Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tirelessly Talkin' Tires

Four infamous Goodyear Eagle racing tires can make you or break you on race day. We may think we know tires, but there is a lot “More-2-It” than we realize. And how many of us have actually tried to change all four of our tires in under 15 seconds with six other friends? Not many I reckon! Let me tell you what I have learned from the Miller Lite racing team about their tires.

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

In the Garage with Pat Tryson

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!