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New car buoys hopes for Chevrolet to avoid ‘unacceptable’ Cup result last year

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A Chevrolet executive calls it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car racing for the Cup championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway but says he expects Chevrolet to have “at least a car or two” in the title race this season with the new Camaro ZL1

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, made the comments Sunday after a luncheon at the National Motorsports Press Association Convention.

Chevrolet had no Cup car finish higher than fifth (Chase Elliott) last year and did not score a win in the 10-race playoffs — Toyota won eight races and Ford two. Toyota won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

“If you look at the car count and just do a ratio of the car count, we were (seven) out of 16 going into the playoffs last year and to not have one make it in the final round was not good,’’ Suhy said.

“I expect us to have at least a car or two in the Final Four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.’’

Suhy and others at Chevrolet are buoyed by the Camaro ZL1 and look to repeat the success Toyota had last season (16 wins in 36 races) with its updated Camry.

Suhy said a key to the Camaro ZL1 is that Chevrolet engineers found ways to move more downforce from the front to the rear of the car.

“As teams make more downforce, they tend to make more and more front downforce, they don’t gain rear downforce as much,’’ Suhy said. “With the old car, as they made more and more front downforce, it got more and more aero loose, so it got harder to keep the car from being too loose and unstable going into the turns.’’

Suhy said that while there were some Chevrolets that were strong last season — Kyle Larson won four races to lead the manufacturer — many teams had a challenge with the setup.

“I would say the loose to relative looseness of the car didn’t feel as comfortable getting into the corners,’’ Suhy said of last year’s car. “So I think a lot of it is really about driver comfort and how they feel going 210 mph down the frontstretch at Michigan and lifting and turning left and having the confidence that the car is actually going to turn left and not lose the front end. I think those are the things this car will help feel more settled, more stable and less twitchy.’’

Any new car can have its struggles. Despite its dominance last year, Toyota won only two of the first 17 races before winning 14 of the final 19.

“I think some of the things that we’ve done with our car and what we’ve done since it was approved, working together with our teams and with the teams working separately, I’d like to think that we’re not going to struggle that badly that early,’’ Suhy said. “I guess we’ll see. We’re prepared. If we do struggle, it’s not because of the fundamental design of the car, it’s really just a matter of more time development needed. We’re ready to address that if needed.’’

Chevrolet enters this new era without its NASCAR program manager. Alba Colon joined Hendrick Motorsports earlier this month to oversee the team’s competition systems group. She was among those from Chevrolet at the track most weekends who worked with the teams.

Suhy said he’s temporarily filling Colon’s job, along with his other duties, until a replacement can be found. Suhy said the team that developed the car remains and that Kevin Bayless, Chevrolet Racing NASCAR Chassis and Aerodynamics Program Manager, will play a greater role. Bayless will be at the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Each Cup organization is allowed to have one team test. 

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Hendrick Motorsports adds GM executive to competition department

Alba Colon, Sprint Cup program manager for GM, has spoken at several schools this year, encouraging student interest in race car engineering.
Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images for ESSENCE
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Hendrick Motorsports continued revamping its competition department by hiring Alba Colon, who had been a General Motors engineer and auto racing program manager, to oversee the team’s competition systems group.

The team announced Tuesday that she will join the organization later this month and report to Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition.

Hendrick Motorsports stated in a release that Colon will work to enhance capabilities that support at-track competition, which include simulation programs, analytics platforms, data acquisition and communication technologies and at-track research and development. The position was previously held by Darian Grubb, who has moved into the crew chief role for rookie William Byron.

MORE: How Alba Colon is giving back to her native Puerto Rico 

MORE: Alba Colon on Episode 84 of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast

Colon had been with GM since 1994, joining as a data acquisition engineer for its Oval Track Group, covering NASCAR’s three national series. She later moved to GM’s NHRA program and was placed in charge of its drag racing programs in 2000. Colon became Chevrolet Racing’s NASCAR Cup Series program manager in 2001, a position she held until making this move.

“Alba Colon was a key contributor to Chevrolet’s racing success for over two decades, including 14 NASCAR Cup Manufacturers’ Championships as our program manager in the series,” a statement from Chevrolet Motorsports read. “We thank Alba for all of her contributions to Chevrolet Motorsports.”

In June, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Doug Duchardt, who had been the organization’s general manager since 2005, was leaving at the end of the month.

Duchardt joined Chip Ganassi Racing last week to be that organization’s chief operating officer.

Hendrick Motorsports announced in June that it did not plan to fill Duchardt’s role and that his responsibilities would be divided among many individuals.

In August, Hendrick Motorsports announced it had elevated eight senior leaders into new positions. Included in the moves was promoting Ken Howes from vice president of competition to vice president and chief of staff and Andrews from director of engine operations to vice president of competition. Grubb was elevated to director of competition systems at that time but was named about a month later to be Kasey Kahne‘s crew chief the rest of the season before moving into that role with Byron.

Hendrick Motorsports is coming off a season where it won four races — its fewest total since 2000 — and won only four stages. To compare, Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., the reigning Cup champion, won eight races and 19 stages last season.

Hendrick Motorsports’ victory total has declined each of the past four seasons, going from 13 wins in 2014 to nine victories in 2015 to five wins in 2016 and four last season.

Only one of the organization’s four drivers — seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson — has won a Cup race. He’s joined by Byron, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

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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.”