It’s the age-old question – and it boggles many outsiders until most people settle on distilling NASCAR down to an elitist hobby for rich dudes, who want to watch a bunch of rear-wheel V-8s scream around four left turns for two hours.
The thoroughly permeating impact that NASCAR has had on the development of the production automobile undeniably asserts there’s more to it than just a hobby. Many engineering advancements were first pioneered at the track – technologies that would soon filter down into the everyday road car. But what’s so “hard” about NASCAR? Indeed, it looks pretty simple to the layman set of eyes. But behind every car on the track is a multi-million dollar operation that runs with the laser-sharp efficiency of a supercomputer.
The support staff required to keep a car in motion is tremendous and expensive. Larger teams even have in-house research and development departments, bolstering operations with the capability to design and manufacture their very own components. Hi-tech CNC mills pair with the latest computer software to enable race teams to meticulously “craft” a specific design life into their parts. Competition is fierce, and you’re fighting for every hundredth of a second you can squeeze out of the car and driver on race day.
No operation this large would be sustainable if the main attraction was nothing more than a driver “casually” meandering around the circuit. Racing in 140°F cabins, at 200 mph, with less than inches from opponents in every direction requires the drivers and crew to be at the very top of their game – mentally and physically – every single second of the race. The pre-race prep is probably a lot more comprehensive that you would have thought!
22 Counting Ponies
Precision tuning is more than just dialing in a few adjustments, slamming the hood, and sending your racecar out of the garage. Each engine undergoes invasive inspection and calibration procedures prior to even being installed in the racecar.
The computer monitor displays an array of engine vitals in both digital and analog format for lightning-fast comprehension. Pan vacuum, blow-by, and oil pressure readouts are prominently displayed front and center to quickly allude to potential trouble as the engine is tested. The full-throttle engine pulls fill the building with the chest-shaking resonations of an 800 hp struggle against the dynamometer.
21 Counting Inches
NASCAR builders can’t just build the biggest honking motor they can get to fit between the tubes of their highly-regulated chassis; they must abide by razor-sharp rules (with zero room for interpretation). While some areas of the sport allow you to “operate” within a proverbial gray area; other things, like engine displacement, are to-the-tee.
If the regulation says 358 cubic-inches; you’d better not have 358.09 cubic-inches of displacement – because they will measure it. They will also most definitely scrutinize you, all the way down to the tenth of a cubic-inch.
20 Counting Engines
While the sanctioning bodies exist to scrutinize you down to the millimeter, it is up to you as a race team to scrutinize the costs! NASCAR engines aren’t cheap – they can range anywhere from $45,000 to $80,000 per unit!
Engines can also take up to 100 hours to build – and many teams build them from scratch. Hendrick Motorsports, for example, supports four separate Sprint Cup teams with a 95-person engine building team. They build more than 700 race motors per year. That’s $31 million in engines (on the low side) and over 70,000 total man-hours.
19 The Hendrick Methodology
The “pay to play” theory rings louder in the engine building rooms of NASCAR’s finest teams than possibly anywhere else in the sport. Hendrick readily acknowledges their domineering success, largely in part, to the program’s in-house engineering department.
Their comprehensive (and expensive) operation pioneers engine development with a complex matrix of variables and parameters that would even rival NASA’s engineering (almost literally). Hendrick uses a proprietary parts-development process. With it, they maintain the ability to turn nebulous ideas into tangible, race-ready parts for their cars. It starts with a 3D design and ends on a custom-built, Haas CNC mill.
18 The Fine Details
The simple math boils down to economics – the more components that Hendrick (or any other team, for that matter) can produce in-house, the more effectively they can control the quality. Bearing this in mind, they employ specialized design software called I-DEAS. It’s an all-inclusive 3D modeling platform that allows design and testing of components all within a digital environment.
Once satisfied with the digital prototype, CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software writes the CNC programs for the Haas mills that will ultimately craft the final product. This custom design approach makes the engineering department an indispensable component of winning.
17 Hendrix Engine Shop In Action
Uncle Ben wasn’t kidding when he told a young Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Although there’s a lot of prestige that comes with being a Hendrick engineer, it comes with a price. And you better be really, really good at what you do.
