AT THE TRACK

I followed Richardson's assistant, Ron Liddell, to the track where heworks as the No. 07 team's engine tuner. It was qualifying day at Lowe'sMotor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600, so there was a lot on the line.Liddell was relaxed and willing to answer any question I asked, but hedidn't hesitate to stop mid-sentence if his attention was needed underthe hood. The garage area at a NASCAR Nextel Cup event is a world apartfrom the RCR engine shop. Everything in the RCR engine shop is designedaround the engine builder to allow him to do the best job possible.Here, the engine tuner's job is just as critical, but he must workaround the rest of the crew working on the car in cramped conditions andunder NASCAR's schedule. The schedule is designed to make the overallshow, not the needs of an engine tuner, go as smoothly as possible. So aproperly prepared engine tuner will spend lots of time sitting on hishands waiting for practice and then get hit with short periods of insaneactivity as he tries to get the most out of a practice session or prepthe car for qualifying.

Typically, Liddell spends only two days a week at the RCR shops. Whenhe's there, his responsibilities include loading and unloading all theengine parts he feels will be necessary on the hauler, making sure theNo. 07 team has the correct race engine to install in the car beforeloading up, tracking dyno tests, and helping build engines. Whenever theNo. 07 team travels--whether to a racetrack or a test--Liddell goes withit.

"Teams have different ways of [determining] who does what with theengine," Liddell says. "But with RCR cars it's pretty simple--I'm theonly one who touches it. I'll work with the driver and crewchief to makesure they get what they need, but I think this system works well becausewhen it comes to something concerning the engine, you know you areresponsible."

Liddell's first responsibility when the car gets to the track is tounload and prep the car. He watches over the NASCAR tech man who "pumpsand whistles" the engine, which is gearhead lingo for checking theengine's displacement and compression. Unlike the rest of the crew,which works out of one big pit wagon, Liddell has his own toolboxorganized with exactly what he needs, as do most engine tuners. One ofthe specialty tools he uses is a mini-weather station, which helps himtrack weather changes to make sure the jetting in the carburetor staysoptimized.

During practice for qualifying, Liddell keeps close tabs on the healthof the engine. Early on in practice, driver Dave Blaney will kill theignition with the engine at full throttle and coast in. This allowsLiddell to check the plugs to make sure the engine is running properly.If everything looks good, he will save those plugs for the actualqualifying run.

Liddell carries two spares on the No. 07 hauler--one in the backup carand a second engine tucked away in a storage area with enough spareparts to practically build a third. But if disaster happens and anengine blows, he says he isn't limited just to what he has on his truck.The RCR racing stable believes in putting the very best equipment on thetrack, so if the No. 07 Chevrolet needs another engine, Liddell has theoption of comparing dyno sheets and pulling any backup engine from anyRCR truck as long as another team doesn't need it. After all, the bestracing engine in the world isn't going to do anyone any good if it issitting in the hauler during the race.

As the practice unfolds, it becomes clear that the No. 07 car isn't upto speed. Blaney can manage only the 39th fastest lap. Much of that wasbecause he was fighting a loose condition, but after practice Liddellruns a few ideas past Blaney, crewchief Philippe Lopez, and chief enginebuilder Danny Lawrence and decides to make a pretty drastic change.NASCAR's one-engine rule allows changing the intake manifold, andLiddell does just that. "On the dyno, this new manifold makes less poweroverall, but it is a little better in the higher rpm range," Liddellexplains. "On an open track like Dave will have during qualifying, hecan keep the rpms up, and this manifold should help him make some morespeed." Liddell also makes a timing adjustment and changes the oilbefore qualifying.

Despite the dyno numbers, the change is a bit of a risk since Blaneywill not have a chance to test it on the track before his qualifyingattempt. That's the reason for the quick meeting, but had he felt thechange was necessary, Liddell could have made the decision on his own.In the qualifying session, the new manifold proves to be an improvement.Blaney qualifies Thirty-First, eight spots higher than his practicetime. Of course, there's little time for celebration; Liddell has onlyone hour before the garage closes, and there is still plenty of work tobe done.

Before race practice starts on Saturday Liddell must change thecarburetor, reset the timing, replace the battery, oil, and spark plugs,hook up the oil cooler, clean and check the filters, and then talk tohis driver to make sure everything feels right.

"You always have to trust your driver," he explains. "If he doesn't likethe motor--and it doesn't matter whether he's right or not--you have tomake him happy. If he thinks he's getting beat on the straights, he'sgoing to over-compensate in the turns, and that's going to causetrouble. So it's not just about building a great engine. It's aboutmaking sure your driver is comfortable with it, too."

With that, Liddell heads back to the garage to get back to work.