NASCAR is huge in America and recently it’s attracted an influx of single-seater drivers. But it’s also a notoriously difficult form of racing to master, as some are finding to their cost
By Gordon Kirby
When Roger Penske’s pair of Dodge Chargers driven by Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch swept to a surprise one-two victory in February’s 50th Daytona 500, it emphasised how competitive the 40-plus car field truly is in NASCAR’s first-division Sprint Cup series. It took Penske’s NASCAR team 18 years to win the Daytona 500 with an effort every bit as strong as his legendary Indycar team, which first won the Indy 500 at its fifth attempt in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and claimed its 14th 500 victory in 2006 with Sam Hornish. While Penske has won 12 USAC, CART and IRL Indycar titles, his NASCAR team has yet to win the Sprint Cup.
Rusty Wallace led Penske’s stock car team for 15 years until his retirement at the end of 2005, and Wallace produced the team’s best season in 1993 when he won 10 races and finished second in the championship to Dale Earnhardt. This year, Newman and Busch are joined in a third Dodge by former IRL champion and Indy winner Hornish.
Daytona winner Newman joined Penske in 2000 from USAC sprint cars and became a full-time Cup driver in 2002. The following year he won eight races and took 11 poles, but that remains his best season by far to date. Until Daytona, the 30-year-old hadn’t won since September 2005, thus ending an 81-race losing streak. Nor has Newman finished better than sixth in the championship, and he hasn’t made the top 10 in the past two years, while Busch – who replaced the retiring Wallace two years ago – finished 16th in the points in 2006 and seventh last year. Winning Daytona is one thing, but putting together a championship run in NASCAR’s 36-race series is something else.
The crew chief on Newman’s Alltel Dodge is Roy McCauley, who started his career in late model stock car racing in his native Maryland, but worked in CART for six years as a race engineer with Patrick Racing and PacWest. McCauley returned to his NASCAR roots in 2000 after ex-Patrick driver Scott Pruett asked him to join Cal Wells’ PPI team to help his transition from Indycars to NASCAR.
“I had four great years with Patrick and two wonderful years with PacWest,” McCauley says. “But really, my heart was in stock car racing, and if you look at motor sport there’s no doubt that NASCAR is the future. Just look at the crowds and the TV ratings. They’re way ahead of anything else and there’s lots of energy and excitement, and a huge fan base.”
At the end of 2002 McCauley was called by Roger Penske, who offered him a job as chief engineer and a crew chief in his two-car NASCAR operation. “When ‘The Captain’ calls,” McCauley says, “I guess you’ve got to pay attention, and I did. I took the job and couldn’t be happier here.”
McCauley is a fervent believer that NASCAR’s tight rules package and iron fist provides the toughest competition in motor racing today. “In my opinion this is the most challenging series in the world right now,” he says. “There are a bunch of rules in F1, but that doesn’t mean they don’t develop new stuff, does it? We’ve had guys from F1 come here and say, well, let’s do this and that. And you say, alright, what are you going to do when NASCAR says you can’t do that? I’ve seen manufacturers come in and build a gearbox that’s 15 pounds lighter but NASCAR has said, ‘Sorry, you can’t run that.’
“The NASCAR formula works because they regulate it, and the challenge is working within those rules to gain an edge. As tight as we are, if you find something that’s worth even five-hundredths of a second, then that’s a gain.”
McCauley stresses that all the top NASCAR teams build their own cars and engines, and he believes the depth of competition is unparalleled.
“We build every component of this car except for casting a new block and stuff like that,” he says. “I would say this is every bit as hard as Formula 1 because there are 43 cars out there, and there are legitimately 35 cars that have a shot at winning each weekend.
“Then there’s the schedule we keep which means we have to maintain 12 cars at a time, and the challenge of making those cars the same is a big one in its own right. We don’t have any composite materials. It’s all steel tubing and sheet metal. The challenge here is really hard. Juan Pablo [Montoya] won a race last year, but if you look at his results, it’s been a humbling experience.”
