Sunday, August 24, 2008
On Friday, I made it to the track early and hopped in the golf cart and went in the “backstretch entrance” to the garage and when I say backstretch, I mean it! We literally drove across the race track in the golf cart…it was quite the view! Thankfully, we didn't have to play Frogger with any race cars!
Once inside you could see why the crew doesn’t love this garage, apparently it is setup much like Fontana, and despite having a huge infield there is very little room for the teams to work. The cars are severely angled into the garage stalls, which were made to house Indy cars. The rear ends are nearly touching and it takes about a 6-point turn to push the cars backwards into the garage stall (usually it is a 3-point turn). The ONLY good thing about the garage setup is that the haulers aren't parked directly across from the garage stalls. Now why is that a good thing? Well, for fans lucky enough to be in there, it means the drivers can't sprint across as fast so you have lots more opportunities for autographs.
Of course, I immediately found the Brew Crew and discovered that we had a “new” engine guy working with us this week. JP or "HOP" is taking over for Darren who tore his ACL and had to have surgery. JP isn’t really new, he sets up the Penske engines at the shop and is well qualified to do so at the track. The team had already made it through initial inspection when I got there and were busy setting up the car for practice before qualifying. They started with the car in race setup and then with about 45 minutes left in practice they switched the Miller Lite Dodge over to qualifying trim and made two lap runs.
After practice, I watched as NASCAR literally used a LOTTO ball machine to pick the qualifying order right outside the Sprint Cup Hauler...I couldn't believe they actually used that machine!
Kurt was picked to go out 23rd which was pretty good because they wanted to go later in the order. I watched about half of qualifying from the roof of the hauler. Surprisingly, you could only see Turn 4 and only if the cars were running the high line so that won't be the place to watch the race on Sunday. Kurt will start the race from the 13th spot, right behind his brother. Overall, the crew was okay with that effort, but they were a little faster in practice than in qualifying so they are expecting good things.
In between practice and qualifying, we went over to the infield around Turn 1 where Miller Lite had a huge hospitality suite set up. This thing was amazing! It was a beach-theme complete with sand, a "lake", palm trees, hammocks and beach chairs and three hot tubs! Of course, there was also food, ice cold Miller Lites and several viewing decks to watch the race from. The Miller Lite girls were all there, and Kurt and the Brew Crew made appearances to mingle with the fans.
On Saturday morning, I managed to get to the garage right before it opened so I had the opportunity to line up outside the garage area with the Miller Lite crew and the rest of the teams and pour into the garage area as soon as NASCAR opened it. It was a sight to see as the crews rushed in like ants at a picnic and got immediately to work.
I started off watching JP tear down Ryan Newman's blown engine from Friday. He was very stealthy--as he took it apart as he covered the parts with rags so no one could see them or take pictures. The parts he took off the engine he wrapped in rags or put in ziplock bags and put them in a "tear down box." Then they took the bulk of the engine over to a NASCAR inspection station where JP had to show the officials enough proof to justify the engine change.
While JP was working he told me they will rebuild the engine and put it back in the stock. It was interesting to learn that Penske has about 75 engines in stock and about 35 guys working in the engine shop for all 3 Cup teams and the part time NW team.
When Kurt was on the track for practice, we took the opportunity to film a couple videos for www.millerliteracing.com. The first is a tour of the hauler and cab with Cindy Lewis, one of the transport drivers. After Happy Hour, we caught up with Dave “Mule” Nichols who did a great bit on the tires for us—so keep a look out for those videos soon.
I watched as the team tore down the car in preparation for race day. They have until the garage closed at 5p to get as much work done on the car as possible. They check every part down to retightening every screw on the car. Each crew member has to complete a checklist of duties before the car can go through final inspection on Sunday morning. I was invited to go in the garage and watch Corey and JP work on the front end and the engine and Bill Spencer let me lean in the interior and get a good look at the cockpit. He explained everything on the dash to me. They have the gauges set so they are illuminated blue when things are normal but turn red if there is a problem so Kurt doesn't have to focus too hard to figure out if there is a problem during the race.
