AUTO CLUB 400
The Competitive Edge
Published on Sun, Mar 20, 2016
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Drama is normally high on the morning of a NASCAR race. What you don’t see on TV is the frenzy (or hurry-up-and-wait) of the inspection process, nor any of the little things that make up the reality of race weekend.
The theme of the weekend at Auto Club Speedway, for me at least, has been to try to give you some glimpses into what you didn’t see on TV. If you didn’t watch NASCAR this weekend at all, then so much the better. And keep reading, eh?
In the morning, the Sprint Cup cars have to go through final inspection, which is a multi-part process of checking the contours of the cars’ bodies using a jig and also putting them on a laser measuring machine that checks dimensions of wheelbase, ride height, suspension geometry, etc.
Noticed after this process: the cars come out of inspection and have two further inspectors looking at them—one under the hood and one on a creeper underneath the car. Why?
I asked an official, and he said they put blocks in the front and rear as part of the inspection process. The final check is to make sure that when crews remove those blocks, they don’t make any other adjustments. “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” is the old NASCAR-related phrase that comes to mind.
While the hood was up, I snapped a picture of the engine bay of a certain Ford. “No pictures with the hood up,” a panicked crewmember told me, too late. What’s the big deal?
I asked some Toyota representatives, and they said that maybe there’s something different under there. “Doesn’t everybody play by the same rules?” I asked.
“Yes, but if a guy discovers something within the rules, he wants to use it. Since it’s an open garage area, and anyone can look under the hood all weekend, then next weekend, the advantage is gone. But for that one week . . . .”
I asked whether it might be something related to intake plenums or a spacer or something, and he said, “More likely if it’s a crew guy, he’s concerned that you not see something they’re doing with the suspension.” Engines are, apparently, done at home and dropped in. Adjustments are more a matter of tuning the ride.
On the other hand, I did see Kurt Busch’s guys under his hood late in the afternoon Saturday with the intake off, seeming like they were putting in a carb spacer or something of that nature. The garage was closed at the time, and I was exiting the area. But then again, they had the car face-out in their garage stall. Not smart if there’s something secret going on. (My assumption, then, is that there wasn’t. But why were they working after everyone else was gone?)
Back to Sunday. After the inspection process, I observed Aric Amirola’s #43 team putting a thin layer of clear tape on the rear fenders. I asked about that, and I was told that the jig needs some holes to mount the laser inspection points. Crews know that extra holes make for aerodynamic weirdness, so they close them up. “Some of them use purpose-made plugs, plastic ones,” the fellow commented. Money, money, money. Apparently to Richard Petty’s team, a little tape is just as good. Good for them.
Some cars fail the inspection process and have to go outside to make repairs or changes. Martin Truex Jr.’s car was one of the unfortunate ones in California. He ran through again and passed, but not before his guys were under both the front and rear of the car, in the shadow of someone’s trailer in the parking lot right next to the garage where the inspections take place.
Fixing a car in a parking lot. Does that seem somehow less “official” than what you’ve seen on TV? Sure, but this is real life, and it’s racing, not a vanity show. Come on out next year and see for yourself.
All inspection results, by the way, are kept logged by NASCAR, according to the NASCAR official I spoke with. He didn’t say what they do with the data.
More revelations learned while chatting with various people in the paddock: What appears to be paint on most cars is a wrap. Why? Toyota people told me it’s several things: it’s faster, and thus cheaper. They can get the look they want—in Truex’s case, a kind of faux carbon-fiber—and at least for the Gibbs cars, many of the decals are already in place on the wrap. That is, the main ones, those required by NASCAR and required to be in specific spots. So that old joke, “Jack up the stickers and drop a new body underneath” has finally come true.
The Hendrick crew had a massage table set up in one of their garages after the crews had taken their cars to the grid. The guys were on the floor surrounding the table, stretching. Preparation is key, as they seem to know. Worked, too, as their guy won the race after a late pit stop and good restart put him out in front. Speaking of fitness gizmos, the guys from the Keselowski team have a stationary bike right in their pits, up against the back wall. They were riding it before the race, warming up. They also seem to have a set of exercises that they do in the form of stretching. Some of it looked like it had a little bit of a qigong influence. Maybe Tai Chi is coming next. Or maybe it’s already there. Hopefully that’s not too un-Merican to say out loud. The race was scheduled for 12:30, and the cars took off at 12:48. It featured 39 cars—so finally, to speak to one more particularity related to this track, the scoring pylon (built for 40 cars only), was adequate to allow fans to keep track of everyone. Everyone remembers that up until this year, 43 cars started top-level NASCAR races. For more on the race and eventual winner Superman, please read my next story. More Auto Club 400 coverage by Brian Kennedy: AUTO CLUB 400: TreatMyClot.com 300 Stats and Inside Stories AUTO CLUB 400: TreatMyClot.com 300 - Just Don't Make No Sense AUTO CLUB 400: "Seams" Easy From The Outside AUTO CLUB 400: The Calm Before The Storm