Xfinity Series Spotlight: Chris Gabehart, racer turned crew chief

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
0 Comments

Chris Gabehart had hopes of being a NASCAR driver, but ending up the crew chief of the No. 20 Xfinity Series team at Joe Gibbs Racing is just fine, too.

“I was destined to be in racing some way, shape or form no matter how much my dad hoped that one day I’d want to be a pilot instead,” Gabehart told NBC Sports with a laugh.

His grandfather and father were both racers and his grandfather even dabbled in NASCAR in the 1960s. Gabehart was in a go-kart by the time he was 10 and his career culminated with the 2007 CRA/ARCA Super Series championship. It was around that time that Gabehart realized he had probably done all the driving he would and racing would cost him more money than he would ever make.

“So here I am working on them now,” he said.

His mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University paid off. Gabehart’s time in Late Models resulted in him crossing paths with Kyle Busch. Conversations with Busch and his father, Tom, landed Gabehart at Kyle Busch Motorsports to work on his Late Model program.

He soon moved up to Joe Gibbs Racing as an engineer, spending time on Busch and Denny Hamlin’s teams. In January, Gabehart was named the crew chief for Erik Jones in his rookie Xfinity season.

At 35 and married, Gabehart has begun to see the world outside of motorsports but being the racer at heart that he is, he admits that’s a large portion of his life. Which means you’re likely to find Gabehart following his driver to a Late Model race when the schedule permits.

“A lot of what I do is race,” Gabehart said. “I do enjoy racquetball, hanging out with the guys, going to movies, going to friend’s house. That kind of stuff, but nothing extraordinary, I don’t have the time for it. I’m a simple guy. I race, and I sleep, and I eat.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Expand on your decision to get out of the driver’s seat and how meeting Kyle Busch played a role in that

Gabehart: When I was done with school up in Indiana at Purdue I was racing with a Late Model team out of Indianapolis. Started building shocks for a company called Advance Racing Suspension as a side job and was just full blown racer, doing well, but was running out of funding. Once I won the championship in 2007, the team I was with, that was about as far as they were going to take me in terms of money and ability. I built my own car to run a few choice races because I love racing, and I wanted to keep going. Did a part-time deal in 2008 up there in building shocks and crew chiefing and driving, kind of the whole thing, and then in 2009 I took a full-time crew chief job in Atlanta, Georgia, with a kid named TJ Reid with Late Model stuff. Brought my car down there and started a little shock business, so that path was continuing to develop. I was staying busy, phone consulting a little bit, and kind of had it all going on.

I always knew the NASCAR thing was in the back of my mind; I wanted to drive when I was a younger guy, but I realized that’s probably not going to happen. I thought if I’m ever going to try (something else) someone with the connections and ability of Kyle Busch would be a great way to try it out. So Tom (Busch) and I ended up talking, and I got the crew chief deal for Kyle Busch Motorsports for 2010 and moved to North Carolina. I did that for a year and was fairly successful at that. With my engineering degree Kyle was needing some help on trucks as well, so in 2011, I did Late Model stuff and Trucks. Then towards the end of that year, there was an opportunity on his Cup team to be an engineer, so things were obviously going well and again, I looked at Kyle as a great resource to try and advance my career, so I’m like, well, I better take this opportunity, too. To Joe Gibbs Racing I came, and here I am.

NBC Sports: Was it always racing for you, or did you try any other sports when you were younger?

Gabehart: In grade school, I played baseball and basketball and was pretty decent at both. But again, I started racing pretty competitively at the age of 11, regionally and even starting to tour nationally in go-karts. At a pretty young age, it was either baseball and basketball, summer and fall type sports, and it quickly became the choice of I’m going to race, or I’m going to play the stick-and-ball sports. I chose racing.

NBC Sports: How much of your approach do you have to change when you go from a more experienced driver to a younger driver?

Gabehart: I think the skill sets can be very different. For me, my previous driving experience definitely helps me every day at my job. For a younger driver, I would say I lean on my experience to help pull information out of them by trying to relate to them based on my past experiences. So if I’m getting feedback from Christopher (Bell) and now Erik, I think I understand what he means, but I’m leaning on some experience that I have. I know the right questions to ask to get the information out of him whereas with a more experienced driver like Kyle, he knows what he needs to tell me, so instead I lean on my past experiences to understand what he’s saying.

