Anyone who is interested in motorsports knows the flow of a race itself. Of course, every different series has its own natural flow to a race -- how often you need fuel and tires and whether or not you can tune the suspension during the course of a race, but what about the days leading up to an event? Hardcore fans of a racing series that is well covered by the media can get some good insight into the pre-race preparation, but it would be hard to truly get a glimpse into the closed door discussion and other processes that are critical to being competitive. What I'd like to do in this article is to walk through this process to shed some light on some things that can win or lose a race before it even begins.
When our #61 ROUSH Performance Mustang shows up at the track, there's a lot of work to do before it rolls out onto the track. Hopefully, the crew has already had the chance to do the regular maintenance back at the shop before this point in time. If that's not the case, then they have to get it all done in time at the track. By "regular maintenance," I'm referring to pretty much anything and everything that you can expect will need to be done between races. This is a long list, and it can change depending on incidents or problems that happened at the previous race. Even if the entire list of regular maintenance has been completed prior to being loaded into the truck, there is still plenty to do at the track. These tasks can include scaling the car, checking the engine oil, verifying that the battery has a good charge, checking the brakes, running the engine and looking for any potential issues with our AIM data acquisition system, rolling the car up to the series' technical inspectors to make sure that they have no issues with the car... The list goes on, but you get the idea. A lot of these may seem mundane and unimportant. However, if you miss something, which is very easy to do, you could break down before the end of the race, run poorly, or fail the post-race technical inspection. Any of these outcomes would obviously make the entire effort a failure.
Now that the maintenance and initial preparation are out of the way, what next? For preparation as drivers, my co-driver, Billy Johnson, and I try to walk the track as much as possible. This may seem like another mundane task that wouldn't make a difference, but, trust me, it matters. Many of my best runs have been at events where we have walked the track. I began walking tracks with my father while gokart racing in my elementary school years. It helped me then just as it does today -- I personally consider it to be a critical part of my own preparation.
Why is walking the track so important? The answer is pretty simple. When driving on the track at speed, it is impossible to see all of the subtleties of the track. Also, the G-forces acting on your body have a strong tendency to distort your perception of the track's shape. As an example, try walking up a banked turn at a track like Daytona. You'll feel like Spiderman walking up a wall. However, in a racecar going at speed on that same banking, it will feel far more flat. Scenarios in which haing this undistorted view of the track are two-fold: (1) When there is an uphill section of track going into a turn or braking zone, the incline will give the car more ability to brake and turn than you might otherwise expect; and (2) when there is a downward fall-off to the track, the effect will be the opposite of that from an incline (braking and turning will be harder to pull off).
When I say that we're looking for subtleties while walking the track, I mean it. A slight crown in the road or a small dip could have some grand effects on where the fast line is. And then there's the part about going off-track. What if you need to put two tires off the road while battling someone for position? Will a rut or soft gravel just off the curb cause parts to be ripped of the car by speed bumps? Often, you can only get a good sense of this by walking the track and looking very closely to the area just off the track.
Ok, now things get a little more exciting: We now get on-track (in the racecar). At this point, the driver should be up to speed. It's rare that we go to tracks that we've never been to before, but even if we do, I get familiar with new tracks in the weeks and months leading up to the race by watching in-car video and driving on it in the iRacing.com simulator (I did this last year at Road America with good results).
With the drivers being up to speed, there really should not be more than a lap of warm up before hitting it hard. The warm up should be used to test the grip levels on the track, get the tires up to the right temperatures and pressures, and get some heat into the brakes.
Once you're up to speed, the next thing to do is to try some variation in driving (braking points, line, etc.), but this should be pretty subtle -- these should all be in the ballpark. However, the most important part of this first session is to get some sense of what the car itself is doing. Is it loose? Is it tight? Is there power-on oversteer? Once we generate this type of feedback, we can then play the Rubic's Cube game of car set-up to balance the car.
Regarding the car's set-up, it is misleading to suggest that this only starts after the car rolls out onto the track. In actuality, at least on our team, this work begins back at the shop. Our crew chief, Jeff Campey, has a wealth of racing experience and wisdom. He's been working with my father now for over twenty years, and one of the ways that he's shown this in our program is by looking at his notes from previous events, considering the characteristics of the track that we're about to go to, and making his best guess on what the set-up should be. Sometimes, the car will be so balanced right out of the truck that we won't make a single change. Nailing a set-up like that is a very hard thing to do.
You'll see this same thing happening in NASCAR. In that series, the top teams all have very advanced engineering modeling programs that simulate a car's run on a track and come up with an optimized set-up. In fact, in NASCAR, you can simply not compete without showing up with a set-up that's already very close to being spot-on. We don't have the budget or resources to have this type of work done for our Grand-Am program. So, I'm thankful that we have the grey-matter simulators to work with.
So, what are we really looking for in a set-up? That can seem like a simple question to answer, but it is far from. Is it simply the fastest? Surprisingly, the answer is no. It's not hard to dial a car in to turn a fast lap. If you stiffen the car up to use up as much of the grip in the tires as quickly as possible without being unbalanced, you might turn a few quick laps. It might even get you the pole in qualifying. The problem with that, though, is that the tires will be so used up by the end of an hour or hour-and-a-half run that it won't be anywhere near competitive. The question then becomes what set-up will give you the best speed over the entire run, especially at the end where a yellow flag can create some intensely close racing. The teams that can answer this question are the ones that you can expect to run well, week in and week out.
Now, we're almost ready for the race. Our car is fully prepared and tuned and the drivers are fairly up to speed. What else is left? There are just three things to address:
- Fuel strategy. During the course of practice, we have gathered good data on what the car's fuel mileage is. We can then take this data and determine what our window is between fuelings.
- Pit stop practice. This involves three elements: 1) The tire change; 2) refueling; and 3) the driver change. A hiccup in any one of these can have disastrous effects. On the other hand, if your team makes the effort to practice their pit stops, you might even pick-up a spot or two while in the pits. Practicing at the track prior to the race is a good way to reinforce the muscle memory needed to pull-off a decent pit stop.
- Review AIM data to perfect driving technique. I mentioned that the drivers should be fairly up to speed right out of the box, but you don't win races by just being "fairly" up to speed. To truly do well, you must master your technique at the given track. An experienced driver should have good intuition in what is generally fast, but what about that final half second per lap that can sustain through the course of a race? In my experience, that final step only comes through analyzing subtle variations in driver inputs (braking, steering, and throttle) to determine what is truly the fastest. At this level of refinement, intuition can't get you there alone. You need to have a good data acquisition system.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article where I'll go into detail on how you can use an AIM data acquisition system to improve your driving technique.
-Jack Roush Jr.