AUTO CLUB 400
Effort and Espionage

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Jamie MacMurray and his crew (Brian Kennedy)



By Brian Kennedy

Stuff they don’t report on when you watch a NASCAR race. That’s the topic here, because when you see the races on TV, believe me, you get only about seven percent (a stat I made up) of the real story. Here are two lines that could have been played out much more in the coverage, and they both involve bodywork.

Going past the garage of Chase Elliott Sunday morning around 10 or so, I noticed a huge blockade. A giant toolbox, covered in a dedicated tarp. Another toolbox carefully positioned so people would work behind it unobserved. I heard hammers working sheetmetal. What was up? Elliott had banged the wall earlier in the weekend. Were they unable to pass aerodynamic spec?

Chase Elliot and his crew behind the curtain (Brian Kennedy)

They sure didn’t want anybody to know.

Across the garage, and not hidden by massive obstacles, the car of Jamie McMurray was similarly being tended to. The right rear was the place here, too, with the fender being taped off just below the “McDonald’s” logo. Guys were grinding, filling, heating, bending, and smoothing. I decided to watch the progress.

The McDonald’s crew put a skim coat of filler on the fender after grinding it with a wheel and checking for smoothness. They then used an air hose to dry the area, and a blow torch to set the filler.

The 24 team, meanwhile, had been pounding away and working with a wheel for twenty minutes. Guys were under the car, in the trunk, and standing around nervously trying to make sure what they were doing was invisible. I outsmarted them by going through the “garage tour” door and standing on a ramp looking down on them.

Heck, it’s not like they were doing anything really secret. But why the attempt at obfuscation?

While that team used a blue vinyl wrap product to cover the now-repaired fender, carefully trimming it to appear invisible even from the short distance I watched from, the McMurray group were block sanding. Then it was more blowing. Perhaps satisfied that things were going well, Elliott’s team fired up their Chevy, ran it for fifteen uproarious seconds, and shut it off. The garage walls rang. Why start it up? It’s not like they were fixing anything mechanical.

Jamie MacMurray (Brian Kennedy)

They removed the giant toolboxes that had been blocking the sightlines of the gathered crowd, and they pulled the car out. Note that this doesn’t mean “drove.” These cars, mostly, are pushed around when not driven on the track. I assume they were going to head back through tech. I was too interested in McMurray’s progress to follow.

McMurray’s crew, meanwhile, was working the spray paint. This was likely to prime, because then it was on with the vinyl. A big, black (to match) patch was applied. They smoothed it carefully. They trimmed with tiny knives, getting the edges just right.

I thought to compare this fender with the one on the left side. Totally different. The left is rounded. The right has a hard edge. No wonder a recent story in a car magazine said that these cars are bound to turn left when they’re running in a straight line. You can just see that wall of air pushing up against the right side of the body, carefully buffering the space between car and wall.

And that’s why this repair had to be exactly right, also. They kept trimming, and I decided I had my scoop and headed to the grid. An hour or so later, off Elliott and McMurray went, the former starting 13th and finishing 10th, the latter beginning the race eighth and ending it sixth. Elliott was able to lead four laps and came away with 43 points. The other driver had no laps led and an equal number of points due to his higher finishing position.

Chase Elliott and crew at work (Brian Kennedy)

McMurray was noticeable in the top five early (lap 30), and Elliott slightly later (lap 40). Each was also in the top runners after Stage One ended, with McMurray holding a fourth place finish to Elliott’s third. McMurray shortly dropped out of sight, while Elliott carried on around fourth place.

At the end of Stage Two, Elliott was also third, while McMurray found himself sixth. Keeping an eye out for the two yielded more Elliott sightings than McMurray, as even at lap 175, Elliott was in third. He didn’t do well out of the pits right near the end, however, to settle for the tenth place indicated. McMurray’s sixth must have felt like a win, by contrast.

The irony: probably neither driver, concerned as they are with sponsors and glad-handing on the morning of a race, had any idea the attention and energy being paid to his car. They just knew, once they got in to drive, that the balance felt about how it did when they got the cars right during practice.

Fans now know, however: every millimeter counts in NASCAR racing. This is no longer a sport where eyeballing it and getting it kinda right counts. It’s all about the engineering, mixed, at least in Elliott’s case, with a little espionage, obfuscation, and subterfuge.

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