On race day, I got to the garage when it opened at 8:00 AM and immediately found the crew hard at work finishing up their checklists. While they finished up, I headed out to pit road to say hello to the pit crew who had just arrived at the track that morning and were busy setting up the pit box. We were in pit stall number 4, nearly at the exit of pit road and right next to eventual race winner Carl Edwards’ pit. The pit crew had the pit stall already put together and were starting to prep the tires. I asked them about pitting the car last weekend at Watkins Glen where pit road is “backwards” for them. Larry Robinett said they only practiced for three days at the shop because they didn’t really want to get out of their rhythm too much just for one race. Despite not having any problems pitting the car, the change slowed their stops by several seconds. The biggest problem is for the rear tire changer and carrier (which is Larry’s job) to avoid the gas man and catch can man. They were definitely happy to pitting “normally” this weekend.
Larry was also picked by the ESPN broadcast team to wear the helmet-cam for the race. Larry had to wear a large battery pack to run the camera and audio and get used to a “strange” helmet. He made it his own by putting some Miller Lite stickers on it but was most worried he might curse on TV!
I headed back to the garage to follow the crew as they pushed the car through four main inspection sites (without incident) and out onto pit road to be lined up for the race. After the car is on pit road, the crew can finally relax for a bit. They tend to have several hours because they are consistently one of the first cars through inspection on Sundays. They head back to the hauler for an always tasty BBQ lunch served up by Cindy and hold their team meeting.
Just before drivers’ introductions, Kurt and Eva stopped by the hauler and I got a chance to ask Eva about the horse Kurt bought her for their anniversary. ‘CJ’ is a beautiful grey Arabian that she plans to show next year. She laughed as she said Kurt’s golf game might improve because she will be spending more time at the barn.
I followed them out to pit road and stayed behind the Miller Lite pit box the entire race. Kurt had the Blue Duece in the top 10 for much of the first half of the race until a two tire pit stop altered the handling on the car and he started sliding back. Then bad luck struck as the No. 70 car hit Kurt on a restart and sliced the left rear tire. Before Kurt could get back to pit road the tire blew spinning him through the grass. He quickly saved it and got it on the apron so no caution was thrown, but that only sent Kurt down another lap.
The Miller Lite team finished a disappointing 36th as a result but I know these guys and they will be more than ready to take on Bristol next weekend.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
First off, one tire costs about $450 and most teams buy between 10-15 sets of tires for each race weekend. That’s a lot of dough! The teams give Goodyear their wheels and Goodyear mounts the racing tire chosen for that particular race for the teams at the track. The Miller Lite tires are always easy to find because they are the only ones with blue wheels. The tires each weigh about 60 pounds when they have the inner safety liner (used at high speed tracks like Daytona) and about 45 pounds without the safety liner (used at road courses and lower speed tracks). Each set of tires has an average life of about 150 miles.
One last thing, these tires are “smooth”, they have no tread on them. When teams use new tires out on the track they are called “stickers” because they still have the sticker on them from Goodyear indicating the batch and once the tires have one “hot lap” on them they are called “scuffs.” Sometimes teams “scuff” tires in practice just in case their car setup works better on older tires.
The Miller Lite Dodge arrives at the track with a set of “Set Up Tires” that are clearly marked on the outside in blue writing. These tires come from the shop and are not counted towards the team’s tire limit for the weekend. They cannot be used outside of the garage area. Each team’s tires are labeled with the team numbers and are bar coded so Goodyear can track them if the teams have any problems with them. Dave “Mule” Nichols is the Miller Lite team’s “tire guy” and he is responsible for getting the tires from Goodyear for practice, qualifying and for the race and making sure they are all at the desired air pressure amounts as decided by the crew chief, Pat Tryson. One of Mule’s main jobs is removing the air from the tires and replacing it with nitrogen. By using nitrogen instead of air, they have more control over how much the pressure will increase when the tires heat up.
