Mysteries of R&D Center explored

“My personal opinion, I don’t like the R&D Center. They do call you down there. At what point in the inspection do they call you down, who knows? Had they looked at the car before? Probably. That is the thing about the R&D center that I don’t like. It’s, it’s … who knows. You don’t know.”

That was driver Clint Bowyer speaking to the media back in September after NASCAR docked both him and team owner Richard Childress 150 championship points and suspended his crew and car chiefs for an infraction following their victory in the opening round of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The penalty was upheld upon appeal and struck a severe blow to the Kansas native’s championship hopes.

It was easy to understand how Bowyer would be critical not just of the system put in place by NASCAR for postrace inspection of its race cars, but also of the way in which the inspection process is done.

The reaction to the Bowyer penalty and appeal from most NASCAR fans was similar to Bowyer’s — that the R&D Center was some kind of secretive, sinister place where decisions were made by a specially appointed panel whose sole job was to pass judgment on those who have offended the gods of stock car racing.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it?

However, the reality of the R&D Center and the essential role it plays in shaping NASCAR, is about as mundane as you can get.

Located in Concord, N.C., the building itself isn’t hidden from anyone. It’s across the street from the sprawling Roush Fenway Racing campus and just down the street from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

The center is off limits to the general public, but media members are given access upon request. FOXSports.com was offered an exclusive tour, along with a detailed review of the pre- and postrace inspection process each and every team has to go through and how it may have sealed the fate of the No. 33 Chevrolet that week in September.

The people at the center go about their business inspecting race cars before and after they compete at a racetrack; advancing the cause of safety by testing and developing safety-related items such as driver seats; making evolutionary changes to the Sprint Cup car, such as the new front-end splitter design introduced with the 2011 season; and designing the new Nationwide Series car that made its competitive debut in 2010.

Mike Fisher, managing director, acted as the tour guide. Joining him was Brett Bodine, who, along with acting as the competition director for the sport, also has the coolest job in NASCAR – driving the pace car on race weekends. Bodine, a former driver and team owner, holds a degree in mechanical engineering and is one of the chief architects of the new Cup car. He has been involved with the center since 2004.

Because the purpose of the tour was the inspection process, we breezed through the main lobby, past several offices and into a cavernous room that comes across as an auto dealer’s showroom, except the cars on this showroom floor are current model stock cars.

Through another set of doors and we were in the inspection area, another large warehouse-like area similar to what you would find in any modern race shop with two separate inspection areas at one end and a lineup of race cars – sans bodies, wheels, drivetrain and suspension parts – at the other.

"The initial certification happens in this configuration," began Bodine, pointing to the bare chassis. "Every car. Every single car that is on the racetrack, including every new Nationwide car, has been in here."

Bodine explained how the inspection process was developed.

Bodine came on board when the car was in development and says the inspection process for it was also already being created at the time. To maintain a level of accuracy that assures all the safety initiatives built into the car are correct, it would take a specific process to make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be.

“Race teams, for competition reasons, tend to put competition ahead of safety,” said Bodine. “We’ve seen that through the years. This car was built with safety, competition and cost as the three criteria. To maintain the safety part of it, we wanted to make sure that each car is exactly as designed. It’s being raced as designed. To do that, it takes this kind of process.”

The cars must be kept within the guidelines to ensure the initial goals are met.

“In order to take advantage of the cost benefits of this chassis, we had to standardize it to a certain degree,” said Fisher. He pointed out the difference between two cars sitting on rollers on the inspection area floor. “You can take a look at these two front clips and you can see that teams still have a little bit of freedom on how they want to design the front clip and the front-suspension geometry.”

The inspection process takes place on a custom-designed rig that allows inspectors to examine intricate details of the construction of the race car. NASCAR utilizes radio frequency identification tags (RFID) located in 11 different locations on the chassis to mark and identify each car. Each car is also assigned a vehicle identification number that matches to each specific set of RFID’s for the purpose of allowing NASCAR officials to keep track of each car.

On most days, the inspection area is a very busy place, given that each and every race-car chassis must be inspected and certified before it can be put on the racetrack. When a car is involved in a wreck, it also must return to the center to be recertified before being allowed to race again.

