NASCAR industry, teams wrestle with addressing dearth of engineering talent

Alba Colon, Sprint Cup program manager for GM, has spoken at several schools this year, encouraging student interest in race car engineering.
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NASCAR teams will descend on Dover International Speedway this weekend with a small army of engineers seeking speed.

Meanwhile, a contingent of high-ranking racing representatives will descend on another NASCAR track seeking the next generation of bright young minds.

Alba Colon, the NASCAR Sprint Cup program manager at General Motors, will be at Michigan International Speedway for Formula SAE Michigan, a four-day event beginning today that will pit 120 universities in a competition to develop a prototype race car while being tested on the automotive industry principles of research, design, manufacturing, marketing and finances.

In recent years, Colon has attended the event along with reps from Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota and other NASCAR entities.

She also has seen reps from companies outside of racing such as Space X and Tesla.

“Because they know there are 2,000 young engineers there that are specialists,” Colon said. “They have mechanical engineering degrees, most of them from working on the car. They have the passion. Those are the people you want.

“We all go there to have a competition, to get talent, every year. I love it. But I never thought it was going to get like that.”

Colon, a native of Puerto Rico who came to the United States (and employment at GM) through involvement in a similar student project, has witnessed engineering transform NASCAR over the past 15 years, placing a heavier emphasis on college educations and computer simulations.

But as the trend has resulted in all the powerhouse teams putting dozens of engineers on their payrolls, it has occurred at a time when the candidate pool for the positions has gotten scarce.

“We have all learned there are less and less engineers now in the United States, believe it or not,” Colon told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “There are more coming from outside the United States.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, said the shortage was evident during the offseason when championship-caliber teams were struggling to fill spots.

“There was a time where there were too many engineers to go around,” Childers told NBC Sports in January. “Now there’s not near enough to go around. All you do is try to find good engineers all the time.

“I think they all fell off the earth. There were a few years where there were so many, and they were all coming by the shops all the time. Now no one can find them. I’ll have the guys at Gibbs send me text messages, ‘You know any engineers at all?’ It’s just hard to find good ones anymore.”

It’s resulted in a push within NASCAR to raise awareness about the need for more engineers.

Next weekend, Homestead-Miami Speedway will play host to a Ten80 Education event for more than 400 middle school and high school students from 40 teams around the country. The event, which is held at the remote control circuit of the track, showcases the teams’ engineering, enterprise and robotics skills in the National STEM League Finals.

Colon is heavily involved with SAE International, an automotive-focused engineering organization that helps highlight STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programs in schools.

Colon has talked to students in Daytona Beach, Chicago and Phoenix this year.

“I’ve been blessed to go to schools and promote education is important and don’t be afraid of math and science,” she said. “And through my position, because many Latin Americans, especially little girls, they had never thought, ‘Yeah, how can I go and get to NASCAR and do racing?’ So I have become, without wanting to be, an example as, ‘Hey if you’re starting in a technology career, that’s how I got here.’ That’s a passion of mine.”

Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet hosted Andrew Barberena, a Martinsville High School senior, as an honorary pit crew member for the April 1 race at Martinsville Speedway. Barberena, the captain of his school’s robotics team, aspires to study engineering and eventually work in racing.

McMurray, who once built a shock dyno at home years ago to keep up on his cars’ setups, said the increasing technological impact in Sprint Cup has made a college degree a virtual necessity.

“It has evolved so much and with the (computer) simulation now, like we changed four or five things on our car and it’s crazy they simulate the lap and it tells you that it should be tighter at this part in the corner, it should be freer in this part of the corner and it’s right,” he said. “It has changed so much. Not only since I came along, but really in the last five years probably.

“I think Andrew has a goal of being in racing. When you get into algebra and geometry and you are like ‘How am I ever going to use this later on?’ I hope that kids now can see if you want to be a part of NASCAR that is so critical to understand that, especially if you want to be in engineering. If you want to be a part of this and make a difference, you have got to really educate yourself now so you can understand what is going to happen in the future.”

Andrew Barberena, a high school senior with an interest in race car engineering, was an honorary pit crew member for Jamie McMurrays team at Martinsville Speedway.
Andrew Barberena, a high school senior with an interest in race car engineering, was an honorary pit crew member for Jamie McMurray’s team at Martinsville Speedway (Credit: Martinsville Speedway).

Being at the track made an impact on Barberena, who has been taking night classes in engineering at Patrick Henry Community College.

“It truly is amazing to see the professional level of how everything works,” he said. “You can see the true engineering. You see the cars going fast (on TV), but you don’t see the engineering that goes into everything for that to happen.

“The engineering that goes into the cars to make it possible to go around the track at 120 mph, that’s very fascinating.”

Colon also said it’s very necessary given how the reduction in testing has placed a premium on accurate and reliable simulations that are indispensable in setting up a car. Analyzing the data has become nearly as important as gathering it, making the positions more specialized and mathematically driven.

“You need people to write code so the engineer can explain it to the crew chief and use it,” Colon said. “I know we’re trying to get costs out, but we need more engineers to be successful, because now it’s the difference between the car that finishes first and second. You have to spend more money in the right places.”

From today through Sunday, Colon and other members of the NASCAR community will be hunting in Michigan for the right people on whom to spend it.

“There’s a lot of people craving (opportunities in NASCAR),” she said. “You just have to talk to them.”

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.