Each tire has five to six “wear holes” about the size of the tip of a sharpie marker in a diagonal across the tire. Mule uses a gauge that measures the depth of these holes and notes them before they put them on the Miller Lite Dodge. After the team makes a practice run and Mule again checks the depth of the wear holes to see how the different set ups are wearing the tires. Often when the car comes into the pits, there is a bunch of rubber and debris built up on the tire from the track. You’ll see Mule using a small torch to heat up that rubber and then he scrapes it off to clean off the tire so he can get back to those wear holes. Right after a pit stop, you’ll see Mule radioing the information he learns about the tire wear, tire temperature, and air pressure build-up to Pat Tryson (crew chief) and Brian Wilson, the team engineer who has to make sense of that data.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There is a whole lot of work that goes into the tires on race day before they are used in the race. Usually the pit crew is responsible for getting and preparing the sets of tires to be used during the race. Teams have anywhere between 5 and 10 sets of tires in their pits depending on the type of race. The tires are labeled with chalk “LF, LR, RF, RR” to indicate where on the car they go and numbered to indicate which set they belong to.
The pit crew then uses a strip of hot pink tape to indicate the left side tires and a strip of bright blue tape to indicate right side tires. They place this tape in the same place on each tire because it also indicates where the tire carriers should hold the tires as they carry them during the pit stops. This ensures they get the tire consistently and easily lined up with the studs for quick stops.
Each rim has to be “cleaned” and the team uses three different types of steel brushes on each tire to clean the holes for the studs and the center hole that slides over the wheel cap. After the grime and paint is removed by the brushes, the wheels are ready for the lugs. About four hours before the start of the race, the pit crew starts gluing on the bright yellow lug nuts onto the wheels with a weather stripping adhesive. Finally, they use a heavy, flat piece of metal that presses the lugs into the adhesive and makes for a good seal.
When the Miller Lite Dodge rolls out onto pit road on race day, the pit crew also lubes the studs on the car so the tires slide on and off easier. The studs are long and have no threads for the first three-quarters of an inch so the lug nuts glued to the rim don’t get cross-threaded when the tire changers are putting the tires on the car. When the wheel is placed on the car during the pit stop, the air gun torque breaks the adhesive and the lug nut is tightened normally. Sometimes the adhesive is too gooey and sometimes to brittle and it will interfere with the “feel” and rhythm of the tire changers. There is always a danger that the lug nuts might fall off while changing the tire, so the over-the-wall guys wear special gloves that have a couple lug nuts attached to them on top by their wrists so they can grab them quickly if needed.
Tired of reading about tires yet? Feel like your ready to be a Tire Specialist? Told ya there was “More-2-It”!
Sunday, July 6, 2008
During the race weekend at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, CA I was lucky enough to catch Pat Tryson, the crew chief of Penske Racing’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for a little chat outside the team hauler. The Sonoma race marked Pat’s one year anniversary with the team and to date he has enjoyed three trips to Victory Lane (Pocono and Michigan in 2007; New Hampshire in 2008) with the Brew Crew. Pat is an intimidating guy around the garage, kind of the strong silent type, but really he is easy to talk to, has a great sense of humor and a lot of Pennsylvania pride!
Pat has been hanging around racing garages for a long time. At age 16, he got his first taste in the garage at the drag racing strips with his father, who was an engine builder. Pat didn’t only get his education in the garages though, he graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a B.A in Business Administration (but really he went there to play football!). He moved to North Carolina and worked with the Allison brothers building chassis and then landed a job as the car chief/mechanic on Kenny Bernstein’s top fuel dragster.
His first year as a NASCAR crew chief came in 1997 for Geoffrey Bodine and then in 1998, he was the crew chief for Geoff’s brother, Todd Bodine. In 1999, Pat was snatched up by the Roush organization where he started as Kevin Lepage’s crew chief. He left Roush in 2001 to work for the Wood Brother’s as the crew chief on the No. 21 car with Ricky Rudd and Elliott Sadler but returned to Roush in 2003 as the crew chief for the No. 6 team and Mark Martin and then for Greg Biffle before joining the Miller Lite team in June 2007.
Pat worked his way up through the ranks but it has come with some sacrifices. His schedule is grueling as he works at the Penske shop Monday through Thursday, when he gets the afternoon off and then leaves with the team on Thursday evening and is on the pit box until Sunday night. Pat admits the hardest part is not spending much time with his wife and seven year old daughter, but unfortunately, it comes with the territory of being a crew chief on a top team.
