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Warren wants more cohesive, competitive RCR

February 07, 2013, David Caraviello ,

New director of competition brings different perspective to three-car team

When Eric Warren walked through the Richard Childress Racing shop, he was surprised at how many mechanics, fabricators and engineers he recognized from other stops in his NASCAR career. Equally as noticeable, though, was what he didn’t see -- the kind of structure capable of helping RCR smooth out competitive troughs that are among the most pronounced of any major organization in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Such a performance dip was evident again last season, when a team that put all three of its cars in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as recently as 2010 saw just one qualify, while the others lagged behind. One key to reversing that trend may be Warren, a former NASA researcher from Mount Airy, N.C., who will try to build a more cohesive and cooperative unit out of three teams that too often haven’t operated like they build cars under the same roof.

“I think getting Eric in here is one of the pieces that we were missing,” Childress said of his new competition director, “and I think now he will bring a whole new light on our operation.”

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"You want to create some consistency in the approach."

-- Eric Warren

RCR has had a void at competition director since Scott Miller left to take a similar position at Michael Waltrip Racing, where he helped place two cars in the Chase last season. The role was filled on an interim basis role last year and Kevin Harvick’s 11th-hour victory at Phoenix International Raceway saved RCR from a winless campaign. Now in steps Warren, who holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, did graduate research at NASA and has held similar positions with other NASCAR teams, most recently Richard Petty Motorsports.

What he’s trying to do at RCR is nothing less than change the culture. In short, RCR’s three teams have operated much like three autonomous organizations, with one perhaps not knowing everything the other two were doing. While that system afforded crew chiefs a great deal of latitude and provided individual programs with an opportunity to excel, it could also undermine across-the-board success and make the organization more vulnerable to competitive lulls like the one it’s experienced over the past two seasons.

“You want to create some consistency in the approach,” Warren said. “I think if it’s individual-driven, or it’s a given crew chief or a given thing, they hit on an idea or a concept and the organization kind of follows and they run well. Then the next year, that doesn’t work. You don’t have a foundational structure to constantly be advancing the cars through multiple people.

"The structure we’ve laid out is, how do we have everybody participate together? And openly? Because if a guy goes, and he’s developing his car, and he wants to keep that advantage, there’s things the other guys could have learned. And ultimately will.”

In a sport where teams are competing against other programs in their own shop, it’s more complicated than simply getting everyone on the same page. As it was, one team might have discovered something in testing, without being aware that another team had already figured it out. Or one team may not have been clued into something that made another car faster. In Warren’s view, information wasn’t flowing freely enough or being used to its fullest extent.

“He’s trying to bring a little more structure to get the three teams to work together. That’s what we’ve needed,” said Gil Martin, Harvick’s crew chief. “We’ve needed somebody that would guide the three teams so we had the same amount of information. Basically, we’ve had three teams and had three sets of information, and now we’ll have three teams with one set of information. That’s what we’ve been racing against, and that’s what we’ve been lacking. I hope he’s going to be able to guide the ship in that direction.”

RCR mainstay Jeff Burton said the organization has attempted something like this before, but the current effort is much more comprehensive. The speed RCR cars showed in recent tests at Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway have him hopeful the team is making progress.

“The new effort is much deeper, and goes to every part of the company, rather than parts of the company,” Burton said. “RCR has always been, we’re going to work harder than you. We’re going to outwork you, we’re going to test more. … But as testing has been lowered and more technology has come in, we’ve been in this transition, and I don’t think we as a company have done as good of a job at that as some other ones have. Not that we haven’t tried. But Eric coming on board with a different philosophy on that has been a big help for us. With different people looking at things differently, I think now we’re starting to get a grasp for how it has to work.”

Success helps, and RCR has already experienced that in the form of a NASCAR Nationwide Series program that’s followed a similar model to the one Warren is implementing on the Sprint Cup side. RCR’s entries in NASCAR’s premier division may have struggled recently in relation to expectations, but its Nationwide cars flourished with Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon finishing second and third in final points, respectively, in 2012. One reason, Warren believes, is because crew chiefs Luke Lambert and Danny Stockman Jr. oversaw two teams that operated more like a singular unit.

“The Nationwide guys really set a method of working together because they were smaller, they were successful, and they kind of had to work together. They didn’t have the resources of the Cup guys, so they had to work together,” Warren said. “…  And really, they kind of established … the things you see at other successful organizations.”

Two key players from that program have been moved up to the Sprint Cup level -- Lambert, now crew chief for Burton’s car, and Martin, who was RCR’s director of Nationwide operations before being reunited with Harvick. There are also six new engineers, whom Warren has hired to integrate at-track efforts with preparation for upcoming events. The trick to all of it is for crew chiefs to continue to explore the boundaries of inventiveness, even as they give up some control.

“The challenge is really to create the structure, but not hold the ingenuity back,” Warren said. “You beat people by coming up with ideas and learning faster.”

For RCR, improvement can’t come fast enough. Through the ups and downs of the last few years, only Harvick has maintained any sort of consistency, and he’s leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. The hope is that this new universal approach will bring the programs of Burton and Paul Menard up to his level, and make RCR more competitive as a result.

“We have done it for a long time, and the 29 has had some pretty good success doing it (the old) way,” said Martin, who’s recorded nine of his 12 career Sprint Cup victories with Harvick. “But I think the other teams have suffered because of it. I think now that we’re going to do it in a more formal, organized fashion, it’s just going to be good for the whole organization.”