Slow, steady wins this race

Haas Automation competition director Matt Borland (left) and Bootie Barker, crew chief for Johnny Sauter, check their notes during Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway. Testing in recent years has become a technical art, as crews of engineers and mechanics work tirelessly and tediously to shave mere tenths of a second off of drivers' times.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- When Michael Waltrip first came to Daytona International Speedway for testing, teams checked the air flow over the car by dripping motor oil on the hood.


Twenty-two years later, Waltrip is preparing for February's Daytona 500 with a crew of engineers and mechanics. On a good day, the car gains speed measured by fractions of a second -- about the time it takes for a light bulb to turn on. On a routine day, however, they'll leave the track with more questions than answers.

"It was a lot easier when we used motor oil to see how it streaked across the car," Waltrip said. "But things change."

The pursuit for speed, especially at Daytona, is a painfully slow process. For everyone, the challenge is to avoid a myriad of frustrating dead ends. Drivers fight boredom as they work through a checklist of changes. They make a handful of runs around the 2.5-mile speedway, then wait in the garage as teams make changes to the car. After waiting for 30 minutes on pit road, they make a couple more laps and start the process all over again.

"It's a very slow process," Waltrip said. "You're not looking for big changes; you're looking for very small changes. You do a lot of the work in the shop with computers, then you come to the racetrack to verify your information. There are 10,000 pieces of information, and the challenge is to put the right pieces in the right order."

The Car of Tomorrow has limited teams on their adjustments. NASCAR has strict rules for the body and most of the suspension components, including the front bumper and the rear wing.

Paul Menard admits his job as a driver during testing is boring. At the same time, he's not complaining.

"You have to keep it in perspective," he said. "There are a lot of worse places to be than a race car in Florida. It is what we do. You hear a lot of people complaining. I don't complain about it.

"I enjoy getting strapped in to a racecar and going out and trying to learn what makes a car go faster. A lot of it I don't understand because there is some kind of voodoo that goes on here, but I just take it all in stride and learn what I can."

At 185 mph, the slightest improvement can mean a lot. A gain of a tenth of a second, for example, translates to three car lengths on the track.

"A lot of times you dread coming down here to do the single-car stuff," Jamie McMurray said. "We just went through the list that he had, and the part that makes this boring or drag on is when you make changes to your car and you don't ever go faster, or you stay the same speed, or you go slower.

Waltrip's spot in the garage area included two massive tool boxes and a table with eight laptop computers.

His car was wired to measure everything from how much each shock absorber recoiled -- measured in one-eighth-inch increments -- to the air pressure in and around the car.

"Testing has always been tedious," Waltrip said. "That part hasn't changed in 20 years. The way we do it has changed. We've gone from watching motor oil streaks to a vehicle dynamics program. We're really doing a lot of the same stuff, but we're going about it in a different way.

"It's still a slow process. There's no fast way to find speed at Daytona."



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