The Driver of Tomorrow

Enough about the Car of Tomorrow already. Let’s talk about the Driver of Tomorrow and the Race Team of Tomorrow.

Are drivers still important or is the new car really a remote control toy for the engineers? A number of drivers have complained they don’t think they play a very important role anymore, especially in testing. Testing is different because teams are allowed to us telemetry (things like transducers that measure the forces pushing the wheel into the track, or provide the engineer a trace of when the driver is on the gas and when he’s on the brake). Teams are prohivited from using telemetry during race weekends. So why do you even need a star driver for testing if you can read the data directly from the car?

Kyle Busch understands:

“I think (at tests) the important thing is the feedback I can give him (the crew chief)…At these tests, we can utilize telemetry on the cars, and it’s important for my feedback to match up with what they’re seeing on the computers with the engineers. Once we get into the season, and we can’t use the telemetry, that communication is important into getting the right setups and the right changes from practice to qualifying to the race.”

Testing helps the crew chief calibrate the driver so he can tell the difference between ‘loose’ and ‘crazy loose’. The Driver of Tomorrow has to communicate much more clearly with the crew. An experienced crew chief with the old car could watch lap times and how the car runs around the track to get an idea of what needed fixing. Things are different with the new car. The driver’s ability to describe precisely and correctly how the car is handling is the only hope the team has for making the car handle better. This is what mathematicians call a ‘necessary, but not sufficient condition’. A person who is a great communicator won’t necessarily be a good driver; however, a very good driver will be less successful if he can’t come up more detailed feedback than “this car has zero grip”. Kasey Kahne attributes in part his rebound from a pretty disappointing 2007/early 2008 to improved communication.

“I’m doing a much better job communicating with Kenny Francis (Team Director, No. 9 Dodge Charger) and Chad (Johnston), our engineer, giving them the information that they need to make the car better and I think that’s been helpful as well.”

Wouldn’t you like to find out exactly what happened to change how Kasey provides feedback? This is something beyond just hitting on the right combination of springs and shocks. The importance of communicating is why some teams have sent their drivers and crew chiefs for the NASCAR equivalent of couples therapy and why a driver can turn around a season by switching crew chiefs. The onus for this communication falls on the crew chief, primarily because an owner is much more likely to replace a crew chief than a driver.

Over the last ten or so years, the crew chief’s role has gotten so complex that you always see a minimum of two crew members sitting on the front bench of the pit box: The crew chief and the race engineer. Kasey commented not just on communicating with Kenny Francis, the crew chief, but also with Chad Johnston, the race engineer. Different teams have different ways of dividing the duties, mostly according to the personalities of the two people. Sometimes (like the No. 9 this year and the No. 19 for part of last year), the crew chief and the race engineer are degreed engineers. Other times, such as the current configurations of the 19, 20 and 48 cars, the crew chief’s qualifications come from experience rather than college.

I spent last Saturday in Milwaukee with the GEM No. 9 Nationwide car as part of my follow-up for the paperback version of The Physics of NASCAR, in which I’ll update all the interesting things that have happend with the new car this year. (I hope to be able to report a happier ending for Elliott’s team than the hardcover version has.) I was with the Nationwide team because Kirk Almquist, the current crew chief (Team Director in GEM-talk) was Elliott Sadler’s car chief (Car Director) last year. Ramon Zambrano and Chris Miko from the No. 19 are also now with the No. 9 Nationwide car.

Kirk has a degree from a two-year technical institute, while his race engineer, Tom Gray, has a mechanical engineering degree from from Purdue. Tom was at Purdue about the same time Ryan Newman was there and neatly sidestepped my question about whether Ryan was a good student by noting that Ryan spent a lot of time in his room playing video racing games. (It seems to have worked for Ryan). I watched the No. 19 last year with two engineers communicating with a non-engineer driver. Watching Tom and Kirk communicate with each other and their driver was fascinating. Both Tom and Kirk mentioned that they have to constantly negotiate differences between “this is what the book says should happen”and “this is what I know from experience is going to happen”.

