Going To School
Newman came up through the open-wheel racing ranks, much like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. And like Wallace, he helped build and maintain his own cars. The combination of textbook education and hands-on experience allows him to look at problems from both practical and theoretical vantage points. He found that it helped in making the transition from open-wheel to stock cars easier than he anticipated. "Most of the principles are the same," he says. "We didn't have downforce and aerodynamics to work with, but it was something that didn't take long to figure out."
The Alltel team did use old-school strategy - in this case taking two fresh tires instead
Borland says it didn't take him and Nelson long to see Newman's value to the team. "By the time we were in our second or third testing session, I realized this kid had a lot more than just driving skill to bring to the table," Borland says.
When Newman enrolled at Purdue he began in a mechanical engineering program, but decided after his sophomore year that he wasn't learning what he needed to help him be a successful driver. He was able to design his own individual study program that allowed him to pick and choose his classroom work during the week and race on the weekends. "It was a home-grown degree," he says.
"It was kinda rough to do the classroom work and still race," Newman says. "In my last year of college I raced 55 times. I never slowed down my racing program. Sometimes it hurt my studies...During my last semester I carried 21 credits.
"I think what I learned most was time management," he says. "People go to college to get a degree, but what they really learn is how to manage their time to accomplish the things that are important to them."
Engineering is part of that time management, according to Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 99 Citgo Ford. He says drivers "...can't keep up with all of the technology and also drive the race car. You can't do it anymore."
Limited By Rules
Newman sees the next steps forward being in component design and tire technology. "There is a lot known about how cars work, but I think we are just beginning to understand the role of tires in racing," he says.
When the four engineers sit around to discuss the state of the sport, they share frustration at the number of things they would like to do, but can't because of the rules.
"There are a lot of parts that we could make lighter, stronger and better," says Newman.
"But under the rules, we can't. So instead we do what we can. When you really look at what we do, physics is what it is all about."
Crewmen with Dale Earnhardt Inc. look over data from a Dale Earnhardt Jr. test session at
Nelson says the biggest advantage the Penske team may have is its open mind to innovation and experimentation. He says there is a ready exchange of information between the Newman and Wallace teams, and at times the drivers will race with almost identical setups. At other times they don't. "Sometimes we try things that Rusty's crew just isn't comfortable with," Nelson says. "And at times their different driving styles dictate what each team does."
Wallace says the car setups for him and Newman often are vastly different. "They try something real aggressive and I sort of shake my head at it," Wallace says, "then he goes out and kicks my butt."
The senior driver says the idea behind the two-car team is to help both drivers perform better. "We're still working on that," Wallace says. "Right now, having that second car has actually hurt my performance."
Last year was the first in 16 seasons that Wallace went winless. "We'll eventually get to a common ground instead of working like two different teams," he says.
Defining The Goal
On race day, Nelson says the Alltel team concentrates on breaking each corner down to its three parts: entrance, middle and exit.
"If you look at both ends of the track, there are six components," he says. "If you can get four of the six right, you can do pretty well. If you can get all six right, you can't be beat." Nelson says the team works throughout the race to make the car handle perfectly. "We don't give up until the race is over," he says.
Newman keeps digging, too, often being able to come from a lap behind to score a Top-5 finish. At Texas, the team seemed to roll the dice on a two-tire, final pit stop and went on to win its first race of the 2003 season. Risky? Yes. But a calculated risk.
"We had to take two tires," Newman says. "If we took four and two guys took two, we'd come out in third position, but on the restart with 50 to go, that's actually like sixth with those lapped cars. We needed to be the car up front...so it was kind of piecing the puzzle together and it worked."
In the end it takes more than engineering to win races; it takes talent. "If we can get the car to be fast, Ryan can do the rest," Borland says. "That's a huge advantage on race day." Says Newman, "In the car, my job is to interpret or confirm their ideas. It is all about refining our process."
Borland recognizes that in Newman and his trio of support engineers, he has a unique combination for success. "I don't think we'll get to the point where this sport will require drivers to be engineers," he says. "Ryan is unique in that he has both the technical background and 20 years of racing. That's a combination that isn't going to come along very often.
"But in the future, I think what you will see is that drivers will have to become more open-minded to what engineering can do. It's our job to put him in the fastest piece of machinery we can make.
"Ultimately, it is still up to him to use it."