AVONDALE, Az. - As a teammate at Penske South, Rusty Wallace can rummage through the classified setup notes for Ryan Newman's car.
He can ask about shocks, springs and other suspension parts that's helped Newman, just a rookie, surge to the fourth-place position in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings.
There are no secrets between the two, but that doesn't mean there's an easy flow of information. Wallace is street smart when it comes to racing; Newman is book smart. The difference is profound and becoming more prominent in a sport that's reluctantly moving deeper into the modern dot-com era.
Educated guesses have been the way of stock-car racing for Wallace's generation. Education has become the way of Newman's generation - and the future of the sport.
Nearly every team in the garage area for this Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway has an engineer on the crew. Some have several.
Newman earned his degree in Vehicle Structural Engineering at Purdue University last year. His crew chief, Matt Borland, has an engineering degree from Kettering University in Michigan. There are three other engineers who travel with the team and a group of engineers back at the shop in Mooresville, N.C.
Their education allows them to venture into new areas. Their ideas in the construction and setup of the team's Ford Taurus are based on science. They aren't bound by old and tired operating procedures. They can take chances with a degree of certainty; rely on their knowledge of geometry and physics to take significant shortcuts in the race for speed.
"Ryan has been real aggressive in his thought process," Wallace said. "You just cannot believe that what you never thought would work starts working. In your mind you know it shouldn't work."
But it does.
Newman said his team's more-modern, more-efficient way of doing business may soon be the standard on the stock car circuit.
"Yes, we use our engineering background, and yes, we do talk about engineering stuff," Newman said. "I've learned that this is a sport - racing in general - as well as NASCAR is very much follow-the-leader. What one person does, the other person tries to adapt and make better."
Alan Kulwicki brought an engineering degree to the Winston Cup Series, and he parlayed that into a championship in 1992. He said his education allowed him to make big shortcuts. He operated with one-third of the money and one-third of the manpower as the teams he beat.
Since his death in 1993, teams have slowly added engineers to their payrolls. Engineers use computers during test sessions, and they're responsible for the construction of shock absorbers and other key suspension components.
Newman and Borland, however, take it to a higher level.
"We talk in engineering terms," Newman said. "That's our background; that's our language. When you're a monkey, you speak monkey."
Borland playfully calls his team "a bunch of geeks." That might be true, but the fact they've found a fresh approach to an old game can't be ignored. Newman has a series-best five pole positions. He also has one victory and a series-best 21 top-10 finishes.
"This is a good example where a certain setup has worked for the last eight or 10 years, but things change," Newman said. "Tires change, drivers change and, therefore, the setup changes. I guess how we adapt to the newer principles is what might make us, from the rookie standpoint, more of a challenge."
And a challenge to a veteran like Rusty Wallace to make sense of it all.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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