NBC Sports: Does it make your job easier being a former driver?

Gabehart: No question about it. There are many successful crew chiefs out there who haven’t driven, but I make it no secret that they are way smarter than I because I don’t know how I could do it without previous experiences. I tip my hat to those who have never driven very much but have become very successful in this sport because, for me, I lean on it every day. But I think that highlights something that is really neat about my job at this level and above – it’s so much more than making a race car go fast. It’s managing people and projects and getting the most out of people and looking far enough ahead to determine what you need six months from now and making sure the driver has what he needs and gets along well with the team. All of those things have nothing to do with particularly making a race car go fast and certainly not my past driving experience, but they’re vital to making a good race team. There’s a great reason why you don’t have to be a past driver to be an excellent crew chief, so there’s so much more to it than that.

NBC Sports: Crew chiefs are thought of as the ones constantly working, but there has to be things you do to get away from racing?

Gabehart: (laughs) Well I must tell you I’ve been married for about two-and-a-half years now, but I’ve been with the same woman for almost 13 years. Before her, I raced, and that’s what I did. After her, I race a lot, but she is expanding my horizons. The past couple of years we’ve been on big offseason vacations which is something I never did before her. This year we’re going to Hawaii for a week and a half. Last year we went to Sweden and London over the New Year and went above the Arctic Circle in Sweden and to the Ice Hotel up there. It was amazing, right? The whole thing was great. So what do I do and what I enjoy? I don’t know. It’s not like I play basketball in my spare time, but she is definitely helping me expand my horizons and see the world, so that’s kind of cool.

NBC Sports: Being in the Late Model world is much smaller than NASCAR, so when you changed careers when did it strike you that you were in the big time?

Gabehart: My first week in Daytona when I was on the Cup side. It’s a long week because you have the Unlimited before the Duel races. So that’s long and grueling because you have to have three cars ready – backup, the Unlimited car, and the Daytona 500 car. Then you fly back home for a day or two and then you’re back down there for a week. Well, the Daytona 500 that year was the year (2012) it rained out and we had a Monday night 500. Then after that our planes were fogged in, so that week and a half was, ‘Wow, if this is what this is going to be like, I don’t know if I can handle this (laughs).’ It was just non-stop one event after the next.

This year from a crew chief perspective, we had the schedule of Daytona week, then Atlanta, and the three weeks out west. Well, I liken that to a college hazing because as a crew chief you’re forced to plan and organize those five races before you ever leave for Daytona because you just don’t have enough cars, people, and resources to force it through each week. The last race was Fontana, and most of the planning and organizing and shipping of equipment back and forth was all done, and when I was done with that, I said to myself, ‘Wow, that has been a rough five weeks, I do not know why they pile it all up front like that.’ But I feel like I made it, and I’m a member of the club now.

Follow @KellyCrandall

Appeal panel gives William Byron his 25 points back

0 Comments

William Byron is back in a transfer spot after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded his 25-point penalty Thursday for spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas.

By getting those 25 points back, Byron enters Sunday’s elimination playoff race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 14 points above the cutline.

Daniel Suarez is now in the final transfer spot to the Round of 8. He is 12 points ahead of Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Christopher Bell is 45 points behind Suarez. Alex Bowman will not race this week as he continues to recover from concussion symptoms and has been eliminated from Cup title contention.

NASCAR did not penalize Byron after his incident with Hamlin because series officials did not see the contact. Two days later, NASCAR penalized Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for intentionally wrecking Hamlin.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel stated that Byron violated the rule but amended the penalty to no loss of driver and owner points while increasing the fine to $100,000.

The panel did not give a reason for its decision. NASCAR cannot appeal the panel’s decision.