If you’ve never been to a standalone Nationwide event, I highly recommend it. Things are a little more laid back, even though the entire event is crammed into a single day. Two practices between nine and noon, with a half-hour break in-between, qualifying about 4:30 p.m., and the race at 7:30 p.m. Nationwide teams only get five sets of tires (six for rookies), so interpreting their practice data is more complicated than the Cup teams because they may hit on a good setup late in practice when they are on worn tires, so their times are slower than the folks who unloaded in good form, even though the car might be better. Kirk is the first crew chief I’ve seen actually working on the car. Both Kirk and Tom have driving experience, so their communication with their driver was aided by the fact that they share a common language in terms of appreciating what it means, for example, when the driver says the front is chattering.

Kirk and Tom have an additional challenge. Chase Miller, Kasey, Elliott and Patrick Carpentier share the driving duties, with Kasey and Chase doing the majority of the driving. That means they have to take into account four different driving styles and four different communication styles. Chase was driving in Milwaukee and again, it was interesting to watch as the team worked through the problem solving exercise that is a NASCAR race.

The other important member with whom the driver has to communicate is the spotter. If you’ve listened to Cup races, you’ve probably noticed that either the spotter or the crew chief takes on a mentor/coach role.

Ray Evernham called a number of races for Elliott last year and his management style during the race is unique. Elliott gets frustrated pretty quickly when the car doesn’t handle the way he thinks it should. Ray was a reassuring voice on the radio, repeatedly telling his driver not to worry, and that were going to (not going to try to, mind you, but going to) fix the car. Elliott’s spotter takes on that role many times.

Tommy Wheeler (a physics grad from Davidson College) is GEM’s engineering services director. In Milwaukee, he was subbing as spotter for driver Chase Austin since Chase’s regular spotter was out in Sonoma. (You need two spotters for road courses.) Tommy was well qualified, having spotted for Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, but what really brought home the importance of managing the driver was listening to Tommy giving Chase encouragement and suggestions before and throughout the race, especially while Kirk and Tom Gray were wrapped up planning strategy. Tommy would tell Chase what lines the leaders were using, and compare how he was doing in turns 1 and 2 compared to turns 3 and 4. Chase, for his part, is more mature in terms of driving and communicating than the average 21-year old (not to mention a couple 30-ish Cup drivers).

Last weekend reinforced how important it is for the car to turn well. Last year with Elliott, almost every race seemed to be about the car not turning. Milwaukee was more of the same problems: Not enough grip to get on the gas coming out of the turns. The biggest turn the car made, however, wasn’t initiated by Chase. The result is shown in the post-race picture below.

I got to spend a bit of time with Chase’s Mom and Dad, who drove all the way from Georgia to watch him race. They are delightful people and it was wonderful to watch Chase be genuinely complimented when people asked for his autograph with his Mom and Dad beaming nearby.

The new car is here in the Cup Series and on its way to the Nationwide series. NASCAR has made it clear that the new car is here to stay. The teams that are successful will be the ones that figure out how to develop the driver (and crew) of tomorrow.


  1. Great follow-up! And some great observations about ‘communication style’ from different drivers and CCs. Somewhere out on the UTD campus there is a Psych student in search of thesis idea. I’m thinking the interaction between driver and CC would have a pluthera of options.

    And you are spot on with the stand alone ‘lower series’ weekends. A race fan can get much closer to the inner workings of a race team and is much more laid back.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Hi Phil: I have been thinking about starting a communications consulting firm. You could actually develop a ‘eHarmony’-type test for crew chiefs and drivers that would tell you in advance not whether they should be partnered, but what they’ll need to work on.
    Rodney and Elliott, for example, have a very different working style than Josh and Elliott or Scott and Elliott. You rarely hear Rodney get peeved over the radio. Elliott will let loose with a series of vehement complaints about the car and Rodney will just say ’10-4. We’ll fix it.’ I am going to be in Daytona next week and will be very curious to see whether Rodney is just cool on the radio or if he really is unflappable.
    We’re working on a series of hero cards for people who use science, math and technology in racing. One question I ask everyone is “What one class did you not take in school that you now wish you had?” The overwhelming answers are either something having to do with communications or psychology.
    P.S. I’m going to address the issue of whether some manufacturers have an advantage at plate tracks next week — I’ve been pulling in favors from my engine guy and it should be great fun to see whether drivers really know what they are talking about.

  3. Your article is great, but you Chase Millers name wrong. You call him Chase Austin in the article. Way different drivers!

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