Walk into a NASCAR garage on any given Friday at the racetrack and it’s sure to be teeming with fans clad in T-shirts and ball caps supporting their favorite driver. As crews work on cars, the fans mill about, seeking autographs and taking pictures of anything and everything. If they want, they’re free to walk up to their favorite driver’s car and snap photo after photo.
It’s part of NASCAR’s effort to bring fans closer to the sport. Inadvertently, it allows teams to go undercover and gain an edge.
According to Gil Martin, crew chief for Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 car, some teams hire people to walk around the Cup garage posing as fans taking pictures of the competition – their cars, their equipment, even what they’re working on.
Blow an engine during a practice and “fans” are sure to be there taking photos of it being swapped out. Sheet metal torn off during a crash might expose secrets underneath, so they’ll be there when the wrecker hauls it back into the garage, clicking away.
They’re free to do so by design.
In NASCAR, there are no walls in the garages, no doors to close. For the most part, the garages are like conference rooms – big, wide-open spaces – only outdoors. Each stall is only slightly bigger than the car itself, putting crewmen from opposing teams so close together they literally bump into each other as they prepare cars for that weekend’s race.
If you want to see what area of the race car your competition is working on, just turn around. It’s all right there. If you want to see what parts they’re swapping in, have a look.
This is all part of NASCAR’s policy of “openness,” one put in place to help ensure parity.
“[Openness] is one of the foundations Bill France Sr. built NASCAR on,” explained John Darby, director of competition in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. “[We] want to put 99 percent of the focus on the athletes involved in the sport and only one percent on mechanical advantages. … It’s about keeping the playing field level.”
While this policy of openness has led to bumper-to-bumper racing, split-second victories and, this season, 16 different winners in 28 races, it’s also generated a palpable frustration among the “race what you brung” crowd and, as Martin put it, “a lot of espionage going on in this garage.”
Refereeing the sport is a monumental task, one that takes hundreds of hours of technical inspection every weekend by NASCAR officials. Still, things get by them. But by keeping doors open and subjecting crews to working conditions where they’re literally looking over each others’ shoulders, NASCAR employs (without paying them, mind you) an arsenal of officers that essentially police themselves.
“One of our biggest priorities from NASCAR inspections is to make parity amongst the machines, so what better way to do that than to employ 1,000 extra officials, that being the competition themselves,” Darby explained. “They can look to see what the competition is doing … and have confidence in the NASCAR rulebook that they’re not getting beat by something that shouldn’t be there.”
While the openness allows teams to police one another, it also enables them to spy.
Harvick’s 29 crew is notorious for getting their work done quicker than most. According to Alan Gustafson, now crew chief for Jeff Gordon, Harvick’s crew is usually one of the first to leave the garage following practice on Fridays.
But when you call it a day in the Sprint Cup Series, there’s no locking the door on your garage because there are no doors. So when Harvick’s crew departs, their race car remains in full view for anyone to examine. And the competition does.
How does Harvick’s crew know?
Because they’ve installed a motion-sensitive camera that records any movement in and around their garage area.
“We do it mostly to make sure nobody messes with our car at night because you never know,” Martin explained. “They have security in here but, heck, people have security on everything and people get past security.”
Stealing a glimpse of an opponent’s race car after they’ve left the garage is but one way the competition keeps an eye on each other. The spying, surveillance and, in at least one case, treason extends to the track and beyond.
Some teams have fixed cameras atop their pit stalls, but the cameras are shooting video of the competition, not their own activity.
“We’ve found stuff pointed at our pit stall in the past,” said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for both of Tony Stewart’s Cup championships. “[They’re] watching how you do your adjustments and what you do during the race. That’s stepping over the line as far as I’m concerned.”
In 2009, when he and Mark Martin were in the midst of a championship battle with Jimmie Johnson, Gustafson was approached by a rival crew chief with disturbing news.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m getting information on what you’re doing and it’s coming from somebody within your team,’ ” Gustafson recalled.
Unlike in most professional sports where there’s but one team in town, virtually every NASCAR organization is headquartered in the Charlotte, N.C., area. That leads to lots of interaction between competing forces. And with only so many jobs available, there’s bound to be some crewmen bucking for a promotion with one organization by selling out another.
“Alcohol is usually one of worst contributors to guys [spilling secrets],” Gustafson said.
Not that NASCAR minds too much because, ultimately, the goal is to have as few secrets as possible.
Saturday is shock absorber day inside the Sprint Cup garage – the day NASCAR lays on a table the winning car’s shocks from two weeks earlier. When they do, shock specialists from rival teams are given an opportunity to examine but not touch the latest and greatest equipment their competition is using.
In trying to make cars go faster, crew chiefs and engineers are constantly developing new techniques that help the race cars turn better through the corners. It’s all about making the driver feel comfortable. The more comfortable he is, the harder he’ll press on the gas pedal, and shock absorbers, which anyone who’s driven can attest to, help stabilize a car and are one way to provide that comfort.
