Jeff Jefferson, left, and...
Jeff Jefferson, left, and Chuck Carruthers check right-front spring compression to see how close the suspension is to coil bind. Jerry F. Boone
Second In A SeriesChuck Carruthers tries to run his finger between the top of the tire and the underside of the right front fender of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Then he slides beneath the car and measures the gap between the spring's coils, using a feeler gauge.
"Down a bit more," he calls out from beneath the car. From the far side of the lift, an electric motor begins spinning a hydraulic pump and almost magically the chassis drops down another fraction of an inch.
He measures the distance between the compressed coils again.
"This is how we test today," says the veteran car builder, who is crewchief for MJ2 Racing's two-car, freshman-season entry into the NASCAR Camping World Series on the West Coast.
On this wintry morning, with snow still packed around the team's shop in rural Washington State, the up and down movement of the Chevy is as close as the crew will get to finding out how the chassis will perform on a track.
Jeff Jefferson eases the Chevrolet...
Jeff Jefferson eases the Chevrolet down onto a test platform as the MJ2 racing team does pre-testing suspension analysis. The controls for the MJ2-designed pull-down system are contained on a bank of valves that can delicately regulate pressure on hydraulic rams to simulate cornering and aerodynamic loads on a racecar chassis.
The crewchief has been working the phones for weeks, trying to find a track-within budget and towing distance-warm enough and dry enough to get his cars and drivers dialed in.
"It was supposed to rain at Irwindale last weekend," complains Carruthers.
So much for the endless summers of sunny California.
An atypical winter with record rain, high winds and mountain snowfall has turned most West Coast tracks into quagmires, leaving teams to test where and how they can. For MJ2, that means in the shop.
"I'm concerned," he says. "I was hoping to be on the track two or three times already. We've got new cars, a new driver, new tracks and a new series. There is so much to learn and we aren't getting the opportunity. Each day we fall a little farther behind teams that have been able to turn laps."
Carruthers isn't the only one worried.
"I haven't been to one of the tracks we'll race at this season," says Jim Warn, who is moving up to the touring series after two seasons at South Sound Speedway near Seattle. "These cars are so different from what I've driven before, that I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me uncomfortable.
"Because whatever testing we do will be so close to the first race of the year, it is going to put a lot of pressure on the team to get the cars to a track, back to the shop and out to a track again. We just aren't going to have much time in between, and all the tracks are a long tow from the shop."
The MJ2 operation is built around a half dozen 105-inch wheelbase, former Busch Series cars purchased from Kevin Harvick at the end of last season. They've had to be converted to the Camping World series configuration, which includes items such as a spec engine and ignition system. Two of them are ready to hot-lap the track.
"All dressed up and no place to go," laments Jeff Jefferson, the senior driver and designated team test pilot.
Jefferson has three consecutive championships in the defunct NASCAR Northwest Tour Series and about 20 starts and a win in the late Winston West, the forerunner of the current NASCAR West Series sponsored by Camping World.
Hydraulic rams are bolted...
Hydraulic rams are bolted to a steel plate in the floor and then attached to the chassis using special plates that bolt to the framerails. June Boone
The driver grew up around cars. His father, George Jefferson, is a legendary car owner on the West Coast, having had drivers such as Tim Richmond, David Pearson, Hershel McGriff, Kyle Petty, Chad Little and Derrike Cope in his cars.
George Jefferson teamed with his brother Harry and moved into what was to become the Busch (Nationwide) Series, where in 1972 they led the nation, winning a record 27 of 35 starts, including 17 in a row.
The older Jefferson still shows up at the track or the shop from time to time.
"The cars are really different from his day," says his son, "but sometimes he doesn't see it that way. He just figures racecars are racecars."
Jeff contends that decades of working with his dad and on his own cars have made him a better driver.
All the pieces to be used...
All the pieces to be used during a test session-such as this pair of front spindles-are trial fit in the shop before the car heads to the track. The pull-down equipment allows the team to assemble everything it needs to test a new part and have it set aside and ready for a quick swap. June Boone
"I can visualize what the car is doing," he says. "I know how all the pieces work together. I just wish we could get them out on the track and make them work."
This day there is different work to do. Jefferson teases the controls on a set of valves that power the hydraulic rams that raise and lower the chassis on steel stands he and Carruthers built. The rams can change the attitude of the car to mimic how the suspension will be loaded as Jefferson or Jim Warn-who will be a rookie in the series this year-drive into a corner.
Carruthers designed the system with help from an industrial hydraulic supply center in nearby Walla Walla.
"They had no idea what I was talking about," he says, "so they sent one of their guys out here to see what we were going to do with them."
Jefferson figures every team that hopes to run near the front of the field has something similar. Some, he guesses, are more complicated and more expensive, while others are even more basic and cheaper.
"I don't know how you could set up one of these cars without something like it," he says.
In recent years, racecar suspensions have moved away from huge springs and modest size sway bars to thin, low-pressure springs and sway bars the size of old growth cedars.
"It's completely reverse thinking from when I began driving," says Jefferson, who works at the shop full-time, after commuting two hours each way from his home. "When I began, the last thing you wanted was coil bind. Now you design the suspension to completely collapse the right front spring in the corner."
"It's all new to us," adds Carruthers, the crew chief, who calls the work at the shop "pre-testing."
"We've got so much to learn that anything we can discover in the shop will save us time at the track," he says.
He tells Jefferson to bring the left front of the car down a tad, then eases himself from beneath the car to look at its attitude.
"That's about how it will look on the track," he says. "When you look under the hood at things like fender clearances, there really isn't much room to work with."
Carruthers figures that for every hour one of the cars will spend on the track, it will spend days and days in the shop. He knows now is the time to build the car to perform, and use the time on the track to confirm his theories.
