CONCORD, N.C. — The 2019 Daytona 500 is less than a month away and the momentum is building toward NASCAR’s biggest race and a new season. Across North Carolina, race teams plan, cut, weld and build their fleet of race cars to get the new race season started.
At Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, an impromptu media event was hosted by the team in lieu of the traditional pre-season NASCAR Media Tour that was not held this year.
The event included a Q&A with drivers and crew chiefs and a long and detailed behind the scenes tour of what makes Hendrick Motorsports tick, with one caveat; no cameras allowed.
The on-camera part of the event included interviews with drivers, crew chiefs and a handful of HMS Executives.
They all fielded questions from the attending media that included writers from national publications and websites, the TV broadcast partners and a couple of Charlotte area local TV stations and our crew from FOX8 Sports.
Seven-time Cup Series Champion, Jimmie Johnson and his young teammate, driving phenom, William Byron, spent a lot of time answering questions and taking on theories of how the upcoming season will play out.
Crew chiefs talked strategy and how they plan to work with the myriad of new rules NASCAR has in place for 2019.
We spoke with one executive about the changing financial picture of NASCAR and the sport of stock car racing and how the diverging fan base effects all the teams, big and small.
But the real highlights of the day came during the behind the scenes tour.
People being the heartbeat of what Hendrick Motorsports really shows in their fitness center that is open to every employee but especially for the pit crew members who train all year round.
HMS Pit Crew Coordinator Andy Papathanassiou says the team stays on the cutting edge of human physiology to train it’s crew members to perform as elite top-level athletes.
Many of the athletes who become part of the over-the-wall pit crews have been professional or D1 college athletes. The HMS athletic program emulates many of the best professional and collegiate programs to train it’s athletes.
While the athletes continually train, talented technicians work hard to build the race cars across various buildings on the HMS campus.
HMS Vice President of Competition Jeff Andrews led the media contingent, sans cameras, deep into the heart of the most powerful team in stock car racing.
The sound of metal grinding, the pops of welding and whir of various air tools fill the room where the racing chassis first come together on the team’s several chassis jigs, the parts held together by vice-grips and tack-welds as they are assembled.
Built from the ground up a nearly finished car will move across the campus through several phases of construction, a few more parts added here, a little more finishing added there. I lost track of how many stops a car will make on its journey to the area where the car will receive the final touches before it is loaded and heads to the race track.
Almost everything at this race team is fabricated on site, from blocks of aluminum and other metals, in big, noisy, sophisticated machines emblazoned with the HAAS logo. The HAAS (a name brand) CNC machines are the “magic” that make it possible to turn hunks of metal into race car parts, used to build race car engines and race cars. Hendrick was an early adopter of the CNC machines and now employs more than 30 of them to supply parts for this team and others.
The bulk of the work for the CNC machines is for engine parts. Hendrick Motorsports engines power many of the NASCAR teams across the top-3 National Series and the ARCA and K&N Series. Hundreds of engines pour out of the massive engine shop every year and they have to be designed and built to the withstand the vigors of racing while putting out the most power possible.
That power was on display in the dynamometer room, where the engine is behind a soundproof wall and glass, running at max RPMs while a technician monitors the various computers that are reading all the sensors, measuring mainly, engine horsepower and torque.
Today’s dyno test: the new NASCAR rules package that will cut a 750-horsepower engine down to roughly 550 horsepower. The engine was on a simulation of the 2-mile track at Michigan. The drone of the engine with very little change in RPM range could be a telltale sign of how the racing at the track in Michigan may be under the reduced horsepower rules. It’s hoped to be a closely contested race with pack of cars drafting, much like they do at Daytona and Talladega.
Changes at Hendrick Motorsports during the 2018 season saw moving all four HMS Cup teams in the same building working together in the same space. The four teams had previously been in two different shops paired off. The new theory is all the crew chiefs, engineers and team members need to be closer together to share information more quickly.
In that same shop space is the team’s OSS system. The OSS is a scanning station that NASCAR uses at the track to measure the cars to make sure they meet specific measurements.
The station is a mix of cameras, computers and projectors that spit out a disco-like scene of lines and colors that are interpreted by the computer as 125,000 dots on the car.
That measurement is compared against the NASCAR standard to see if the car passes inspection.
Hendrick didn’t acquire an OSS until later into the 2018 season and it’s widely believed that is one of the reasons behind the team’s lethargic and lackluster start to the 2018 season.
Technical Director Darian Grubb addressed that issue while explaining the team’s OSS. He said they didn’t think they needed the OSS because they already used measuring systems many times more precise than the OSS system.
Where the OSS measures 125,000 points on a race car surface, the team had a laser scanning tool through their own technical partners that measures 7 million points.
So, as Grubb alluded, measuring 7 million points on their cars made them perfectly legal to the letter of the NASCAR rulebook, while other teams were exploiting the gaps in the less dense measurement of the OSS.
Hendrick used the OSS to help close the performance gap in 2018 and hopes to continue the team’s winning tradition in 2019.
As the HMS fleet is built, painted, setup, scanned, decaled, re-scanned, tweaked and scanned for a final time, the day is quickly approaching that eight cars from Hendrick Motorsports will be loaded and hauled to Daytona and thus the beginning of a new NASCAR season.