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.
Slowing them down by giving them less grip, I'd say the car we have now would be far and above better than the old car, because this car has a higher center of gravity, less mechanical grip and less overall downforce, period, compared to the old one. But that wouldn't improve the racing. Slowing them down would not be a way to improve the racing, because the more tools the teams have to adjust their cars, the more opportunities the teams have to make their cars very good or very bad, and the problem I see in racing now – not just NASCAR, but also Formula 1, sprint cars, IndyCars – is that the window between a good car and a bad car is now so very small that it is not enough for a good car to pass the slow car. If you're only 0.15 or 0.2sec per lap faster than the car you're trying to overtake, that is not enough to get out of your preferred line and make the pass. You'll lose at least that much time getting out of your chosen groove, so you're automatically reduced to the same speed as the car in front. There is less and less passing the closer teams get to one another.
On each race day, I love to listen to the driver channels. I really enjoy you and Jeff interacting. How do you stay so calm and focused when Jeff sometimes is clearly upset about, for example, a really loose car or when another driver has done something to him on the track?
A tricky one to explain, this, but I'll have a go. The No. 1 thing I have to remember is my position in this scenario. I have the chance to walk down to the cooler to get a bottle of water, to walk around the pits, to sit up on the pitbox – I'm not strapped in, and not getting myself mentally overloaded. That's what happens to drivers: they're so focused, and all their senses are going a million miles an hour. They're feeling the car, they're listening to the engine, they're watching the track in front, watching the mirrors, and so on. Their senses are full and don't have time to rationalize or calmly explain a situation. (By the way, the more Jeff might get upset, in a way, the happier I am, because I know he's right there with us. It bothers you if a driver is running 25th and he calmly tells you that his car isn't driving well. That frustrates me, because it's as if he doesn't care. When I hear Jeff get emotional, I know he cares, he's disappointed, and he will do everything in his power to fix it.)
So, anyway, I stay calm, because if I get animated and raise my voice too much, that's just one more thing that detracts from his senses, that distracts him, and will probably slow him down. Luckily, Jeff's a great driver. Some drivers, if they get talking, they'll slow down, or if they get angry, they start overdriving. But Jeff can be upset, and he still won't do anything crazy, and he's always been that way. I've worked with him for so long: for 15 years, he's been the only guy I've had on the radio, and we spend so much time together. So I know him almost like I know a family member, and I can usually tell from his voice what is a normal operating range of passion, and what is a little over the top. Very rarely, I might have to tell him, “Take a deep breath, calm down, go back to what you're doing, we'll be fine”, and that's if I feel we might be having a bad effect on our own performance.
Why do you nearly always pick a pit stall past the start/finish line?
Another question that requires a slightly intricate answer, but here goes. The field is frozen – with the exception of those involved in the accident – from the moment a caution comes out, the only exception to that being if you're on pit road. If you're on pit road, your duty is to beat the race leader to either the start-finish line or the pit-out line. So the option would be to pit as close to the pit-out line as you could or right behind the start-finish line. The negative to right behind the start-finish line is that these pit stalls are very narrow – a lot of guys' days can be ruined on pit road. With the wave-by, the double-file restart and the lucky dog pass, more and more cars are finishing on the lead lap, which generates a much, much busier pit road. So, Jeff and I like to pit as close to the pit exit as possible to try and reduce the possibility of accidents on pit road, and a clean in and out will make up a lot of time.What does it mean when you say "pull lefts" on a pit stop? Does it have to do with who pulls the left tires off? Is it faster than the regular way of doing it? Or does it mean pull the left fenders out?
Chris, your first suggestion is correct. Everything on a pit stop is determined by the amount of fuel you're going to take, and we realize how fast we dump a gallon of fuel. We know that if we only have to take seven or eight gallons of fuel, you can dump that in about five or six seconds. So our catch-can man and our fuel man will be freed up, so when the tire changers come around to the left side to take the lug-nuts off, instead of them needing to set their gun down and take the tire off themselves, the fuel guy and catch-can guy can take the tires off for them. This can save five to seven tenths of a second, because the wheel gun guy no longer has to put the gun down. Later in the race, like at Richmond this last weekend, once we're good on fuel and we don't want the weight in the back of the car, you'll hear us say, “Pull four tires” and that's exactly how it sounds. Those two fuel guys will pull both right sides and both left sides, so the tire-changer keeps the gun in his hand longer.For anything you want to ask regarding NASCAR, just email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hopefully I've now shown I'm happy to cover all sorts of topics, general or specific. -Steve