Sometimes during the course of a race, one of the announcers or pit road reporters will allude to testing that a team has done and how much it helped them prepare for that particular race. This isn't groundbreaking news ... practice is an important component to success in any sport. But what exactly does testing in the hypercompetitive world of NASCAR entail?
Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Ford and longtime crew chief in the sport, gave a recent example of how important testing can be.
"We missed the Richmond race with our COT (car of tomorrow) car," Wood said. "We took the same automobile with us to Rockingham and tested with it the following Tuesday. We then went to Darlington and qualified eighth with it. Testing is expensive, but it's part of the game. Everybody's doing it so you've got to do it. Whether you can afford to do it or not, you can't afford not to do it."
Unlike Formula One or other types of racing, NASCAR is set up so that theoretically the cars don't win the races by sheer technological superiority over every other car, but rather the drivers win them by getting the most out of their equipment.
The best way for drivers to do this is to know their cars inside and out. And the best way for drivers to know this? By creating as many scenarios as possible, via testing, to find out what makes the car do what they want it to do.
Obviously, if a team finds a car that is to the driver's liking, they will want to duplicate that car as closely as possible when they build the next one. Even though the cars are built on the same surface plate with the same exact materials, they can vary slightly.
For example, how they weld the frames (the sequence of welds) can cause them to react differently under load and when at racing speed. The teams need to know what those variations are so they can set up the car accordingly and make the proper adjustments during a race. Cars are set up on a scale at the shop. Teams can adjust static weights (weights at rest) but they cannot measure dynamic weights without testing the cars under race conditions.
So testing is not about getting a driver track experience. A good part of testing, in fact, is done at tracks not even on the Nextel Cup series schedule ... tracks such as Kentucky Speedway, Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina and Carroway Speedway in North Carolina.
"It's not even about (seat time for the driver)," Wood said. "It's about putting data acquisition on your car and getting it to travel and turn. There's so much you can learn from the data you acquire. You're not even primarily focused on running fast. It's more about making changes and comparing laps and recording what you have found.
"You take your info back to the shop and someone there goes through it all and applies it. Testing is where you get a lot of your chemistry between driver and crew chief, but it's about engineers, too. Test is an engineer's middle name."
Danger is a race car driver's middle name, though, and he has to trust what the crew chief is telling him when he's pushing his car to the limits during a race weekend. With comparatively little time to go over a car's performance at any given track, it's imperative that the driver and crew chief develop a language in which the crew chief figures out what the car is doing by what the driver is telling him. This is developed for the most part at testing sessions.
While testing has always been part of the sport, Wood said it really became vital when NASCAR put restrictor plates on the cars at its two biggest tracks, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
"Testing really became important at those two tracks when they put plates on the engines, because it cut the horsepower nearly in half and every little thing you did to the car mattered. It's still that way now."
The acronym ABA is usually associated with professional basketball, but in the world of racing it refers to something else. Wood explains.
"In order to learn anything, you test part A, take it off and put part B on," Wood said. "One's going to be better than the other. Then you put part A back on to be sure that what you have just found is correct. It sounds simple and for the most part it is, but it's necessary and you have all these variables in the equation."
Even with all those variables, however, it still comes down to one simple thing.
"It's about getting the car to travel and turn," Wood said. "If you can get the car to do that in testing, you can apply it on race day."