There’s no question that NASCAR has proved to be a steep learning curve for the F1, CART and IRL drivers who have followed in Montoya’s tracks. At Daytona in February, Sam Hornish was the top former open-wheeler, running his best NASCAR race to date and ultimately finishing 15th in Penske’s third Dodge. Montoya also had his moments near the front but got shuffled back on the last lap to finish 32nd, the last man to run 200 laps. Team-mate Dario Franchitti made it home one lap down in 33rd place on his rookie Cup series start.
Champ Car veteran Patrick Carpentier ran competitively in practice and qualifying and looked like he might make the 500 field, but suffered a tyre failure near the end of his qualifying race and was among those who didn’t progress. Also failing to qualify was Jacques Villeneuve, who has endured a rough transition to stock cars. Jacques crashed in almost every NASCAR race he ran at the end of last year and repeated this act at Daytona before losing his seat to Mike Skinner. In the wake of manager Craig Pollock’s decision to quit the NASCAR scene, Barry Green was at Daytona trying to collect sponsorship to keep Villeneuve in stock car racing. But Jacques’ poorly managed, rather shabby start to his NASCAR career has been a sharp contrast to the way in which he entered CART and then F1, and it’s sad to see his career gone astray.
Franchitti has found there’s plenty to learn about driving a NASCAR stock car, particularly the new Car of Tomorrow (CoT) in restrictor-plate form. “There are so many lessons,” he says. “If you look at Daytona, with restrictor-plate racing you might have a bit more than half the horsepower we had in California. In years past you were going almost wide-open around the track but now, if you’re in the middle to the back of the pack, you are lifting a lot and really driving the car.”
Unlike any purpose-designed racing car, a heavy NASCAR stock car with comparatively narrow tyres and very little downforce – further exacerbated by the new-spec CoT used this year – is always squirming around. “What I’m getting used to as much as anything is this feeling of the car sliding,” Dario says. “With the Indycar I’m used to quite quick movements – short and smaller movements. If you get sideways with these cars, you’re in the fence. I’m still getting used to that feeling of driving the car with the rear moving and sliding. It seems from talking to the team and to Juan, and to other drivers like Tony Stewart, that everybody goes through that when they come here.”
Another aspect to stock car racing is that the car’s handling is always compromised and the driver has to learn to live with it. Franchitti says:
“I think a lot of my success in the Indycar was being able to get the set-up exactly the way I wanted it – working with my engineer to tweak it to where I needed it to be, and you could adjust that throughout the run with the tools you had inside the car.
“Here, you’re never going to have a perfect car, so you have to drive it with a degree of looseness, or it’s a bit tight. That’s one of the lessons, too, and then we go to a different track and there are a whole different bunch of lessons. It’s interesting. When you get sideways there’s another thing they talk about and that’s sideforce. So I have to learn to keep it on that edge.”
Stock cars go through much more suspension movement than any single-seater or sports car. The CoT is a little closer to a purpose-designed racing car in this regard, which means that Franchitti must adapt to a different feeling whenever he jumps from his Sprint Cup to a second-division Nationwide car.
“With the CoT, it holds sort of a flatter attitude,” Dario says. “It’s a different beast because it doesn’t move that much. It’s got such a high roll centre and centre of gravity that there are a lot of things they do to stop it from rolling. It has that splitter, and the position of the splitter relative to the ground and how you keep it there is very important. If you run too low it just bottoms out and you lose all your steering.
“There’s very little suspension movement in comparison with the old-style car, which had about six inches of suspension travel! So when I jump from the Nationwide to the Sprint Cup car I have to adjust to that.”
One of the biggest things for an open-wheel driver to adapt to are the tyres. Goodyear’s NASCAR-spec tyres are not as effective or consistent in performance over the course of a run compared to Bridgestone/Firestone’s superb tyres, which all Formula 1, Indy and Champ Car drivers are used to. Incredibly, tyre failures are common in NASCAR in the 21st century, and Goodyear’s rubber might be the only racing tyres extant in today’s racing world where physical failures are common and almost accepted. Coping with tyres that can fail, and regularly and dramatically lose their edge of performance is something new for Franchitti and his open-wheel colleagues.
