Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Slugger Labbe Talks Tire Testing And Sitting In NASCAR Timeout

Richard Childress Racing NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Slugger Labbe, our Tech Talk guest this week is back on the pit box for Austin Dillon. He spent the week preparing for Kansas after a tough end to their day at Talladega was watched from the couch after a one-week break from leading the program.

Labbe didn’t spend this entire break at home in North Carolina, though. The No. 3 Chevrolet program traveled to Kentucky Speedway this week as part of a two-day tire test for Goodyear. The car found some speed there at a similar intermediate, lessons they hope to transfer to Kansas this weekend.

In this week’s Tech Talk, Labbe talks about why he didn’t go to Richmond, the procedures at a tire test and segment racing at Talladega versus Daytona. He also gets into the things learned at other tracks that will and won’t transfer to Kansas, the unique schedule for this weekend and what he focuses on to make maximum downforce with the new package. Labbe wraps it up with a look at technical inspection and the sport’s R&D Center.

Mike Neff: We barely survived Talladega, and your car did not. How badly was the No. 3 hurt?

Slugger Labbe: It was hurt pretty badly. We had to replace the firewall forward on it. It is actually at the chassis shop right now getting a new front clip. We’ll get it ready for the Coke Zero 400 soon.

Neff: You stayed back from Richmond to work on prepping that car. Did it just need some extra loving and rubbing on it before you went to Talladega?

Slugger: I was scheduled to go to Richmond but with what happened at Bristol in pre-race inspection, failing LIS (Laser Inspection System), I was put in the penalty box by the company for a week. I stayed home and worked on the Talladega car.

Neff: Did you feel like segment racing at Talladega was a little different than it was at Daytona? Did you change how you approached it on a plate track this time?

Slugger: It’s a little different than Daytona. You have to handle really well at Daytona. If you don’t, you get separated so you end up with less of a pack. At Talladega, pretty much anyone’s setup will work there. The tires have so much grip and don’t wear out so you can just keep running and running. It is more bunched up, although there weren’t as many wrecks as we typically see even with stage racing. There was only one big wreck.

It was definitely nerve wracking on restarts because everyone was so jumbled up. There was a lot of three-wide and four-wide racing. For some reason, for whatever it is worth, the bottom lane simply didn’t go this time at Talladega, like we typically see. That was very interesting to me.

Neff: You were at Kentucky Speedway testing. Were you there for an open test or a Goodyear tire test?

Goodyear tire tests provide a prime opportunity for Cup teams to gather more track time. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Slugger: It was a Goodyear tire test. On Tuesday, we were all but rained out. We didn’t get on the track until about 5:00 p.m. and we ended at 7:00. We ran probably 60 laps on Tuesday. Wednesday was a beautiful day and we ended up running about 190 laps. We ran a fair amount on Wednesday trying to help Goodyear come up with a tire to use for the race. I think they made their choice but we’ll see what their final outcome is.

It was just nice to make some 25-lap runs and see the characteristics of the race car and the new pavement they put down on the track. I have to be honest with you, the innovation of tire dragging has really changed our sport. If you look back to Texas, it wasn’t looking good after the XFINITY race. They went to work and drug some more tires in the second groove and made for a hell of a race.

Going to Kentucky, which is a fresh repave, they drug a lot of tires prior to us getting there for the test. On Tuesday night, they drug some more tires after seeing where we were running the groove. It is a really great innovation they have come up with. I think Speedway Motorsports, Inc. came up with it from their drag racing venues. It works great, does a hell of a job, and definitely sped up the tire testing process on a new track because there was a lot of rubber down and that definitely helped us get going quicker.

Neff: When you go to one of these tire tests, do you come up with a setup to start the test and stick with it or do you work on your setup as the test progresses?

Slugger: Typically, what happens is Goodyear will give you a little time to get your setup right – usually an hour to an hour and a half. They’ll give you more if you need it but they typically want to get going on the test. They give you a couple sets of tires to shake the car down on, to make sure it is handling properly. Then, you start the test.

Once you start, they don’t really want you changing anything on your car because, if you do, then they don’t get a good read on the differences of the tires. Typically, they have you get the setup close. Then, when you are ready, you make some 10-lap runs. When you are through with the 10-lap runs, you make some 25-lap runs. Typically, all you can do is the driver can move the track bar around inside the car.

But other than that? You just put tires on and go again.

Neff: Speaking of new pavement, we’re headed to Kansas where the asphalt isn’t brand new but it isn’t very old. Do you feel like what you learned at Texas, with this new package, will help you at Kansas?

Slugger: It will. Honestly, we learned a lot at Kentucky with this new package. We’ve been struggling a lot with this new package on mile-and-a-half tracks with the No. 3 team, which are historically good tracks for us.

It was nice to go to Kentucky and try some different things and try and figure out this new aero package to get us closer to where we need to be. Fortunately, we were able to hit on a couple of things that put some speed in the car and we look forward to bringing them to Kansas this weekend.

Neff: As you head to Kansas, what is the first thing you’re focused on when you unload at the track?

Slugger: What is unique about Kansas this week is that we have two practices and qualifying on Friday. Then, we come in on Saturday and race. It is an off schedule for us, so to speak. Typically, we’ll have one practice to work on some race trim, work on some qualifying trim, then go into qualifying.

This week, we have everything on Friday, so it is going to be a busy day. Obviously the first practice on Friday, which is going to be early, you are going to have to put some speed in your car because that is going to be the closest judge to the night race we’re going to have, with the cooler temperatures. The first practice on Friday is going to be the important one for us so we have to make sure our car is handling well. Obviously, the track will change with more rubber being put down. Eventually, people will get off the bottom and run the middle and the top, moreso the top groove, as the race goes on.