The engineering department is tasked with the enormous responsibility of not only developing new parts but troubleshooting existing weaknesses and failures, which can be infinitely more difficult than it sounds. Their goal is not to build indestructible parts; rather, indestructible parts for the length of the race – plus one mile (literally).
16 Metal Crafting
Racing is sometimes just in your blood. Brian Yerger is a third-generation racer. His grandfather has been drag racing since the 1960s; an influence that would inspire Yerger’s dad, who in turn, inspired him. Yerger honors the family racing tradition as Team Penske’s fabrication foreman.
You don’t hop on Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski’s war machine without being one of the best at what you do. Yerger has been honing his craft for a lifetime; “A lot of my mechanical ability comes from helping my father and grandfather in the garage since I was a little boy.”
15 Welder-Up (Cause You Love It)
Are you ready to grab your non-existent career by the horns and take it boldly where you’ve only ever dreamed? Chances are your nighttime NASCAR fantasies are about driving, rather than being a pit crew member; but unless you’ve been racing things your entire life, good luck with that one.
UTI (stop laughing) has a dedicated feeder program that ensures NASCAR is never in short supply of pit monkeys. A wide range of disciplines is available for study – if you have what it takes. 13 campuses constantly pump NASCAR with fresh meat, so don’t be this guy! Nobody wants him.
14 Tire Specialist Liz Prestella
Her name is Liz Prestella. The Southern California native loves what she does – and proclaims that love clearly with a wrench-shaped tattoo. Starting out as an intern with Jennifer Jo Cobb, she’d eventually end up as a Monster Energy Cup Series tire specialist for the No. 37 car at JTG Daughtery Racing.
She loves the “organized chaos,” as she puts it. “As a tire specialist, you have the same system every week. Things don’t change.” As routine as she makes it sound, her job is critical to the team’s success; every measurement counts, down to the millimeter.
13 Hendrick Engineer Richie Parker
He’s a tale of inspiration for the underdog and a shining beacon of hope for anyone at a disadvantage in life. He’s also the bar-none, excuse killer. If Richie Parker can do it, you can too.
He was born with no arms, yet his handicap has only strengthened his resolve for success. He has been an engineer with Hendrick for the better part of a decade, and manages to meet design deadlines with the same performance as any of his contemporaries with a simple attitude: “No is never the answer if we need a part to win a race.”
12 Engine Specialist
The engine under your charge is no ordinary beast. You must specially tune and fortify her for her next challenge. For example, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, PA., has a predisposition for eating engines up due to the extreme deceleration/acceleration cycles through its turns.
NASCAR V-8s reach 2,000°F and up to 1,500psi – over 100 times the 14.7psi pressure we feel in “standard atmosphere.” Every single moving part on the engine is reinforced for durability. No pressure, but it’s your job as the engine specialist to make sure every aspect of that engine is perfect, every time it leaves your shop.
11 The Clean Room
Here’s a very familiar sight for many technical professionals – the parts washer. This machine, in one of its many variations, can be found just about any shop that has grimy parts to clean; they are a staple in automotive applications. To those of you who are unfamiliar with such machines, their operation is pretty straightforward; hot solvent pours out from the flexi-tube and hose nozzle, softening grease and deposits for easy cleaning.
If you’re not familiar with a parts washer, you’d never know that this Hendrick Motorsports unit is cleaner than 99% of them that you’ll ever run into.
10 Different Kind Of Speed
The tire man must be able to spin all five nuts on or off the car within one second, with an accuracy of less than a millimeter. Any variations in his metronomic precision could cost up to 0.3 of a second.
If a car going 200 mph travels 300’ per second (the length of a football field), and a missed lug nut adds 0.3 of a second to the pit stop; missing just one lug nut per pit would cost the team 1/3 of a mile throughout the duration of the race – or the difference between 1st and 21st.
9 Deez Brakes
With as much attention as you need to mind the lug nuts during the race, the brakes require even more forethought, long before the race even starts. Over 170lbs of force applied to the brake pedals with a resultant braking effort that can raise rotor temperatures to over 1,800°F (where the boiling point for the Brembo brake fluid is only 635°F).
Brake setup is critical to a race’s success. The correct rotor with the proper vent design needs to be selected for the proper track. Short tracks even require drivers to use brakes more than the throttle, in some cases.