“Several things are happening,” he observes. “There’s the weight of these cars and the tyre is so bloody small that it’s under a hell of a lot of stress. But it’s a long time since I’ve driven a tyre that fades. I was a Bridgestone/Firestone guy for 12 or 13 years and I worked pretty hard developing the tyres with those guys, and they didn’t really degrade. It was very unusual if you went to a track and the tyres did degrade.
“But you’re stressing the tyres so much more here with the Goodyears. You have to set the car up to be loose at the start of a run and drive through that looseness so it doesn’t push like a pig at the end.”
Before Daytona’s qualifying races Elliott Sadler gave his rookie team-mate Carpentier some valuable advice about restrictor-plate racing. Carpentier was having trouble staying flat on the throttle through the corners, which meant that he couldn’t stay in the draft. The French-Canadian former open-wheel ace was also having trouble burning off his right front tyre. Sadler was completely open with Carpentier in educating him to the specific demands of Daytona aboard a power-choked, restrictor-plate car.
“When you first go out you need to run around the top of the track,” Sadler told Carpentier. “You’ve got to take care of that right front tyre. You can’t be runnin’ round the bottom. When you do that, you’re overloadin’ the right front. You’re tearin’ up the right front in the first laps of the run so you’re no good at the end. You’ve gotta bring the tyres in carefully. Then you can go to the bottom.”
Carpentier was racing for the final qualifying slot when his right rear tyre blew. He said his biggest problem was having to lift off the throttle at the end of the corners because he was running out of race track and heading towards the wall.
“What you’ve got to do is lift early in the corners, not at the end,” Sadler advised. “If you lift at the end of the corner everyone’s just going to run away from you and you’ll lose the draft, like you’re sayin’. So you’ve got to lift in the middle of the corner, get the car settled down and be flat coming off the corner. That way you’ll stay in the draft and the car will be settled down so you can look in your mirror coming off the corner and be able to block. You’ve got to look high and low and be ready to block.”
Carpentier nodded in agreement as he took Sadler’s advice on board. “You’ll be spending about 70 per cent of your time looking in the mirror and blocking coming off the corner,” Sadler noted. “And about 30 per cent looking ahead, checking where you are to the guy ahead.”
Franchitti says Sadler’s advice was spot-on. “That’s Daytona and using the draft. You watch the guys who do it well and it’s very impressive. They’re not only driving these things which are sliding around underneath them but they’re looking in their mirrors all the time and judging what to do in traffic. With an Indycar it’s more about what’s happening in front of you, but with these things it’s more about what’s happening behind. You need some guys pushing you from behind to make any moves, and you need to know exactly where everyone is around you at all times.
“It’s a new discipline you’ve got to learn. You don’t really have side mirrors like you would in an Indycar or even a touring car for that matter. So I’m getting used to that and working with my spotter as well. Your spotter is really important. He keeps you informed of where you are relative to everyone else and you need to have really good communication.”
Despite not qualifying for the Daytona 500, Carpentier remains wildly enthusiastic about NASCAR. “I love driving these cars,” he grins. “It’s a lot of fun. I always wanted to do ovals and this is the place for me to do that. We’ll stick to it and keep working harder because this is what I want.
“The car was pretty fast [at Daytona] and over the last five or six laps I just kept riding the top groove and hitting the wall. One thing I learned is that once you get really high at the top of the banking there’s a cushion of air that kinda stops the car from going into the wall.
“The last six laps the car was really pushing and I hit the wall about four times. I hit it fairly hard one time between three and four and just kept riding the wall. I could see pieces of rubber flying off and I knew my time was counting down. I knew something was going to happen but I was hoping we could make it to the end. Robby Gordon came behind me to help but it was too late.