Pat’s experience has given him a wealth of knowledge but admits the new car (the “Car of Tomorrow” or COT) which was introduced full time this year by NASCAR means starting over with setups. He spoke candidly about the difficulty setting up the car since NASCAR regulates nearly everything it has taken away much of the crew chiefs’ creativity and tools to set up the car. Drivers who are used to setting up the car’s to their “liking” and who are used to a certain feel of the car through the turns seem to be struggling the most to adapt to the COT and there is not a happy crew chief in the garages as far as I can tell. The main problem for the No. 2 team has been getting the car to turn without blowing the right front tires out.
Both Pat and Kurt Busch believe there is an easy fix—raise the splitter 3 inches and eliminate the bump stops. However, NASCAR isn’t listening to the teams because Pat says, “they won’t admit they are wrong.” He said moving to the COT was not really about safety as NASCAR advertised, although safety improvements have been included in the new car, it was instead an attempt by NASCAR to get IROC-style (International Race of Champions-where the cars are set up exactly the same) racing results. But instead of side-by-side racing, NASCAR got a car that cannot pass.
According to Pat, NASCAR has been hearing the teams loud and clear, loud enough to call a halt to the complaints in a special drivers meeting several weeks ago. So look for NASCAR to make it seem like they didn’t make any mistakes with the car, but instead advertise only “improvements” like their newfound idea to give unlimited tests (read- the teams can’t figure out the set ups but NASCAR can’t be wrong so let’s just test more!).
Pat and the Brew Crew won’t stop trying to get creative with the setups and working hard to get Kurt the best car possible. I know they will be back in Victory Lane again very soon. Thanks for the inside scoop Pat!
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
When I arrived, I first checked in at the Miller Lite garage. The crew was going over the car with a fine tooth comb and doing their individual checklists before final inspection. It took them about 2.5 hours to work over the entire car. While they were doing that I sauntered out to our excellent pit stall (the Miller Lite pit was the last pit by the main grandstands, right in front of Victory Lane with a huge opening next to it so I could get up nice and close as you will see...)
I don't get to spend as much time with the over-the-wall guys as I do with the mechanics, because they usually fly in only on race day. I reintroduced msyelf to the ones I knew and got to know the few I had not yet met. They are also a great bunch of guys and were very entertaining in their answers to my questions for the website. They are pretty stoked we are focusing on them for the new Miller Lite Racing website. We also got a great video with Larry, the rear tire carrier, who walks us through everything they do to get the tires set up on race day. He sounded like he had done it on tape a million times...the guys put a sign "Pit Tours By Larry" up during our filming so unfortunately you can hear me laughing on tape but Larry was most impressed by the fact he didn't cuss once!
We had to book it back to the garage to meet up with the crew so we could finish the rest of the video about the shocks. The inspectors remembered us from yesterday (in fact the inspector giving Luke bunny ears in the picture from the blog from yesterday worked the Miller Lite pit during the race). The guys continued on through inspection and I went off in search of a few more interviews. I was lucky to catch Pat Tryson, Kurt's crew chief, hanging outside the hauler (he is rarely outside of the hauler unless he is working) and he was kind enough to spend 15 minutes talking with me. Look for a blog about that conversation where he was very candid about the car at a later date. I also did an interview with the only female engineer at Penske, Andrea Mueller. She told me how she got started in motorsports and some of her reactions to women in the sport.
The race started off very promising with Kurt running up front for the first third of the race. He was locking up the right front every time he had to stand on the brakes and was sliding around the turns with no grip but he thought if they took the bump stops out they might have a good setup. Unfortunately, after the first caution, he got shuffled back to mid-pack and ended up getting hit by Scott Pruett and it created a bad tire rub. They had to bring the car in to fix it and Kurt went a lap down and never recovered. It was very disappointing for the entire team. Knowing how hard they work on the car each and every weekend and the tough luck this team has had this year, it was just a heart breaker. I did however, get some great shots of the pit crew in action thanks to our stellar pit road location.
