Top Ten NASCAR Science Stories for 2008

I’ve gotten a couple requests to talk about the story, but the Elliott Sadler YoYo saga is why I’m sticking to science. Gravity is gravity, doesn’t matter who is driving for whom and not even NASCAR can make rules about it. Regardless, however, of how much of the science you get right, racing always has a human element and there is no equation that can predict what an owner, driver or crew chief is going to do. That’s part of what makes it interesting.

I think Dave Moody, who is friends with both AJ Allmendinger (who was supposedly replacing Elliott) and with Elliott, had the most balanced and correct opinion. My feeling right now is that, although GEM has a right to do what they want in terms of who is in or out of the car, it’s low class to let a lot of other people know you’re planning on getting rid of him before telling him, not telling him face to face, and waiting until there are precious few other options open. Add in that Elliott had signed a contract extension earlier in the year and is getting married this weekend and that’s just a textbook case of questionable management decisions. I know people who sued universities after they were denied tenure. The ones that won promptly left for somewhere they felt they were really wanted.

Stock Car Science has been a little quiet over the off season, but we haven’t been taking any time off. I’ve got a lot of really neat things planned for the upcoming year, but for now, it’s time to look backward at the 2008 season. I was at the National Association of Science Writers conference and all of the editors said that ‘top ten lists’ are really big, so here is the list of Top Ten NASCAR Science Stories for 2008.

I didn’t include stuff like the Indy Tire scandal or the #83 sheet metal thinning – those seemed more stupid than clever.

10. The economy. Economics is called ‘the dismal science’ and nowhere is that more apt than now. This is actually likely to be the number one story of 2009, but it was just starting to hit us as 2008 went out the door. Letting people go is hard for the folks who are let go, and for the folks who had to let them go. I spent a day in the lobby at the 5/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports (more about that next week) and was dismayed at the constant parade of young men turning in resumes. The woman at the reception desk spoke in glowing terms about the efforts Humpy Wheeler and others are making to help the folks who have lost jobs find new ones. They may fight tooth and nail at the track, but NASCAR really is a family.

9. The myth of the engineer crew chief. I was interviewing a technical director with an undergrad degree in physics and a grad degree in engineering. He pointed me to one of his favorite movies (Office Space), in which a young man explains that his job is to take information from the customers to the engineers. He is asked repeatedly by the dweebs who are trying to understand exactly what he does why the customers can’t just talk directly to the engineers. He progressively gets more and more irritated and finally blurts out something to the effect of, “Engineers can’t talk to normal people. Don’t you know that?” The trend that started a few years ago of assuming good engineers will automatically be good crew chiefs is waning. Just knowing the engineering doesn’t make you a good crew chief, but a good crew chief knows how to use engineering. Steve Letarte told me, “I’m not very smart, but I know how to talk to smart people.” Knowing how to talk to smart people makes him pretty smart in my book. Bob Osborne, Carl Edwards’ crew chief, has just the right mix of skills. Now if we can just get the guys on Sirius XM Radio to stop using the words “geeky engineer” every time they talk about him…

8. Bobby Labonte’s Watkin’s Glen crash. Bobby crashed into the plastic barrels at the end of the pit road wall and exited the car in obvious pain. A couple tracks have finally put SAFER barriers on the inside walls and that’s a step in the right direction, but the pit road wall offers its own challenges. The end of pit road is one of the most dangerous remaining places. The pit road wall is a line defect. Hitting the wall head on is a really hard way to crash because there isn’t a lot of area over which to spread the impact. One of the most promising solutions for the end of pit road wall is Batelle’s Flexall, a honeycomb foam product that can deform up to seven times its original dimensions and they spring back again within a few minutes. (Remember how long it took to clean up that crash?) But the advances are going sort of slowly. One wonders what’s going to have to happen before research in this area really starts to get going.

7. Seven and Eight Post Rigs. I’m going to have a full post on the seven post (and now some have eight posts) rig. The guys at Red Bull Racing were kind enough to let me see theirs in action – it’s a really impressive machine, but not the panacea some suggest. Regardless, the teams that put effort into building and understanding the shakers are going to see big payoffs now that on-track testing has been banned for the year. Nick Hughes, the Technical Director at Michael Waltrip Racing, opined that people are sometimes don’t appreciate the high level of technology because the cars are “so simple”. There is an awful lot of advanced engineering used to design and test these “simple” cars, even though you don’t see the machinery at the track. At Red Bull, they actually talk about the R and D building as “The Lab”. Along with the engine dyno, these machines are going to continue to be very important in 2009.

6. The opening of the Windshear wind tunnel. One hundred and eighty miles an hour with a rolling road. I haven’t gotten a chance to see it myself yet, but the pictures from the Road and Track article look simply awesome. A $40 million + investment that one might question given the way the economy has turned (see #10); however, with the no-testing rule, wind tunnels are going to be just as important as engine dynos and seven-post rigs. I hear Windshear isn’t having a problem getting teams to sign up for time.

5. No changes to the new car. Everyone wants a lower center of gravity and more front-end travel. But the car is holistic. You can’t just lower the center of gravity without impacting other aspects of the vehicle dynamics. If NASCAR made big changes, much of the research the teams did this year would be trash. Give the engineers a little more time to get their heads around the car. It may be that some aspects of the car (side force and passing) are just never going to get much better. There are a lot of really bright folks working on the problem, but one year (plus a little) probably isn’t enough for them to figure it out entirely.

