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Behind the scenes with Hendrick Motorsports

Behind the scenes with Hendrick Motorsports

24.3.05. Victory in the prestigious Daytona 500 for Jeff Gordon, an emphatic Nextel Cup series lead after just four races for Jimmy Johnson and a Las Vegas second place for rookie Kyle Busch could signal a return to the top slot for the five times NASCAR championship winning team Hendrick Motorsports.

Chevrolet driver Gordon credited his team mate Johnson with a “big push” to propel him into the lead with just a few laps to go at Daytona. Another from Busch’s elder brother Kurt helped keep him at the front as the race came down to a two lap, post-yellow flag dash. It was Gordon’s third win at NASCAR’s most prestigious event.

Jeff Andrews of Hendrick Motorsports

During practice for the race Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition Ken Howes and Jeff Andrews of the team’s engine division took time to share with Drag Rod & Classic Review their thoughts on the coming season and how they view the new Nextel Cup regulations which have been introduced to make racing better for the fans, safer for the drivers and, theoretically, cheaper for the teams.

Prior to this year, most of the emphasis has been on trying to achieve as much front downforce as possible. Now that has changed as rear spoilers have been reduced in height by an inch to 4 1/2 inches for all apart from the superspeedways at Daytona and Talledega. (The only change for these has been a reduction of 1/64 in the size of the engine restrictor plate.) This is part of a programme begun in 2002 to make cars more driveable through their aerodynamics and tyres.

Howes observes that the spoiler reduction means “a substantial loss in rear downforce. It is early days to know how that will play out. Some of that downforce the teams will get back just by working in the areas known to be sensitive to air flow.” NASCAR strives to maintain equality with bodywork templates that police carefully regulated body shapes. The teams work just as hard at manipulating the templates. “Look carefully at the cars,” Howes said at Daytona. “You’ll be looking at very different racecars in California next week, even though they still fit the same templates. People can be pretty creative.” A few weeks later at Las Vegas Johnson’s team did fall foul of the scrutineers when his car’s roof height was found to be too low.

Gordon leads Johnson at Daytona

The reduction in spoiler height has shifted the aerodynamic balance of the car towards more oversteer. That has also meant a challenge for tyre supplier Goodyear which has said that it will be pleased if it can make up for just 25 per cent of the grip lost through the new rule. However, Eric Warren, technical director of the rival Evernham team, believes that the reduction in downforce will be totally recovered by the end of the season.

A regulation has also been introduced with NASCAR-determined gear ratios, which Jeff Andrews reckons will have the effect of limiting maximum RPM by about 600. Again, the superspeedways are exempt. Each vehicle is equipped with a data logger that measures RPM during on-track activity. The challenge is now, says Andrews, “to shift our power band in reverse.” The teams can no longer use gear ratios to move the power range up the power curve. This, he reckons, is currently the “biggest focus” for the team, with attention being turned to camshaft design and intake manifold and cylinder head design.

Kyle Busch

In approaching such challenges Hendrick Racing and its leading rivals are looking increasingly to the more rarefied world of Formula One. Andrews believes that his predecessor, the late Randy Dorton, “started taking notice of the things happening in F1 and brought some of that back to us, starting in the mid-1990s.” He reckons that while “on a regular weekend basis we don’t deal with the same kind of technology, if you were to look inside our engines at the different components you would see many similarities.”

As an example of how Hendrick Racing now operates, Andrews points to the team’s collaboration with software supplier UGS. Hendrick uses around 5,500 pistons a year. “We could not find a manufacturer who could deal with those kind of numbers and keep the quality needed.” It now, therefore, produces its own pistons. “Having a partner like UGS was critical to their design and development.” It is thought that Hendrick was the first NASCAR organisation to implement product lifestyle management (PLM) software. NASCAR may have an image of push rod engines and carburettors but if you spend a short while in the trucks of Hendrick Racing you will realise that the thinking is 21st century.

Story & Photos: Ian Wagstaff

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