Just looking at the NASCAR Research & Development Center is enough to make you believe that serious work is going on inside. The building sits majestically on a corner lot just across the street from the entrance to the Concord (NC) Regional Airport, and it dominates the industrial park that is rising up behind it.
When NASCAR gets religion, it gets it in a big way, and the R&D Center is sort of a temple to that religion. Safety, which was always a concern but became a much bigger issue in 2000 and 2001 when a rash of driver deaths hit the sport, is that religion, and the high priest of NASCAR's efforts toward improving it is none other than former Cup Series Director Gary Nelson.
Nelson, who carries the lofty title of managing director of research and development for NASCAR, directs a staff of 45 people at the center, which is housed in a 61,000-square-foot building on 16 acres at the corner of Odell School Road and West Winds Boulevard in Concord.
The front half of the building is the office area, housing the offices of the series directors for NASCAR's three biggest series-Nextel Cup, the Busch Series, and the Craftsman Truck Series, as well as various other NASCAR personnel.
Behind the office space is where the really interesting stuff goes on. There's a template room, where the cars used to design the templates for all manufacturers' cars are housed alongside their production counterparts. Just off the template room is the locked office containing all of NASCAR's restrictor plates. There are only three keys to the room, and it is kept locked at all times. A Superflow machine is housed with the templates to make sure all the templates are identical.
Go through another door and you're in the primary workshop space, which is a two-story affair resembling the majority of the NASCAR team shops in the area. A recent addition to the facility is a dyno room, where technicians can test-bed any product submitted to NASCAR for approval.
Above the shop floor on the second level are caged rooms containing submitted and approved parts as well as those confiscated by NASCAR. Hanging above the shelves full of confiscated parts is the body off the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet that was seized at Texas Motor Speedway last year. The rest of the car was returned to Joe Gibbs Racing, but NASCAR kept the body.
Just down the stairs on the lower level is NASCAR's crash sled, sometimes referred to as a bogie. The staff uses the crash sled to test crushable materials, new bumper configurations, and other aspects of energy absorption associated with easing impact injuries a driver might suffer in a crash.
There is a complete testing area outside in the parking lot with video towers, power outlets for the recording devices on the crash sled, and guide holes for tracks to simulate various angles of impact into the massive concrete wall block. The crash-test area is littered with the carcasses of cars that have been mounted on the sled and then analyzed.
Back toward the offices, it's time for a trip to the engineering spaces. Several engineers work on various products via computer, and they have the capacity to send those workups to the CNC machinery, housed directly outside their offices, to be machined. Fabricators can attach whatever comes off the CNC machines to existing structures for testing.
Nelson says there are anywhere from 18-20 projects currently under way at the facility, most of which have something to do with the Car of Tomorrow project, aimed at implementing all the gains the facility generates in its various efforts. "It actually started off as the Car of the Future, but now it's the Car of Tomorrow, so I guess the future is here now," Nelson chuckled. "It started out as a five-year plan and we're moving along pretty well."
Primary among the changes on the Car of Tomorrow is the expansion of the "greenhouse." The windows on both sides have been enlarged by 4 inches in width and 2 inches in height to aid driver ingress/egress. The cockpit has been moved 4.5 inches to the right to get it more toward the center of the car, and an escape hatch system is in place through the roof. The addition of some 2 inches of sheetmetal on the rear quarter-panels should help prevent cars from getting up underneath each other and lifting the rear wheels, and it should help prevent other cosmetic changes. When a suitable bumper/crushable material is found, it will be implemented on this car, as well.
Overall, the facility is very impressive from a technical standpoint, and it should stand NASCAR in good stead in the coming years as emerging technologies are examined and admitted.
We sat down with Nelson to discuss the center, its impact on both safety and the community, and how NASCAR is continuing its commitment to safety in the country's most visible and popular racing series.
Q&A with Gary NelsonSCR: In the two years the NASCAR R&D Center has been open, has it fulfilled its function?
Nelson: It has exceeded my expectations, by far. When you start a new program, you talk about two people here and one person there, and we had about 15 people total. In this building, in our mind, when we walked in, we were like, "Man, this place is so big. We're going to have a lot of empty desks for a long time." Now, we're into the mid-40s in staff, and I have been very surprised at the rapid growth. But then I look back at what caused that, and it's the fact that we are producing more and more results. I constantly remind myself that we have a long way to go and we have to work hard every day to continue to work toward our goals. Every once in a while, I'll look back at how far we've come, and it's pretty exciting.
SCR: What is, in your mind, the prime directive of the NASCAR R&D Center?
Nelson: I've been in racing my whole career-from crewmember to crewchief to series director and now vice president of research and development-and throughout that period of time, I have crossed paths with a lot of racers for whom I hold a lot of respect both personally and professionally. Some of those folks aren't with us anymore. What drives me every day, what gets me going, is trying to make a contribution to make the sport safer for those reasons. I still have a lot of personal and professional friends in the business. I think of myself as one person who has crossed paths with a lot of racers, but everybody in racing has that. Everyone on the track or on the pit crew has this network of relatives, friends, fans, and I think safety is a way to make things better for everyone. Nobody loses in that effort.
SCR: There's an interesting story about how the R&D Center came to be in Concord, and how you obtained the steel to use in your crash sled. Can you fill us in?
Nelson: We were located in a building in Conover, North Carolina, for the first year as we were looking for a site to build this facility. We considered building it in Conover and we considered a few sites in this area. This building was vacant and only partially built. When we saw it, it didn't look too good and it only had a few acres, but it had potential in our eyes. We got more and more interested in this building, primarily because the Concord Regional Airport is across the street, and the fact that we have a lot of people we could fly in and meet with in a matter of minutes, like car owners, and sponsors, and so on. The center of the sport is really this area around the Concord airport. Our interaction with the teams becomes easier. All of those things were good about this location.
