Jason Sheets

Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: A night to forget

1 Comment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long spent last week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. 

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

Part 3: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew 

Part 4: A day filled with highs and lows 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The lift gate slammed with a thud, loud enough to be heard over the roar of cars that circled Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Richard Petty Motorsports hauler was loaded about 45 minutes after the team’s race ended after three laps Saturday night because of a crash.

“It sucks,” car chief Jason Sheets said.

Crew members load Bubba Wallace’s wrecked car in the hauler. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He laughed — what else could one do? — and shrugged his shoulders. Then, he walked away with the rest of the team toward the Turn 3 tunnel. They headed to a nearby airport for the 22-minute flight to Statesville (North Carolina) Regional Airport and then a drive home.

There was no storybook ending for this underfunded single-car team. They had hoped to repeat how well Bubba Wallace ran at Bristol in April when he drove to the front and led six laps. A blistered left-front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish that day.

With potential sponsors at the track Saturday, Richard Petty Motorsports executives hoped for a similar type performance minus the blistered tire.

Bristol marked the fifth time in the last six races that Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage — companies operated by co-owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty — were on the car because no other company paid the be the primary sponsor. The team does not have a primary sponsor for six of the season’s final 12 races.

Missing that sponsorship, there isn’t money for the newest parts and RPM can’t build new cars as often. It makes it difficult to compete against bigger teams. Richard Petty Motorsports last had a top-10 finish in April at Texas.

Bristol doesn’t rely as much on aerodynamics, so the money bigger teams outspend RPM on engineering doesn’t make as much an impact there as at a bigger track.

(Clockwise left to right) Engineering intern Erik Long, car chief Jason Sheets and mechanic Joey Forgette before Saturday’s race (Photo: Dustin Long)

That’s significant because RPM has two engineers. As part of the Richard Childress Racing technical alliance, the team has access to RCR’s engineers.

With only one engineer, Derek Stamets, able to travel this weekend, RPM was loaned Erik Long, an engineering intern at RCR who has one final semester remaining at UNC Charlotte.

The team was hopeful after Wallace was 12th on the speed chart in Friday’s final practice but the performance dropped in qualifying when he failed to advance beyond the first round and started 27th. Frustrated, Wallace spoke briefly with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer before walking out to the hauler Friday and slamming the sliding doors shut.

Later that night, Wallace and Blickensderfer texted about how the car handled and changes that needed for the race. They settled on a setup similar to what Wallace had at the end of the April race with one change to prevent the left front tire from blistering again.

Blickensderfer was confident Saturday evening in the car’s performance after about 20 laps. With a competition caution set for Lap 60, he had a plan in place of pitting if there was a caution about 30 laps into the race to get off sequence from the leaders and gain track position later when they pitted.

Bubba Wallace with his team shortly before the start of the race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The mood was light around the car on pit road before the start when Blickensderfer walked out there. Wallace joked with his teammates. As Wallace grabbed his helmet to put on, the public address system played the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. Wallace joined the crowd in doing the hand motions during the refrain. Once inside the car, he exchanged playful hand gestures with interior mechanic David Cropps, whose job is to ensure Wallace’s equipment keeps the driver safe in an accident.

As the cars align for the start, spotter Freddie Kraft gives Wallace,on the inside of Row 14, instructions.

“One to go at the line,” Kraft tells Wallace on the radio. “Just try to rubber up that bottom (line) as best you can here. … I’m just worried about it being real slick the first lap, you know what I mean? (The traction compound) will burn in within the first lap or so, but the first lap might be a little slick.”

Wallace then tells the team: “All right boys, let’s see what we can do at the end of the night. Good times coming from inside the car. Appreciate the hard work. Let’s see what we can do. Appreciate it. Love you.”

Kraft tells Wallace: “Take care of that thing. Let’s have some fun tonight, brother. Let’s go to work.”

The green flag waves.

Forty-four seconds later, Kraft yells on the radio: “Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Son of a bitch. We’re killed.”

Kyle Busch slides up the track in Turns 3 and 4, bounces off Ryan Blaney and slides down the frontstretch. Wallace ran into the back of AJ Allmendinger’s car, goes low and then is forced into the inside wall when Daniel Suarez cuts hard left to avoid Busch’s car.

A NASCAR official points to the fluid leaking from Bubba Wallace’s car after he was collected in a crash. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace makes it to pit road. The damage is too great. The radiator and oil cooler are damaged and fluid drains from the bottom of the car.

Wallace’s race is over. He climbs from the car and slams his helmet against roof.

He fist bumps his teammates and thanks them for their work.

Wallace will finish 38th, completing three of 500 laps.

“I was pissed there for a moment,” he said after exiting the infield care center. “Then you just laugh about it. It’s crazy. Can’t even make it two laps, I don’t know if we made it a lap and then we’re wadded up. Just a bummer. I usually sweat pretty easily. Hell, I didn’t have enough time (in the car) to sweat.”

With that, his duties are done, a weekend gone. He walks out of the care center and heads toward the tunnel to leave.

The race continues without Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

 and on Facebook

Inside look at Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bristol game plan

Photo: Dustin Long
Leave a comment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how a team prepares for a race. He will be with the team at the shop and at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories beginning today and running through Sunday.

WELCOME, N.C. — Tuesday’s competition meeting could have been held anywhere at Richard Petty Motorsports and often is.

Sometimes it is held in crew chief Drew Blickensderfer’s cozy office where a picture of Richard Petty and Dale Inman from Martinsville in 1971 watches over the room.

