Testing New Frontiers
To outsiders and critics, Winston Cup technology is a conflict of terms. Pushrod V-8 engines breathing through carburetors, live axles hung from truck arms, and common body templates are retro-tech of the first order.
That, plus the highly restrictive nature of NASCAR's ever-changing rulebook make innovation anathema. Even NASCAR officials admit that today's cars are the world's best-developed 1960s technology.
"We have to work in a very narrow window," says Nelson, the Penske chief engineer. "The best way to describe what we do from an engineering side is 'optimization.' We have to work within very strict parameters, but within them there are a lot of technical challenges."
Newman often can be found in the garage area, analyzing the work on his race car.
Much of the technology that goes into a Winston Cup car is never seen at the track on race day. Bodies are shaped in wind tunnels, suspensions are designed on computers, engines are tested on transient dynamometers that can simulate individual tracks, and the whole package arrives at test sessions with countless sensors that record everything from shock travel to tire spin. "It gives us a lot of information to work with," says Nelson. "At times it may be too much."
NASCAR limits the amount of testing that can be done at Winston Cup tracks, but has no restrictions at non-NASCAR ovals. "But it can be pretty hard to find a track that mimics where we race," says Nelson. "There just aren't very many 1.5-mile banked ovals around."
"We go to different racetracks for different reasons," explains Newman. "Whether we go to a braking track like Greenville (Greenville-Pickens in South Carolina), or Nashville just to get some experience on the concrete again, different tracks bring different things. You don't test downforce at Greenville, but you can at Nashville. You don't test brakes at Nashville, you do it at Greenville and vice versa."
While the information from tracks such as Irwindale Raceway in California doesn't give them specifics for ovals such as Daytona or Darlington, what they do get are "trends" they can use to figure solutions for tracks where their cars do compete.
Seat Of The Pants
All the data goes into notebooks and the computer bank to help solve problems relayed by the most primitive of means: the seat of the pants. That, says Borland, is where the team's "human computer" excels.
"Ryan is the best there is," he says. "In the car he uses logical thinking and deductive reasoning. He'll have a problem and come up with information we need in numbers, versus coming up with a lot of emotion."
Newman says that while he knows the engineering side of seat-of-the-pants analysis, it is teammate Rusty Wallace who helped him become more aware of what a car should be doing on different parts of each track.
"He's probably the best seat-of-the-pants driver in racing," Newman says. "He's got a great feel for the car. I think one of the most important things he taught me is about how things used to be. I think that's important to know in order to appreciate where they are now."
It has been a mutual learning process. Wallace tried some of Newman's setups early in the season, rejected them after a few races, then came back to them based on Newman's success.
While Wallace (No. 2) has more experience behind the wheel, he's often found it best to fo
"I probably learned more from (Newman's) engineering team than he learned from me because they started off with a goal in mind: basing everything off of the computer," Wallace says. "I based everything off the seat of my pants."
During races, Wallace gives specific instructions to the crew on how to adjust his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. In Newman's case, he describes exactly what the car is doing in terms the engineers can use quickly.
"It's not only the feedback, but the type of feedback we get," Borland says. "Instead of just telling us the car is loose on corner exit, he is able to tell us the car is loose on exit because it is tight on entry and through the middle of the corner, and he has to overdrive it to make it loose enough to get through the corner.
"To an engineer, that's a whole lot more information than we normally get and it lets us fix the right thing the first time. If you don't have all the details, it is easy to fix the wrong thing, then you are stuck with whatever you did through the fuel run - possibly making the car worse."