News & Media

Garage Series: Strongest teams invest in shops

July 30, 2013, Kenny Bruce,

From Hendrick Motorsports to Roush Fenway Racing, teams know the importance of staying ahead of the technology curve

Fifth in a series: traces the evolution of race shops throughout the years.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sometimes a tool isn’t quite what you might expect. Sometimes it’s much more.

And that’s what the 15 or so buildings that make up the Hendrick Motorsports complex have become, says Ken Howes, vice president of competition for the organization. A tool.

“Let’s say there’s a talented engineer that’s being sought after and there are two or three teams perhaps interested,” said Howes. “Well, what’s going to make them want to come here?

“The facilities, the equipment that’s available, just the things we do (are important). We have to work hard to try to set ourselves apart. It’s a moving target. Sometimes we think we’re a little bit ahead of others, sometimes we might hear something and think, ‘Oops, hey this team is doing this’ and think ‘gosh, we’re behind a little bit.’

More often than not, it’s been others that have been trying to catch up to, or keep pace with, the folks at Hendrick Motorsports.

Since its debut in 1984 as All-Star Racing -- with founder Rick Hendrick and country music businessman C.K. Spurlock -- the organization has grown from a single-team, single-shop entity located near Charlotte Motor Speedway into a four-car organization that operates out of a massive complex situated on 140 acres. An employee roster that generously listed five initial employees now exceeds 500.

HMS drivers have won a combined 10 NASCAR Cup titles and the group’s 214 Cup wins is the second highest total in the history of the sport. In addition, the company also fielded championship-winning efforts in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

“It’s a snowball that grows,” said Howes. “We were able to be competitive and win; that allows you to attract bigger and better sponsorship, which allows you to hire the best drivers, which allows you to win more races, which allows you to attract better engineers and better staff.

“This thing kind of feeds on itself.”

It was another one-two Hendrick Motorsports finish at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 10, 1994 as Terry Labonte edged teammate Jeff Gordon.

• • •

A number of notable Cup organizations surfaced in the sport of stock car racing during the 1980s.

Hendrick, successful in drag boat racing, had tested the NASCAR waters briefly before diving in fulltime in ‘84.

Roush Fenway Racing was simply Roush Racing in 1988 when owner Jack Roush turned his attention to stock cars.

Melling Racing and Morgan-McClure Motorsports also hit the track during the 1980s; from the world of drag racing, Blue Max (Raymond Beadle) and King Racing (Kenny Bernstein) teams debuted during that span.

Mach 1 Racing, with stuntman/director Hal Needham, Stavola Brothers Racing, Robert Yates Racing and Alan Kulwicki’s AK Racing also came into being.

Nearly all had meager, for the time, beginnings. But through the years, most grew into thriving organizations that continued to expand as they enjoyed a level of success few could have imagined.

Jeff Gordon led the final 99 laps from the No. 2 starting position to win the April 2, 1995 Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

 • • •

Liberty, N.C. sits approximately 100 miles slightly northeast of Charlotte, the hub of most of NASCAR’s race teams. And that’s one of the reasons Jack Roush selected this small, out of the way town as the site for his first NASCAR race shop.

“The recommendation, the advice that I got to start with is I would be better off like the Pettys had, the Wood Brothers had and Bud Moore had, to cloister in my own campus and train my people, protect my technology in a secretive way and go race against everybody else with cars that were pretty much the same,” Roush said.

Petty Enterprises had thrived in Level Cross, N.C., Wood Brothers Racing was winning out of its Stuart, Va. Shop, and Bud Moore Engineering was fielding winners out of Spartanburg, S.C., for a number of years.

Roush may have been the new kid on the NASCAR block, but he was well known among the racing fraternity, having built a championship-winning organization in SCCA and IMSA competition after a successful career in drag racing.

And his initial belief of how best to approach this new effort, based on conversations with those already immersed in the sport, proved to be correct. Roush tabbed Mark Martin, perhaps better known for his exploits in the American Speed Association circuit, as his driver.

Although a second team was added in Liberty in 1992, Martin and the No. 6 team remained the linchpin of the organization, winning races and contending for championships from 1989 forward.

By 1996, Roush said, his organization had stalled, however. Rather than add yet another team to the mix using the same methodology, he opted for a fresh approach with a new team located much closer to Charlotte.

“We had kind of gotten ourselves into a do-loop with Mark where we just weren’t advancing; we had climbed up the ladder a ways but couldn’t reach the top,” he said. “So I started a team with Buddy Parrott and Jeff Burton and Exide Batteries as a sponsor in Mooresville (N.C.) to benchmark against the things I was doing in Liberty.

“… And I demonstrated to myself that by going with the best stuff that was commercially available in Charlotte that I could do better with Jeff Burton than I could with all my cloistered stuff in Liberty.”