8 You Have One Job
Every member has his duty, and he is expected to be able to perform it flawlessly, with his eyes closed. New technology has helped shave pit stop times down by over half of what it used to be, but rather than be a godsend to the pit crew, that actually raises the bar for performance.
Pit crews train hard – like regular athletes in any professional sport. They lift together, drill together – win together. With every time-shaving trick and technology at hand, they’re expected to fully service the racecar – fuel and four tires – in around 13-seconds flat.
7 Keeping Your Head Cool (Literally)
The physical demands of a NASCAR driver are exhaustive just to read about. Temperatures can reach 130°F inside the car in earlier races like the Daytona 500, spiking as high as 160°F in the mid-Summer CokeZero400. How does one even survive these gurgling conditions?
Physical condition plays a major role, but even the best athletes in the world would burnout like a candle in a blizzard without specialized temperature-regulating equipment. It’s imperative that the fresh-air ventilation system is properly adjusted and in good working order. Drivers stand little chance of enduring the harsh driving conditions otherwise.
6 Keeping Your Feet Cool
It’s simply not enough to blow some carbon-filtered air down a driver’s forehead and up his back during the race. That may be acceptable in a rear-engine setup where convective heat transfer comes from the back.
But in NASCAR, your feet are feet away from a pulsing iron block, reverberating with a 750 hp symphony that’s just as good at generating convective heat, as it is making cars go fast. Everything down by a driver’s feet is burning hot as soon as thing get up to operating temperature. Specialized footwear is essential for race survival – and it’s not very thick, either.
5 Physical Conditioning
NASCAR has a short off-season, but drivers don’t take that short opportunity to slack on their fitness routine. There’s no specific routine that drivers follow, but the general consensus leans towards a variety of physical conditioning activities.
Many drivers routinely hit the gym – hard! Others enjoy forms of yoga, hiking, and even extreme mountain biking. It really doesn’t matter how they do it, but they had better be doing something. “It doesn’t make you drive…faster,” NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton says in regards to strenuous driver conditioning. “It allows you to drive faster – for a longer period of time.”
4 Mental Conditioning (And Posing)
Simply being “in-shape” (and in proper race gear) doesn’t mean drivers are always ready to start their engines. Mental preparation is an important component of any drivers’ pre-race repertoire. Some meditate, others poke around the garage and banter with crew – everyone has their own special routine.
Race day for the driver starts as soon as the sun comes up, or earlier. Driver meetings, sponsor photo-ops, and press appearances are all a part of the pre-race routine that will keep the driver’s schedule busy all day. Many drivers have go-to snacks that keep their energy levels up for the race.
3 Ceaseless Posing
Jimmie Johnson poses for a picture with crew chief Chad Knaus - a candid photo he was likely more than happy to strike a pose for as wife Chandra Johnson captures the moment. The Homestead, FL. Sprint Cup championship victory marked his sixth (at the time) win with crew chief Knaus.
Winning drivers are prime attractions – that means people want pictures, and they want lots of them! As much as the love of the sport unites drivers, there are certain aspects they could probably do without – like foam hat props; but being a show pony comes with the territory sometimes.
2 The Driver’s Meeting
Drivers know racetracks like the backs of their hands, and those hands are very different from one another. Most people erroneously assume that oval track racing is just a bunch of left turns and few downshifts – if that. As wrong as that is to assume, it’s equally wrong to expect drivers to have every detail nailed down to muscle memory.
The driver’s meeting is a time for race teams to familiarize themselves with a brief overview of a particular track’s race procedures; things like safety car placement, pit road procedures and restart zones are all ironed out prior to the green.
1 Game Time
During the race, the drivers and their cars are the main attraction. Despite the fact that racing as we know it wouldn’t be possible without a fully-comprehensive team surrounding the race car – who cares? The main event is shooting down the straightaway at 185 mph!
The truth is, many people have jobs to do, and some of those jobs don’t even go to the races. The bulk of the crew is working in the garages, out by the trailers, or back in the shop – all for a 500-mile glimmer of glory.
Sources: Hubner Enterprises, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR, U.S.A. Today, KSLA News, Men’s Journal.