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For 10 minutes each Saturday, engineers and specialists are allowed to see the shocks their competition is using. During that time, they’re free to jot down notes and, ideally, glean something – be it through eyeballing what parts the competition is using or how the shocks are constructed – they could develop that would eventually make their race cars turn better through the corners and, ultimately, go faster.
“Whatever you learned over the off-season, [rival teams] get to see it,” Gordon lamented earlier this season. “This is the only form of motorsports I know of that they lay your shocks out. After you win a race, two weeks later, they lay your shocks out on the table and say to the competition, ‘This is what they had.’ ”
While shocks may be a “flea on an elephant’s ass,” as Darby put it, the Saturday ritual perfectly illustrates NASCAR’s policy of openness, which hardly stops there.
If you think you think your competition has a horsepower advantage, just wait until Tuesday when rival teams are welcome to visit NASCAR’s research and development center where every week they break down the winning car’s engine.
Prior to every race, no car is allowed on the track until it goes through and passes a rigorous technical inspection. This isn’t done behind closed doors, but rather right out in the open where anyone with garage access, even fans – real or otherwise – can watch. If a car fails inspection, every team knows why.
Case in point, earlier this season NASCAR inspectors found unapproved oil pans on all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars. The pans were reportedly heavier than usual, which theoretically could provide a handling advantage. Not only were the three crew chiefs fined $50,000, but NASCAR also put the unapproved parts on display in the garage for anyone to see.
“Those were displayed to remind everybody of the approval process and to take it seriously,” Darby explained. “In the case of the oil pans, it was to visually show other teams what not to do.”
It’s the “what not to do” part that frustrates crew chiefs, at least some of them. Their job, after all, is to build race cars to go as fast as possible. But standing in their way is NASCAR with its mission of parity.
NASCAR has fattened its rulebook to a point where innovation is largely disallowed in the name of keeping things equal. And even when someone does come up with something innovative, it’s usually only a matter of weeks, if not days, before the competition – be it by seeing it laid out on a table, catching a glimpse of it on the car in the next garage or hearing about it over a beer back home in Charlotte – becomes aware of it.
“It’s almost like flipping an hour glass,” Gustafson said. “One team will have something, run it, then the rest of the garage will have it and run it, then somebody will take it one step further, then NASCAR will write a rule about it. That’s the way it goes.”
Crew chiefs are hesitant to reveal a secret NASCAR shared with the competition that wound up making them better, if only because they don’t want to pinpoint an area where they knew they had an advantage. In other words, they don’t want to tell the competition, “Yeah, that was the best play in our playbook.” They’re adamant, though, that it happens and happens often.
But is this good for the competition and, ultimately, the fans?
“It is if you want everybody to be equal, but what I think it does is it makes passing that much harder,” Zipadelli said. As he explained, 10 years ago if you had a bad pit stop, you’d be able to race your way back into the top five. But because the cars are so equal today, a bad pit stop means you might not even get back into the top 10.
So instead of trying to race your way to the front, the sport has become more and more about using pit-road strategy to gain “track position,” a term that’s become nauseatingly ubiquitous in the sport.
“[The openness] has helped competition and helped everybody run a little better, but it’s changed the strategy of the race a lot more,” Zipadelli said. “Track position, track position, track position, which is somewhat boring to me and I think it is somewhat for the fans. I think that’s an element of what you have.
“But do you want a strong garage with more guys coming through and being competitive and having sponsors or do you want the field broke up a little bit? It’s really hard to have both sides of that.”
Formula 1, the world’s most popular racing series, is a completely closed book. Nobody lays out the shocks on a table for everyone to see and no open-door policy exists in the garage. As a result, the series produces very few lead changes, even fewer split-second margins of victory and barely a handful of teams capable of winning on a weekly basis.
NASCAR could go this direction tomorrow if it wanted. It could build walls in the garage, slap doors on the stalls and never again lay out a team’s shock absorbers for everyone to see. It could, but it won’t.
“In the [Formula 1] world, manufacturer technology is at the forefront and they do everything they can to cover up and conceal [information],” Darby said. “That maybe results in one car leading an entire race. That’s just not our style. We do everything we can to keep the machines as parallel to each other as we can so that the athletes in the sport make the biggest difference.”
The result: a monkey see, monkey do world where gaining an advantage depends on how long you can keep a secret.
“That sums it up fairly well,” Gustafson said.
“It took me a long time to get used to that, because I’m old school. Everybody should have to work for what they’ve got,” added Martin. “[Nowadays], there’s a lot of engineers but there’s not a lot of ingenuity.
“It used to be you had to figure things out to make you go fast. And now you just kind of hand it over to people and they get to perfect it. That part does suck.”