"If you go to the track with specific ideas in mind, with certain things to test and if you are ready to do them, it can be very valuable time. If you haven't done a lot of the preparation in the shop, you are going to waste a lot of time and money at the track."
Carruthers says he didn't always know that.
"I remember when I was beginning," he says. "We took a car to Phoenix with two sets of springs, two sets of shocks and two sets of tires. We had no idea what a test session was.
"We got there and unloaded and saw how the other teams were prepared and I was pretty embarrassed. I was young and had no idea what we were doing.
"But at the time, I was convinced I did."
Today, he shows up with every piece on the car already tested for fit. He knows exactly what companion changes he must make if he wants to try a different spindle angle or softer spring.
Chuck Carruthers, left, and...
Chuck Carruthers, left, and Jeff Jefferson examine the effect of chassis load on a racecar's suspension. The pull-down equipment may not be as fancy as what teams such as Richard Childress Racing use, but it is just as effective. June Boone
The test window is narrow and track time is expensive, so the crew practices swapping the parts before leaving for the test session, so no one is standing around, scratching his head and wondering what to do next.
"What we are doing now is pretty boring work," Carruthers says. "But it pays off. It means that during the time we spend at the track we are learning things we can't learn at the shop, instead of learning things at the track we should already know.
"And I've come to recognize that I think a lot better in the shop than I do at the track, so it pays to get everything planned out before we load up."
He is fanatical about documentation, organization and keeping to a plan, even if it means compromising in some areas.
By combining corner scales...
By combining corner scales with the hydraulic pull-down gear, the team can measure the load on the chassis as the car changes attitude. June Boone
"I'd like to get Jim in the car a lot more than we'll be able to, given the late start we are going to get. But I won't take Jeff out of the car until our testing is done. There is simply no sense putting a rookie driver in a car that isn't ready."
The team has been pulling on the car since before dawn, measuring, changing springs, adjusting camber, studying exactly what the chassis does when it goes through a corner.
With the hydraulic rams they can mimic its attitude as the car enters a corner, when it turns in, when the driver rolls onto the throttle and how the suspension will respond on exit.
Carruthers crawls under the car for another look, another measurement.
"We're learning a lot," he says with a grin. "What we find out here will help us all season long. It better be worth it, because this part of racing sure is dull."
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Driver'sTop 5Here is what Jeff Jefferson considers the five most important responsibilities of a driver during testing:
Changes to things like caster...
Changes to things like caster and camber are recorded every time the MJ2 crew does a pull on the test car's chassis. Crew chief Chuck Carruthers is fanatical about paperwork and documentation. June Boone
1. Do the same thing every time out. "What happens with a lot of young drivers is they don't feel a change when the crew makes an adjustment, so they begin to drive the car differently to try to discover something."
2. Be honest. Sometimes a crew will spend a lot of time working on something and you want to reward them for their work. But if it didn't make any difference-or if the problem got worse instead of better-tell them that. Testing is not the time to try to make people feel good.
3. Smoothness counts. Don't horse the car around. Be smooth with your feet. Drive the car just like you would in a race.
4. Be willing to try things that might seem pretty odd. Testing is all about learning, and something you learn today might come in handy later on. That is especially true with shocks. The track in March won't feel the same as it does in August.
Jeff Jefferson says a number...
Jeff Jefferson says a number of people have helped him along the way, and retain an interest in his driving career. Former driver Rick Allison showed up at a test session while Jefferson was getting ready for one of his championship runs in the old Northwest Tour series. "Rick put me in his car after the one I owned was totaled in a race at Yakima back in 2002," he says. "Without him giving me the opportunity to drive his car, I would not have been able to continue racing." Jerry F. Boone
5. Push the car. While no driver wants to hang a car on the fence during testing, you simply can't cruise around and think you are getting anywhere. "Be confident enough in your ability to push the car to the limits, knowing that you can catch it if you push too hard. I constantly overdrive the car, because the goal is to go faster."
A crew chief'sTop 5Here is what Chuck Carruthers considers the five most important responsibilities of a crew chief during testing:
1. Know your car. Before you put it in the trailer, you should have a detailed record of caster, camber, toe, spring rates and full alignment specs. "I've built cars for customers who will call me after a half dozen races and complain the car was really quick but now just doesn't handle the same. In 90 percent of the cases, the rearend is out of alignment. They could have solved their problems just by bringing the car back to baseline."
2. Pre-plan your test session. If you want to try a different front spindle, change it at the shop before you go to the track and get everything aligned right. That way, you know exactly what needs to be done when you get to the track and you aren't wasting valuable time trying to figure out what else needs to be changed. Be organized at the track. It doesn't make any difference if you have a crew of full-time paid employees or it is your brother-in-law and his fishing friend, everyone should know what to do and what's expected of them. You have to develop that organization at the shop.
3. Keep meticulous records. Don't just write down "changed front bar" and let it go at that. Write down what you were trying to accomplish and what effect it had after it was changed. And record lap times, tire temps, stagger and pressure gain every time a car comes back in.
Unseasonably cold and wet...
Unseasonably cold and wet weather has left most tracks on the West Coast unavailable for much preseason testing. June Boone
4. Don't be afraid to go slow to get fast. Some things just don't work out the way you hoped they would. That's okay as long as you learned from it. There are really no bad ideas, just ideas that didn't work. And part of the process is that even if a change worked the way you hoped it would, how did it change the car? You might want to make that change later in the season, but if you don't have a record of what you did, you'll never remember it.
5. Evaluate what you learned. Look at all the changes you made and what difference they made in the car. See which ones made the car go faster or made it handle better in the corners. Determine which ones will work together. Put all the good ones on the car and make that your final session.