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.

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”