The evolution of engineering in NASCAR

From pay phones to NASA scientists, engineering has come a long way

Last week, Bobby Hutchens oversaw the addition of a satellite communications system to his JTG Daugherty Racing team transporter so that during NASCAR race weekends this season — from anywhere in the country — the crew can have all-access contact with engineers and technical specialists back at the shop outside Charlotte.

The high-tech coordination is an irony not lost on Hutchens, who is generally considered to be the sport’s first full time college-degreed engineer. He was hired by Richard Childress Racing back in 1988 and was a key member of four of the late Dale Earnhardt’s seven Sprint Cup championship teams.

“When I first started, the biggest fight of the weekend was seeing who could get back to the pay phone in the garage first,” Hutchens recalled with a laugh. “I can remember people standing 10-deep in line to call the shop.

“It sounds funny today but that was the only way you used to communicate that stuff. And you’d have to call collect.

“Probably my third or fourth year they gave us a calling card and you punched in your code and we thought, ‘Now we’re on to something, that’s the coolest thing ever.’ ”

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“It takes these bright, bright engineers and doctors to put a program together to be competitive.”

Richard Childress, team owner

It’s a drastically different time for a sport that once considered a long-distance calling card cutting edge. And it’s not just technology such as wind tunnels and simulation programs, but the people who interpret, analyze and gather that data who are now absolutely crucial elements to competition.

Once a luxury, engineers — dozens of them — have become necessities for NASCAR teams. And Hutchens, now the competition director at JTG after a successful 20-year run at RCR and more recently a stint at Stewart-Haas Racing, provides an insightful perspective on the evolution.

“We have engineers running thousands of suspension combinations daily (on the computer) now, when back in the day (former RCR crew chief) Kirk (Shelmerdine) and I would sit down at a table and say, ‘What do you think about putting in a bigger spring here or a smaller bar there?’ ” Hutchens explained. “There wasn’t a way to manipulate anything other than trial and error. And our trial and error came on the track.”

And now the man who brought Hutchens and introduced an engineering-driven focus to stock cars has upped the ante. His former boss, Childress, is the latest NASCAR team owner to lure a former Formula One technical asset to the stock car set by hiring Dr. Eric Warren to lead his competition department in 2013.

Former Formula One chief engineer Mike Coughlan worked at Michael Waltrip Racing briefly.

Warren, who holds a doctorate degree in aerospace engineering, represents the new NASCAR gold standard of resource. And as far as Childress is concerned, he could be the missing link to an organization that has been just on the brink of its “next” Sprint Cup Series championship several times in the last decade.

“It takes these bright, bright engineers and doctors to put a program together to be competitive,’’ said Childress, who estimates his three-car Cup organization has about 40 full-time engineers. “I’ve seen so many changes (in this sport), from the day we went from manual steering to power steering, the shocks, the bias tires to radial tires. … This is just another change, but it’s a huge change because we are so engineer driving.

“In fact, I think we’re a lot more engineering driven than this sport gets credit for. I know everything thinks in Formula One, they are so engineer driven. But if you came here and saw all these tools and equipment and people we have that it takes to run that, you’d find out we’re quite sophisticated when it comes to engineering. Not only RCR, but all the top teams.”

Although, both Childress and Hutchens concede this mindset was a slow and gradual progress.

For decades, NASCAR was a seat-of-your-pants sport and that’s exactly what endeared it to fans and attracted young, hungry drivers and their common-sense crews.

Today even some drivers have engineering backgrounds. Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, has an engineering degree from Purdue University. Before him, 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki studied engineering in college.

“It could be frustrating when I started because a lot of people didn’t really think (engineers) had a place in the sport,” Hutchens said. “You kind of had to walk softly and pick and choose your battles and what you say. At the end of the day, Kirk Shelmerdine was a big supporter and he understood that we needed it (engineering).

“That really made it easier for me. He was wanting to reach out and really do something better than everybody else.”

“The task now,’’ Hutchens explained. “is to find the right person for the job that can not only do the engineering side of it but is also a good enough people person that he can communicate on a level people in the shop and people doing this day-to-day can understand and take that knowledge and make the performance better.

“There’s a lot of smart people in the world that can do things, but a certain breed of person to do the things we have to do, especially with the schedules we’re up against.

“When I started it was a bunch of racers that used experience and the things they learned on short tracks to work their way up. Now it’s a totally different breed of thought process. I still think it takes a 50-50 blend of racers and engineering but it’s steadily working its way toward the engineering side.”