I hung out and watched the top five finishers be interviewed on TNT and then popped by Victory Lane to see Kyle Busch's celebration and FINALLY eat something. I was completely sunburnt, exhausted, and at least 5 pounds heavier from all the used lugnuts I grabbed from pit road in my pockets, so I headed home.
Words can barely describe what it is like to be in the garages with hot pass access and I cannot thank Miller Lite and the #2 enough for being so good to me. The next race I will be "working" is the August race at Michigan so I hope to keep us entertained with some more detailed blogs from my adventures in the garage.
As always, thanks for reading!
Saturday, June 21, 2008
I made it to the track at 7a but then walked the 30 min to the garages and arrived just about the same time the drivers were pulling into the garage in their rental cars. I headed over to the Miller Lite garage stall to find the crew already at work. They finished the tear down and rebuild of the car last night and were pretty much set to go for practice.
During the first practice, the Miller Lite team worked to fine tune the shock package that they hit upon yesterday for qualifying. We watched with the crew near turn 12 (the 180 degree turn) and held our breath as several cars got squirrelly and almost hit the outside wall, while many others were locking ‘em up and sliding through the entire turn.
Unfortunately, Kurt’s teammate, Sam Hornish, Jr. also took a wild ride and ripped his splitter off.
Most of the mechanics on Kurt’s team and Ryan Newman’s team headed over to the 77 garage stall and the entire Penske team worked to get that splitter back on so he didn’t have to go to a back up car.
Time was flying by and Happy Hour came only a half hour after the first practice. The Miller Lite crew was working on fuel mileage as were most of the teams. Lots of crews pushing their cars through the garages and a few didn’t make it all the way around the track.
Early in the first run, Pat Tryson (Kurt’s crew chief) radio’ed him to come on in for some changes and Kurt radio’ed back saying he was feeling “pretty sporty” out there and stayed out longer. It is a further reminder that we can’t always make conclusions about practice times, especially when we don’t know what the crews are working on each run. Here is Kurt getting some information on his runs during Happy Hour.
Immediately after Happy Hour ended the engines cut and the BBQ’s fired up.
The entire garage basically took a lunch break and boy did it smell good in there. The Miller Lite crew grabbed some chicken wings,burgers and sausages off the grill and headed in for a team debriefing inside the air conditioned hauler. The three Penske drivers, crew chiefs and team engineers all meet in one of the team haulers and went over what they learned and help each other out with setups.
I was on “special assignment” immediately after Happy Hour. I followed Luke, the shock specialist, from the moment he removed the shocks from the car until he turned them into NASCAR. We got the whole process on video so you can see the process for yourselves.
As many of you know, NASCAR confiscates the rear shocks from all the teams after Happy Hour and returns them before the teams go through inspection on Sunday before the race. NASCAR does this because they found teams pushing the limits with the pounds per square inch. Before NASCAR takes the shocks, Luke has to put them on the shock dyno to test to make sure the shocks are working properly. Then he takes out all of the pressure from the shock and then walks them over to the inspectors. Luke has to fill the shocks to whatever the team decided between 25 psi to 75 psi as NASCAR rules dictate (today Luke filled them to 75 psi) in front of the inspectors. The inspectors then test the pressures, if they pass, they put a yellow tag on them and put them on a cart that they keep locked up. I will be back first thing in the morning when Luke gets the Miller Lite shocks back from the inspectors and gets them back in the car to complete the process. I must say, these inspectors were very cool to let us film this and Luke knows his stuff!
The Cup garage closed at 2p today and the crew was excited to get an entire afternoon free to go have some fun. The pit crew was flying in this afternoon, which they do for races on the West Coast, otherwise they just fly in the morning of the race. Several of the crew were going golfing and one was going sailing on the Bay. Still others were looking forward to a nice dinner and getting some rest for a busy day tomorrow. The hauler drivers, Stump and Cindy for example will be in the garages when it opens at 7am, will work all day (Cindy is also the team’s official scorer), pack the hauler after the race and are planning on driving all night with the hopes of getting to New Mexico for breakfast on Monday. I am exhausted from being in the garages for 2 days, I can’t imagine doing their job every weekend!
