Inside the R&D Center

January 05, 2015, Ron LeMasters Jr.,

See how Gene Stefanyshyn is affecting change at NASCAR's R&D Center

When it was first built, the NASCAR Research and Development Center was a work in progress. There was a need for an increased focus on safety, and this was the place to do it.

They came up with the Car of Tomorrow, designed to better protect drivers in the event of a frontal impact, and they did a lot of work on energy absorbing foams and barriers on the other end.

Today, more than 10 years after its founding, its purpose is still the same -- with a lot more added in.

Led by NASCAR Vice-President of Innovation and Racing Development Gene Stefanyshyn, the NASCAR R&D Center is the place where the whole sport is being improved, tweaked, refined and analyzed.

Stefanyshyn, with automotive industry chops and a monster IQ, has broken the mission of the R&D Center into five distinct areas, including its original purpose.

"A lot has changed here," he said. "I would say from a very, very big picture, the R&D Center started, has its roots anchored in, safety, and it has a long, proud history. I don't think people are really very aware of all the great things that have been done in the area of safety. That's been our history, and we are in no way moving away from that. We'll continue to emphasize that, and we dedicate significant human and capital resources every year and continue on improving that."

From that root history, the R&D Center now counts among its missions racing infrastructure, the event itself, fan engagement and race analytics.

Say what?

"What we have done is, we are supplementing or amplifying, four or five other key initiatives," Stefanyshyn said. "One is the car. We are continuing, through using a lot more science and analytics and computer-aided engineering type tools, to improve our vehicles with an eye to improve the racing and the competition for our fans, our ultimate customers. We're doing it in a more disciplined and scientific manner with some of the latest tools.

"Second, the racing infrastructure, essentially where the car runs on the track. Those are things like being able to understand better the friction of our tracks, the interface of the track with the tire and things such as the SAFER barrier. The safety system of the car is not just the car; it's how the car interacts with the SAFER barrier and that part of the track.

"The third element is the event itself. There are a lot of elements to that. For example, when we have rain, there's the Air Titan 2.0, trying to get the track dry, and the main objective is getting the show on the road for our fans. That's one example. Another is officiating from the tower and on pit road with more automation to make it quicker, more precise, more accurate.

"The fourth area is fan engagement. There are a host of processes leading up to the race, whether it is inspection of the vehicles, whether it's officiating the race ... it's what's happening to the car, what's happening to the driver. How do we harvest some of that information and share it with our fans with an eye toward increased fan engagement to give them a fuller, broader appreciation and perspective of the sport?

"The fifth area is more of an internal area, which is doing a lot of race analytics to measure the quality of the racing as a feedback loop."

You get the idea that whatever room he's in, Stefanyshyn is always the smartest guy there. In true empirical fashion, he's forged a cooperative unit that deals with all five of the core missions at the same time, utilizing the auto manufacturers and OEM (original equipment manufacturers) components along with the racing professionals who work with them, both from the industry and from the racing community.

"We're approaching this work in the spirit of cooperation, teamwork and collaboration, because that will yield the best results," he said. "We pick the people who know most about the sport and have a lot of experience. We rely on the teams and OEMs to help us work on these areas where we can improve our sport. It's a collaboration to find the best solutions and to use the best minds we've got with an eye toward doing it in a cost-effective way without duplicating a bunch of resources and leveraging the resources we've got.

"That's the smart way to solve problems."

By picking the best people with the most knowledge, there's a better chance of arriving at solutions that work in every area.

"Not only do we get the best solutions, but we also bring the people along, as we're evolving the sport, so that they are aware of all the changes and understand them," he said. "They're part of the journey then. It's not a surprise to them, and we don't open ourselves up for criticism by just serving stuff up without telling them or involving them. That comes with some danger of people saying things at an inappropriate time, but in general, most of the things we're working on are things that people appreciate because they're all very fan-centric and with the idea of improving our sport and making it appreciated by more fans."

And that's the goal, after all. In the past, NASCAR has seen something at the track, reacted to it, made a change, issued a technical bulletin and it was up to the teams to make it happen. It's a little different now.

"We do have more people coming here to work on those things, from the teams and the manufacturers," Stefanyshyn said. "Just today, we had 25 people or so in for a meeting of our aero work group. We have an electrical group, an engine work group, chassis, and so on."

That collaboration, which was a rarity in years past, is making a difference in the product on the track and in the stands.

"We're pretty happy with the racing product on the track this year. It is better and we will continue trying to improve that every year. It's part of our ongoing journey in the spirit of making things better."

Where does the collaboration stop? It hasn't yet, and probably won't, despite the fact that at the end of the day, NASCAR will make the final call on what is done.

"Obviously we're still the sanctioning body and we get to make the ultimate decisions, but it's always best to make the decision with all people involved with the best knowledge and best information," Stefanyshyn said. "We continue to involve and embrace them, and they are big stakeholders and use their skill and expertise. Our relationships are becoming more intertwined and we're becoming more dependent on each other."

There are still many things to collaborate on, and for NASCAR to determine, Stefanyshyn said.

"Some of the things we're working on are, where do we go with engines in the short term, where to go in the long term.  Where do we go with aero? Are we in the right place with tires? How do we begin to bring some telematics into the sport for fans and for race control? How do we give the drivers some better tools when they're navigating the vehicle to get them better aware of what is happening on the track? Those are some of the things off the top of my head."

By using a very disciplined approach, with science and technology and collaboration, the NASCAR R&D Center might be Ground Zero for the future of NASCAR.