Fast Track

Armed with pocket protectors instead of lead feet, the new kings of the road are taking NASCAR high-tech.
Details, February 2002

At seven o’clock on a recent morning, Aron Oakley, 23, aerodynamics engineer for the Penske South race team, is watching numbers crawl up his computer screen as he muses over his luck with the ladies. For Oakley, romance may be elusive, but the numbers make perfect sense: The figures he’s reviewing represent the drag and down-force pressures that could propel veteran driver Rusty Wallace to victory in the Daytona 500—NASCAR’s Super Bowl—on February 17. It is Oakley’s job to help turn Wallace’s car into the sleekest, most streamlined racing machine that can still be handled. From this carpeted control room, where the loudest sound is the creak of ergonomic chairs, Oakley glances through a double pane of glass at the source of his high-tech data: North America’s most advanced wind tunnel.

What’s going on here at the Auto Research Center in Mooresville, North Carolina, as the Penske team blows air over a 40 percent scale model of Wallace’s Ford Taurus, may look like a bunch of kids building model cars. But these guys aren’t your usual racetrack grease monkeys. They’re mechanical engineers with university degrees, and they bring a whole new set of high-tech tools that are forcing NASCAR to change gears. “You used to have to work hard; now you’re working a lot smarter,” says Robin Pemberton, Wallace’s crew chief until the end of last season. “They’re the next wave of people that are going to control the sport.”

First, though, they’ll have to gain the old-timers’ confidence. Most racing engineers came up in the sport without the benefit of college, honing their craft trackside every Sunday. “We have to convince the guys that are building the cars that it’s not just a science project,” Oakley says of the scale tunnel, “that you can trust the data that comes out of here.” With the tunnel costing more than $1,000 an hour, they had better be able to trust it. Penske’s model cost close to $1 million dollars to design and build, from laser-scanning a full-size car to assembling the model’s carbon-fiber body and fitting the chassis with components built in a stereo-lithography lab. Over two days, a fourteen-foot fan blows air at 89.2 m.p.h. over the model as the seventeen-ton roadway beneath it turns a belt of simulated asphalt at comparable speed and yaws enough to tell the engineers what the car will do in a turn.

All the wind-tunnel data Oakley gathers, both full-size and scale, as well as past performance figures, data on various car parts, track characteristics, and tire configurations, is filed away on the laptops toted by the team’s trackside race engineers. If Rusty reports that the car is too “loose” coming out of Turn Three, for instance, some of the most advanced software tools in NASCAR racingn can point to various adjustments that improved that condition in past races at the same track.

But NASCAR, rooted in the low-tech worlds of bootlegging moonshine in the Carolina hills and racing 1940s hot rods on the beach at Daytona, has resisted the acceleration. “We try to keep a good grasp on the technology,” says one official, “to where it don’t get too out of hand.” Penske’s laptops may be stuffed with data, but the sanctioning body forbids computers onboard cars during a race. Decisions as to tire changes, suspension adjustments, even refueling (no fuel gauges, either), must be determined by a pit crew’s sense of timing and a driver’s feel for how a car is handling. Race engineers can make suggestions based on software, but the turns of the wrench are still a matter of eyeballs and elbow grease.

“I have a problem saying, ‘You guys tell me how to fix my car,’ ” Rusty says. “If I want to change something, we can simulate it in the computer, but I’m a seat-of-the-pants-type driver. Once my crew chief has given me the best car he can give me, and the engine guys have given me the best engine they can give me, and the pit crews are giving me the best pit stops—then what’s left is just getting in the car and driving it.”

The sound of a stock car pushing 7,500 rpm down the front stretch is glorious to the ear. It’s louder than a roar, more intimidating than a growl, and as for a purr—well, those noises are for pussies. A stock car fronts all the whine and buzz and guttural rip that pure mechanical muscle can produce, enough to put all other notions of manhood to shame.

At the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame, just down the road from the Auto Research Center and the Penske shop, dozens of vintage cars sit motionless on display. There’s an awesome Dodge Daytona, a blazing orange Plymouth Superbird, and a ’79 Monte Carlo, driven by racing’s king, Richard Petty, which looks like it’s about to leap right off the garage floor. Over in a corner, two women are swooning over a cardboard cutout of the late champion Dale Earnhardt. This is the sport, remember, that Paul Newman turned to when he realized that just being a movie star no longer cut it with the ladies.

With a sigh, I gun my rented Chevy Prizm up to an edgy 3,500 rpm. Back at the wind tunnel, I ask Oakley whether being on a race team has improved his luck with girls. “Not yet,” he laments. He and another young engineer are comparing notes on vintage Hewlett-Packard programmable calculators, long the race cars of the engineering world. It’s a heartening sight. If these guys are the future of racing, maybe there’s hope for those of us without a stock car in the garage. Maybe a pocket protector would do.