Many years ago, when I first became involved in NASCAR, I was eager to learn about the cars even though, at that time, I was not directly involved in the competition side of the sport. I would pester the various drivers and crew chiefs about what they thought was most important in setups or driving styles, etc.
One old crew chief gave me a studied look, after what I suppose to him was a stupid question, and said: "A race car is like a book. All you have to do is learn how to read." That day started my learning curve on what to look for and how to "read" what I was seeing. You can learn a lot simply by observing what others are doing successfully. For example, how does the car look -- camber angle, rake/tilt, etc. while sitting still? And how does it perform out on the track?
As an old high school teacher of mine was fond of saying "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." That bit of philosophy could not be any more appropriate than when you are dealing with a race car. The learning process never ends because the only constant is the constant change that goes on in racing. The reading material available to the teams grows exponentially with each additional week of competition.
I spoke with several Nextel Cup car owners and crew chiefs to get caught up on the absolute latest that is going on at NASCAR's highest level. Robert Yates was perhaps the most prophetic about the past, present and future of NASCAR when he said that today's production of scientific data is so voluminous that it is currently overpowering the artistic side of the sport. So much technical information is being generated that it is virtually impossible to sift through it all in a timely manner and produce a clear and concise game plan each week, Yates said.
I asked Yates if he thought the COT would benefit the teams in the long run. He said if NASCAR gives the teams some latitude for artistic interpretation then, yes, it will be a benefit to the sport because it will simplify the science [by narrowing the parameters in which the engineers can operate] and lower the cost of competition compared to the cars being raced today. NASCAR is attempting to regain control of the costs of racing to help make the sport more fair and competitive. Basically they are trying to reduce the size of the "book" and get back to basics. The recent fines handed down by NASCAR in regards to the COT emphasize their intent to keep it clean and simple for the teams. "The more you know, The more you know you don't know."
Yates is a legendary engine builder in NASCAR so I asked him how he reads an engine's performance today compared with 10 years ago. He laughed and said that instead of reading the spark plugs with a plug light to see if the engine is properly tuned, he now reads computer printouts that are generated from testing, etc. Years ago you could walk through the Nextel Cup garage after a practice and see engine tuners and crew chiefs staring at plugs through magnifying glasses to determine how well the engine was performing. Now they read computer printouts instead? Some of that beautiful "artistry" has been lost to all that science.
"I'm old fashioned compared to most of today's engine builders. I've always looked for 'spark knock' first. 'Spark knock' is pre-ignition of the fuel which robs the engine of power. The No. 1 'abuse' of an engine in competition is 'spark knock,'" Yates said.
"You build an engine under ideal circumstances in the shop and jet the carburetor to achieve the best power curve based on the dyno runs. [Dyno means to run an engine on a dynamometer to measure its performance.] Then you go to the track where conditions are not as ideal and adjust your fuel mixture accordingly," Yates explained. "For example, if it is humid then you can lean the fuel flow down to match the oxygen in the air.
"Once you are on the track and running laps you watch for how the fuel washes under centrifugal load. The engine is static on the dyno at the shop but on the track it experiences various forces that can impact the fuel flow and performance. You want to know how the fuel washes centrifugally.
"On an oval track the fuel will wash to the right side of the engine and cause the left side to lean out so you want to jet the carburetor to push more fuel to the left in order to balance the burn from side-to-side."
Basically, by reading the plugs the engine builder or crew chief can measure a plug's "thermal performance" and adjust accordingly to a hotter or colder plug to improve performance based on the circumstances they are experiencing at that particular time.
"In the old days we spent a lot of time studying the spark plugs to see how the fuel was burning and if it was getting distributed evenly. Today, computers tell us all that information when we dyno an engine or run it during a test session. The test sessions give us data so we can develop a 'track map' that we use as a baseline for our computer dyno runs." Yates explained. "At the track we will still pull the plugs to verify and measure our performance against our computer data. It is way different today than it was years ago. Computers do a lot of the reading now. Today it is more reliant on science than the artistic interpretation that we used back then.