Tomorrow will be another hot, busy day at the track. If Kurt wins, I have been told by the crew I will be in there so keep your fingers crossed!!
My day started off with the traditional long dusty walk through the cow pastures to get to the track. I made it inside the garage just as the Miller Lite team was pushing their car through inspection.
Thankfully, the Brew Crew were all happy to see me and I met the new spotter for the team, Chris Osborne. I told them we were hoping to get some good video and interviews with them for the new and improved Miller Lite Racing website and warned them I would be bugging them all weekend for the inside scoop.
Security was pretty aggressive in the garage and they were keeping everyone, even photographers (!) behind a line about 10 feet back from the garages. Eric, one of the mechanics, saw that they weren’t letting me up to the garage went over and told the guard to let me go by the car and magic sesame I was in. It was pretty cool I must say…
As the crew was prepping the car for practice I asked them details about several incidents that plagued the Miller Lite team in recent weeks. If you recall at Pocono two weeks ago, the Miller Lite crew expertly fixed the splitter after Kurt spun and took a wild ride through the grass. I asked Bill, one of the mechanics, to show me how they re-attached the splitter arms to the front bumper so quickly. At Dover, both the #2 and #12 teams had problems with their fueling system. Steve, the “Underneath Mechanic” opened up the deck lid and showed me exactly what went wrong. He also gave me his first hand account of what was going through his mind when the pit caught on fire at Lowes after a lugnut got run over as Kurt was leaving the pit and ignited some spilt fuel. Steve is the catch can man on Sundays (his son, Chris is the gas man) so he was extra concerned as he was stuck holding a can full of fuel. He also said he got hit in the leg by the red hot lug nut so he was 2 for 2 that day…I will post a blog with pictures and more details about these mishaps.
I watched the team setup the Miller Lite Dodge for practice. I was a little concerned that there was something wrong with the car because they were shaking it violently on the jack stands but Darin, the engine tuner said “not to worry” that whenever they lowered the track bar they had to “shake” the car until it “settles in to place”. Did you know that there are 3 antennae on the roof of the cars? One of them is for the team radio and the other two are for NASCAR timing and scoring. Every car also has a round hockey puck looking camera in the front on the roof. Only a few of them are actually cameras, the others are “false cameras” so every car has the same aerodynamic disadvantage. Back to practice…Kurt ran most of it in race trim and made only two qualifying runs. After practice the crew set the car up for qualifying and grabbed some grub.
In the long inspection line before qualifying, I had a chance to ask the crew some questions for the new website. They are going to be featured so I got some info on their favorite food to wash down with a Miller Lite, their favorite track and their best memory with the Miller Lite team and more. The new website should be up soon so you can read all their answers…like who eats “sweaty and sweet” chicken wings!
For qualifying, I just acted like I belonged with the crew and joined them right out by the car on pit road. I have some great shots of Kurt and the crew.
Kurt missed his mark in Turn 2 but still laid down a great lap and qualified 3rd for the race on Sunday. The crew was stoked and I am hopeful for a trip to Victory Lane!
After qualifying, I stopped and snapped a picture of the fuel prices at the Sunoco pump. For the 116 octane leaded fuel that the Cup teams use, the going rate was $9.99 per gallon! Yikes! When you figure a team uses about 115 gallons of fuel for the race here and another 50 or so gallons for practice and qualifying it adds up to a pretty penny. Ouch!
I walked around and finally found the Miller Lite crew near the inspection area all laid out (literally!) waiting for qualifying to be over.
As most of you know, the first three qualifiers and all of the Go or Go Homers must go through inspection again after qualifying. They were exhausted after the long hot day but still had to clear inspection and then tear the car down like normal afterwards. They were hoping to leave the track by 7pm and will have to be back at 7 am. I left the crew to finish their work and headed back to the Miller Lite hauler. I had just walked up when out of the mirrored doors walks Jamie McMurray and Kurt both in street clothes snacking on Twizzlers…for some reason that just cracked me up.
I headed out and made the long (30 min) walk back through the cow pastures to the car and made it to my hotel by about 7:30p. Off to bed for me, its an early day tomorrow with practice and Happy Hour all before noon. Look for another report from the garage on Saturday!