Bang goes another day

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Gordon Kirby

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In a 38-race year, NASCAR Sprint Cup cars survive for just two events. It’s relentless, tough, and more sophisticated than you think, as ex-F1 engineer Steve Hallam has found, By Gordon Kirby

After 27 years in Formula 1 with Lotus and McLaren Steve Hallam moved to North Carolina two years ago to begin a new life as director of competition for Michael Waltrip’s three-car NASCAR team. Hallam goes to all 38 race weekends (36 regular season races plus two special events) to engineer David Reutimann’s car and he’s enjoying himself immensely. Many people in the UK and Europe underestimate both NASCAR and oval racing, but a conversation with Hallam will disabuse them of that notion.

Recently I talked with Hallam about the challenges and the complexity of NASCAR. We began by discussing the massive effort that goes into building and maintaining the huge fleet of cars operated by every NASCAR team. “The scale of NASCAR in terms of car production is really unknown or appreciated in Europe,” Hallam observes. “We will make around 45 cars during the course of the year for our three Cup drivers. Each driver has a rolling pool of nine cars, which are built to different specifications to suit different tracks.

“The logistics of NASCAR in terms of production and supply chain management is staggering. It’s a huge industry in itself and we strive to achieve all the common goals of mainstream industry — quality, repeatability and delivery. We’re generally working on a four-week cycle in terms of the next series of races. The cars for the race four weeks down the road are being built and assembled at that time and the set-up sheets will be issued a couple of weeks before the race.

“We’re pushing new cars out with improvements all the time so they’re getting superseded. It’s a continual development process to ease weight out of the cars, bring the centre of gravity down, manage your fore and aft weight distribution and just getting the cars where you want them.”

Then after all that work, NASCAR teams throw away many cars during any season. “It doesn’t pay to get too close to a car because they are seriously damaged or wrecked on a regular basis,” says Hallam. “It’s generally not your driver who does it. Occasionally it may be, but generally another driver will in some way cause either superficial or irreparable damage to your car. You could say a car’s active life is two races. If you’re planning on racing a car more than twice that’s probably optimistic.”

Each team builds three of four different types of car for superspeedways, medium-speed ovals, short tracks and road courses. “There are aspects of the front end treatment behind the skin that we manage and that is the same for all the cars – the radiator and oil cooler package and ducting. The road course cars are symmetrical whereas all the other cars are asymmetrical. With the superspeedway cars, of course, drag is the over-riding parameter. We
spend a lot of time on the superspeedway cars.”

Like many NASCAR teams MWR uses the Windshear wind tunnel in North Carolina. “It’s a hell of a tunnel,” Hallam says. “It lacks for nothing. We work very hard on getting the side force numbers repeatable and correct.”

With such a heavy schedule of races NASCAR strictly limits the opening and closing of the garage area at each race. The garage opens each day at 7am and closes at 6pm. “That made me smile, and it is a very clever rule,” Hallam observes. “That simple rule manages costs far beyond all the complexity of saying you can’t use that part or that material. That regulation complements the technical regulations.

“You’ve got to be very well-organised and very clever indeed to get everything done in the timeframe available. If you’ve got a big problem you can apply to NASCAR for an extension but if they grant one it’s unlikely to be more than half an hour. If you’ve seriously damaged your
car NASCAR are on to you straight away. They decide whether you can bring your back-up or spare car out. You can’t do that until you get the nod from NASCAR.

“It’s the same with the engine. There needs to be a reason to change it. If the driver is not happy with the engine, that’s not good enough. There needs to be a demonstrable problem. Engines can be raced about three times and we are very rarely forced to change one during a race weekend. If you do it after qualifying you’re relegated to the back of the grid.

“If you make any changes that infringe or are outside the regulations there are harsh penalties – fines or suspensions – to the team and crew chief. NASCAR’s punishment structure is one thing you don’t want to flirt with at all, full stop, because it means fines, loss of points and suspension of the crew chief or team personnel. If you’re abusing the system you’ll be docked time and lose the opportunity to practice for 15 or 30 minutes at the next race.”

The logistics of running 38 race weekends each year are very demanding. “The movement of equipment around the country is quite something,” Hallam says. “The interstate road network across the United States helps tremendously, but it’s a huge country and the trucks crank up many miles over the course of a year. It takes a tremendous amount of planning and organisation.”

Like most teams MWR operates three aircraft, a 50-seater jet, a 36-seater turboprop and a smaller Beech King Air, plus Waltrip’s personal aeroplane. “That’s an industry in its own right,” says Hallam. “There are regional express jets which the teams effectively charter or buy seats on. These jets operate from the regional airports around Charlotte such as Statesville or Concord or Charlotte itself. We operate our aircraft out of Statesville which is about 25 minutes north of our factory. At a minimum the jet and the turboprop are in use every weekend and I would say that the King Air is in use 50 per cent of the time.”

Another eye-opener is NASCAR’s specially trained pitcrews which operate independently of the race teams. “I was unaware of the depth and the rigour with which the pitcrews are trained and prepared and approach their job,” says Hallam. “The pitcrew are employed only as pitcrew. We have three or four overlapping players where a road crew member is also a pitcrew member, but they are predominantly specialists, and athletes. All the pitcrew guys are measured so we know their body mass index, body fat content and so on. They are quantified in that way and we are stepping that up next year.

