Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indy Week -- Tirelessly Talkin' Tires

As we know from last year at Indy, 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. 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.
Here is a video of Mule telling me about his tire routine and his reactions to the Indy race last year.

Mule starts his weekend by trotting over to the Goodyear garage and picking up tires for practice and qualifying. On race day, he gets help from the pit crew as they lug their tires to the pit box. 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. He also measures the circumference of each tire and takes other measurements to try to match them into sets.

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 Dave Winston, 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 by Mule with chalk “LF, LR, RF, RR” to indicate where on the car they go and he numbers them 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? I have a feeling this isn't the last time you'll be hearing about tires this week but all indications seems to point to the fact that Goodyear has finally figured something out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Most Exciting Racing You'll See This Weekend!

and Sloppy Joe takes the win!


**Rumors are flying that Happy Harvick has asked to be released from his RCR ride at the end of the year so he can take Shell with him to SHR. BAH! It makes sense with Harvick having both Newman and Smoke in his NW rides this year. I still don't like it...precisely because I do like Harvick (and Newman...sigh).

**More on beloved Smoke -- as reported by Jay Hart over at Yahoo! Sports apparently after his (in)famous Sonoma media appearance, Smoke called the assembled media "douchebags" under his breathe as he left. And yet, I thought there was at least ONE novel question that day. More evidence as to why I just don't like him...

**Yesterday on Twitter Kenny Wallace let it fly that NASCAR was making the media call the double-file restarts "Shootout Style". Since, there has been some "clarification" on twitter by others tied into the powers that be saying NASCAR has preferences..."free pass" instead of "lucky dog" but no mandate. I just don't get this. I can understand NASCAR mandating what not to say but having such influence over the broadcasts might explain a lot. More WWF tactics controlling the product when it just should sell itself!


**In case you missed TNT's prerace show, Kurt was featured in his favorite Windy City spots. You've GOT to tune in to see him and Marty Snider dancing at the hot dawg restaurant...Oh my!

**Kurt hasn't yet made it to Frothy's but when he comes, he'll bring free beer!

**Kurt also raced in the Mobil One Smart Car Challenge along with teammates Sam Hornish, Jr. and David Stremme. Of course the drivers beat the pants off their respective challengers from the media on the miniature road course that involved zippy parallel parking at the end. Who won? Sam Hornish of course!


Now that the bulk of NASCAR bloggers from have migrated to Blogspot, is there any interest in creating a "master blog" with all of us as authors as a central place to chat and promote our individual blogs? If so, we need a gmail account to register it under and a blog title...

Let me know if you are interested AND your suggestions for name.

Example of this type of blog can be found on HotfootLori's blog - she belongs to the "Alabama Bloggers"

Monday, July 6, 2009

Body and Soul

As race fans, we all love the roar of the engines and the beauty of the slick bodies on a NASCAR Sprint Cup racing machine especially at the super speedway races like we just had at Daytona. I was able to pick the brains of the engine tuner for the Miller Lite Dodge and a couple of the fabricators who specialize on the super speedway cars in the Penske stable. Here is what I found out.

The Penske Powerhouse

Darin Russell, the primary engine tuner for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, attended an auto technical school to obtain his college degree and was originally hired by Robert Yates Racing where he cut his teeth for four years before being hired by Penske Racing. (Darin in the center of the picture "working it" in the garages at Sonoma...)

Darin is in his fourth year tuning the engines at the track which he loves because he says, “the engines are the heart of the race car and what racing is all about.” Darin can choose to tune the Miller Lite engine for more horsepower or for better fuel mileage depending on the track and the race. While at the track, Darin becomes an amateur weatherman as he monitors things like temperature, barometer and vapor pressure, all which affect how these finely tuned engines will run under racing conditions.

At the track, Darin is responsible for anything engine related and has to complete this checklist each day the Miller Lite Dodge goes out on the track.

The Penske Dodges have a 15/16th plate engine that produces “approximately” 400 HP and has special “Spintron” technology that runs the valve train system. Dodge supplies all the Dodge teams with the basic racing engine block and then each Dodge team tweaks the engines to their needs. The Dodge racing teams do not share that information with each other but they do share information with Dodge.

