Dr. Diandra: How NASCAR teams prepare to run a brand-new track

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A race team starts its preparation for the next track by reviewing all the data collected during previous visits. But what if there’s no data to review?

That’s the situation teams faced this week as they visit the repaved and reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway.

It’s Always a New Track

For engineers like GM Racing’s Nick Fishbein, the last few years of schedule shakeups and rules modifications have made change a constant in NASCAR.

“I don’t know that preparing for Atlanta is that much different than just preparing for a track, period, especially in the Next Gen environment where everything is new,” Fishbein said.

Even the relationship between manufacturers and teams is changing.

“Not so much because of the Next Gen car,” Fishbein explained, “but a general evolution toward more ingrained support.”

Centralization lets manufacturers reduce duplication of effort and gather more data.

But how do you gather data for a track before it’s even been built?

Jumping the Start

Developing a computer model for a race car running a specific track is an iterative process. You start with what you have and what you can make educated guesses about. From there, every new piece of data helps you refine the model.

Engineers started thinking about Atlanta the moment the ink dried on the blueprints. Fishbein’s group based their model for Atlanta on data from similar tracks, like Daytona and Charlotte. Both tracks hosted early Next Gen testing sessions and actual race data could be added to the model after the Daytona 500.

Experiments on seven-post rigs, engine dynos, and tire-test machines let teams start working on their models even before the track is finished.

Testing Tires Indoors

This is a MTS CT Plus Flat Trac, which Goodyear (and other companies) use for tire testing (Photo courtesy of Smithers.)
This is a MTS CT Plus Flat Trac, which Goodyear uses for tire testing. Goodyear is working on making that virtual, too. (Photo courtesy of Smithers.)

One GM Racing group focuses on tires, using tire-test machines to press a tire against a rotating piece of sandpaper that mimics a track surface. The picture to the right is a FlatTrac tester at Goodyear. GM Racing uses a similar machine at SoVa Motion.  

Although lab data can’t replace race data, it does allow engineers to control variables impossible to control at a track. They can modify everything from force on the tire to its slip angle and camber. If you know a lot about tires in general, it’s not so hard to develop a realistic model for a track that doesn’t yet exist.

Of course, it’s one thing to know the conditions that maximize tire grip. It’s another to get your car set up to provide them.

The On-Track Tire Test

Atlanta’s schedule called for the track to be completed in time for a tire test in late 2021. A pipe burst on the backstretch over Thanksgiving, ruining the subgrade — the all-important foundation for the track. That pushed the tire test back to January 2022.

The months-long delay didn’t worry Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of race tire sales.

“We have such a long history with NASCAR and track changes,” he said, “and a good idea of the tire design based on the whole Next Gen package.”

The tread compound, however, needed a physical test. Wear on a tire helps dissipates heat, but a brand-new, smooth track doesn’t offer much wear. Without enough heat dissipation, tires can blister.

“That’s the one area,” Stucker said, “that needs on-track testing.”

The tire test did more than just finalize the tread compound.

“I asked the drivers for feedback,” Steve Swift, senior vice president of operations and development at Speedway Motorsports said. “All three said the dogleg coming off turn four was awkward.”

Drivers were worried that the wall angle relative to the racing path would lead to harder, more head-on collisions rather than glancing blows.

A graphic showing how the turn four dogleg was modified to make it safer.Swift drove it himself. “Even as an engineer, I could tell it was an issue.”

They moved the outside wall in by about 5 feet at the dogleg, which required constructing 320 feet of wall, SAFER barrier and catchfence. Losing 5 feet of racing surface wasn’t an issue because they’d already widened the front stretch from 55 feet to 61-1/2 feet and replaced about three feet of grass with pavement.

Pulling It All Together

Engineers continuously check their computer models against on-track data. Things that work stay in the model, and things that don’t work get modified. With the track and the tire finalized, Goodyear and the manufacturers ran a wheel force test in early March. Specialized sensors measure all the forces on each wheel at every point on the track. These measurements provides the most valuable data because they are of the specific tire that will be run, on the track that will be raced.

Fishbein’s GM Racing group synthesizes data from their internal research groups and their teams. Ultimately, they provide Chevy teams with baseline information and predictions for which variables will matter most at a track. Crew chiefs tailor their car’s setup to their driver’s strengths and preferences.

Fishbein sounded a little disappointed describing their final simulation results for Atlanta. They expect drivers running wide open well into a fuel run, little tire wear, flat lap times and no lifting except to facilitate drafting.

“Any track with a lot of fall off is interesting because you have to weigh priorities between short and long runs, and how to manage tire fall off,” Fishbein said. “I feel like we took an interesting challenge each year and made it simpler.”

The Green Flag

When cars roll onto the starting grid, everything is in the hands of a variable no engineer knows how to model precisely: The driver.

“Nervously excited,” Swift answered when asked how he would feel when the green flag flew for the race. “I’m expecting great racing. We’ve done the work, but how the track drives is different than how the track races.”

Stucker laughed when I asked him the same question. “There’s always a little bit of uncertainty with repaves and reconfigurations, and then you add the new car on top of all that. But we’ve got so much history and data… We’re prepared.”

Fishbein, along with all NASCAR engineers, will watch two races. One is how their drivers finish. The second is how accurately they predicted what would happen at NASCAR’s newest superspeedway — and what they need to improve for next time.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.