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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ NASCAR's engineering revolution

by Gordon Kirby
Like so many things in life, engineers and their toys follow the money. One result of this aphorism is that, as NASCAR boomed over the past ten years, the number of engineers employed in American stock car racing has skyrocketed. All the top NASCAR teams have become engineering-led operations and in the 21st century, NASCAR is more like Formula 1 than you might have guessed.

These days, NASCAR is full of former Indy/Champ Car and F1 engineers, working on everything from engines to aerodynamics. One of the reasons both Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have been so successful this year is because they have fully embraced engineering. Indeed, as Indy car racing fell into decline through the opening years of the new century many longtime Indy car engineers made the move to NASCAR with Joe Gibbs and Toyota's TRD operation among their favorite destinations.

Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's most successful modern team, winning seven championships over the past fourteen years with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Jimmie Johnson. The team was founded in 1984 by Charlotte, North Carolina-based car dealer Rick Hendrick whose team has always raced Chevrolets. Hendrick has run no fewer than four cars in all the Cup races since 2002, winning NASCAR's premier championship the last two years with Jimmie Johnson and steadily pulling themselves back into contention this year after a rough start to the season.

Today, Hendrick's vast 'campus' in Charlotte employs more than five hundred people, including sixty engineers. About 175 of Hendrick Motorsports' employees are race team personnel. An additional 140 people work in the team's engine shop with sixty more involved in chassis and body-building. Other departments include administration, finance, marketing, a museum, and an aviation division to fly key team personnel to and from the races. All of Hendrick's divisions have seen steady growth over the years but it's the engineering department where the biggest recent growth has occurred.

Ken Howes is Hendrick Motorsports's general manager. A South African, Howes came to the United States in 1984 with Sarel van der Merwe's IMSA GTP team. "I was supposed to come for one year," Howes remarked. "But somehow, I never got home."

He wound up working for Hendrick's Indianapolis-based Corvette GTP team. When that operation came to an end in 1989, Howes moved to Charlotte to join Hendrick's three-car NASCAR team. It wasn't long before the veteran sports car crew chief was running the place.

NASCAR does not permit any instrumentation or data systems on the cars during race weekends. But it's impossible to ban computer simulations and Hendrick's team takes around fifteen engineers--three per car--to all the races.

"We can run data systems in testing and people are also running simulation programs with data bases on fuel strategy, tire use and shock absorbers, which these days are big," Howes observed. "There's a huge amount of work behind the scenes on shocks and the bump stops which are now fashionable. Everything is just ramped-up. The testing data is what's being used to drive the simulation programs at the track on a race weekend."

Hendrick employs two, full-time aerodynamicists. "GM supplies some of the tunnel time and we purchase some of our own time," Howes noted. "Like most teams, we dabble in CFD these days, one way or another. "

Howes says the top NASCAR teams' embrace of engineering is similar to what's occurred in the rest of the sport. "Obviously, it wasn't always this way in NASCAR," Howes observed. "But in other forms of racing there's always been an escalation of engineering. In Formula 1 or sports car racing through the sixties, seventies and eighties, there was a steady increase in engineering.

"To my mind, a part of that was a function of the rules. The more freedom there was in the rules, then creative mechanics--perhaps not necessarily trained engineers, but street-smart guys like the Smokey Yunicks of the world--those guys could build cars and be competitive.

"But then the factories started getting involved (in NASCAR) and, either overtly or covertly, started supplying engineering help. All the manufacturers have done that for a long time. So the engineering help has been there for many years and the teams would either embrace it, or not."

As NASCAR became more and more successful through the nineties, drawing large TV ratings and sharp increases in sponsorship budgets, Hendrick and the other top teams started hiring their own engineers.

"As NASCAR grew it created the wherewithal," Howes remarked. "More money creates more opportunity but, at the same time, the need to be successful grows. So you start having to really look hard. I think I'm smart enough to know that if we want to get better then we're going to have to get some trained people in here with better knowledge and more skills. And as soon as we hired one guy, the train was rolling. Other people were watching and they hired an engineer, and so we hired a second guy. And so it went along."

At the same time, NASCAR was continually making its rules more restrictive culminating in last year's new 'Car of Tomorrow'. "The sanctioning body was trying to accomplish several things to maybe rein-in the cost and keep the speeds from increasing," Howes said. "As the rulebook gets tightened-up and more and more areas are written into the rules it becomes more and more the devil is in the details. So to be competitive and find the edge you need to put another engineer on another project, whether it's suspension design, or whatever.

"I think this went on in all forms of racing at the same time. Formula 1 teams were growing by leaps and bounds for the same reasons. Their rule limitations were going up and they had to have engineers to understand computers and data systems and crash-testing. And everybody is learning from everybody else. Everybody's watching and there's more money, more pressure, more engineers."

Andy Graves is Toyota Racing Development's vice-president of chassis engineering, based at TRD's new shop in North Carolina. Graves grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his father owned a speed shop. Graves worked on and built grass roots stock cars before meeting and joining a young Jeff Gordon and his sprint car team. Graves moved to Indianapolis to work on Gordon's sprint car and while working in Indianapolis he met Ken Howes who was running Rick Hendrick's Corvette GTP car out of a shop in Indy.

When Howes moved south he hired Graves to work for Hendrick's NASCAR team in North Carolina. Graves and Gordon moved to North Carolina at the same time as Gordon started driving for Bill Davis in NASCAR's second division Busch series while Graves went to work for Hendrick's burgeoning NASCAR team. A year later, Gordon signed with Hendrick to begin a highly successful partnership.

