The interruption to the 2020 NASCAR season as the country and world manages the COVID-19 pandemic has been understandably disappointing and disconcerting for racers, fans, teams and the industry as a whole. But instead of completely retreating during this time of general uncertainty, NASCAR and the racing industry at large have responded immediately with exactly the kind of pick-me-up that is making a legitimate life-saving difference.
The NASCAR Research & Development Center, located outside Charlotte, has turned its high-tech capabilities into real-life medical assistance, manufacturing face shields with its 3D printers and even a prototype human head that Wake Forest University doctors and scientists are using to research better treatment supply options.
CORE Autosport, a team in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, is similarly committed to helping out. Its team shop is manufacturing thousands of face masks for distribution across the country. Technique Inc., a Michigan-based company that normally supplies chassis components to NASCAR teams, has turned its efforts during this pause in racing to making face shields for medical distribution and ramped up production to 20,000 shields per day.
Roush Fenway Racing has developed a special prototype “transport box” that helps provide a safe, workable barrier between COVID-19 patients and the many medical personnel treating them in hospital rooms and transporting them on hospital floors.
When it comes to innovation, rapid response and answering the call, the sport of NASCAR is all in.
“I think NASCAR is in a unique position across the industry and especially at the Cup (Series) level where you have some of the best fabricators and engineers in the world and we have all this capability to make all these parts for cars, parts for testing, so you have a high talent pool and then you have the machinery and the people needed to kinda do all this now,” said Eric Jacuzzi, senior director of aerodynamics at the NASCAR R&D Center. “That’s what really puts us in a unique spot to be able to help out.”
Unlike any other major sports, the very essence of NASCAR racing involves cutting-edge technology conducted – literally – by rocket scientists, engineers and tech geniuses who would normally be putting their minds around new racing innovations. Instead of making cars go faster, they are now helping a nation try to fight a historic global medical pandemic.
“Sitting at home for a day or two is great, but I think most people are starting to look at what they can do,” Jacuzzi said. “And the crew we have here working on this stuff is all volunteer. People are volunteering to come here at 9 o’clock at night and stay until midnight – all different types of departments. It helps having people do that, and even people are taking some parts home and having their teenage children help with cutting things out. So it’s even giving students at home right now the opportunity to contribute.
“We’re used to working hard and being on the go all the time, so it’s a big adjustment for us to kind of have this pause. But this is helping us keep going and really just from an education side, more people are learning about how to run these machines and all that so it’s good for everyone to feel like they are contributing and helping out and they certainly are.”
At the NASCAR R&D Center, Jacuzzi said the idea to mass produce the face shields came from a random homeowners association post on a Facebook page.
It was a similar connection for Roush Fenway Racing, said the team’s operations director, Tommy Wheeler. Dr. Brian Palank, the brother-in-law of Roush simulation director Marcus Marty, reached out to see if Roush operations had the capability to help both conceptualize and manufacture a device that would provide another line of defense for the medical professionals treating virus patients.
“I said, ‘Yes, of course we can. Let’s do this now,’ ” Wheeler said. “That was around lunchtime (last Thursday), so we mobilized here so we could make some prototypes, which we did that afternoon and got them delivered to Brian (Palank) to see if they worked.
“What ensued from there was a round of tweaks and things that the doctors and such wanted. He started sending pictures and discussing with his network of physicians and anesthesiologists around the greater Charlotte area. We then did approximately three more prototypes and by Friday – a day later, which I’m pretty proud of – we were online with what we call our Version 2 Box. They were impressed by that.”
Since then, Roush Fenway Racing has delivered 58 units to hospitals from Wake Forest to Miami. Wheeler describes the devices as something similar to a “sneeze guard” at a salad bar. The clear guard is placed over the patient in bed, covering his or her upper body from head to about chest level. There are two holes that allow physicians and nurses access, but the protection helps prevent the kind of immediate exposure that has spread the virus.
“When they are intubating people, it can be a messy and high-risk environment, because there’s coughing, there’s fluid, it can become an aerosol,” Wheeler said. “That’s why they’re called aerosol boxes because there’s pressurized air effectively spewing small droplets into the atmosphere. Imagine you’re in critical care in the ICU or something: What was happening was you’d have two or three healthcare professionals standing around the patient as this (intubating) occurs and wipes out all their personal protection equipment that as we know is already in short supply right now.
“What this does is contains it, so now it moves their outer garments from being the first line of defense to now a secondary or third line of defense. It means we’re wiping out less face masks, less goggles, and effectively, the only thing exposed to the threat is their gloves and sleeves.”
What’s telling is all these organizations – plus many more in the auto-racing industry – were immediately willing to offer their help. In many cases, teams turned their facilities into impromptu manufacturing hubs, absorbing the costs themselves in the name of providing a greater good.
CORE Autosport, whose Porsches finished second and third in the GT Class of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series’ 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway season opener, is making thousands of face masks daily to help the supply, improving the product as they go.
“As the word has gotten out about these face masks the demand has been increasing every day and we will continue to produce these face masks as long as there is a need in this country,” CORE Autosport team manager Morgan Brady said.
It’s a common and assuring theme for so many in the racing industry: all willing to be all-in.
“I am very proud of our guys and what we’ve been able to do for our community,” Wheeler said. “This is a great example because the thing that makes NASCAR and Roush Fenway employees unique compared to the real world is that we have very highly skilled craftsman and fabricators and engineers. What really makes it unique is our ‘whatever it takes’ attitude and our time to market expectation far exceeds what the real world is accustomed to. That’s what allows us to go from concept to production to release in less than 36 hours. This was my rallying speech to my staff working on this project: No one else can do this in this amount of time except us, and we’re going to. We’re glad and proud to be asked to do it.
“What can we do? Here’s something we can do, so let’s do it and help everyone.”