Speed freaks team up with computer geeks

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Four laptops line the table in the lounge of Jeff Gordon's hauler, each one spewing out different charts and graphs.

In Sterling Marlin's hauler, a high-speed computer network is set up in a portable conference room large enough for a crew of eight to spend their afternoons poring over data.

Gordon and Marlin don't have a clue what most of the equipment does, but they don't need too. In the increasingly high-tech world of NASCAR, a driver holds the steering wheel while a team of college-educated engineers figures out what the car is doing.

It's speed freaks conversing with computer geeks.

''I try not to understand too much of it and pretty much stick to what I feel in the race car,'' Gordon said. ''I let the experts stick with what they do, and I stick to what I do, and then we try to figure out how it all comes together to make the car as fast as possible.

''That's the one area that has really grown and changed in the 10 years since I got into this series. It's totally changed the way we do things.''

And totally changed the hiring practices of most Winston Cup teams.

When two resumes come into a race shop these days, the one with a college degree on it often has the edge.

Joe Berardi, the lead engineer on Gordon's race team, was in the private sector when he decided to try to break into racing.

He thought he'd be most needed in one of the open-wheel series, where the technology is generally considered to be more advanced, but stopped by some NASCAR shops in North Carolina on a whim.

He stalked the lobby at Hendrick Motorsports looking for a familiar face to hand his resume to, finally bumping into team manager Brian Whitesell.

Whitesell gave him the brush off, and Berardi went on his way. Back in his office, he saw Berardi had both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in mechanical engineering. Ten minutes later, Whitesell was on the phone calling him back to the shop.

Using computer simulations, modeling, three-dimensional drawings and data analysis, Berardi and the rest of the engineers in the Winston Cup garage are producing sleek, speedy race cars equipped with all the latest technology.

But teams are walking a fine line while looking to expand their engineering fleets.

Except for Ryan Newman, who has an engineering degree from Purdue, the drivers and most of their crew members have no idea how to crunch the numbers. Engineers must understand racing while being able to relate to the old-school mechanics.

''In my mind, what I have to do is merge what I know from engineering and data and what Sterling tells me about what the car is doing, then translate that into something everyone understands,'' said Steve Boyer, engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Armed with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in engineering management, the 30-year-old Boyer spent five years working with Goodyear and a variety of drivers.

It prepared him to work with Marlin and team manager Tony Glover, two old-school throwbacks used to preparing a car strictly from Marlin's feedback.

While Glover is Internet-savvy, Marlin is admittedly frightened of computers and the information highway.

''Back in the 1980s, nobody thought about bringing computers into the garage, let alone putting one in a car,'' Marlin said. ''Now they're always trying to show me what the car is doing off of what the computer shows.

''Sometimes we all agree, but other times they want to change things and I have to say, 'No, we have to do it this way because I'm driving the car, and it's got to go by the seat of your pants.'''

Glover does his part to intervene for Boyer but found himself conducting a careful screening process as the Ganassi team tripled its engineering staff from three in 2000 to nine this season.

''A computer will never run a Winston Cup car, but they will make them faster,'' Glover said. ''Most of us don't need to understand the numbers, but we need to understand the language Steve and the others are putting them in so you can only hire guys who know enough about both racing and engineering.''



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