The panel consisted of Hunter Nickell, a former TV executive, Dale Pinilis, track operator of Bowman Gray Stadium and Kevin Whitaker, owner of Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

Here is the updated standings heading into Sunday’s race at the Roval:

Byron’s actions took place after the caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race that the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Drivers for Drive for Diversity combine revealed

0 Comments

The 13 drivers who will participate in the Advance Auto Part Drive for Diversity Combine were revealed Thursday and range in age from 13-19.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Development Program was created in 2004 to develop and train ethnically diverse and female drivers both on and off the track. Cup drivers Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson came through the program.

The 2020 and 2021 combines were canceled due to the impact of COVID-19.

“We are thrilled that we are in a position to return to an in-person evaluation for this year’s Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine,” Rev Racing CEO Max Seigel said in a statement. “We are energized by the high-level of participating athletes and look forward to building the best driver class for 2023. As an organization, we have never been more positioned for success and future growth.”

The youngest drivers are Quinn Davis and Nathan Lyons, who are both 13 years old.

The group includes 17-year-old Andrés Pérez de Lara, who finished seventh in his ARCA Menards Series debut in the Sept. 15 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Also among those invited to the combine is 15-year old Katie Hettinger, who will make her ARCA Menards Series West debut Oct.. 14 at the Las Vegas Bullring. She’s also scheduled to compete in the ARCA West season finale Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

 

Name

Age Hometown
Justin Campbell 17 Griffin, Georgia
Quinn Davis 13 Sparta, Tennessee
Eloy Sebastián

López Falcón

17 Mexico City, Mexico
Katie Hettinger 15 Dryden, MI
Caleb Johnson 15 Denver, CO
Nathan Lyons 13 Concord, NC
Andrés Pérez de Lara 17 Mexico City, Mexico
Jaiden Reyna 16 Cornelius, NC
Jordon Riddick 17 Sellersburg, IN
Paige Rogers 19 New Haven, IN
Lavar Scott 19 Carney’s Point, NJ
Regina Sirvent 19 Mexico City, Mexico
Lucas Vera 15 Charlotte, NC

 

Dr. Diandra: Crashes: Causes and complications

0 Comments

Two drivers have missed races this year after hard rear-end crashes. Kurt Busch has been out since an incident in qualifying at Pocono in July. Alex Bowman backed hard into a wall at Texas and will miss Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Other drivers have noted that the hits they’ve taken in the Next Gen car are among the hardest they’ve felt in a Cup car.

“When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed, and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports.

The three most crucial parameters in determining the severity of a crash are:

  • How much kinetic energy the car carries
  • How long the collision takes
  • The angle at which the car hits

Angle

The last of these factors requires trigonometry to explain properly. You can probably intuit, however, that a shallower hit is preferable to a head-on — or rear-on — hit.

A graphic show shallower (low-angle) hits and deeper (high-angle) hits
Click for a larger view

When the angle between the car and the wall is small, most of the driver’s momentum starts and remains in the direction parallel to the wall. The car experiences a small change in velocity.

The larger the angle, the larger the change in perpendicular speed and the more force experienced. NASCAR has noted that more crashes this season have had greater angles than in the past.

Busch and Bowman both had pretty large-angle hits, so we’ll skip the trig.

Energy — in pounds of TNT

A car’s kinetic energy depends on how much it weighs and how fast it’s going. But the relationship between kinetic energy and speed is not linear: It’s quadratic. That means going twice as fast gives you four times more kinetic energy.

The graph shows the kinetic energies of different kinds of race cars at different speeds. To give you an idea of how much energy we’re talking about, I expressed the kinetic energy in terms of equivalent pounds of TNT.

A vertical bar graph showing kinetic energies for different types of racecars and their energies

  • A Next Gen car going 180 mph has the same kinetic energy as is stored in almost three pounds of TNT.
  • Because IndyCars are about half the weight of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, an IndyCar has about half the kinetic energy of a Next Gen car when both travel at the same speed.
  • At 330 mph, Top Fuel drag racers carry the equivalent of six pounds of TNT in kinetic energy.

All of a car’s kinetic energy must be transformed to other types of energy when the car slows or stops. NASCAR states that more crashes are occurring at higher closing speeds, which means more kinetic energy.

Longer collisions > shorter collisions

That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be in a crash any longer than necessary?

But the longer a collision takes, the more time there is to transform kinetic energy.