Cars on the shop floor at Richard Petty Motorsports. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Sometimes the meeting can be held on the shop floor where some of the team’s 12 cars are in various stages of dress, including the car — still in its primer black — that Bubba Wallace will race Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Tuesday, the meeting took place in a conference room in the front of the 20,000-square foot building that sits on the Richard Childress Racing complex.

Outside the room along a narrow hallway is a picture of a young Petty from about 60 years ago. NASCAR’s Elvis stands with his right hand in his back pocket and left hand leaning on the hood of a No. 43 convertible that Inman, who walks by, says is from Darlington in the late 1950s. Petty wears a white open-face helmet and the driver’s uniform of the day, a striped button down shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, jeans and boots.

Just a few feet from that picture, Wallace — the future of RPM — leans back in a leather office chair in his uniform of the day, a blue Air Force T-shirt, dark jeans and sneakers. Blickensderfer sits across from Wallace in the conference room. Engineer Derek Stamets is to the right of Blickensderfer, who looks over notes on his laptop.

Sometimes there are a few more who sit in on the meeting but not many for this single-car team, which has 12 people working on the cars at the track and nine who solely work on the cars at the shop.

This is a pivotal time for Richard Petty Motorsports. While it has had sponsorship from World Wide Technology, STP, Click n’ Close and the U.S. Air Force, among others, the team does not have a primary sponsor for seven of the remaining 13 Cup races, including this weekend at Bristol. For those races, the car will be adorned in the team’s Petty blue and Day Glo orange with the logos of Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage, companies operated by team owners Andrew Murstein and Petty.

Mechanic Joey Forgette (left), car chief Jason Sheets and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer talk as they stand over the car Bubba Wallace will drive at Bristol this weekend. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Trying to compete against teams with bigger budgets is not easy — Wallace has an average finish of 22.6 this year. But Bristol can be an equalizer because success at the high-banked short track is not as reliant on aerodynamics and dollar signs.

Wallace drove to the front and led six laps — the first laps the 24-year-old rookie had led as a Cup driver — at Bristol in April. A blistered left front tire relegated Wallace to 16th that day, but that doesn’t dampen the anticipation in the shop for this weekend. A similar run, without the tire blistering, would be a great way to showcase the team to potential sponsors it will have as guests Saturday night at the track.

So it is with that at stake the team’s weekly competition meeting takes place.

Blickensderfer gives Wallace a flash drive at the start of the meeting for his homework.

“That’s got (Kyle Larson’s) in-car (video),” Blickensderfer says. “I got that for you, at the end of the day when we had the struggle with the left front tire, we were never really able to get to the top (groove). Those guys could so I thought was worth watching.

“Yep,” Wallace said, nodding.

“That’s got qualifying on it, just to review what everybody did.”

Blickensderfer tells Wallace they will stick with their base setup from the spring race but will try three or four things to try to “tighten entry and … help that left front tire. We’ll try those in practice and see if we can figure out things.”

The blistered left front tire ruined a performance that could have rivaled Wallace’s runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, a result that left Petty smiling broadly and the now 81-year-old hustling through the crowd to bear hug his driver.

Knowing how close he had come to such a strong finish at Bristol, Wallace said he was “absolutely devastated, dejected, defeated” in a video he posted on Twitter shortly after that race.

Wallace was 12th on Lap 256 in the spring, climbed to sixth by lap 273 and worked his way to second on Lap 368 when he passed Kyle Busch. Wallace passed Brad Keselowski for the lead on Lap 375, holding it until Busch, who went on to win, got back by him six laps later.

Wallace soon fell back. As the left front tire blistered, it kept Wallace from running the bottom line because the car wouldn’t turn as well. By the time the caution came out on Lap 471, Wallace had fallen outside the top 10 and was no longer a factor for the win.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Bubba Wallace discuss their game plan for this weekend’s race at Bristol. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It was with that in mind that Wallace asked Blickensderfer what happened to the tire that day.

“Do you think the setup was the cause of the left front?” Wallace asks.

“I don’t think so,” Blickensderfer says. “I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg. I don’t know if the left front got worn because of the (traction compound was put down in the corners of the track) differently than it should have. There were other teams that had a similar left front issue. Us and (Keselowski) were running in the top five and 40 laps later we were getting lapped.

“It could have been brake related. Did we have something go on where you had to dial more front brake in because you were loose in?

“Yeah,” Wallace says.

“Then all of a sudden when tires wear, you locked up the left front one time.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“It takes some tread off and then from then on it gets worse.”

“Yep.”

“Or did the tread start coming up, which caused it to lock up more.”

“Gotcha.”

Blickensderfer notes that tire was worn in the center. Had it been worn on the inside edge or outside edge, it would have been a sign of a camber issue. Also, Blickensderfer says they had run further earlier in the race without an issue.

Blickensderfer also tells Wallace that they’ll have a 15-minute penalty at the end of the first practice Friday morning because they went through inspection twice before last weekend’s race at Michigan. The plan is to do a couple of mock qualifying runs in Friday’s morning session. Wallace was 16th in the first round of qualifying and 20th in the second round there in the spring. Wallace’s car had been loose in the corner in the first round and “really loose in” Blickensderfer notes in the second round.

“We’ll make sure to give you a couple of mock runs, especially on older tires to see if that loose in gets worse as it goes,” Blickensderfer says.

“OK,” Wallace says.

They discuss more about the race, go back to qualifying with Blickensderfer noting other videos he’s placed on the flash drive of drivers for Wallace to study, mention the weather and how that could impact their plans and make final notes. They end for lunch but the discussions won’t stop. The search for speed doesn’t take breaks.

 and on Facebook