“The training and practice regime they go through absolutely puts them in the class of athletes. They’re treated as squad athletes in a team and if your numbers aren’t up there you’ve got to work on them or you’re going to be dropped. It’s a rigorous environment.

“They’ve got a really good esprit de corps and good coaches and they train very hard. We have two pitstop cars and our own pitwall at the factory with a built-in pitbox with video analysis equipment. It was much more than I expected. We have four coaches, two strength and fitness coaches, a head pitcrew coach and assistant pitcrew coach.”

The technique of pitstops is carefully analysed and developed. “There’s plenty of technique coaching because there are a number of permutations to the stops that we will make. It could be a fuel-only stop, a two-tyre stop, or a four-tyre stop, or the car may be damaged or adjustments are to be made. There’s a playbook of how to handle each situation.

“Every stop they make is recorded and reviewed in the Monday debriefs. The analysis software is the same style of software that’s used in the NFL, the English Premier League and Rugby League — all the team sports — where tracking movement and timing movement is crucial to performance. It’s very clever stuff and well-documented and executed.”

A single NASCAR steel wheel and tyre with its safety inner liner weighs more than 30 kilograms. “When you see those boys toss them around and run around the car with them you think that looks easy. But you just try to pick one up, let alone do what they do with it.”

In Formula 1, strategy is quite simple, most of it determined before the race starts. But in NASCAR with many pitstops every team must make frequent tactical responses to any planned strategy. “We will stop six to eight times, maybe more, because of the yellows, and of course we cannot predict them. Track position is crucial in this form of racing so the ability to think on your feet and work the cautions can help a competently performing car come up from the back of the field and run in the top ten.

“Once he’s got that momentum or clear enough air his car may start to work and the crew chief may be able to make adjustments to it during those stops and keep it up there. It’s a very fluid situation and the vast majority of these guys are pretty sharp at reading the race and understanding what they need to do.

“You don’t want to be the last man on used tyres with everyone behind you on new tyres because you’re just going to be eaten up. The hard bit is to decide where that crossover point is. That’s where the toughest decisions are. If you’re right at the front or the back the decisions are straightforward. But if you’re in that awkward position of should I stop, or should I come in? — that’s where you roll the dice.”

The crew chiefs usually make those decisions but the best drivers also contribute. “When you listen to the radios and the chatter that goes on, some drivers have more to contribute via their experience or their savvy than others. The final decision rests with the crew chief, but there are some very sharp drivers out there who frequently make their own calls about when they’re going to stop.”

A few years ago NASCAR banned testing at any track that runs a NASCAR race, save for Goodyear tyre testing, so the teams are compelled to test at non-NASCAR tracks such as New Smyrna in Florida and Rockingham in North Carolina, plus road courses like Virginia International Raceway and Road Atlanta.

“We crank through a reasonable amount of testing,” says Hallam. “We will probably run 50 or more car days of testing this year. When you try and fit that around 38 race weekends it’s quite busy.”

Data collection and telemetry are forbidden on race weekends. “So everybody does a lot of simulation. The bit you’re missing is the data that you generate on race day, but we simulate and model. We put a lot of resources into that. We are very proud of the suite of programmes that our vehicle dynamics engineers have delivered for us. They are the weapons of choice of the race engineer. That’s what they stand and fall by and those tools are forever being tweaked as we learn more and more throughout the year. We use test rigs to generate the measured data and then we run a vehicle model around the tracks where we’ve accrued data.”

Michael Waltrip Racing employs 245 people, including 30 engineers. “At each race we have three crew chiefs, three race engineers, plus three damper guys who are part of the engineering team. Generally we bring an extra engineer to each race just to expose them to the race weekend. So there are 10 engineers minimum travelling to the races.”

Hallam freely admits that NASCAR’s schedule is very demanding. “People in F1 complain that going to 20 races would kill us all, but they should come and do this for a while. It is an arduous schedule. The teams have evolved to attempt to deal with it, but there is no substitute for time off and I can tell you that one day isn’t enough. When you’ve got a 38-weekend season and you get to the end of it, all you want to do is fall in a heap and lie in a darkened room for a few days.”

*

NASCAR consults regularly with a 25,000-member fan council and Hallam has no doubts this is NASCAR’s primary lesson for Formula 1. “Don’t ever forget the fans,” he declares. “NASCAR is heavily fan-based. The fans are passionate and the drivers appreciate that. All of the drivers have a pen in their pockets and they’ll sign autographs as they walk along.

“The other thing is I’ve never raced in front of so many people in my life before. 200,000 people at the Daytona 500 is phenomenal, with the back grandstands full and the front grandstands full and the infield full of campers. Many of them have been there for two weeks. And Bristol takes your breath away. The amphitheatre we race in there with 130,000 people surrounding a half-mile bullring and the noise they make and the excitement of the racing — you just have to see it. There is no other way to appreciate it. If you think it’s not worth it, or you can’t be bothered, you are missing a treat.”

Clearly, Steve Hallam has become a NASCAR convert. If an intelligent gent like him can cross the line, maybe you should give it a try.

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