Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Jason Ratcliff on Safety, Horsepower & Tight Nuts

The Sprint Cup Series moves from the relatively flat track of Pocono Raceway to the high-banked, high-speed venue of Michigan International Speedway this weekend. The challenges switch from turning through the flat corners and navigating the bumps of the tunnel turn to minimizing drag while making the car turn in the corners on the circuit’s fastest track. Jason Ratcliff has to figure out how to attack each phase of the race to optimize his team’s shot to win this coming weekend.

This week in Tech Talk, Ratcliff discusses getting off pit road and utilizing the new found speed at Joe Gibbs Racing. He also looks at the aging of the pavement and the resultant widening of the groove. Ratcliff talks about his team working with carbon fiber and the safety precautions needed, along with the new safety requirements for the pit crews. Finally, he touches on the mentality behind tightening lug nuts and just how many you need.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch: Pocono hasn’t been the best track for Matt Kenseth, but it looked like you had a pretty good showing. How do you feel your day played out?

Jason Ratcliff: Yeah, I thought so. We came off of the truck fairly quick and happy with the car. The track caught everyone a little off guard with the changes in the tunnel turn. The track was a little bit rougher back there, but we seemed to be able to adapt to that pretty quickly. When we changed over into qualifying trim, for whatever reason, we struggled there a little bit. Not exactly sure what we did there to slow our car down, but in race trim we were really quick, and that kind of showed on Sunday.

Neff: This was the first time going to Pocono with the new engine package and ride height combination. How do you feel like it worked at the track, especially considering the bumps they had in the tunnel turn?

Ratcliff – It seemed fine. The track wasn’t even expecting the change in the track surface. I feel like they are going to work on that before we go back, so other than getting through one weekend and doing what we needed to do to race well in those conditions, it is probably not something we’re going to need to be concerned with in five or six weeks when we go back. Everything worked well in the new engine package. The speeds were still up pretty good in comparison. I think a lot of that is being able to shift. That makes a big difference when you can keep those things in the RPM range that you want. So it was good, a good all around weekend, no complaints.

Neff: We are heading to Michigan this weekend. Matt has two wins there but they were with his previous team. Since he’s been in the Gibbs car his results have been mediocre. Do you feel like the recent speed that you have found at the intermediate tracks is going to help put him closer to the front this weekend?

Ratcliff: I feel like it will. We’ve had some respectable (laughs), if that is a good choice of word, or decent runs at Michigan but, for whatever reason, when it comes down to go time we haven’t quite closed the deal. I think, looking at our intermediate program so far this year, and knowing the speed that we’ve been able to find at some of the bigger tracks, my hope is that carries over to Michigan and we’re more competitive. Not just the No. 20 team but as a group.

Neff: Michigan is, outside of the plate tracks, the fastest track on the circuit right now. With the decreased straightaway speed and increased corner speed, do you feel like we’re going to be flat out the entire lap around the 2-mile oval?

Ratcliff: I don’t think so. They will be in qualifying trim, or dangerously close (chuckles). Once they get into race trim and the track has lost a little bit of grip from when it was repaved a few years ago. We lost some downforce this year and a little bit of horsepower, so those things kind of go hand-in-hand. With the speeds being up, you need that downforce to stick the car to the corner. When you lose a little bit of it, even though your entry speeds may be a little bit slower, at some point you have to get it slowed down to get it to head in the other direction. I think speeds will be up, especially for a lap or two in qualifying, but in race trim I don’t think it will be a lot different from what we’ve seen in the past. It seems like every time we go back to Michigan, it is losing some grip pretty quickly.

Neff: That leads into the next question. They repaved the track in 2012. Michigan winters aren’t the mildest, so do you feel like the grip has fallen off enough to where we will start sliding around and spread the groove all of the way to the wall yet?

Ratcliff: I think so. Based on what we saw last year versus the year before I felt like it did. With the combination of the tire we run there and the track surface, it has lost a little bit. But, at the same time it seems like the groove widens out some, especially in [turns] 3 and 4. That makes for good racing when you have some options. As the grip level starts going down and you can move around and find options. Typically guys can race in those conditions and put on a good show. It is definitely better than the track having so much grip that you just run wide open and can’t pass anybody. I’m not reluctant to say I hope it is lacking grip because we’ll race a little better. If you have to get out of the throttle and you have to work on the handling of the car and you have a driver who works well in those conditions. We’ll see. It is still Michigan. You’ve got to be fast. You have to have horsepower and an aero package that works well. If you’re planning on winning it you have to have all of those things.