Roush Fenway Racing, now located in Concord, fields cars for three Cup and three Nationwide Series teams.

In addition, Roush Fenway is also a vendor, providing everything from the smallest parts and pieces to entire cars for other Ford teams competing in NASCAR.

Roush Yates Engines, located off site, provides engines for teams as well.

Car owner Jack Roush and driver Mark Martin teamed for 19 NASCAR Cup seasons from 1988 through 2006. The team won 35 races during that span and finished second in NASCAR Cup points four times.

While his initial effort required only a dozen people, changes in the sport through the years have greatly increased that number.

Even with “economies of scale,” Roush said, it requires 100 people to support a single entry today.

“To support 100 people, it takes a huge shop. You have to have an extensive machine shop; you have to have a great engineering group; you have to have millions of dollars worth of test vectors for doing bump rubber evaluations, for doing shock absorber evaluations, for doing overall suspension ride dynamics evaluations.

“So the thing’s really gone through quite a change as we’ve increased the capability of the shops to support competitive posture of all the teams. Nobody that I am aware of that’s run in … say in the top 10, doesn’t build their own cars.”

Roush teams have won 132 Cup races and two championships. The organization has also won four titles in the Nationwide series and one in trucks.

The current shop space, he said, “is enough for now.

“If I ran four Cup and four Nationwide, I’d need another building,” Roush said. “With three and three I’m pretty much tapped out. I’ll find room for fourth Cup team … if I get a sponsor, or when I get it, I’ll start another building."

NASCAR Cup car owner Jack Roush and driver Mark Martin keep an eye on the action from pit road.

• • •

There’s the chassis shop, the fabrication shop, the engine shop and the CNC shop.  An administration building, museum and team center.

And that doesn’t include the large buildings on top of the hill, where the finishing touches are applied to the cars of drivers Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

It would seem unimaginable that something exists, some piece of racing technology, that can’t be found somewhere with the walls of the Hendrick compound.

Nearly every piece of every car -- except for the assorted manufacturer-supplied body panels required by NASCAR -- is built here. Top, bottom, inside and out.

In spite of all that technology at their fingertips, the folks at Hendrick Motorsports haven’t always been the first to develop new ideas and successfully implement them on the track. But on those occasions when they weren’t? Well, the NASCAR garage isn’t known as a place where secrets are well kept.

“It wasn’t like we did something and five years later someone else would catch on,” Howes said. “People talk, personnel move around. Information spreads pretty quickly, or it did back then. The old grapevine. What is it now, Twitter?”

For a team that nearly folded before it made it through its first season, and now fields some of the most successful, most competitive teams in the sport, is there anything missing from the HMS compound?

“Maybe a Starbucks on the corner,” quipped Howes. “No, almost everything within reason (is here). There are still some things, but the investment …”

Howes said that with today’s limited testing schedules, simulators have become one of the most important tools for teams. It’s an area that will expand in the coming years, he believes, as teams attempt to acquire as much data as they can that relate to key areas such as race setups and car builds.

“That’s an area that probably if you said to me, ‘hey don’t worry about cost, take money and do something’ that’s probably an area we would take a hard look at,” he said.

“Simulators are a tool that you look at and you scratch your head and chin and wonder how real is it all?’ We know Formula 1 teams use them. …. It’s not something you can ignore. And you also can’t say let’s get a simulator here and start getting answers. You have to back it up a little bit. Do we have the ability to drive those simulators? How is our data acquisition? That’s probably the big area where you will see some growth as time goes by.”

Jimmie Johnson wins for the first time at Darlington on March 21, 2004.

At least one Cup organization once considered building its own test track where it could gather real-time data. It was an effort that never developed fully, however.

Howe’s doesn’t see anything like that in future for HMS.

“We’ be extremely good on that test track, (we’d) go very fast,” he said. “But then when you said, ‘OK guys we’ve got to go to Martinsville and race next week,’ we’d go, ‘Oh geez. Our track isn’t like that.’”

“… I don’t think that’s anything we would ever seriously consider. I shouldn’t say never; I should be smarter than that. The difficulties in doing anything … I think things like CFD (computational fluid dynamics), wind tunnels, simulation, engineering knowledge, those are areas you … need to build and strengthen. Equipment type of things you could either lease or pay somebody.

“You could say ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have our own wind tunnel?’ Well yeah, it would be but the one we have available and we have a fair amount of time at is pretty good right now. Why spend a lot of money trying to build another one? For now, it works.”

NASCAR President Mike Helton presents owner Rick Hendrick and driver Jimmie Johnson with a plaque commemorating the 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports following Johnson's win at Darlington Raceway on May 12, 2012. writer Kenny Bruce is the president of the National Motorsports Press Association. For more of the Garage Series return to the Mobil 1 Technology Hub in the coming weeks.

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