The challenge to build a better mousetrap in NASCAR will be a lot tougher this year, but it won’t keep teams from looking for an advantage – even if it means operating in the gray area.
The need for speed has forced most teams to create design, engineering and testing departments to find creative ways to beat the competition. It’s an expensive, yet necessary, way to keep pace with everyone else.
Even with a restrictive rulebook, teams are still trying to figure out ways to squeeze a little more speed out of the car.
Sheet metal now comes from each of the three manufacturers and must be stamped with the company’s identification number. The rear axle housings now must be locked in one position and closed off from adjustments. And rear truck decks only are allotted from NASCAR. While it reduces ways to tinker with the car bodies and most of the suspension, none of the teams plan to bring a car that completely follows every detail of the rulebook.
“It’s a lot harder than it used to be,” team owner Len Wood said. “Years ago when somebody like Leonard (Wood) or Dale Inman would come up with something, as long as nobody told it you’d have it for a long time. Now if you have something it gets out pretty quick – and does it pass NASCAR inspection?”
NASCAR requires every new part to be inspected before it’s added to a car, even if it’s a slight modification to a current part. Some teams, however, found ways to have several parts approved that when combined, create something else.
A year ago Hendrick Motorsports had a significant advantage at midseason by creating a way to manipulate the rear axle housing. One side of the axle was able to move forward and backward. That allowed the rear tires to work outside the tract of the front tires to give the car more traction in the turns.
That change took months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create. It cost the rest of the garage area millions to catch up.
Now that all that work and money has been invested, NASCAR said rear housings must be locked in one position.
Harry Gant won four consecutive races in 1991 when his team created a way to have the bottom of the right side tires stick out more than the top of the tires. By creating negative camber, the tires gained grip in the corners.
Other teams figured it out and did the same thing until they took it too far. NASCAR eventually mandated the amount of camber after several teams broke axles.
Bigger teams have development departments who are charged with finding shortcuts. As many as 80 percent of the ideas never make it pass the drawing board, Joe Gibbs Racing vice president Jimmy Makar said.
“After they come up with a bunch of ideas, then you have to figure out if you can produce that part. These days you have to look at costs,” he said. “You create a part, probably a plastic part to handle and fiddle with. Then you make a metal part, put it on a car and go test it somewhere. We can test it at the shop and then we’ll take it to the racetrack to test it under a racing environment. Eventually it might wind up on the racecar.”
A test session at a non-NASCAR track generally costs about $10,000 a day. If a team can confirm their advantage, they believe it’s money well spent.
The more NASCAR clamps down, however, the more difficult it is for teams to find a competitive edge.
“It’s a different world now,” hall of fame crew chief Dale Inman said. “If you want to add anything now you have to go through NASCAR. But you never stop trying. You try to get speed every day.
“There’s so much technology these days with all the templates and everything you’re in such a small box. It’s hard to come up with something different, but you don’t quit trying.”
During the recent three-day test session at Daytona International Speedway, teams clearly concentrated most one the rear of the car. New front bumpers and a car template that brings back manufacturer identity has added a lot more downforce to the front wheels – much of that coming at the expense of the rear.
Drivers said the new cars are very light in the back and very prone to fishtailing. By the time everyone returns for next month’s Daytona 500, NASCAR will be on the lookout for any modification that steps outside NASCAR’s rules, either written or implied.
“It’s takes longer to implement something new,” Wood said. “It doesn’t take longer to make it, but it takes longer to insure it won’t be an issue.”’
But the search to make speed never ends.