There are 60 employees at the Penske Racing Engine shop, which is actually located about 45 minutes from the main Penske Racing garage. Not only does this shop house about 100 engine blocks, with 30-40 engines fully built at anytime, it also is the main source for Penske engine parts. Penske used to outsource their parts but since competition has become so fierce in the NASCAR garages, this is yet another way they can assure other teams do not find out what parts they are using or how they are modifying them.

It takes about three days for the Penske team to build an engine from start to finish. Each engine has about 50 cycles put on it on the Penske shop dyno machine before its put in a Miller Lite race car. Once it is in the car the engine will go through about another 25 cycles on the chassis dyno before it hits the track. The engine parts all go through tremendous amounts of testing before they are assembled into the engine. (This is Dale Jr's engine from Talladega last year...Penske does a better job of covering their engines!)

The Miller Lite team tears down the engine after every race and surprisingly, this process only takes about a half an hour. In fact, the Brew Crew can change out an entire engine at the track in about the same amount of time if a Penske powerhouse unfortunately “blows.” These days if you lose an engine at the track, you usually don’t bother fixing it, instead you just swap it out to be safe and tear it down afterwards to analyze the malfunction. That also means they only use an engine once. However, the team might re-use certain engine parts like the heads, blocks, and cranks but they keep a close eye on the mileage to determine when to stop using them. Usually races will put about 800 miles on an engine per race weekend and the Miller Lite team has tested durability for some of its parts for up to 1100 miles.

The biggest difference with the “new” Penske engine being used full time by the three Penske teams is that is it lighter and now looks more like the Ford racing engines because the distributors are now up front. It also (of course) produces more horsepower and torque.


There are 28 fabricators at the Penske shop and instead of working on each Penske racing team, they are divided by type of race car. There are eight senior fabricators that focus on the super speedway cars and the rest work on the down force cars.

There are six surface plates the cars are built on and they estimate it takes about 10 days to build a car, up to 16 days to build a super speedway car. For most races, they have seven cars built total, two for each racing team and one is kept at the shop in case of dire emergency. For the Daytona 500, they build 10 cars total just because it is such an important race and there is so much time on the track. At any one time, the Penske fabricators have about 15 cars built per race team and they are always try to be at least one week ahead of the race schedule.

The Miller Lite Dodge and the rest of the Penske cars are fabricated out of 24 gauge sheet metal. Penske gets the main body parts like the nose and the rear deck lid from Dodge and those parts are stock “stamped” so NASCAR can see they came from the manufacturer. This season, all of the Dodge teams got a new nose and it seems to have helped them turn better through the corners.

It takes the fabricators two days alone to get the roof, deck lid and hood shaped just right especially on a super speedway car. However, the nose and front fenders are the most important part on the super speedway car. Another difference on the super speedway cars is that they use thicker windows and use lots of extra braces and brackets to hold the sheet metal in place because the draft is so violent it can literally skin the sheet metal right off the car.

The fabricators work 7:00AM to 4:00PM daily and in November and December they tend to work seven days a week preparing for Daytona. They said the worst part of their job is trying to get the cars to fit NASCAR’s templates as they have very little wiggle room to make adjustments on the COT but they keep trying to get an edge. Penske uses the wind tunnel at Dodge headquarters in Detroit but more recently has begun using a local wind tunnel in North Carolina because it saves them time and money to not have to travel for three days.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more about the engine and body shops at Penske Racing. The next time you see that Blue Deuce, I hope you’ll appreciate more the time and effort it takes to make it rumble around the track.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Inspection Please!

