Inside look at NASCAR's best racing team

Inside look at NASCAR's best racing team

Inside look at NASCAR's best racing team

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Winning drivers on Victory Lane often thank "the guys back at the shop."

In the case of NASCAR's best team, Hendrick Motorsports, "the guys" means 550 people, including 55 engineers — three with PhDs — and "the shop" is a $150-million complex of 12 buildings on 90 acres, operating on a budget approaching $200 million annually.

This is where you come to find out why Hendrick has won more Nextel Cup races this season, 10, than all other teams combined, and its senior driver Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, leads the point standings. Gordon and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson each have won four races, the most on the tour; Casey Mears and Kyle Busch each have won once.

From these grounds, Hendrick has won six Cup championships and 159 races, all in Chevrolets.

Always running on the cutting edge of NASCAR technology, this powerful team also gets into trouble at times. Currently, Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus, crew chiefs for Gordon and Johnson, respectively, are serving six-race suspensions for disallowed fender configurations caught by inspectors before a race.

Gordon and Johnson each were docked 100 points for the violation, but Gordon didn't even lose the lead in the standings and Johnson dropped only from third to fifth, still an excellent position to make the Chase for the Cup.

As if Hendrick weren't already the New York Yankees of NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join the juggernaut next year after breaking away from his family's Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.

Why? He wants to win championships, and a lot more races. And this is the place to do it.

Cars and engines are built from scratch here. Parts are manufactured outright or custom-machined to top-secret specifications by dozens of computer-driven, robotic systems.

Pit crewmen train and practice daily, as rigorously as football players. Pit coaches break down video of race-day and practice pit stops, studying every movement of every crewman, relentlessly searching to shave off tenths of seconds. Any track can be simulated here, with a massive computer-driven hydraulic system called a "seven-post shaker."

From research and development engineers to every body fabricator and engine assembler, innovation is a perpetual priority.

To pay for all this, the in-house marketing department not only searches constantly for new sponsorship but works to maintain long-lasting partnerships. Gordon's primary sponsor, DuPont, has been with Hendrick since Gordon was a rookie in 1993. Johnson's top backer, Lowe's, has been here since the start of his Cup career in 2002.

Sponsoring corporations feel so included in this operation that, for example, the Lowe's home-improvement empire recently held its board of directors meeting here.

There is a museum full of all sorts of cars and equipment, the proudest display being all four of Hendrick's Daytona 500-winning cars.

Not everybody gets up close, or deep inside. Too much information and technology are too proprietary.

But let's take a look at what makes NASCAR's best team tick.

For decades in NASCAR, a good pit stop for four tires and gas was about 20 seconds. To be competitive now, a pit stop must be about 12 seconds. Hendrick led the way, and still relentlessly works to shave off even tenths of seconds.

All day and often at night, every weekday, crewmen practice in the on-site pits here, drilled by former football and baseball coaches.There are seven "positions" that go over the wall: two tire changers, two tire carriers, one jack man, one gas man, one catch-can man. For years, the choreography of seven men moving together was likened to offensive linemen firing off the ball.

Back on the Hendrick campus, team meetings are held, more video reviewed, and then there's more practice.

Conditioning is also a key for crewmen. The pits at racetracks, especially in summer, are like ovens. Crewmen must be conditioned for four hours of peak performance in the heat.

Inside the air-conditioned Hendrick gym, as elaborate as any in the NFL, crewmen work not only with traditional weights and conditioning devices, but with "position-specific items" as Morrison calls weighted gas cans, jacks and tires. Physical therapists, athletic trainers and chiropractors work on injuries and injury prevention. There's even a team orthopedic surgeon.

Hendrick's Engine Department:

On a given day, 180 racing engines, all built here from scratch by 15 assemblers, are cycling through the engine department. Each costs more than $100,000.

A Hendrick engine is born on a cart that contains every component, from the block to the crankshaft to the valve springs. Assemblers work without knowing which branch of the team the engine will go to. Identification is only by a number assigned to the engine block.

Nothing is stock anymore. Even the basic block is cast in England by General Motors, and is specifically designed for NASCAR racing. The last semblance of a stock component went out this year. Chevrolet's basic blocks had been based on the traditional "small-block Chevy" V8 dating from 1955. But when Toyota entered Nextel Cup racing this year, the Japanese manufacturer did not have a production push-rod V8 engine. Because Toyota was allowed to use a racing-specific engine, Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge were allowed similar leeway.

Engines are completely disassembled and rebuilt after each race. Some moving parts, such as pistons, valves and valve springs, are automatically changed. Other components are replaced according to wear, which is calculated on computers by how many engine cycles they've been through, typically about 2 million cycles in a race weekend.

To get the engines race-ready, 30 huge, computer-driven robotic machines on a given day may all be working on different assignments. One may be fine-grinding the ports in cylinder heads. Another may be manufacturing pistons. Another may be machining suspension parts.

With the robotic machines, porting and polishing can be consistent down to 1/10,000th of an inch, and the entire cylinder head can be finished in about four hours.

All of Hendrick's race cars are built from the floor up, on-site, at a cost of more than $120,000 each.

Two types of cars are manufactured here: the traditional Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and the revolutionary Car of Tomorrow design, in Chevrolet's case the Impala, being phased in by NASCAR.

Typically, Hendrick's four Cup teams keep a total of about 72 cars, 18 for each driver, in inventory. In midseason, assuming not too many cars have been crashed, the workload is fairly light in the chassis and body departments. But in the off-season, during the winter, so many new cars are being built that Hendrick's teams are always on overtime until Daytona.

In construction, first comes the "rolling chassis," built mainly out of tubular steel, that includes the roll cage. Even at that stage, Hendrick used to customize cars for the specific tastes, feel and style of the individual driver. The COT has changed that. To make sure each of the new COT chassis fits NASCAR's inspection templates, a set of the templates, welded together and called a "claw," hangs over each construction plate where the cars are being built.

One of the least heralded but most important elements in the NASCAR safety revolution of recent years is the cocoon-like carbon fiber seat, something of a survival cell for the driver.

Hendrick not only manufactures custom-fitted seats for its drivers, but also for drivers on other teams.

Once the form is molded to the driver, a carbon fiber cast is made, and then put in a vacuum chamber and subjected to high temperatures to harden it in a shape that fits the driver's body precisely.

Another key role of the carbon fiber department is manufacturing scale-model versions of race cars, in order to test design innovations in wind tunnels before a full-scale prototype is built.

With leftover carbon fiber, Hendrick also manufacturers its brake-cooling ducts, for which it used to pay $1,500 each, or $6,000 per car. The net savings approach $500,000 a year on brake ducts alone.

To keep everyone cheering for one another, Hendrick provides for a bonus for all employees every time a Hendrick Cup car wins.

So NASCAR's best team is also the happiest. And the best because it is the happiest.

www.latimes.com

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