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 is the second batch of his replies…
How does it feel to run behind Jimmie most of the time? Let's take qualifying at Bristol for example. Jimmie goes out slip-sliding sideways and puts down a horrible lap. Jeff goes out with better car control and still comes out behind Jimmie. As a fan of the 24 it's frustrating as hell to watch this happen week after week. The only reason Jeff finished ahead of Jimmie at Michigan was because the 48 ran out of gas. When Jeff runs bad, you will usually come on the radio at the end of the race and apologize for not giving him a good enough car. But Chad works with Jimmie and his 48 all race long to make it better and 9 times out of 10 they win the damn thing. I can honestly say that is why I, and I'm sure a lot of other people change the channel. We're tired of watching Jimmie win! Please step up to the plate and de-throne him!Thanks for listening to my frustrations. My wife is tired of listening to them.
I agree with you, Edd, that the 48 team has shown success time and time again, and I've found that in racing, the best way to make progress is to have something to shoot at every weekend. Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have been good at setting the bar. I've been around the 24 car for long enough that we've won a lot of races for a lot of years, and for many of those years, it was the 24 team that set the bar. We'd definitely want to go and outrun the 48 team. Our team is built a little different, to get the most consistent car over the 36 race weekends each year, but we'll admit that we need to improve our pace in the Chase: we need more firepower for that, because just running consistent for the last 10 races isn't the answer. We need to go out and win, and to do that, we need to outrun the 48 team – and the 5 team, come to that. We don't hide from that: we admit the 48 has more speed on a consistent basis. I have had an interest for a long time on who / how the weekly pre-planning is made. I am a project manager by trade and when I think about things like making sure all the right parts are on the truck and managing sick days, resources and all of the other things that must go into coordinating from Sunday to Sunday it blows my mind. Who fills these roles? I know as the crew chief you do many of them but there must be others that handle many of the other things. Is there a book or something you could recommend that might give me some information on these type of team setups?
Hi Scott, and thanks for this very different-type question. Well, it's sort of two questions. First, who fills these roles? This is the biggest difference between a crew chief in 2009 and a crew chief in about 1985. Twenty-five years ago, the crew chief was probably the best mechanic and the best car guy, and that's why he was in that role. Today, the crew chief role is taken by the best manager. In the building I'm in, Chad and myself are the heads, and underneath us, we have 85 employees that work on both the 24 and the 48 cars every day. The structure is very simple. We have a front office manager and he works for both of us, and runs the administrative side of the job with us; so if I need help with payroll, or if I have to deal with sick-time, a new hire, or letting someone go, he handles the admin side of that. The decision comes from Chad and I, and we'll speak with the employees about all the personnel-type issues, but as far as the paperwork, the follow-through and just what the employee deserves from the HR standpoint, that front office admin guy deals with that.
On the competition side, we have a shop foreman and underneath that, we have individual foremen for each area – a mechanical foreman, fabricator foreman, bodyshop foreman and a lead engineer. It's a nice structure, where everything is delegated, and the work gets done. So yeah, there are a lot of roles to be filled in order to get a consistently competitive car onto the racetrack.
As far as how we learned to structure that, I wouldn't say there's one specific book to read or one specific example to follow. I urge everyone wishing to be a manager to read every leadership book and every management book they can get their hands on. I truly believe that, if you try and implement just one way from one book, how can you expect to be a better manager than whoever wrote the book?! You want to be a better manager than everyone, so if you want to stand out and be better than the competition, you read several books and take what you feel is the strongest part of everyone's system and evolve your own. Following someone else's system, you aren't going to have the passion and excitement you'd get from developing your own system and ideas. So Scott, you're right to want to educate yourself, and don't be afraid to pick and choose what you feel are the best methods that can be applied in your particular case. How much say do you have in the recruitment of the guys who work with you on 24?
At Hendrick Motorsports, the crew chief has the final say. We're structured a little differently from some teams, in that Chad and I share all the employees and they work on both the 24 and 48 cars. He and I have different traits in ourselves, of course, so we lean toward different people, and we do a very good job, I think, in coming up with the pros and cons for prospective employees. We interview them separately and together, and usually that weeds out the ones that aren't suitable, and ones that we agree on will have an impressive resume and great skills that will improve our teams. As far as pitcrew guys, we have a department that will go and pull in information on prospective employees, and out of say 5000, that department will narrow it down to the 50-100 for Chad and I to choose from. I make sure the people we go into battle with each Sunday are ones that I've chosen myself, they support our system and they believe in what we do.I would like to know why NASCAR doesn't get modern in more areas? Why don't they use the one spin-off hub per wheel instead of five lug nuts? Why haven't they adopted fuel injection? Why don't they use a closed loop fueling setup instead of the gas can and the catch can.
I think NASCAR is starting to think more modern. They've discussed possibly using fuel injection from 2011. Regarding the fueling setup and the wheels….Well, one of the problems we have is cost. People forget that Sprint Cup racing feeds employees and parts all through the country and so the same steel hub that Hendrick Motorsports runs on the right front of its car is the same steel hub that they run in Nationwide and Truck, some ASA races, the Touring Series, and so on. From just a simple cost standpoint, they don't seem to change.
I think they're also slightly behind on the technical side of inspection. NASCAR has done a great job in the last 10 years, building a tech center where they house their officials, and the changes are going to come slow and steady. The ones you mentioned, Dean, while they are preferences, they're not priorities. The safety stuff has been the priority – the soft walls, the green house, the carbon fiber seats, the HANS devices, the seatbelt requirements – all these I'd say are second to no other series. That has been the priority, and once these safety improvements are implemented and established, I think you'll see some modernization in other areas of the car.At Bristol the car seemed to go away immediately after Jeff got the rear end damage (still not sure what from?). It seemed somewhat obvious that the rear quarter panel sticking out was causing aero loose. I was screaming at the television hoping that the guys would get it fixed right but it never seemed to be a topic on the radio calls to get it fixed. How do I get a message to you during the race next time?!
A very good point, Brian, and yes, I agree that the damage caused a large part of our speed deficit in the second half of the race. But let me explain why we made the decision we made. At a short track like Bristol, with 125 laps to go, our first goal was to get our lap back, and the only way we were going to do that was to be one of the first cars off pit road, and get the lucky dog pass. Taking the time to fix the quarter panel would have put us far back enough that in the next 100 to 125 laps, we might not get another chance to get our lap back. In hindsight, that wasn't the best decision, because there were multiple cautions, but we were out of the points and we wanted to win the race, and the only way we'd have a chance to do that was get our lap back right away and race our way from there.
The other problem we had was that the tire had stopped rubbing that rear quarter panel, and my fear was in trying to repair it at a place like Bristol, with its long pit road and very short pace laps, there was a danger of not doing it correctly, and therefore doing almost more harm than good.
Interestingly, and this goes back to an earlier question about the car structure, we had some bracing installed in a certain way in that quarter panel that in my opinion made the damage way worse than it should have been, so we have since changed our cars.
For anything you want to ask regarding NASCAR, just email your questions to email@example.com. Hopefully I've now shown I'm happy to cover all sorts of topics, general or specific.
Click here for Steve's first batch of answers. More coming soon!