Neff: A question that is for Michigan but also applies to most tracks, when you set up the transmission and choose the first gear to launch out of the pit box. Do you have to trade off the ability to launch out of the pit box with the ability to smoothly shift from first to second without abusing the rpms too much?

Ratcliff: That particular pit road is tough to get ahold of. Even trying to get traction and get out of the pit box is difficult. When you get out of the box and spin the tires a little bit, it doesn’t seem to be too tough of a transition from first to second on pit road. Pit-road speeds are also fast enough that they seem to be able to modulate that well enough. It is one of the tracks that is similar to California with getting out of the pit box. You are always right on the edge of spinning them too much and bogging them down to a point that you don’t get going. It has always been that way.

Neff: Michigan and California are different from the other intermediate tracks that we go to because the front stretch is just a long, sweeping curved “straight”. You are turning from the time you enter turn 3 until you exit turn 2. Does that require a difference in setup, specifically for the right side and especially the right front, because you are basically loaded up in a turn for three quarters of a lap?

Ratcliff: Not really, you do get a little bit of vertical load on the frontstretch thanks to the banking and that little bit of turn. Especially those guys who come down and try and shorten it by driving on the apron. It has a couple of big whoop-dee-doos just past the start-finish line down low. You can get, when the car is flattened out and not traveling in the rear, the front straight can make it a little hectic for transitions on the splitter and getting some splitter wear. That is one thing that is unique about Michigan, it gets real rough the closer you get to the apron on the front straight.

Neff: Does Matt use a carbon fiber or aluminum seat?

Ratcliff: He uses carbon.

Neff: That leads into the next question. There is a lot of carbon fiber utilized in these cars today. When the guys at the shop are working with that material, do they have to use specialized equipment, like respirators, to ensure they don’t inhale the fibers that are involved?

Ratcliff: You do the normal things. It is no different from working with aluminum really. As for the carbon shop where they lay it up and the materials they utilize there, they have some other safety factors and things that they use to make sure they don’t breathe in too much of that or get it in their eyes or whatever it might be. It really isn’t any different from working with any metals and utilizing cutting or grinding equipment. We don’t build a lot. We have a few parts that we make in house but a lot of that is done outside.

Neff: The pit-road guys had to start wearing the additional fire protection clothing starting at Pocono. With summer fast approaching, it is going to get hot on pit lane for sure. Did the pit crew have any trouble adapting to the new clothing, and is it something they are going to have to just adapt to over the next few races?

Ratcliff: I didn’t hear a lot of feedback. The one thing that was common, it is warm in those things if you aren’t used to them, especially the tire changers. Going from up to down and back up, it kind of drags on you a little bit. It is a little tough to move around when you go to change a tire and you get down on your knees and then get back up. They’ll work around that or they’ll find some other manufacturers or try on a different size or something. For the first outing, that seemed to be the thing they noticed most and complained about. Getting up and down when it gets hot and sweaty, things get kind of sticky and that makes it tough. Other than that, it is going to be hot!! (laughs) However, it is better than the alternative.

Neff: They aren’t enforcing a lugnut rule anymore. It is pretty self policing. At this point, is four lugnuts all that teams are trying to tighten, or is it you can live with four so the fifth one is just optional?

Ratcliff: It is a mix. For the most part it is make sure you get four tight and if you don’t get the fifth one it isn’t a big deal. You aren’t going to have to come down pit road for it. You can’t risk a loose wheel. For every one you don’t have tight, the odds go up exponentially that you’ll have a loose wheel. You have to weigh that out. There may be times when it is worth that risk while there may be others where it isn’t worth it. I would say four is pretty common up and down pit road at this point. There are times where we ask our guys, at this particular racetrack, with lateral loads and the things we are seeing, our odds of not having a loose wheel are much better if we get all five tight.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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