Race Weekend Central

New Bodies, Splitters and Pit Crew Limitations in Tech Talk with Justin Alexander

As the checkered flag waved at Homestead, the 2017 season came to an end. While that signals a vacation of sorts for race fans, who don’t have anything to watch until Daytona in February, it is the beginning of an incredibly busy time for race teams. That workload is ramped up even more for Chevrolet teams this season since the Chevy SS is officially retired and the Camaro will now be the car of choice for Chevrolet Cup teams. The bowtie teams will have to develop new cars while incorporating the common splitter into their car builds.

In this week’s Tech Talk, Justin Alexander evaluates the season of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team and their run at Homestead. He then looks ahead to 2018 and the myriad of challenges facing his team during the three months before Daytona. He touches base on hanging new bodies, wind tunnel testing the new car and incorporating the new splitter. He also discusses the challenges the new pit crew limits will present in Tech Talk.

Mike Neff – We have wrapped up the season. Homestead is in the rearview mirror. How do you feel the No. 3 team performed in the final race of the season?

Justin Alexander – I thought we ended up fairly well. Our goal going into Homestead was to finish eleventh in points. Eleventh was realistically the highest we could finish in points. There were five cars battling for the spot. There were seven points separating all five of us, from 11th to 15th. There could be a big swing there for end of season payouts and final point positions and all of that. Our goal was to go down there and run top ten and finish as high as we could in points which was eleventh and that is what we ended up doing. We ran 10th to 13th all day. Stayed on the lead lap all day. It was a fairly uneventful day with nothing crazy happening. The car had decent speed and we stayed on the lead lap which was a miracle with how fast the No. 42 was there. We did what we had to do and got out of their eleventh in points which was what we planned to do. So all-in-all it was a successful trip.

Neff – Looking back at 2017, getting the No. 3 back into victory lane was a big deal. That also got you into the playoffs. If you had to give the season a grade, what do you think you’d give your team?

Alexander – Probably a B. We accomplished one of our goals, which was to win a race. We made the playoffs, which we did, but we got knocked out early. We were knocked out in the first round. We didn’t execute like we needed to execute, we have to clean some things up. Me being new with Austin and coming in mid-season, with everything going on, accomplishing what we accomplished, I thought we did pretty well. We look forward to resetting here in the off-season and starting from scratch in 2018. We didn’t get everything we wanted to done. We want to win a championship so, until we do that, we aren’t going to be where we want to be. That said I’ll say a solid B.

Neff – Speaking of the off-season, there is lot on your plate between now and Daytona. First off you are switching to a Camaro. The SS is officially retired after Homestead. What do you have on your checklist between now and Daytona to get your Camaros ready for the race track?

Alexander – Oh man, we have all kinds of stuff. First we have to cut all of the bodies off of our current cars and rebody them all with the new Camaro bodies. We have so much going on. We have this new body where we’re working with Chevrolet and working feverish hours in the wind tunnel trying to develop this new car. We have so many cars that we have to build by Daytona. By Daytona we not only have to have the Daytona cars done but we also have to have all of the Intermediate cars done for the West Coast swing. So we not only have to build the Intermediate cars but we have to build the superspeedway cars too. We’re just doing so much development in the wind tunnel right now, trying to determine what the new body wants for shapes and all of that. Also we have some new rules with NASCAR on how they’re going to enforce things at the race track and police things. We have to figure out what that’s going to be.

We have to figure out what the car wants and what we want from a race engineering perspective and put it all together. We’re going to be pretty busy. As I said, crazy hours in the wind tunnel. Setup post rig, along with some test days. There is a tire test in Texas in January I think and a late January test at Las Vegas. We’ll be back on track in January at some point. Until then we’ll just be digging, building cars and hanging bodies, trying to get everything updated.

Neff – You talk about getting ready for your Intermediate swing. One of the new rules for 2018 is that there is no more superspeedway aero package. The same aero package that you use at every other track is going to be utilized at the restrictor plate tracks. Is that a positive for you since you’re developing this new car now you don’t have to develop a separate car for superspeedways?

Alexander – No, you’re still going to do a superspeedway car. Even though it is the same aero spec superspeedway tracks require different things than a downforce track. Your Talladegas want you to be as trimmed out as possible with as little drag as you can get and downforce is usually never a problem there. You’re going to build your cars a little differently and you’re going to hang your bodies a little differently on your superspeedway cars versus your downforce cars. Although the aero package is the same the bodies will be built a little bit differently to try and get the most speed out of the car we can and that is all track dependent.

Neff – We’re supposed to be going to a standard splitter for 2018. Has NASCAR given you the exact specifications for that splitter and how much does that cut down on your wind tunnel time over the next couple months not having to massage the splitter to accommodate the new car body?

Alexander – We do have the specs on the splitter. That will change a few things. It will change the downforce levels. It will change how the car behaves close to the race track. It will also kind of change how the aerodynamics on the car behave. We’ve had one in the tunnel already. We’re continuing to make progress and learn what it wants with the new body. With everything changing we have to figure out what we’re looking for with the new body and splitter and then work to get there.