The Miller Lite Dodge must pass NASCAR inspection several times each race weekend, primarily on Fridays and Sundays. The inspection sites are run by the same NASCAR officials each race weekend and believe me, they know these guys well! That also means they know their jobs extremely well. As many of you know, the NASCAR garages are “open”, meaning teams work on their cars in full view of each other, and the inspections sites are no different. Anyone can watch the cars move through inspection making cheating or giving advantages to a team nearly impossible. The teams push their cars through inspection whenever they are ready, there is no set time or order. Interestingly, I learned this past weekend at Sonoma that if you are “late” and need to get ahead in line, your car chief or crew chief runs up and asks permission from the other teams to cut in – the officials do not get involved in making sure the teams are on time.

Friday Inspection
Inspection starts on Friday morning before the cars hit the track for practice. During this first inspection, each car gets an official NASCAR seal on the fuel cell and the rear wing. This seal indicates these two parts of the car have been approved and the seal serves a second function of eliminating any chance of the teams altering them in anyway which could gain them an advantage. Also on Friday morning, the transmission, carburetor, radiator are cleared and the gear ratio set by NASCAR is confirmed. The final step in getting the Miller Lite Dodge ready for practice is clearing the body template. NASCAR lowers a full body template from the top of the inspection tent over each car. If it passes, the car gets that familiar round orange sticker on the windshield to indicate it is track worthy.

Saturday Confiscation

Saturday just before the garage closes Luke Cunningham, the Miller Lite Dodge Shock Specialist must take the rear shocks to the NASCAR shock inspection site where NASCAR holds them until Sunday morning. At the inspection site, Luke must empty the shocks in front of the inspectors and then fill them back up to the desired psi within the NASCAR specifications for each race. NASCAR confiscates the rear shocks so the teams cannot tamper with them in any way.

Sunday Inspection

There are four main inspection sites the teams must pass through each race day. The entire Miller Lite mechanical crew is present including the Crew Chief, Pat Tryson, as they push the No. 2 car through these four sites. Bill, the interior mechanic is usually pulling a large toolbox just in case adjustments need to be made.

The first station is the Shock Installation Station where officials give the rear shocks back to Luke and usually he has “Stretch” (one of the general mechanics) re-install them on the Miller Lite Dodge. This is my favorite inspection site because I have befriended the officials that work here and they always give me some good inside scoop!

The team then pushes the car to the second inspection station which is the Template Line. Here a swarm of officials descend on the No. 2 car and use templates to measure nearly every body part including the angles on the quarter panels, front and rear windows, the nose and rear end, the bumpers and the chassis at the “A”, “B” and “C” posts. These are points along the top of the roof near the front window, just behind the driver and near the rear window.

At this inspection site, NASCAR also measures the tire to the ground where they are looking for 1” of “droop” or travel between the tire and the wheel well. Finally, they check the splitter making sure it is adjusted so it is level with the car using the nose grid.

The third inspection site is Height Sticks and Scales. NASCAR only allows four crew members at a time inside this inspection area and they are watched closely as they push the Miller Lite Dodge onto the scales to make sure they do not cheat in anyway by affecting the weight of the car. NASCAR measures the entire weight of the car as well as the right side weight. NASCAR dictates the weight of the right side of the car based on the weight of the driver.

The officials also measure the height of the car and it has to be within the minimum and maximum heights required by NASCAR. Finally, Mule, the Miller Lite Dodge Tire Specialist observes as they check the tire pressure. NASCAR dictates they must start at the “recommended tire pressure” for each race.

The final inspection site measures the wheel base of the car to measure how offset the chassis and suspension are. This is the station where several teams have failed in the past because their cars were too “yawed out” to fit on the template. They also measure the length of the cars here.

Once the Miller Lite Dodge has cleared all of the inspection sites the crew pushes the No. 2 car out onto pit road to their spot on the starting grid. The crew covers the car and an official stands and watches over all the cars until the start of the race. About an hour before the start of the race, one of the mechanics to start up the generator to heat the oil up. When Kurt arrives at the No. 2 car after driver introductions, the crew tightens the lug nuts one more time and Mule checks the air pressures again to make sure they are what Pat Tryson called for.

At this point, the Miller Lite Dodge is handed off to Kurt to work his magic out on the track. I hope you enjoyed this trip through the NASCAR inspection stations, now it is up to you to figure out where the grey areas are!