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'."
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."
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."