LANSING, Mich. — Even as the group first walked inside the door to the massive Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant — wearing clear plastic eyeglasses, sporting tape over any metal pieces on their clothing — it was immediately clear the awe and excitement this particular “tour” was generating; and it went both ways.
The many hard-working plant assembly workers were obviously delighted to host Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet drivers Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman and their crew chiefs earlier this week in advance of Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway (at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And the drivers were equally as intrigued by what awaited them inside the building — part of 3.4-million square feet of hyper-organized assembly space for the street-version of their Camaro ZL1 Cup cars.
“This is a lot bigger than what I was expecting,” Larson said smiling. “I guess I didn’t really know what to expect but I was really surprised at how smoothly everything looks like it’s run, and all the technology that goes into here to build one car is pretty spectacular.
“There’s stuff from floor to ceiling moving, bicycles riding around with parts, people in here and everything’s running so smooth.”
This was a sort of behind-the-curtains look at an automotive “Oz” for the drivers and a much-appreciated red carpet access for all the proud workers, eager to show off their wares and offer encouragement for “their” NASCAR racers.
One stop on the assembly line where the chassis was “married” to the fully constructed underbody amazingly lasted no longer than a minute and a half. Each station in the building was so refined and efficient it amounted to roughly a minute per job from dashboard installation to the check ride at the end. Complete build — very start to fine finish — for a car is 48 hours.
Yet as mechanically interesting as this opportunity was, it was definitely a reminder of the strong human connection the sport has maintained and benefitted from. Especially here, where it all begins.
One woman working at a station near the windshield assembly proudly pointed to a computer screen flashing a huge color screenshot of Bowman’s famed No. 88 Chevrolet.
Everywhere the drivers walked through the building — navigating a carefully routed walkway alongside and underneath amazing assembly machines — it was very obvious how much the hundreds of workers loved the sport and these competitors.
One man installing dashboards wore a vintage No. 24 shirt honoring NASCAR Hall of Fame’s newly elected and longtime Chevy driver Jeff Gordon. Alongside another work station a large piece of cardboard read, “If you’re not first, you’re last” — referencing the popular racing movie, “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
There were bright red “42” hats, a nod to Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing car number. And the Cup rookie Bubba Wallace generated a long line of “selfie” seekers, eager for a chance to meet their favorite driver.
Wallace, who drives Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Meijer Camaro ZL1, was as interested in the process as the people manning the process were in him.
“I think about we’re in 2018 and we’ve already got robots and assembly machines, so what’s it going to be like in the next 10-20 years? What are we going to see?” he said smiling as he looked all around. “It’s really … really cool to be here today and see how the Camaros are built from start to finish.”
Alex Bowman echoed the sentiment. His family owns a body shop in Arizona and the afternoon definitely hit home for him in many ways.
“I think it’s just cool to see how everything is all scienced-out and efficient, how quickly everything goes together,” said Bowman, who drives the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet. “I grew up in a body shop and worked on cars my whole life, really mechanically inclined. So I know how long things take to fix at a body shop so to see a whole car get built here so quickly is really cool.
“Everything comes ready-to-go and in the right order, and it’s cool how the dashes come in all ready and then the drivetrains. … It’s pretty incredible.”