NASCAR, manufacturers talk tech, innovation
January 15, 2014, Scott Held, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
Stefanyshyn talks changes to Sprint Cup car, panel of drivers discuss fan engagement
DETROIT -- NASCAR, manufacturers and teams have collaborated to make a handful of changes to their cars for the coming season, and though many of the tweaks may be small -- they could wind up paying big dividends.
Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR vice president of innovation and racing development, said cars will be closer to the ground at all but the fastest of tracks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits. He was among the panelists for Wednesday's Tech Talk forum at Cobo Center, home of the 2014 North American International Auto Show.
"Probably the thing fans will notice most is the height of the cars when they're in the pits," he said. "It used to be 4 ½ inches but they'll be closer to the ground this year."
Other changes include a steeper rear spoiler, squaring of the front splitter and slightly higher trim of the rear fascia, but Stefanyshyn said those alterations probably will be harder to spot.
The lack of severe changes comes a year after the series began running the Gen-6 race car, the result of a collaboration between NASCAR and the three manufacturers that field NASCAR Sprint Cup cars.
Jamie Allison of Ford Racing, David Wilson of Toyota Racing Development and Jim Campbell of Chevy Performance Vehicles and Motorsport also were panelists, and all three said that sense of collaboration still exists -- even though all three nameplates want to be first to the checkered flag.
"We're all trying to beat each other's brains in," Wilson said, "but there still is that commitment to making the sport even better for our fans."
Stefanyshyn said the level of cooperation between NASCAR, its manufacturers and teams makes it seem like the sport has an army of engineers.
"We don't have 1,000 engineers [at NASCAR] but we do have 1,000 engineers [throughout the industry]," he said. "This is an area where we work together to make the sport better."
Two of the most enlightening tidbits from the discussion included Allison noting that a lack of testing time means simulators are used more and more to prepare cars for different tracks. In many cases, he said, the driver's first time in the car on a new track is with a setup prepared with extensive computer help.
A variety of metrics, Stefanyshyn added, also are used to measure the flow and general competitiveness of a race. A variety of factors, including the number of passes for the lead and the distance between the first and fifth, 10th or 15th cars in the running order, are among the factors NASCAR uses to grade the overall entertainment factor in a race.
The second panel focused on fan engagement and featured owner and former driver Michael Waltrip, NASCAR Vice President of Marketing Kim Brink, as well as current NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers David Ragan and Ryan Newman. All three drivers were quick to point out their use of technology hardly ends when they leave the race track.
Michael Waltrip, David Ragan and Ryan Newman talked about their use of technology away from the track.
"There are a lot of ways to know what's happening while we're at the race track," Ragan said, "but the fans that follow the drivers and teams want to know what happens Monday through Thursday."
The days of mail-in fan clubs, Newman said, are long gone.
"Michael used to have a fan club in 1992; now Twitter is the fan club.
"It's social, it's instant."
Michigan International Speedway hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup races each season and track president Roger Curtis said the search for ways to improve the fan experience on-site never ends. His was the first speedway to offer free WiFi to fans last year and he said it hopes the same will be available at all facilities that host NASCAR events by the 2015 season.
"It used to be customer service was a department with us," he said. "Now it's our job."
The NAIAS has a NASCAR flair of its own. Visitors to the show, which opens to the public Saturday and runs through Jan. 26, can get a look at the Harley J. Earl Trophy, presented to the Daytona 500 champion; the NASCAR Sprint Cup Trophy at Chevrolet’s exhibit; and Matt Kenseth's No. 20 Camry is on display at Toyota's show floor.
The Sprint Unlimited kicks off competitive racing at Daytona on Feb. 15 on FOX Sports 1. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits MIS on June 15 and Aug. 17.