Ryan Newman stood in front of his No. 12 Alltel Dodge as his crew fussed with the engine. It was the first practice session leading to the spring race at Darlington and things weren't going well for the Penske team.
Newman turned toward the garage war wagon, opened a drawer and pulled out a bright orange hammer and handed it to Matt Borland, his crew chief. Some situations on a Winston Cup car respond best to the application of low-tech problem solving.
The Penske team is anything but a low-tech operation. Having four engineers with degrees on the crew, it includes more mechanical expertise than the staffs of many junior colleges.
* Matt Borland graduated from General Motors Institute, specializing in suspension. He worked seven years at GM's proving grounds before going to work with Pi Research on creating computer simulation software for Formula One, CART, and NASCAR. He worked in CART's Champ Car series before moving to NASCAR.
*Michael Nelson, the chief engineer, has both a bachelor's and master's degree from Clemson University, where he majored in mechanical engineering.
* Shock and suspension specialist Pat Stufflet completed his degree program at North Carolina State University and also worked in CART before joining the Penske Winston Cup team.
* And Newman, the youngest of the group, has a degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue University.
While four engineers may not be the ideal guest list for casual dinner party conversation, they've proven themselves able to get the job done around a racetrack.
In 2002, Newman won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title, while finishing sixth in Winston Cup points. He won The Winston all-star race in May and followed that up with his first Winston Cup victory in September.
Newman has emerged as one of the best qualifiers NASCAR has ever seen. In his rookie season, he started on the pole a record six times (breaking Davey Allison's record of five pole starts) and was on the outside pole in three other races.
At the spring race at Bristol this year, Newman became the first Winston Cup driver to ever turn a lap in the 14-second range, taking the pole and setting a qualifying record on the half-mile oval.
Newman does almost as well when the checkered flag waves. In 2002 he had 22 Top-10 finishes, including 14 in the Top 5.
Engineering A Winner
Team owner Roger Penske was among the first to recognize what an engineering background could do for a team. Back in the 1960s he hired a recent Brown University graduate named Mark Donohue to drive for him.
His logical, step-by-step approach to race car engineering and development became known as Penske's "Unfair Advantage" and won him races in Trans-Am, Can-Am, the Indy 500, and NASCAR.
The similarities between Donohue and Newman are striking: young, handsome, methodical and strong, both able to push a car to its limits without hanging it on the outside wall. And like the late Donohue, Newman seems far more at ease with the machinery than the media. Today, almost all front-running Winston Cup teams have some level of engineering expertise on the payroll. That's what the cars and sport demand.
Rusty Wallace (right) was at the head of his class in technical know-how, but since then t
Winston Cup's 2000 champion, Bobby Labonte, says the influx of technology has changed the sport, putting less of an emphasis on driver skill and more on engineering expertise. "The importance has gone to the race car more than ever," says Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet. "If your car's off a little bit, it doesn't matter how much experience you've got, you're not going to be able to make up for it."
Today, drivers must place the same trust in their engineers as they do in their spotter or crew chief, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
"You can't be stubborn and say 'This is what we ran last year and it is what I want this year,'" says Sterling Marlin, driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge. "You've got to look at the stopwatch and say, 'If it works, put it in the car'."