Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Denver, CO – in a snowstorm. Never mind that it took me a couple hours to get past the thunderstorms in Dallas/Ft. Worth, I landed in Denver a few hours later in the rain, which turned to snow as I headed from the airport to Golden, CO.
The Colorado School of Mines was the site of the Colorado/Wyoming American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and Zone 14 Society of Physics Students (SPS) meeting. Chuck Stone, the meeting organizer, arranged for a group of students and teachers to tour the Furniture Row Racing shop.
I’ve been to a lot of shops, but the smallest shop I’d visited was the old Haas Racing shop before they became Stewart-Haas. Unlike the shops in Charlotte, you wouldn’t know that the warehouse building Denver was a race shop – it’s an unassuming box in a business park with no signs. They run the whole operation out of about 38,000 square feet, which is less than some teams’ engine shops alone. A team like Roush has more than 500 employees. FRR has between 60 and 80 employees. They are running a limited schedule this year, picking and choosing the races they think they have the best chance of doing well at. We visited on a Friday evening, while qualifying was going on at Phoenix.
John, the purchasing manager at Furniture Row Racing, was our guide and gave the group the full tour of the shop. I learn something on every visit, no matter how large or small the shop. Furniture Row is one of the rare shops that isn’t within a stone’s throw of Charlotte. John, who is the parts manager explained that the pit crew and the spotter live in and around Charlotte. Each week, he sends them a list of parts, the crew members drive around Charlotte to the race shop parts stores collecting what they need, and then it’s all packaged up and sent out to Colorado – on a furniture truck, of course
Furniture Row leases motors from Hendrick’s engine-building shop. Each week, two engines have to go from Charlotte to Denver, and the two from the last race have to return to Charlotte. Although FRR used to do their own motors, a team with limited resources really gains by taking advantage of existing expertise. Like most lease programs, engine shops put a lot of stipulations on the leasing teams to ensure that there isn’t any “reverse engineering” going on — no dynos or spintrons allowed. John put to rest a question about whether they thought they got ‘as good’ engines as the HMS teams – “within a horsepower or two”, he said, “and when they’re getting toward the end of the season and points are really important, they may even give us the higher horsepower engines.” The verification, of course, is in the impressive finish
the FRR team DEI had last Fall at Talladega, when driver Regan Smith would have won the race had he not gone/been pushed below the yellow line.
One of the things John pointed out that was new to me is that you can buy fenders ready made now. It used to be that the guys in the shop skilled in using the English Wheel made the fenders. The ability to make them onsite was important because of the sensitivity of the aerodynamics to the fender shape. With the new car and its strict templates, however, there’s not much latitude in design, so buying them ready made is easier in most cases. John shook his head as he noted that using the English Wheel is a skill that is rapidly on the way out because of the standardization of the new car.
Despite being a small team, FRR has their own seven-post rig, which is used to test vehicle dynamics. This is a million-dollar machine that simulates the behavior of the car on the track. The testing ban is a positive and a negative for the smaller teams. If they don’t have testing data from a track, they’re really stuck, as they have nothing to build on; however, some teams trade data to help each other out. But once you have baseline data, it’s really a matter of how clever your seven-post engineers (or engineer, singular, in the case of FRR) are in finding the right combination of suspension setups for each track.
The most impressive part of the tour was the one car John asked us to be especially careful around. Most complex ‘paint schemes’ are wraps these days, but not the National Day of Prayer car FRR will run at Talladega this weekend. It took 16 hours of airbrushing to finish off the paint job on that car, which will look just as spectacular as the car they ran last April. It’s the same car Regan Smith ran last Fall at Talladega, so the team has high hopes for a great finish.
As the students and teachers were wandering around taking pictures, I talked a little with a couple of ringers – Jamie Bubek and her dad Rich, both of whom race in the Colorado Automobile Racing Club series. Actually, they do a lot more than ‘race’ – Jamie was rookie of the year in 2008 – the first woman to win that title in the 62-year history of the club – and her Dad won the championship. The three of us ducked out to the television room to see how the No. 78 was doing in qualifying — except there was so much snow that we couldn’t get any reception on the satellite dish. There are a number of things I don’t miss about having moved to Texas. Snow is one of them. So I asked Jamie to let me take her picture in front of the show car John was nice enough to roll out for us.
Jamie gave a talk the next day at the physics meeting about a project in her high school physics class in which she tried to understand why drivers take a particular line around the racetrack during qualifying. Jamie’s got a great combination of brains and driving talent – look for her to be making waves beyond Denver before very long.
The No. 78 ended up qualifying 9th for Phoenix and would have finished better than the eventual 28th spot if not for some pit road issues. Many thanks to John for the great tour, to Joe Garone, GM at Furniture Row for setting up the visit and to Tim Lim, physics student and bad-weather driver extraordinaire, who kept the Toyota Tacoma truck on the road and out of the ditches the whole two days he was stuck driving me around. John gave me a great setup for my ‘Physics of NASCAR’ talk, with a lot of the audience having seen many of the things I was going to talk about. Thanks to the Wyoming/Colorado AAPT and Zone 14 SPS for inviting me, and a special thanks to Bruce Pearson and Rich and Jamie Bubek (and the Bubek family) for inviting me to come watch them race at Colorado National Speedway on May 2nd when I head back to Denver for a(nother) meeting. I’m looking forward to some short-track racing in person – let’s just hope that it doesn’t snow!