News & Media

Mechanical savvy of a driver helpful when on the run

April 08, 2011, David Caraviello,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Tom Busch had a rule his boys had to abide by -- if they wanted to race cars, they had to work on them first. No one took to this more than his youngest son, Kyle, who can recall tinkering with his dad's late model, and helping to build a vehicle for older brother, Kurt. The speed captivated him, for certain, but so did the wrench-turning, dirty-fingernails work of grip and handling and camber, all those elements that helped the driver make the car go fast.

That affinity for the mechanical side of racing is still there for the Sprint Cup points leader, who knows his way around a setup sheet about as well as any driver in the NASCAR garage. And yet, because of the evolution of the race car and the continued specialization of road crews, technical savvy on the part of the driver isn't nearly as integral to a team's success as it once was. There was once a point when drivers were as comfortable under the hood as they were in the seat -- think Junior Johnson to Rusty Wallace -- but that changed as the quality of rides for young drivers got better, and the technology inside the vehicles progressed.

"It's like what I'm feeling is this, and what Dave is seeing on the stopwatch is that, so you have to work back and forth. We work together on those decisions."


Now? Such a thing is a bonus.

"It matters a whole lot less. A whole lot less now," veteran Mark Martin said. "There are so many layers of information and technology and people that work specifically in areas, instead of one guy who works it all from the aero to the shocks to the springs, the whole thing. So you have all that stuff and all the simulation and everything. It's critical that you give good feedback about what you feel in the race car and what you need to help you go better. That's what's critical. Whereas before, years ago, you told them specifically -- raise the panhard bar. Put a rubber in the right-rear. Soften the right-front. It needs a smaller bar. You don't do that anymore. You can't do that anymore. Crew chiefs can't do that anymore without the box and the engineer. There are a lot of layers to it."

Once upon a time, a driver risked being made fun of if he didn't have a grasp of what went on under the hood. And indeed, many of today's drivers came up just as their predecessors did, by building and working on their own vehicles before they broke into the big time. But that knowledge doesn't always translate, especially in a sport where the tactics used to make the cars go fast can change markedly during the course of a decade. At a big, fast intermediate track like Texas Motor Speedway, for instance, using variable spring rates to regulate ride height was once the strategy of choice. That evolved into coil binding, or compressing the spring coils to get the vehicle as low as possible.

With the current Cup chassis, teams moved on to bump stops, or rubber doughnuts that slide onto the front shock shafts and control travel. "As we got going with the bump stops and the new car, everything that you knew was really obsolete," said Kevin Harvick, winner of the past two races. "So I'm a little bit slower than I used to be on [saying], 'I think we need to do this or that.' As we've gone through the years with the bump stops now, I feel like we have more input. The biggest thing is just, you give the input on what's better or worse, and go off feel as to what you think needs to be tighter or looser."

It's a different world now. Teams develop simulation software based on their driver's tendencies and characteristics, and carry a road crew where every member is responsible for one specific area. "It is a bunch of specialists," said Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "We carry 10 guys, and every one of them focuses on their area of the car all week long. No matter how smart any driver is, it's going to be hard to come in one day and know more about a given subject than a guy who's studied it all week."

And for the record, not every top driver claims to be a whiz with a wrench. "I worked on race cars for a long time, but I do not have a mechanical background," Tony Stewart said. "My father's almost disappointed, because he had a mechanical background, and I'm almost the letdown to the family gene. I can work on them, but not real well. I can do just enough stuff to screw up a race car."

Even so, there are times when the mechanical knowledge of a driver like Busch comes in handy for the No. 18 team. Such a thing could loom large for Saturday's inaugural night race at Texas, where adjustability could be key for teams that will have done all their practicing in the daytime. Rogers said that when he needs information on how the car is performing, Busch is often able to give his crew chief specific needs like track bar or right-rear springs, rather than simply complaining that the vehicle is loose or tight. Rogers also isn't shy about soliciting his driver's opinion on what changes need to be made on the car.

"I feel like I have the best knowledge of what I'm feeling," Busch said. "Dave doesn't know exactly what I'm feeling in the car, so I know what a track bar does, what a wedge does, I know what air pressure does. I know what all that does, so when they ask me about a change, they're like, 'Let's do wedge,' I'm like, 'No, that's not really going to help with what I'm needing.' Sometimes Dave can look at the timing and scoring and say we're two-tenths off from where we need to be, and I can say, 'Yeah man, I just need half a round of wedge.' And he's like, 'Dude, we need something a lot more than that. We're going to have to swing at this thing to get it right.' That's when you rely on information from both sides. It's like what I'm feeling is this, and what Dave is seeing on the stopwatch is that, so you have to work back and forth. We work together on those decisions."

Some teams have their driver use a number scale to tell how loose or tight a race car is. Rogers doesn't, believing that a driver's level of agitation in the vehicle can throw that reading off one way or another. Early in a race, he'll be specific to Busch about what changes he's making, so the driver can keep that in his head as a baseline. Late in the race, when the changes and the pit stop decisions become even more critical, Busch can help his crew chief make calls relative to how the car reacted to changes earlier in the event.

"Early in the race, you'll hear me tell Kyle what we did as far as changes. 'Hey, I raised the track bar one round.' That's for him to put in his memory bank: OK, Dave raised the track bar one round, it was this big of a change," Rogers said. "And then later on in the race, when he says, 'I'm tight,' and I say, 'OK, do you need another full round?' He says, 'No I need half of what you did before.' It's our numbering system. Early in the race I tell him what I'm doing, late in the race I solicit his opinion."

That mutual decision-making system is evident listening to the communication between driver and crew chief over the radio, and fostered by Busch's mechanical background. But these days, when team ranks swell with engineers and simulation software is always at the ready, such a thing is a luxury. To make his car go faster, a driver doesn't necessarily need to have an intricate knowledge of what goes on under the hood.

"In this day and age, I don't think so," Stewart said. "These engineers and crew chiefs have to be almost as smart as the guys who launch the space shuttle. Working on these cars is different from anything else you do in any other series. The technology and the things we do with these cars is quite a bit different than what we do anywhere else."