Crew chiefs know manufacturer switch can be ‘pretty insane’
As Stewart-Haas Racing prepares to switch from Chevrolet to Ford for the 2017 Sprint Cup season, the four-car organization faces a major undertaking that is expected to involve extra man-hours and the burning of quite a lot of midnight oil, figuratively speaking.
But just how labor intensive will the changeover be?
No one is more qualified to weigh in than two crew chiefs who’ve already gone through the challenging process of switching manufacturers.
Paul Wolfe, the crew chief for Brad Keselowski, did it when Team Penske switched from Dodge to Ford for the 2013 season.
Cole Pearn, the crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., oversaw a manufacturer switch when Furniture Row Racing transitioned from Chevrolet to Toyota this past winter.
So how was this past offseason for Pearn, one of NASCAR’s most talented young crew chiefs?
"Pretty insane," he told FOXSports.com at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "It was definitely one of the hardest offseasons we’ve had work-load wise. It’s like the season never ended. We went straight to work full-bore crazy pretty much right away, and it was that way all winter."
As for how many extra hours the single-car team from Denver, Colorado, put in over the winter, Pearn can only offer a guess. It certainly didn’t help the team’s 2016 preparations that Truex was in the hunt for the 2015 Sprint Cup title all the way to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he ultimately finished last among the Championship 4.
"I’d say you were at least two or three hours more a day than what you’ve always been, and we pretty much worked weekends most of January — Saturday and Sunday – right up until the season started," Pearn said. "So it was a huge undertaking. … Everything’s new. There’s not a single part on the car that’s the same as what we had last year."
In addition to aligning with a new manufacturer, Stewart-Haas will also no longer use Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines in 2017. Instead, SHR will build its own chassis in-house and rely on Roush Yates Engines.
"I think a lot of it has to do with how well your company is structured," said Wolfe, who as a Ford crew chief knows a thing or two about adjusting to the Blue Oval brand. "Obviously there’s the car-build side of it, with the body changes. Then there’s just the communication working with the manufacturer’s engineering support or how they support the teams at the racetrack and understanding those relationships and how as a group – meaning team and manufacturer – you can work together to be most efficient and obviously get the most performance.
"I feel like from the car side of it and just getting our cars switched over from the Dodges to the Fords, I think our company did a great job with that. I feel like we have a lot of processes in place that made some of that transition go fairly smooth."
Similar to Furniture Row last year, when Team Penske was preparing to switch manufacturers, the team was in the middle of a championship battle.
So how did Team Penske manage to adequately prepare for the manufacturer change for 2013 all while trying to remain focused on winning the 2012 title, a feat that Keselowski ultimately achieved?
"The nice thing about the way our company is structured is it allowed the race teams to still go to the racetrack and focus on that weekend or that Chase or whatever, while in the background I feel like the way we’re staffed with the people we have in place, they were able to start those processes â getting the cars built and trying to understand some of the people at Ford and how they were going to be able to support us," Wolfe said. "As we ended our season and started moving into 2013, I feel like that made that transition a little easier."
Not that the transition was easy. Nor does Wolfe expect SHR’s changeover to be seamless.
If there’s any silver lining to be had with the massive undertaking that awaits SHR, Wolfe believes it’s that rule changes from one year to the next often necessitate a lot of extra work with or without a manufacturer change.
"It’s going to put you behind a little bit no matter how you look at it, but our cars seem to change and there’s rule changes every year," he said. "Nothing stays the same, anyway. So that side of it I wouldn’t say would be the big challenge. I think understanding how to work with the manufacturers as far as the technology side and engineering staff and how we can work well together is probably the bigger challenge."