Aero testing pays off big for Cup teams

November, 8, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- In a rather nondescript building at the end of a side road about 10 minutes from Indianapolis Motor Speedway amid a bunch of other nondescript buildings, there's a stock car about the size of a go-kart going through a wind-tunnel test.

The car is owned by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. It has a No. 1 on the right side and No. 42 on the left, but there is no miniature Jamie McMurray or Juan Pablo inside. I looked just to make sure.

But what goes on in this room with this car -- scaled down to 40 percent the size of the 3,500-pound cars that Chevrolet has driven to 34 manufacturer titles in Cup, including nine of the past 10 -- isn't small at all. It's big, actually.

Real big.

In this tunnel at the Auto Research Center used by General Motors is where much of the technology that Chevrolet teams use in NASCAR's premier series is developed. Other manufacturers have similar facilities.

I'm here shadowing ESPN analyst Tim Brewer as he does a behind-the-scenes television piece on the facility that GM has operated out of for 10 years. It's safe to say the technology is more advanced than anything Brewer had in winning Cup titles with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

"Leaps and bounds," Brewer says.

The initial investment in the wind tunnel for GM was huge, about $15 million -- or about $14 million what it cost to build a seven-post shaker that teams use. The initial investment for a team also is big, about $200,0000 to build the carbon-fiber car.

To put that in perspective, you can build a full-size stock car for that or less.

But after the initial cost this really is a cost-saving measure. Teams can come to the facility with a pair of engineers, no car, fuel or any other things necessary for a full wind-tunnel test. If a part has to be replaced it can be done for a fraction of the cost. And the results are big.

"It shows up well on the track," says Kevin Bayless, the aero and chassis program manager at GM.

Such as?

"Nothing I am liberty to tell you," he says.

Yes, there's some top-secret stuff here. If a Chevrolet team learns something, it doesn't have to share it with the other teams, either.

When I ask if EGR found something here that helped McMurray win the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, aero design engineer Josh Wilson smiles.

"We spend a lot of money in research and development," Wilson says. "A large chunk goes to aerodynamic research."

In other words, he's not giving away secrets.

So why use this scaled-down version instead of a full wind tunnel? It's cheaper after the initial investment. It's also more efficient in many ways because there's a belt under the car that can turn the wheels up to 110 mph to match the speed of the wind. That helps, according to Bayless, give more accurate information for air flow under the car.

This wind tunnel also doesn't require teams to take cars out of inventory and ship them to the facility.

That doesn't mean teams don't use full wind tunnels as well. The top teams use every avenue to improve, and suffice to say Hendrick Motorsports spends a lot of time here.

Convincing crew chiefs that the model works wasn't easy at first, but after seeing how the results have translated to performance on the track, they have turned around.

Brewer admits he might have been initially skeptical as a crew chief.

"Seeing is believing," he says.

When I ask if there is any data that could help me predict the winner on Sundays, I got one of those if-I-told-you-I-would-have-to-kill-you looks.

"Things found here have been reflected on the track," Bayless says coyly.

He doesn't elaborate. Going behind the scenes doesn't mean you get to know everything behind the scenes.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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