Sunday, August 24, 2008

Michigan Race Report

Greetings from the Michigan International Speedway garage! I had another amazing weekend and wanted to fill you all in on my adventures with the Miller Lite Racing team!

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 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.