who then talks with Newman. With engineering degrees all around, there’s no need to change the vocabulary. Nothing is lost in translation.
Borland is not expecting that to become the norm for teams across the Sprint Cup – but assembling a core of reliable engineers has.
“You still need top-quality engineers figuring out what’s going on with the car, and being able to come up with new ideas about how you set the car up,” he said. “Coming up with new ways to make more horsepower.”
Several teams around the Sprint Cup have recognized science’s importance by putting engineers in the most important position in race day operations. The crew chief in NASCAR works like a head coach, keeping all members of the crew working together and monitoring every aspect of the car’s performance, and now backgrounds in engineering are emerging there. Alan Gustafson, with Jeff Gordon, has a degree in mechanical engineering. So does Rogers with Kyle Busch. Darian Grubb, with Denny Hamlin, and Kenny Francis, with Kasey Kahne, had engineering jobs before leading their teams. And there are more.
The trend has paid off for them and other teams, including at Childress, where Harvick has already won twice this season and is fourth in the standings, while teammate Paul Menard is in the hunt for the Chase, all under Warren’s direction.
“We’re just more organized,” Burton said. “We aren’t just winging it, we have a game plan, we’re trying to execute on it. There’s a method to our madness, so structure I think is the best way to describe it.”
The perks of engineering and technology are clear, but its biggest advantage – and what makes it here to stay – is that we haven’t seen all that it can be just yet.
“Whether it’s something you apply here in the shop, whether it’s software, simulation programs, how you decipher data at the racetrack, it’s extremely helpful,” said Adam Stevens, Matt Kenseth’s crew chief. “And the thing I like about it is it’s virtually unlimited.”
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or
firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @dbonifant.)