Changing Manufacturers: More than just Decals?

I’d Rather Fight Than Switch

If you remember what commercial that was from, then congrats. You are — like me — old.

It used to be that an owner was loyal to his manufacturer to the death, but the last few years have seen some big switches in manufacturer affiliations.

 

The only reason to switch manufacturers is because you think you’ll be getting a better deal — or you have no choice. Penske had to switch when Dodge decided to pull out of the sport. Gibbs was the third of the big three Chevy teams (Hendrick and RCR being the first two). Given Chevy’s limited resources, Gibbs felt that they’d have a better chance at winning being Toyota’s first team than Chevy’s third and made the switch.

Does Switching Work?

The latest switchers are Stewart-Haas Racing, who made the switch from Chevy/Hendrick to Ford/Roush-Yates. While you might use Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory as evidence that was a pretty wise decision, it’s one race — and it’s a plate race, which means that there was probably as much luck as engineering in the win.

There are positives and negatives to switching. You new manufacturer may have more time to spend on you — but the equipment is all different and there’s going to be a learning curve. If we compare teams that switched and how they did in one year versus the next, there’s really no conclusion to draw.


When Penske switched from Dodge to Ford, Keselowski overall did a lot worse. He went from winning the championship to finishing 14th. Of course, there was really nowhere to go but down. Even so, he had fewer wins, fewer tops 5s and top 10s. He got one pole vs. none before and started better, but finished worse.

Logano improved. He went from finishing 17th to finishing 8th. The same number of wins, but a lot more top 5s and top 10s. There are a lot of subtle differences in the way the cars drive. Perhaps Joey picked up on them faster than Brad. Or perhaps, Brad just had an off year. It’s impossible to tell because there are so many factors.

With the Gibbs switch, neither Hamlin nor Stewart had a huge change in performance. Hamlin went from 12th to 8th and Stewart from 6th to 9th, but (especially given the impact of The Chase on finishing positions) that’s really not much more change than you might expect from the usual year-to-year changes.

And since I plotted up Truex, Jr.’s, I’m going to include it, even though it doesn’t give us anything more.

In short, trying to tie a performance indicator to a manufacturer switch is pretty tough because drivers change, teams change and those year-to-year variations could have a whole lot more impact than a manufacturer switch.

But remember that racing is all about building relationships. If a team finds it easier to work with a manufacturer — or if they feel they are getting more attention and/or better resources, it may be worth investing the time in a new partnership.

Switching Manufacturers is Like…

Some people think that switching manufacturers is nothing more than switching out one engine for another and using a different set of decals. While that might have been more true with the COT/Gen-5 car, it wasn’t that simple. And it’s nowhere near true today.

Imagine you’ve been running a Mexican restaurant for years — but there are too many Mexican restaurants in town and you’re not making as much profit as you once did. So you decide you’re going to turn your Mexican restaurant into (one of my favorites) an Irish Pub.

Some things will remain the same, but other things will have to change. You’re still in the restaurant business, so you can probably keep the chairs and tables you’ve got. But the sombreros and paintings of chile peppers will probably have to go. The bright orange, red and yellow walls will be repainted. You’ll probably have to hire different cooks. You might need a new supplier who carries corned beef instead of your current supplier, who specializes in carne asada.

It’s pretty similar for a race team – except they don’t get to close down for three weeks to make all the changes and start up again. Race shops don’t have off-seasons. A friend describes the two parts of the year as “really busy and really, really busy”. When a team can engineer a switch to happen right when there’s a big change in aerodynamic or engine rules, they will. New rules make parts obsolete. So they were going to have to discard a lot of parts anyway.

The Body

It is true that in the era of the COT, it was difficult to tell the manufacturers apart. Sure, they had slightly different noses, but really, it was the sticker telling you the model that designated whose car it was. The fans didn’t like it, but the manufacturers didn’t like it even more. So NASCAR switched from equal to equivalent. Here are the cars in 2013. You can see how the individual manufacturers’ details are starting to come out.

Compare how different the cars look in 2017. First from the front:

 

And then from the side. 

The body used to be fabricated primarily in the shop from pieces of sheet metal. Now, the cars have carbon-fiber hoods and decklids, and the nose is also carbon-fiber. More panels are being made en masse and distributed instead of leaving each team to do it themselves. With the increased use of laser inspection, there’s simple less tolerance for the variation inherent in any human manufacturing process.

There’s also the matter of needing all new windshields, too.

So, sure. Switching manufacturers means you have to buy different pieces – but they fit on the car the same way, using the same techniques, right? So not really a big deal?

The Chassis

Last blog, I talked about the fact that all teams use the same chassis. That chassis is inspected by the NASCAR R&D Center and certified. RFID tags are put on it so that the chassis can easily be checked at the track to make sure nothing’s changed.