Meanwhile, Graves spent nine and a half years at Hendrick. He was the chassis specialist on Gordon's car in 1993, then worked on Terry Labonte's car from 1994-'96. Graves was promoted to crew chief on Ken Schrader's car in '97, then became crew chief for Labonte in 1998 and '99.

Graves was hired by Chip Ganassi in 2000 to run Ganassi's Indy 500 program as Ganassi became the first CART team owner to return to Indianapolis. Graves ran two cars at Indy for Ganassi with Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser driving, and Montoya won the race convincingly. Ganassi also decided the time was right to branch out into NASCAR and he bought controlling interest of Felix Sabates's existing Cup team and put Graves in charge of running the operation.

Graves worked for Ganassi's NASCAR team until 2006, then joined TRD as vice president of chassis engineering. Graves and Former Cosworth engineer Pete Spence are in charge of setting up and running TRD's new chassis shop in North Carolina so Graves is well-placed to assess how engineering has evolved in NASCAR.

"It's really taken a huge turn," Graves said. "After spending the 2000 season with Chip's open-wheel organization and running that program at the Speedway, and also helping with the Champ Car team, I was able to see and understand the type of engineering from the open-wheel world, and we implemented a lot of those practices when we started Chip's Dodge program in 2001.

"At the same time, the Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racings were all really starting to tap into those engineering practices, and as NASCAR has put more and more restrictions on the cars, it's all about refinements. They have regulations to keep the field very tight and the problem is you have to work so much harder to get a little bit of a gain."

Graves says the day of the all-knowing, old-time NASCAR crew chief are long-gone. "It used to be you had a hard-core racer crew chief who could mount the body and do some really radical things to try to get through tech. You could gain a pretty good advantage like that. But nowadays, your hands are tied, especially with the CoT.

"Now, it's all about the philosophy of the company and how you use all the tools in your toolbox to work together," Graves added. "It's a constant evolution. Even 'though the NASCAR formula is not very glamorous and the cars don't look beautiful, it's every bit as complicated as F1 in a lot of ways. The engineering and the work that goes on behind the scene is very complex. This is my eighteenth year in the series and to see how it's evolved in particular over the last five to seven years, it's been phenomenal.

"When I started at Hendrick Motorsports in '91, I think there were nine employees on the #5 car. We were running three cars back then and between the engine shop we had sixty-seven employees. Now Hendrick Motorsports has over five hundred employees and they're only running one more car."

Bernie Marcus is Ford Racing's chief aerodynamicist. Marcus studied aeronautical engineering at the Technical University of Achen in his native Germany and has worked in racing for twenty-seven years. He started his working career designing the K3 Porsche 935 for the Kremer brothers, then joined the ATS F1 team. He moved on to March and then Onyx and when Onyx went bankrupt he moved to the United States to work for the Galles/Kraco CART team.

Marcus was a race engineer on Al Unser Jr and Bobby Rahal's cars and worked with Alan Mertens designing the Galmer Indy car in which Unser won the 1992 Indy 500. Marcus then worked at AAR on the team's Toyota GTP cars, before returning to CART with PacWest in the team's brief heyday when Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell won a brace of races. Marcus joined Ford in 2001 and is responsible for the aerodynamic development of everything Ford races in North America, including all three NASCAR divisions, NHRA drag racing, Grand-Am sports car racing, and some sprint car and midget racing. "It's a huge variety and I enjoy that," Marcus remarked.

Marcus agrees that the big budgets in NASCAR today have resulted in more and more engineering and wind tunnel testing.

"When I came to the NASCAR scene, there wasn't that much engineering going on," Marcus commented. "But I think, over the last few years, it's gradually developed to a level where there are a lot of engineers with the manufacturers and the top teams. It has become a lot more engineering-orientated and a lot more competitive.

"They're not the level of Formula 1 budgets," he pointed out. "You can't compare them. You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars in Formula 1 right now. But I would say they can be compared to the CART budgets from ten years ago when the regulations in CART were freer and each top team did their own aerodynamic work. That was quite a heavy load of work and we're doing that now in NASCAR.

"I would say the trend is similar but not the same to Formula 1," Marcus continued. "It's nowhere near the financial scale that the Formula 1 teams work on. An aero department in any Formula 1 team is probably two hundred people. They've got a hundred and fifty-odd CFD people and two wind tunnels running non-stop where you have to constantly design and make parts, and we're nowhere near that.

"But our wind tunnel budget and effort has steadily increased as the rules have become tighter," Marcus added. "And I think that's the nature of the beast. Every time the rules become tighter it becomes more expensive. It's the same thing that happened in CART. You have to work harder to make any gains. If you have wide-open rules it's a little bit easier to make gains because you can explore different directions and make big steps or improvements. But when the rules are so tight, it's a lot harder to make improvements. It really becomes a very detail-oriented exercise."

And it still takes experienced people with a vast pool of practical knowledge like Ken Howes at Hendrick Motorsports to turn all this engineering into raceday results.

"You try to manage all that stuff and keep it going in the right direction," Howes grinned. "The more senior ones among us have an understanding of history, and at the same time, where the company needs to be going and what you can afford so you don't spend yourself into oblivion. Engineers are not always able to see all those things at the same time. So you just try to keep steering the train and make sure you stay on track."

In the end, the same theoretical principles and practical rules apply to NASCAR as they do to Formula 1, or any other major form of motor sport. It's all about funding, organization, engineering and making it happen every step of the way, and it's always much more difficult than it appears.

And too, be assured that as Toyota and TRD focus their vast resources and deep pool of talented engineers on TRD's new North Carolina chassis development shop, each of GM, Ford and Chrysler's fleet of engineers will face more pressure to respond and perform than they've ever encountered.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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