“The team has put me in the car every week since the end of last season. I’ve been sitting in the car pretty much every week testing and feeling a lot more comfortable than before. There’s still a lot to learn. Every track you leave you think you’ve got it. Then you go to the next one and you know absolutely nothing. So it’s going to be a long year, but we’ll learn.”
Franchitti says the biggest physical problem in racing a stock car is the immense heat build-up inside the car’s ‘greenhouse’. “Physically, the cars are very hot,” he says. “With the Indycar you had to work out four or five days a week, at least I did anyway. This car is a lot easier physically, but oh my God does the heat get to you! That’s very difficult. It’s just something you have to get used to.
“I’m certainly not training as much as I used to. I don’t have anywhere near as much time to spend in the gym. I always thought it was part of my job to get in the gym and work out. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I did it. Now I find I get out for a run a couple or three times a week and that’s it.”
Franchitti has discovered that the approach to getting the best out of a stock car is very different to what he’s been used to through his entire career. “Testing at California, if you didn’t go out in the morning straight away and lay down a lap you weren’t anywhere on the time sheets, because first thing in the morning the track’s quickest and the tyres are new.
“On the second day we got a lot closer and were a lot happier but things like that you don’t think about. You don’t look at the time sheets as far as one lap. You look at a 10-lap average or something like that. So you learn to read the time sheets a bit differently. Plus the track slows down during the day as it gets hot.”
Franchitti has discovered that running without a restrictor-plate on a high-banked superspeedway feels like being on a flat track. “We’ve run around California at 240mph in a Champ Car, but the first time I went out in the Sprint Cup car I came on the radio and asked, ‘What did they do with the banking? Where did it go?’ It’s like a flat track. You’re doing 210mph into turn one, but by the middle of the corner you’re down to less than 160 and you’re driving the hell out of this thing!
“Then someone like Tony Stewart goes by and you watch on the exit of the corner and you can read ‘Home Depot’ because he’s so sideways. You say, okay, I’ve got to build up to that.”
So how does Dario expect to cope with a schedule of 36 races? “The first thing we’ve got to do is get through the first five races, stay in the top 35 in points and learn as much as we can,” he says. “Then we can start making steps. But we’ve got to get through those first five races. I’m taking it one race at a time right now, until I get more of a feel for it.”
So will Franchitti, Hornish, Villeneuve, Carpentier et al find success in NASCAR?
A long road lays ahead.
A piece of the American pie
It’s not just drivers who are flooding to NASCAR. Toyota, officially the world’s biggest car make, has dived in, too
By Ed Foster
Once you have promised the security officer at passport control that you really aren’t a terrorist (having already signed a landing card with words to that effect) and made it out of the airport and into the US of A, the thing that strikes you most is just how different from Europe this place really is. The fact that we share a language is about as far as the similarities go – comparing America and Britain is much like doing a comparison test between a pick-up and a bicycle.
Nowhere are the differences more apparent than at a NASCAR track.
Formula 1 portrays an image of the cutting edge of technology, whereas the American series has up to 40 cars on the track still running on carburettors. The track’s too wet to race on? Simple. Send out all the support vehicles and ambulances to do lap after lap and dry the thing. This is of course all going on while pick-ups are lapping at the same time with jet engines strapped to their backs, adding that little bit more heat and carbon dioxide to the situation.
But the differences go way beyond the technical approach. The central premise of how NASCAR operates is diametrically opposed to F1: the Sprint Cup exists almost completely for the fans, whereas Grand Prix racing is mostly preoccupied with gazing at its own navel. You sometimes wonder whether F1 forgets its fans are actually there.
So how about a prime example of the chasm between attitudes in NASCAR and F1? Consider Carl Edwards’ recent win at Las Vegas. At the post-race inspection his Ford was found to be missing the lid of its oil tank, thus it failed the checks. In F1 that would mean disqualification, but in NASCAR the result stands. Edwards was deducted points and his crew chief was fined $100,000 and banned for six races – but the winner the fans witnessed then is still the winner now.
