Spending two weeks thinking about a 42nd-place finish can be tough on a race team, but it helps when it is looking forward to a race in which it went to Victory Lane just two years ago. It also doesn’t hurt that the organization is probably the hottest in the series right now, and it is going to run an aero package this weekend that its teammate won with when it was first introduced.
Jason Ratcliff and his No. 20 team for Joe Gibbs Racing, driven by Matt Kenseth, are looking to add a second Southern 500 trophy to their mantle.
In Tech Talk this week, Ratcliff discusses tires, tire testing and the advantages of the no ride-height rule on shocks and springs. He also talks about tire strategy, throwback schemes and their impact on calling the race, and preparing for the Darlington stripe.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – 42nd place with a blown engine doesn’t give you too much to talk about. Did they figure out what went wrong?
Jason Ratcliff – Yeah, typical engine failure. I think 99% of engine problems we see in this date and time revolve around a valve spring issue. I hate to say it is an antiquated design (laughs) but it has been around a long time. There are very few engines that are designed that way or have been for a number of years. There are very few series that even run that style/design. That is usually the weak link. Once they come apart like that, that thing came apart in a hurry and was a major catastrophe, it is tough to backtrack at that point and determine where it started. I think it is a good speculation to stay it started with a valve spring.
Neff – You were on the pole in the spring and ended up just missing the top 12 this time around. Did the setup of the car change that much? Did you go back with what you ran in the spring? How did that play out?
Ratcliff – Bristol is unique, obviously, but it is one of those tracks where what works yesterday sometimes is not OK. What you set on the pole with one day may not get you in the top 10 the next, unfortunately. A lot of it is the lap time. The field is separated by such a small margin that you can get off by just a little bit, whether it is a little different car than you ran before or the track conditions are a little bit different. One of the big differences between the two races, the first race we qualified on the bottom the second race we qualified on the top. That can make a lot of difference.
It doesn’t take much, it is a good bet the guy that sat on the pole a couple of weeks ago may not make even make the top 10 when we go back (laughs). It just changes that quickly. Our setups were fairly close, why would you change it? Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, it just wasn’t enough.
Neff – The series is now headed off to Darlington and is using the same low downforce package ran at Kentucky. How much of the setup transfers over from that worn-out, bumpy racetrack to this somewhat worn-out, bumpy racetrack?
Ratcliff – Well, I think some of it will. Just the general balance of what you had to adjust at Kentucky from the start with the 2015 aero package to what we actually raced. Whatever that offset was, I think directionally it will be the same. One of the bigger differences is going into Kentucky, Goodyear didn’t change the tire. We were going to run the same tire no matter what aero package we brought. At Darlington they had the opportunity to go in and do some tire testing and bring a tire that has a little more grip than what we would have raced if we ran the 2015 aero package. I think it will be different. The cars will have more grip overall than they had at Kentucky. Trend-wise I believe it will be very similar.
Neff – Compared to last year, the series is going in with a different package both aero- and engine-wise. How much is the change in setup between the two years, and what are you changing to attack the track this year?
Ratcliff – I didn’t think our performance, regardless of what aero package we brought back, was where it needed to be in 2014. Overall we’ve changed a lot since that point. Darlington was one of the earlier races last season and a lot has happened since we were there last year.
Honestly, I haven’t even looked at the 2014 setup to know how much is different. I’d say it is a fair amount different. We were trying to get our hands around a lot of rules changes early last season. Now we have evolved quite a bit. The two are a lot different I’m sure. Even if we weren’t making an aero change, as a whole I think it is quite a bit different on paper.
Neff – You were involved in the Darlington tire test. For those fans who don’t know what goes into one of those, can you briefly explain how Goodyear goes about it and what they have you run through?
Ratcliff – Their engineers come up with an option or two of what they think will be good for that track, that surface, the loads we’re going to see there with the particular aero package and associated speeds and things like that. They come up with a couple of options. For the teams, it was a one day test actually, they hit it right off the bat. The first set of tires they felt like would compliment the new aero package seemed to do just that. The speeds were very similar to what it would have been with the older tire and aero package. You just go out and make laps. They like to see some long runs to make sure the tire temperatures and the wear and things like that are OK and the durability is there.
The next thing they want to see, over the course of the run and the tire wears and you get some laps on it, what is the fall off in lap time? What is the balance shift? Does the driver feel like it gives up a lot of grip late in the run? Does the driver feel like it gives up grip but the balance stays the same so it is maneuverable and you feel like you can race it with minimal negatives? They look at two or three different parameters to determine what tire is going to be best for that track.