"For example, we don't index plugs anymore. [Indexing meant that all the plugs were matched so that when they were installed the electrodes would clear the piston and the fuel would wash evenly around the plug during ignition.] The old plugs had to be indexed but today's plugs are designed differently so indexing is no longer a necessity. Today's plugs also cost about 20 times what the old ones cost [$20 versus $1]. Yes, things have definitely changed," Yates said with a sigh.
Yates concluded by explaining that NASCAR's rules dictate that teams must keep it simple on race day, which is good for cost control. So testing is where teams get the good technical data they need in order to know what to do at the track during a race.
Getting that good technical data is called "track mapping" and "aero mapping" where teams literally map the typography of the track -- every bump and degree change -- and garner aerodynamic data that record downforce loads, etc. If you have ever played one of the virtual racing games or heard younger drivers -- who did well their first time at a particular track -- say they had not driven the track before but learned it's nuances from racing online then you can understand some of the benefits of "track mapping." Track mapping provides a realistic feel of driving a track while you are sitting at home.
NASCAR has become an excellent place for engineers to apply their theoretical knowledge in a realistic environment. While there are hundreds, if not thousands of engineers involved in NASCAR racing at the various levels, most are in the learning phase of their careers. A very few of them have the proven knowledge gained from many years of experience to directly benefit the teams that employ them. The learning curve can be almost vertical for many of the younger engineering participants.
Yates' primary area of expertise has been in building powerful and durable racing engines. His knowledge is not limited to engines, however. Knowing how to read a race car is just as important in many other areas.
Producing the power to propel a race car around a track is extremely important, but knowing how to read the tires is every bit as important. Tires are a primary area where the ability to read is vital for a team's success. The tire experts usually can tell how and why a car is performing [or not performing] simply by reading the temperatures across each tire and the comparative temperatures of the set -- as well as the tire wear and pressure gains, etc.-- to determine if a car is pushing or loose or is balanced. They can also determine if the caster and camber are set correctly and if the suspension travel is maintaining the proper tire patch.
A perfectly balanced race car will have tire temperatures within a few degrees of each other at all four corners of the car. If the front tires are hotter than the rear tires then the car is probably pushing. If they are hotter in the rear then the car is probably loose. If the left rear tire is disproportionately hotter than the left front then the car may be throttle loose. If the left front tire is disproportionately hotter than the left rear then that could indicate the car is pushing or the driver might be over-braking when entering the corner. If the inside temperature of the right front tire and the outside temperature of the left front tire are disproportionately hotter [on an oval] than the other temperatures across those tires then the car may have too much camber. If the outside temperatures of the right side tires are higher than the other right side tire readings then the car may be experiencing too much lateral load, which makes it want to slide across the track versus squat and turn efficiently.
Notice that all of the above statements about tires are tempered with the words may, usually and probably. That is because racing has no absolutes. As Yates said, the race track is not the ideal circumstance for a race car's engine. It is the same for the tires and all the other parts of the car. So many variables can influence the "reader" in gaining a pure and accurate understanding of what is truly happening that all the science must be tempered with that old standby -- "artistic interpretation." The crew chief needs to understand his car, his driver and the track.
Other areas of "The Book" that must be read and interpreted are the suspension, the brakes, tach and gauges, etc. All have their tales to tell and all must be read and interpreted carefully for a team to be successful on race day.
In speaking with Len and Eddy Wood, second generation co-owners of NASCAR's oldest continually operated race team -- Len Wood noted that "push and loose no longer mean what they used to mean because of the aero map data." Where teams used to run stiff springs in the front and softer springs in the rear they now run the reverse.
Eddy pointed out that, "reading tire temperatures is still important but how you read them and what they are telling you has changed." Yes, the only constant in NASCAR is the constant of change. Just like a good mystery novel will keep you in suspense throughout its reading and then satisfy you with a perfect ending, reading a race car can provide the same suspense and satisfaction if the ending includes the team celebrating in Victory Lane.
When today's NASCAR fan sits in the stands and looks out across a track, he or she might only see a colorful forum for competition. However, what he or she is really looking at is a vast and ever-changing laboratory where most of the competitors are continuously working on improving their reading skills. The more you know, the more you know you don't know.
Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.