But there’s a lot of things particular to cars that aren’t part of ‘the chassis’. For example all the parts and pieces that make up a car have to be mounted to the chassis. Teams weld those mounts onto the chassis. The positions of those pieces aren’t specified in the chassis requirements and they do vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

You can’t unweld things. You have to cut them apart, which meant for Stewart-Haas that they had to scrap all their front clips and start over. They would have had to have scrapped them all by the end of the year due to the new footbox rules that require a lot of changes to the chassis in 2018.

But even the types of engine mounts are different between Chevy and Ford.

The Engine

Changing the engine mounts so you can put in a different manufacturer’s engine may not seem like a big deal. But when the engine position changes, everything connected to the engine must also change. If you shift the engine down by an eighth of an inch, everything connected to it shifts.  That means all your steering components: transmission, alternator, cooling pumps, driveline…

For the change from Chevy to Ford, the headers on the engine shifted, but the path to the exhaust didn’t, so at least there were a few things they didn’t have to change.

The Suspension

A point I’ve been making since the COT days is that the car’s suspension — its shocks and springs, which connect to axles and wheels — give a crew chief an incredible parameter space in which to work. Even tiny things like the angles of the shocks and springs change the car’s handling.

When the engine moves, it affects the positioning of everything else. So when Stewart-Haas changed to Ford engine mounts, the new position of the engine basically screwed up everything they were doing with shock and spring mounts, which changes the entire front-end geometry.

Luckily for Stewart-Haas, the rear truck arms and the rear end are more standardized, so they were able to focus their attention on all the changes necessary in the front.

The SetUp

As I mentioned, when you change the front-end geometry, you change the setup. The changes from Chevy to Ford weren’t huge, but they were enough to need a total re-working of the front-end structure of the car and new simulations to take the different angles into account. You can bet there were a lot of chief engineers running simulations upon simulations to get familiar with the new geometry.

It’s like you or me getting a new car. You have a long history with your old car. You know where the pedals are and how how you need to push them.  You hand moves to the radio button without you having to look because you know where everything is. Then you get a new car and you spend the first week jerking forward because it has a much different brake than your old one. It’s still a car. It still works the same way, but it takes you a little while to get used to the new particulars of this one.

But even some very simple things had to change. Tape on the grille seems like a no-brainer, right? It’s actually very carefully thought out. Tape gives you a surface for air to push against, which means downforce. So you can tape the grille to leave the same area open with many different patterns. But some patterns will be better aerodynamically than others.

Crew chiefs have a tape strategy. You will notice on raceday that the tape on the grille is always black. If you look closely, you will usually find some colored tabs on the tape. Those are the pieces that will be removed if the car starts running hot. They are planned out in a very specific order, too.

As you can see in the pictures above, the shapes of the front grilles are very different. Each of the Stewart-Haas crew chiefs had to rethink his tape strategy.

The Shop

Just like our restaurant switchover would necessitate a change in the front of the restaurant, the Stewart-Haas shop had to make some changes. Because you’re doing a lot of tasks over and over (like welding engine mounts), you build jigs.

Jigs let you do a particular job consistently and quickly. They are designed to do one thing very well. For example, my husband built us a neat little wooden platform that sits on three stairs and provides a level surface so you can paint without trying tricky (and potentially dangerous) things with a ladder.

Race shops are full of jigs. Engine mounts have to go in the same place every time, so there’s a jig for that. When you change engine mounts, you need a new jig. So there was probably a lot of those types of changes the team had to make as well.

Since race shops are open to the public, the team also had to re-brand the shop and make sure that any Chevy identifications were removed and replaced with the corresponding Ford badging.

The People

This might actually be one of the bigger issues. In our Mexican cantina to Irish Pub example, you’d probably have to change suppliers. Let’s say you’d been working with José for twenty years. You’ve developed a shorthand. He knows to ask you if you need chips if he spots an order without them. He knows that you get really busy the first week of May and need extra produce.

Now you’ve got a new supplier named Liam. He doesn’t know how you work and you don’t know how he works. He sells whole onions, not chopped onions. He sells ground beef by the kilogram, not the pound like José did. Your first couple of orders are probably going to take you a lot longer because everything is new. It’s probably even a new computer program to input your order.

It’s the same thing for everyone working at the shop. The PR people are now interacting with a different group of reps from the manufacturer. They probably already know each other a little just from seeing each other around the track all the time, but everyone works in different ways and it takes time to learn how to work with people.

In the shop, I’m sure the mechanics were probably going nuts the first few weeks because they were used to grabbing the 1/2″ wrench to do a particular task — and now they need a 7/16″ wrench for the same task. Those little changes will just drive a person crazy until they get used to them.

The same issues apply to the engineers. They are dealing with new engine suppliers and new engineers at Ford. While it’s all NASCAR, you’d be surprised how different the culture at the different manufacturers can be. It’s like going to a new school. The beginning is tough because you have to find your common ground.

And, of course, the drivers have to adjust to the slightly different cars.

And So…

Changing manufacturers is an expensive, frustrating and time-consuming process. That’s probably good in some respect: You don’t want teams jumping around every few years. This is a sport that was founded on manufacturer competition and loyalty. And that’s a good thing.

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