In return, the fans repay NASCAR with immovable commitment. Pete Spence, technical director of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in America, has this anecdote to relate: “At the second Charlotte race last year in the hotel elevator, I met a 72-year-old man who drove his family 19 hours from Nova Scotia to Charlotte North Carolina to watch his favourite driver race.”
Would Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Räikkönen inspire such behaviour? I’d be surprised.
This anecdote gives some clue as to why Toyota, a Japanese giant albeit with a huge presence in America, would invest in a form of racing that offers relatively little in common with an image of high technology. Lee White, senior vice-president of TRD, explains: “Every other motor sports endeavour that we have been involved in was primarily a niche activity – it wasn’t mainstream. We had to get involved in an activity that, no matter what, the company thought was good for business. At this point in America the only thing that does that is NASCAR. Those are the facts.”
It is claimed there are 75 million NASCAR fans in America – that’s one in four people on the continent.
But Toyota is not in NASCAR simply to sell Camrys, the model its stock cars are based on. “Even though we are racing Camrys here, really under the surface it’s about selling trucks, because most of these fans drive trucks to the race track,” White admits. “Ford, Dodge and Chevy have survived on their truck customers for almost the past decade and Toyota is trying to get a piece of that market.”
NASCAR has traditionally been the domain of Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet. It’s true blue-collar American, like Bruce Springsteen and country music. The thought of a Japanese manufacturer entering NASCAR just 10 years ago was almost unthinkable. And yet here we are, with Toyota entering its second year in the top division.
During my recent trip to the Sprint Cup round at California Speedway, I wanted to find out what kind of reception Toyota has received in this tough arena. I flicked through the pages of the NASCAR Scene magazine and came across a letter from Bob Bird of Holland, Michigan. “The NASCAR fans applauding Toyota and their teams should stop and think,” he wrote. “We’re in an economic war with the rest of the world to keep our auto companies and our industrial base. Our foreign competitors understand this, why don’t Americans?
“Every Toyota sold is another Chevrolet, Ford or Dodge left in the showroom. Not only are the US auto workers left idle, but also suppliers, restaurants, malls, etc. Living in Michigan, I see this every day.
“We’re in a battle for our economic quality of life as well as on the race track. Where is our American pride?”
But is this really true? Michigan has taken the brunt of American auto industry cutbacks, so in searching for someone to blame, the new kid on the block is an easy option. But just how ‘Japanese’ is Toyota in the States?
You want the facts? Well, in the US the firm employs 30,000 workers, makes 1.5 million vehicles, 1.3 million engines and 400,000 automatic gearboxes a year. Eleven Toyota and Lexus models are built in North America and the spending per annum on parts, goods and services amounts to $29 billion. Japanese? Only in name.
Toyota ace David Reutimann sums up the misconception: “I think people have the illusion of a large ship showing up and all these cars driving off.”
But this letter appears to be the voice of a minority. In California it was hard to find a single person near the track who was against Toyota coming into NASCAR. Admittedly, I was a long way from traditional NASCAR country, but most seem to recognise Toyota has approached stock car racing in the right way. “It’s taken eight years to get here,” says White. “It’s not like we pulled the trigger last year and decided to go Cup racing. We started this in 2000 with an entry in a very low level of NASCAR, in the Goodies Dash Series.”
The bottom line, in the words of Toyota’s national motor sports manager Les Unger, is that the “fans don’t mind what car their hero’s driving. In fact a case in point would be Tony Stewart, one of the most popular drivers. When he came into stock cars from Indycars with Joe Gibbs Racing 10 years ago, the team was racing Pontiacs. Three or four years later Pontiac decided to get out of NASCAR and so Gibbs shifted over to running Chevrolets. It didn’t bother the fans one iota because in NASCAR the drivers are king.”
When I asked White whether he was concerned about the pockets of animosity towards Toyota, he paused and addressed everyone within earshot. “Can we make every single person a Toyota fan? No, we don’t expect to,” he said. “But can we win our share over? Yes, we will. And in fact the response has been incredibly positive.
“And just in case you haven’t got the message… Has there been a lot of influence from Japan? No, this is 100 per cent an American project.”