Neff: You talk about the new package and learning things with the new package. Has the reduced downforce caused you to have to rethink springs and shocks or is it more focus on bump stops to make your car do what you want it to do?

Slugger: Everything you just said, for sure. It is finding the right attitude or pitch of your race car to make downforce. You’ll see a lot of different cars on the racetrack that will run different heights and attitudes with the way their car is pitched. You have to maximize your ride height with springs, shocks, and bump stops to get maximum downforce. It isn’t as easy as putting four springs into it and going, that is for sure. There is a lot of technology and science and research and simulation that goes into preparing for a weekend. Kansas being smooth and fast, it will be a lot like Texas. It will probably have more grip than Texas but we’re on the same tire at Kansas so it should be somewhat representative.

Neff: We have heard some discussion this year and have even seen some penalties handed down about rear ends moving. There were some technical bulletins that came out about how the truck arms are mounted to the car. Do you have any idea what teams are monkeying with to try and get the rear ends to move? Is it something to do with shims or the inserts where the truck arms attach to the car?

Crew chief Slugger Labbe is hoping his No. 3 team is ready to right the ship at Kansas this weekend after a rough 2017 start. (Photo: Mike Neff)

Slugger: Skew or rear end toe puts speed in everyone’s race cars. The crab walking down the straightaways, as everyone calls it. NASCAR doesn’t like it, race fans don’t like it, so they came up with some rules to try and limit that.

That said, I think every team in the garage is monkeying with it to try and get as much performance out of the race car as can be. Even this past weekend at Talladega, there were penalties for too much rear toe. Even on a track like Talladega, there are benefits for setting your toe at the maximum toward the infield or toward the grandstand. There is a lot of fruit and value to having skew.

Penske has been bitten by it twice, we had numerous issues at Bristol going through, we failed numerous times on the LIS prior to the race, and the No. 43 was busted this past weekend. We are talking 1/1,000th of an inch, which isn’t very much, but it is a number we all know we can’t go over. We all try and push the limits and get the maximum.

Sometimes, you hit it and sometimes you don’t. It definitely sucks when you don’t hit it because it is going to cost you a bunch of money.

Neff: You can’t talk specifically to the Penske penalty but the shims that hit the truck arm, and the reason they are there is pinion angle. Can you touch on what it is about that angle that can add horsepower to a car?

Slugger: At certain tracks, it varies from short tracks to intermediates to a road course, but there are certain pinion angles that you run to match your rear travel. It changes week-to-week, and that is why we are allowed to have adjustable shims there.

The rules on those shims are very strong and very clear. There is a certain size, a certain width, certain length, certain height. The pins from the lower block that engage into the housing, there are certain numbers on those; we’re only allowed seven to ten thousandths on those. Everything is really tight tolerances because NASCAR doesn’t want them moving around.

I talked to Todd Gordon (Joey Logano’s crew chief) and I think they had a little gap between their pinion shim and the rear end of the truck arm. I think it was 30/1000ths and that is a no-no. Unfortunately, that is part of it. I am sure it wasn’t intentional. They ran the whole day and something might have come loose or worked itself loose. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to NASCAR if something happened. All they can react to is what they see on the race car with the parts at hand.

Unfortunately, they were wrong.

It is no different from going over the LIS pre or post-race. NASCAR doesn’t care. Those are the numbers, you have a tolerance and you have to hit them… it is your responsibility. It is just another part of the crew chief walking through the garage with a big ol’ target on your back. We take the hit for everything. That is what we get paid for, to make sure everything passes within spec. When it doesn’t, the sh*t hits the fan and we are the ones with the target. That’s the way it goes.

Neff: Multiple fans have commented in the last week or so they don’t like the fact that teams are penalized for violations at NASCAR’s R&D Center days after the race. Would you rather see all technical inspection take place at the track, even if it meant you are there for another three or four hours, or are you fine with them doing a preliminary at the track and moving the rest of it to the R&D Center?

Slugger: The thing is, with the templates pre-race, they are pretty strict on the templates so that part of it is taken out. With the LIS, there are so many parameters on it pre-race that if you pass pre-race you should be able to pass post-race.

If you don’t pass post-race, there is obviously something wrong and then they’ll take your car and analyze it. NASCAR can do a better job at the Tech Center inspecting these race cars. Typically, after the race we all want to get the hell out of there because we have to be at work at 6:00 a.m. to get ready for the next race.

Taking the cars, to me, is no big deal. It is something we’ve all become accustomed to. I remember times when we used to do all of this tech at the racetrack. You didn’t get home until midnight or 1:00 a.m. because you were tearing the car apart. You had to wait for the engine to cool down and it was just a big process.

Now, I think the only time they do that is for the Daytona 500. They take the winning car from the 500, strip it, measure the engine and then put it all back together. Then, the car goes into the Daytona USA exhibit.

It is part of it. As times changed, NASCAR can do a better job of measuring things there. Truth be told, if something is wrong when they are inspecting the car at the racetrack, they will take those parts back to the R&D Center anyway and scrutinize them more. Doing it right there at the Tech Center, in a controlled environment, is a better deal and I think it keeps our sport closer.

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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Wow, talk about throwing his brethren under the bus. Slugger methinks, thinks a lot of himself. You know “Slugger Labbe” and all. This sport sometimes…..

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