During the tour, an inspector performed a thorough inspection on one of Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chevrolets that had been wrecked and repaired.

"Once a car leaves we usually get to see them again (after being wrecked),” said Fisher. “It’s common to hear the complaint that the tolerances allowed by NASCAR in the inspection process are so tight that once you’ve wrecked a car you can’t fix it. That’s not always the case.

“Here’s a top-level team (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) that’s fixed a damaged car, and it will easily be recertified.”

An essential tool used during the inspection is a Computer Added Design blueprint of the entire car, both the body and the chassis.

“We have tolerances around each point that we measure because these are hand-built cars and they do see the racetrack before they come back here,” said Fisher. “We will measure it, and the team will get a measurement report that says here’s how your car measures. If (during the inspection of a new or wrecked car) you’re out of tolerance on some of those points, there’s no penalty, we hand the report (over) and say go fix it, it’s not approved. They will go fix it and bring it back.”

Every week, the race winner and a random car are also brought back for inspection.

During the inspection process, there are different tolerances for different parts of the car.

The tightest tolerance is in the measurements related to the front-end suspension geometry. The widest tolerance is given to the rear clip or essentially anything past the rear window. This is because even slight modifications outside the essentially tight box allowed by the design of the new car, such as mounting front-end components slightly to the right or left, can offer a big competitive advantage.

Teams will often push the envelope at several places around the car, with each push into the gray area affecting the other. Fisher and Bodine used a term for this practice, calling it “stacking the tolerances.” This is usually where teams find themselves in hot water.

In explaining the process, Bodine repeatedly used the phrase, “You’d better be careful” in referencing how teams like to venture into that gray area.

How close to the edge do teams work? Apparently very, very close.

“You might bring it in this week and it’s good,” said Fisher. “And you might go out and drive it around the parking lot and it’s out because you’re that close.”

Bodine admitted that it’s very much a cat-and-mouse game with team engineers and crew chiefs to see who can work as close to the edge without crossing it. And whether or not NASCAR’s inspection process will catch it.

“This (R&D Center) was never in NASCAR’s toolbox,” said Bodine. “There was no way to achieve that level of scrutiny at the racetrack. That’s why it has to be done here, (teams) have to be held accountable to keep that process in place.”

Inspectors at the center are usually the first to see a new innovation or design during the initial inspection process. Working in conjunction with the officials that work race weekends, the inspection team offers the competition side a heads up to allow them to monitor any new design at the racetrack. This gives them both time to analyze its impact and then to decide whether they are OK with it or not.

When the new car was first introduced, there were some handling deficiencies that drivers didn’t like. The design of the car took away a lot of downforce and much of the even more critical side force. Engineers discovered that by skewing that rear end to the right, so that the car runs at a slight angle, that sideforce could be brought back.

However, teams and NASCAR officials at the racetrack discovered that parts were breaking by skewing the rear ends too far to the right.

“As a sanctioning body we recognized that you needed some (adjustment to the rear axle) and that it will make the racing better, so (we said) here’s the limit,” said Bodine. “That’s now something that is inspected at the racetrack.”

Development of the inspection procedure is an ongoing process. As teams discover new ways to push the envelope to make their cars go faster and handle better, NASCAR officials work to maintain the strict level of safety, cost control and competitiveness that were the original mandates for the new car.

“We will never be able to stop anyone from pushing the envelope,” said Fisher. “If we give teams a one-quarter-inch tolerance, there will be teams that will go out there and test that one-quarter tolerance to see if it makes a difference. Hopefully, what we are trying to show in the way we set those tolerances is that those tolerances shouldn’t be the deciding factor in who is the winner.

“We’ve had teams that have come in here (the Center) with their cars and they’ve won races and they’ve used every bit of that real estate they can use. And we’ve also had cars that have come in so straight up, perfect, center legal. So good that you’ll say, ‘Take a picture of it.’

“That’s the beauty of this car. When we can point out that here’s one car that’s perfectly straight up and won a race and here’s another that’s on the edge of the tolerances and won, it must not make that big of a difference.”

Try and tell that to the team engineers and the crew chiefs.