A pitting car starts slowing down well below it reaches its pit box. The car’s kinetic energy is transformed into heat energy (brakes and rotors warming), light energy (glowing rotors), and even sound energy (tires squealing).

The same amount of kinetic energy must be transformed in a collision — but much faster. In addition to heat, light and sound, energy is transformed via the car spinning and parts deforming or breaking. (This video about Michael McDowell’s 2008 Texas qualifying crash goes into more detail.)

The force a collision produces depends on how long the car takes to stop. Compare the force from your seat belt when you slow down at a stop sign to what you feel if you have to suddenly slam on the brakes.

To give you an idea of how fast collisions can be, the initial wall impact in the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. lasted only eight-hundredths (0.08) of a second.

SAFER barriers use a car’s kinetic energy to move a heavy steel wall and crush pieces of energy-absorbing foam. That extracts energy from the car, plus the barrier extends the collision time.

The disadvantage is that a car with lower kinetic energy won’t move the barrier. Then it’s just like running into a solid wall.

That’s the same problem the Next Gen car seems to have.

Chassis stiffness: A Goldilocks problem

The Next Gen chassis is a five-piece, bolt-together car skeleton, as shown below.

A graphic showing the five parts of the Next Gen chassis.
Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click to enlarge.
The foam surrounding the outside of the rear bumper
The purple is energy-absorbing foam. Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click for a larger view.

That graphic doesn’t show another important safety feature: the energy absorbing foam that covers the outside of the bumpers. It’s purple in the next diagram.

All cars are designed so that the strongest part of the car surrounds the occupants. Race cars are no different.

The center section of the Next Gen chassis is made from stout steel tubing and sheet metal. Components become progressively weaker as you move away from the cockpit. The bumper, for example, is made of aluminum alloy rather than steel. The goal is transforming all the kinetic energy before it reaches the driver.

Because the Next Gen car issues are with rear impacts, I’ve expanded and highlighted the last two pieces of the chassis.

The rear clip and bumper, with the fuel cell and struts shaded

The bumper and the rear clip don’t break easily enough. The rear ends of Gen-6 cars were much more damaged than the Next Gen car after similar impacts.

If your initial thought is “Just weaken the struts,” you’ve got good instincts. However, there are two challenges.

I highlighted the first one in red: the fuel cell. About the only thing worse than a hard collision is a hard collision and a fire.

The other challenge is that a chassis is a holistic structure: It’s not like each piece does one thing independent of all the other pieces. Changing one element to help soften rear collisions might make other types of collisions harder.

Chassis are so complex that engineers must use finite-element-analysis computer programs to predict their behavior. These programs are analogous to (and just as complicated as) the computational fluid dynamics programs aerodynamicists use.

Progress takes time

An under-discussed complication was noted by John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR. He told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long in July that he was surprised by the rear-end crash stiffness.

The Next Gen car’s crash data looked similar to that from the Gen-6 car, but the data didn’t match the drivers’ experiences. Before addressing the car, his team had to understand the disparity in the two sets of data.

They performed a real-world crash test on a new configuration Wednesday. These tests are complex and expensive: You don’t do them until you’re pretty confident what you’ve changed will make a significant difference.

But even if the test goes exactly as predicted, they aren’t done.

Safety is a moving target.

And always will be.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

0 Comments

NASCAR Cup Series drivers race on the road for the final time this season Sunday, as the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval course ends the playoffs’ Round of 12.

The 17-turn, 2.28-mile course incorporating the CMS oval and infield will determine the eight drivers who will advance to the next round of the playoffs. Chase Elliott won last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway and is the only driver who has qualified for a spot in the Round of 8.

Entering Sunday’s race, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the playoff cutline. Bowman will not qualify for the next round because he is sidelined by concussion-like symptoms.

The race (2 p.m ET) will be broadcast by NBC.

Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 81 with a 6% chance of rain.

Saturday: Mixed clouds and sun. High of 67 with a 3% chance of rain.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 68 with a 3% chance of rain.

Friday, Oct. 7

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 12 – 5 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Saturday, Oct. 8

Garage open

  • 7 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 8:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)