One of the other things that was good was the building was already partially up, although it was a shell of a building. The property was in foreclosure. One of my sales points to my bosses was, "Look at how much work has already been done. We can convert it pretty easily." So we made the purchase, and the engineers and architects came in and started looking over what we needed. This office area at the front of the building was, in my words, "just needing to be finished out." They came back and said it needed to be ripped out and started over.
So, we took a building that looked as if it just needed to be finished all the way back down to the ground because the steel in the structure wasn't adequate to hold the two-floor office area. That left us with a bunch of extra steel. I told the contractor to set the steel aside and that I would find a way to use it. My motivation was that somebody had to tell the senior management of NASCAR that we had to take an existing building back down to the ground, but we can use that steel for something else. We were able to use that steel in several other places, including a sled for crash testing.
SCR: You also got the axles for that sled in an interesting way.
Nelson: Across the street, they were preparing to extend the runway at the airport. We were landing one day, and I looked out the window of the airplane and saw some old trucks in a truck junkyard that had become visible as they were clearing the land. I stopped by the company that was clearing the trees and asked them, "What do you want for those axles?" The guy told me, "If you haul them off, they're yours." So I called a wrecker and we got the two axles for free. I would have had to buy those. The greatest expense we had in building that sled was the paint job [bright red]. Or, if you want to look at it the other way, the cost of tearing down the office. It's a real expensive sled if you want to look at it that way [laughs].
SCR: Has being here in the midst of the NASCAR community made a difference in the way you relate to the community?
Nelson: Certainly. Roush, MB2, Hendrick-and now Ganassi-are just up the street, and a host of other Truck and Busch teams are within a 2-mile radius. You go out another 10-15 miles and you can get 90 percent of the Top 3 national series. We're able to stop in; they're able to come by here. For it to work right, the ideas really need to flow from the progressive thinkers in the sport. We're not going to lock ourselves in the back room and invent things. We're going to work together with the industry experts and experts outside the industry. This facility has become an idea center for crewchiefs, engine builders, vendors, and manufacturers. They come in and say, "Hey, I had this idea," and next thing you know, some things stick.
SCR: Some people have said that the NASCAR R&D Center is a direct response to the death of Dale Earnhardt. Would you agree with that statement?
Nelson: I would say that the process started when we lost Adam Petty. We had the building in Conover in place by fall of that year, before the Daytona race where we lost Dale Earnhardt. Adam, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper [all died in on-track accidents]. That season was under way, and we just kept building this idea. It started taking off, and I can tell you that Dale Earnhardt was a big supporter of what we were doing in Conover. He actually scheduled a meeting that fall for us to come to DEI, and he offered any resources they had to help us in trying to make the gains or the progress that we were working toward. We spent the afternoon with him, going through the cars and his ideas, and we wrote them all down. We continued to work through that winter. We were in Nebraska that December working on the SAFER Barriers, and then his tragedy happened. So, all of those things were coming together, and that timing, at the Daytona 500, we certainly stepped it up another notch for sure. But the process was already rolling.
SCR: What other active projects do you have now?
Nelson: It's an interesting process that we're working on now, but let me set the stage with this. In our research, we were working very hard on car bumpers to try to make the car safer. We were struggling to find quick solutions. It became more and more complicated. In this process, I consulted John Melvin, Dean Sicking from Nebraska, and Jim Raden. All three of these fellows hold Ph.D.s and are well-known experts in the field of safety-and all are independent of NASCAR. I asked them, "We're really struggling with this bumper problem. Can you figure out how to make these bumpers better?" They went away and came back and said, "You're working on the wrong thing. Put your effort into the driver's restraint system and you'll make a 65-percent gain in safety if you improve the seat, the belts, and the head-and-neck restraints. That's where your big gains are going to be." I said, "OK, we'll go to work on that, but tell me about these bumpers." They said, "No, your next gain is going to be in the 25-percent range if you can get some energy to be absorbed by the barriers that you hit." So we went to work on barriers.
If you look at our history in recent years, you'll see that we've completely overhauled our restraint systems rules, and we started holding seminars with the drivers to explain the benefits of being restrained properly in their cars. Then the SAFER wall project, we really pushed hard for that, and you're seeing the benefits. We're just now back to the bumpers, which is the last 10 percent of the whole equation. Fortunately, we were able to get good advice, and now, having a little bit of history to reflect back on, we're seeing very positive results in individuals that have contacted the wall as hard or harder than others previously, and they're going off to dinner that night, not spending the night in the hospital. We know now that the advice of those experts was solid, and the results are starting to show that.
That brings us to the bumpers, and it's still a struggle. We're still working, and when you talk about the last 10 percent being the bumpers, it's not. It's the whole rest of the car that is the last 10 percent. That means the front bumper is 7 percent of that 10, but you have the sides of the car and the crush areas, and the rollbars, and the escape hatch, and all the rest of the things that make up the last 10 percent. That's what the Car of Tomorrow is, in our eyes, the continued process that was laid out early on. Focus your energy here, then move it to the wall, and then to the car, and then start over again. We feel like some of the gains that have been made are major, and we see better things in the future. We keep learning. We were at Delphi recently, conducting tests with crash dummies to continue to look at driver restarting systems and find better and better systems. That's a proactive ability, in my eyes, that the R&D Center affords us, the France family, and NASCAR. We are now working proactively, taking a current rule and seeing if there are ways to do it better. We're learning.