Steve Letarte joined our rank of columnists last month, inviting you to send in your questions. The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports race engineer picked the best of them, and here are his replies…
I've always been a huge Jeff Gordon fan and I think you are doing a great job. Let's keep the wins coming and get Jeff his 5th championship. I wanted to know what you think the problem is with the 88 team and why the other Hendrick cars are doing so well, including the HMS extended family at Stewart-Haas – yet the 88 can't seem to run up front?
Thank you, Jean-Sebastien, for your support. Always appreciated!
I think earlier in the year the No. 88 team struggled – I don't know exactly why – at races that I don't think they were expecting to struggle at, and what happened is the same thing that happened to us in 2008: A loss of confidence. People tend to underestimate how much confidence a race team needs to run well, so after a couple of bad breaks, a bad decision, a bad car setup or a bad move by the driver, you start to lose confidence within the team, and the driver starts to lose confidence in himself. And it makes it very hard to dig back out of the hole. I wish it was as simple as changing the setups or giving Dale a different feel in the racecar, but they've been down for so long now, it's going to take a couple of good runs, or even just some good fortune to go their way. Hopefully that will give the 88 team some confidence that will give them some direction, and improve their car setups – and that, in turn, will give everyone on that team more confidence.
In a couple of recent races, they seemed to have a good run going but they can't seem to get the finishes. You really need the finish to have something to show for your efforts.
You mentioned Stewart-Haas, and I have to say I fully expected No. 14 and Tony Stewart to be a contender in the Chase, because of their experience. But I also think the No. 39 team did a fabulous job. That's a group who had never before worked much together and they caught on very, very well. Darian Grubb has such an intricate knowledge of how Hendrick Motorsports works, having been here so long, that I think he was a huge part of how quick Stewart-Haas accelerated through some of the learning phase. With the technical support we give Stewart-Haas, Darian knows the tools we have and who to talk to. It's so important when receiving technical help to know who are the right people to get answers from, and his experience here really helped him to ask the right questions from the right people.
I know there are specific (the claw) requirements on the body shape when the car is sitting still. What about the shape of the body when it is running 200mph? Can that be manipulated based on the structure of the body? Also, is this car like a go-kart when you are running on bump stops instead of a flexible suspension?
This is a wonderfully timely question, Larry, because body-shape at speed is an area that a lot of the teams are starting to look at. We call the claw the “grid of templates” that sit on the car, and it's very stringent regarding the tolerances you're allowed. What people don't realize is that there is also a theoretical gold surface, and after your car is weighed, it's scanned with a roamer-arm by NASCAR, to confirm your 10 very critical points on the car are within the tolerance. So you're right, there are a lot of regulations to ensure your car fits that grid, but there are also rules that require bracing in the rear window and some in the front and rear bumpers. So yes, there are certain parts of the body that are required to be within tolerances, but that does not mean that there aren't still parts of the body that can't be manipulated by the force of air at 140 or 150mph. Problem is, the wind tunnel we use at Aero Dyne only blows at 130mph, so we have to do a lot of Computational Fluid Dynamics [CFD] to try and understand what will move at a little bit higher pressure. Hope that answers that question.
As far as the kart-style suspension is concerned, there is a lot of truth in what you're suggesting. Now the cars run on bumpstops, we spend a lot more time at the Kinematics and Compliance rig, to understand what moves, what deflects, when the car sits on a solid piece of rubber. When you go into a corner and transfer 2-3000lbs into a bumpstop, it's pretty well solid and therefore something has to give. So it's very important that we check our toe, camber compliances, and so on. It is very much like a kart, you're right, and we do spend a lot of time and money on how we build our front-ends and what kind of structure we do or do not put in to make the car ride well, handle the corners and be comfortable for the corners. They don't ride as well as a car with suspension, that's for sure.
Would taking the Mechanical Engineering degree with a specialization in motorsports from University of North Carolina Charlotte be a good pathway into a job in the NASCAR Truck Series?
-Sam Des Rocher
Sam, you've already made a step by referring to a job within the Truck series. That alone has given you a head start, because a lot of people assume they can step into NASCAR at the highest level, and that is a big mistake. If the No. 24 team has a position open, very rarely do I look all the way through a resume if the applicant doesn't have racing experience. A few exceptions might be a design engineer, or in a circumstance where I'm actively looking for a set of traits from someone outside of racing – perhaps, someone from an aeronautics company. But a Mechanical Engineering degree at somewhere like the University of North Carolina – especially now they have a motorsports division – is a great place to give you a baseline. It doesn't guarantee you a job, by any means, but that would be No. 1 suggestion, as long as you acknowledge that in the Truck Series, you might only be earning 20-40 percent of what you could earn in the real world with that same degree! If you're willing to put four to five years in with that severe lack of pay, then you absolutely can find your way up into Cup.
Recently Dale Jr. started a dialog with NASCAR about changing the current car in order to improve racing. While I know this must be heresy to many race fans, wouldn't it improve racing in general if NASCAR just slowed the cars down? I assure you that you can't tell 175mph from 200 from the grandstands. What about reducing horsepower across the board (and I don't mean restrictor plates)? Wouldn't we see more side-by- side racing then?
Interesting question, but while I do agree that you can't tell a car going 175mph instead of 200, I disagree that slower racing would make for more side-by-side action. There are two ways to slow a racecar down. One is to remove horsepower, and the second is to remove grip, either through the tires or through aerodynamics. Neither method, in my opinion, are going to be good for racing.
I feel that reducing horsepower is going to penalize the cars that don't run so well. You may see more passing in traffic, but you'd see more dominance, too, from the winning cars, because with less power at a place like, say, Chicagoland, the driver would no longer have to lift off the gas, and once the driver is running wide open, you'd get a Daytona or Talladega situation where you lose the true racing aspect for the drivers.