4. Yaw. I wrote about yaw — setting the rear end wheels so that they are toed, with the end effect being that the car looks like it’s already started to turn, even when it’s coming down the straightaway — at length. Typical NASCAR teams taking things to their logical level of absurdity: One team figures it out, another team does it even more and eventually it gets to such a ridiculous level that NASCAR has to make a rule about it. But it’s indicative of how creative people are in NASCAR. NASCAR took away the body asymmetry, so the engineers figured out how to get the asymmetry (critical for turning left) some other way. I look forward to seeing what they come up with this year.

3. Carl Edwards’ Loose Lid. No, not fighting with Kevin Harvick. The oil tank lid. OK, maybe I ranked this one higher than it deserved because my blog entry on it got more than 26,000 hits. It was such a great example of net force. Plus, Jack Roush’s explanation (“vibration harmonics” ) was a goldmine of science information. (Highly questionable, in my opinion, but when else do you get to talk about harmonics and NASCAR in the same article?) NASCAR takes the same attitude science takes: We can’t guess about people’s intentions. If NASCAR catches you (and they did), you get fined and penalized points. Carl lost not only his crew chief for six weeks and 100 points, but NASCAR took away the win, which cost Carl 10 points in the post-Chase competition.

2. The passing of Steve Peterson. Steve was the major NASCAR safety advocate. There are plenty of smart people making cars go fast, but people like Steve, Randy LaJoie, Dean Sicking, Tom Gideon, John Melvin (and a lot more people with less recognizable names) save lives. Steve had impact on everyone from karters to superstar NASCAR drivers. There are a lot of good folks at NASCAR R & D who will carry on, but just to make sure that there are more Steve Petersons in the pipeline, consider making a donation to the Steve Peterson Memorial Trust Fund for Motorsports Education and Safety: Contributions can be made through Wachovia bank account: 2000042225126 in the name of the Steve Peterson Memorial Trust Fund for Motorsports Education and Safety. Direct questions to Greg Peterson at 616-662-1612.

1. Michael McDowell walking away from his crash at Texas Motor Speedway. I was sitting in the infield, about 60 yards from turns 1 and 2 when McDowell got loose, hit the SAFER barrier, spun around, hit it again, and then tumbled down the track, flinging car parts in all directions. I was positive McDowell was going to be seriously injured if not killed. Amazingly, he walked away.

NASCAR had three goals with the new car: safety, improved competition and lowering costs. We can debate the merits of the second and third goal, and it’s true that NASCAR probably could have implemented many of their safety measures in the old car. But the fact that they were paying attention to safety saved at least one life in the 2008 NASCAR season . I got to spend a few hours examining what’s left of the 00 car for a project I’m working on. Randy LaJoie built the seat McDowell was in for Dale Jarrett in 2003 – that’s quite a testament to LaJoie that a five-year old seat did an amazingly effective job.

So there you have it, my bow to trendiness with a top ten list. There’s a lot in store for 2009: I’ve got some great experiences with a AVL engine dyno, the seven-post rig at RBR, some reports on the ‘green’ movement (which Marc at Full Throttle already started discussing). And a couple cool announcements to come. Welcome to 2009. Can’t wait to hit Daytona.


  1. I think it was also Dave Moody who summed it up the best in the Sadler fiasco. something like:

    The result is like a married couple wanting a divorce, getting lawyers, but when it was all said and done, figuring out that it would just be cheaper and easier to stay married.

    BTW, I loved the OFFICE SPACE connection. That being said, I have to wonder how some maybe feeling at GEM (or what ever it will be called) when referring to their plethora of new ‘bosses’. “I can just hear it now for some fabricator. ‘I have eight bosses. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled. that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

    I just hope GEM gets those memos out about their TPS reports!

    The season is almost here, and the first ‘live’ stop will be the Camping World West Race in March at ThunderHill in Kyle, TX! Can’t wait.

  2. One of the BIG science fiascoes of 2008 was the glorified tire test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How could you overlook that one? Will we see a tire that can competitively run more than five laps at that track in 2009?

  3. Hi Tim: Yeah, I know it was a big story, but the whole thing was just so painful to watch the first time that I didn’t feel like revisiting it. You’re right that it should be in the list. DLP

  4. So, Marc, you’re saying they deserve each other? That would be ture karma, I guess! DLP

  5. Windshear, 8 post rigs when in all actuallity a 4 post rig is enough. The only thing is that NASCAR owners are absoliutelty stupid when building shops. I know I have seen them. NASCAR needs to steal an idea from Ferrari in Molena this will help the QA of cars. A price a cap of ten million dollars per team is desperately needed. This 30 million that Lowes and Dupont is giving is out out of control

  6. While I agree GEM acted less than professional in this matter, I simply must point out the bit of Karma that is in play.

    Sadler was under a previous contract and went searching for greener pastures without a single word to his then employer.

    When word got out his explanation was the team wasn’t up to a competitive level he felt comfortable with and was looking elsewhere.

    Funny, that’s pretty much why GEM tried to push Sadler out the door.

    Karma is a Bit*h, when it smacks someone else, but not so much when it hits Sadler between the eyes.

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