Actually, at Darlington, there were three cars there and we got out on the track together at one point, and just kind of ran around at a closer proximity than we had all day. Ran 20-25 laps and just got a feel for how things would be affected in traffic. That is typically how a Goodyear test unfolds for them to get some feedback and make a good decision.
Neff – They’ve settled on the right-side tire from Kentucky and the left-side tire from Indianapolis. Does your knowledge or familiarity with these tires and the associated spring rate, wear and the like help with determining the setup of the car for this weekend?
Ratcliff – Yes and no; having some track time with those tires is helpful but the tracks are so much different. Goodyear provides tire data to the teams. They go and test the tire and give the race teams data. You’re able to break that down and say, for this particular track, what the optimal camber setting is and the ideal air pressure, so on and so forth. That changes depending on the racetrack. As you mention, having a race under your belt with that tire, you do get some trends on air pressures and how the car reacted to adjustments. A lot of times that carries over from track to track if you run the same tire. The overall settings that you will have for that tire may be different with different track configurations. It is helpful. It is always helpful, whether it is tire data that was tested in a controlled environment or a test or race that you have on that tire. You can build a notebook based on that.
Neff – Not sure how many fans realize this, but you guys get 19 sets of tires this weekend – seven sets of tires for practice and qualifying and 12 for the race. Do you have to consider tire management or strategy all weekend or can you just bolt on four fresh bolognas any time you want?
Ratcliff – No, we get seven sets when we get there and that has to last us through practice and qualifying. All of those sets aren’t available until the race. Seven sets, you say that sounds like a lot, but you’ll use one in qualifying so you are down to six. You have four hours of practice which again, six sets seem like a lot, but it is Darlington. If you’re going to learn anything it is going to be tough once the tires cycle. You can get yourself in trouble pretty quick if you don’t keep a fresh set of tires on there as often as possible. For most tracks 19 would seem like a lot, but for Darlington, a 500-mile race and four hours of practice, it is really not. I’d like to have a couple more sets, to be honest with you (laughs).
Neff – For your shocks and springs for this deal, since you have lower downforce, does that mean you go softer on your shocks and springs or do you go stiffer to get the max out of the downforce being created?
Ratcliff – You know, it really isn’t that much different. Overall you’ll approach it the same way that you would if they hadn’t changed to the low downforce. However, tuning-wise, the balance of the car may be different because of that aero change. Therefore you may have to adjust the dampers or the springs differently. Overall I wouldn’t say that, because of the downforce level, you’re going to decrease the spring rates by X percentage. It is enough of a change that the drivers know it on the racetrack and the stopwatch knows it, but I don’t know that it is enough of a change for us to make a dramatic spring rate change.
A lot of that is because we have a no ride height rule. If you didn’t have the no ride height rule then, absolutely you’d have to go in and change your spring rates to get the car at the travels that you want with the different downforce. Because we can just lower the car and adjust the heights so you don’t really see that.
Neff – We all know that, at some point, you’re going to bounce the right side off of the fence, sometimes more than once when you’re at Darlington. Do you put any additional supports on the right side of the car and are you allowed to with the current chassis restrictions and rules?
Ratcliff – We don’t. These cars are pretty tough compared to what we used to race. We used to do that and, while I think it was helpful, there is a lot of that added structure that is mandatory now. You can’t put enough structure in there sometimes (laughs). It all comes down to, did he hit it hard or did he hit it soft? You just have to be prepared for it.
With the current rules there is enough structure in the car that it can withstand a fair amount. You just have to hope that, if he’s going to do it, it happens in practice and once you get into the race he’s got it out of his system and you don’t have any issues.
Neff – You guys aren’t running a throwback paint scheme, but there are 30 cars in the race that are. Does that make it any more difficult, when you’re calling the race, to recognize the people that are around you? For instance, when the cars come down pit lane and you worry about the cars pitted before you and after you, if they are running a paint scheme you aren’t used to, does that make it a greater challenge?
Ratcliff – It can. We see it without this weekend’s changes, a lot of teams run different paint schemes or specialized paint schemes. Like you said, the guys pitting two or three boxes on either side of you, you have to know what the hood of that car looks like or did they make an overall change in color. All of us have a mental picture of that’s what that car looks like and that’s what that other car looks like. Any change is worth noting, whether it is when the driver is leaving the pit box so that he knows the car in front of him is pitting in front of him or I can recognize it when I tell him he’s clear out of the pit box or our spotter. It can be a little more difficult knowing there are more cars than normal this weekend that are going to have a different look, but thankfully (laughs) we have four hours on Friday to get a new imprint in our visual memory of what color and car number go together.
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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