CONCORD, N.C. - When Brett Bodine accepted a job as NASCAR's director of cost research, the only thing he had to promise was to clear all interviews in advance through the public relations office.
While that protocol has proven to be little more than a formality, it's been the only restriction placed on the opinionated former driver and car owner on the Nextel Cup Series.
For nearly 20 years, Bodine has been one of NASCAR's most vocal opponents, especially in the areas of costs and safety. He predicted the current economic problems facing most teams 10 years ago. He criticized the sport for not being proactive in safety issues. Years later, the middle of three racing brothers has been proven correct.
"I think now I can be part of the process that makes a difference," Bodine said after patrolling the garage area before last week's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
After fighting NASCAR for most of his career, he decided to join them. The sanctioning body, however, wasn't buying his silence, he said. They wanted to tap into his experience as a driver and car owner.
Bodine will work with John Darby, the competition director, and Gary Nelson, the director of the research and development center, in developing a "car of the future." NASCAR is trying to re-shape its cars to make them more competitive. NASCAR hopes the new car will require less engineering and be simpler to build.
Bodine's job is to find ways to build the "car of the future" at or below the costs of today's cars.
"The one thing you realize is you can't go back," Bodine said. "The goal now is to get costs under control. The big ticket item in this sport is labor. Our goal is to make the 'car of the future' easier to build and less labor intensive. ... We need to reduce the number of people it takes to build one of these cars."
Since Bodine joined the circuit in 1986, the sport has become more technical. Mechanics have been replaced with engineers who shape the car bodies, build the shock absorbers and establish the chassis setup.
The "car of the future" is supposed to eliminate a lot of the dependency on aerodynamics and put more of the car's success into the hands of the mechanics and the drivers.
"I've been saying that for years," Bodine said.
Only now, NASCAR is finally listening.
He said he's turned heads in a couple of staff meetings. He's still not afraid to give his opinion, but it's exactly what NASCAR wants.
"I'm supposed to do that," he said. "That's the way the process should work. Brian (France, chairman), Mike (Helton, president), George (Pyne, vice president) and Gary (Nelson) have a new face, a new mind to help them with decisions. They want my opinion and I give it to them.
"Working with NASCAR is what I really need to be doing right now," Bodine said.
"There came a point in time when I realized NASCAR was really serious about me working for them. I really didn't have any worries about working with them; they had one worry - that I might want to drive again.
"I can say this now: I'm not going to drive again. I'm done. They let me be myself, and I think I can do some right things for the garage area."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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