Neff – On top of all of that, NASCAR just threw you a big curve ball and changed a bunch of things about your team going to the race track. Not only is your over the wall crew changed, your support staff is also going to be limited. They aren’t specifying what they can do but they’re limiting the number of people who can be at the track with your team. Let’s start with the pit crew. You’re going from six people over the wall to five. Is that something that your pit crew coach is going to get with you on and the two of you are going to try and choreograph what your stops are going to look like before you test them out in pit practice?

Alexander – We’re going to get together Monday morning because we just found out about the rule. It is going to totally change the ballgame taking a guy away off of pit road. It is going to be weird. You’re going to have guys doing different roles. You’re going to have the jackman maybe hanging tires and possibly tire carriers jacking the car. You’re going to have guys doing multiple roles and it is going to be choreographed art. We’re going to have to figure out what the best way to structure that is and how to do it the fastest. Going to sit down with the pit coach and see what we’re going to do. This may take a different kind of guy. Instead of having a specific guy that changes tires, you are going to need multi-faceted guys who can do everything. They’re going to have to be really athletic and do a multitude of things. It is going to be interesting, it is going to be different, it is going to be fun and challenging. It is going to be cool to work on.

Neff – In addition to that, they are limiting your support staff. The number of people who can be on the box from the car chief to the crew chief and also the people behind the wall. It is probably a cost savings for owners and is helpful for the smaller teams. As you head into 2018, does that mean that some of the behind the wall people are going to have to take on more responsibilities than they did in the past?

Alexander – For our team, no. The limits they put in place will probably not affect our team much at all. We never brought tons of extra guys anyway. There are teams out there who bring all kinds of people on a weekly basis. Those are the teams that will be affected more. The teams that bring two extra mechanics or two aero guys or fabricators or whatever. Some of these teams bring teams of fabricators to the track every week. We never did that anyway. We always have one specialized guy in a specific area, but we never brought all of those people anyway. For us it won’t affect us all that much. It will limit us in those areas where we did bring some extra guys or whatever but I think, like everything else, everyone will figure it out and you’re going to have guys wearing multiple hats and filling different roles on those teams that did bring a lot of people. I think it is a good thing. It is cutting down cost by how many people you’re bringing to the race track and I think it will help in the long run.

Neff – Back to the over-the-wall people, one of the specifications with the people servicing the car, the gas man is now very specialized. They are doing gas and nothing else. Most of the time, when we do full green flag stops, the gas man focused solely on getting both cans of gas into the car. When short pitting happened, and he didn’t have to put in two cans, he would occasionally wear multiple hats. Is that going to be a hindrance to have them only gas or is it not that big of a deal?

Alexander – I don’t think it will be that big of a deal. I think personally, with them taking another guy off of pit road, we’re going to have so much to do with choreographing the stops and who is doing what that taking the role of the gas man out of it isn’t that big. Now it will impact some of what you can and can’t do anymore. A lot of times the fueler would do an adjustment in the left rear before he started fueling the car. He’d carry a wrench over to the car and set it on the car so the tire carrier could make an adjustment. Sometimes he’d pull a front tire and he’s not going to be able to do any of those anymore. I think keeping them focused on just fueling the car, from a safety standpoint, is probably better. We’re going to have the other guys getting the tires on and off of the car. It will be different but, with all of the other changes we have going on, I don’t think it will be that big of a deal.

Neff – We now have different roles for everyone going over the wall. Is officiating of everything to do with the pit stop still going to fall under the watchful eye of the automated officiating system?

Alexander – I don’t know how they’re going to police that from that standpoint. I have not heard anything different on the officiating side of things. The cameras and all of the stuff they’ve been using to police everything have really been working good. It really keeps people honest and it rarely makes mistakes. I assume they’ll keep on rolling with that and how they police the things the fueler can and cannot do I am not sure on but they’ll figure it out. I don’t think you’ll have guys try and cheat that. If they do hopefully they’ll have the systems in place to catch them.

Neff – We are going to a standardized pit gun next year. Tire changers are a temperamental bunch who treat their guns better than their children. Do you think some of the tire changers egos might get a little hurt when they’re all on an equal equipment level?

Alexander – All athletes are super competitive, as they are in every endeavor. It is no different from different baseball players with individual bats or golfers with custom clubs. If you put everyone on the same field with the same equipment, some are going to shine and some are going to be hurt. Some guys have hand speeds that are so fast these guns might not be able to keep up with them. The guns we were using, teams spent millions of dollars developing the guns. It got out of hand and out of control. From a cost standpoint, going to these standardized guns is going to be a good thing in the long run, from a budget standpoint for sure. Also, for the teams that don’t have the millions of dollars to put into guns will keep them on a more level playing field. I think you’ll see some guys excel who we might not have noticed in the past and I think some of the guys that have been banging it out might flounder a little bit. It is going to be interesting to see. Just the guns themselves will probably slow the stops down by one to two seconds. Taking the man away, who knows how slow the stops will be next year? We may be seeing 16 second pitstops as the norm next year from the 10.5 to 11 second pit stops that we’ve become used to. It is going to be fun to watch in Daytona.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

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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