Nascar's Hendrick Motorsports: The Technology in Its Secret Sauce

To create engines that power a winning team, Hendrick Motorsports relies on information fueled by top-notch technology.

Before officials drop the green flag at the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 for 43 hopefuls to surge forward, before Hendrick Motorsports stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon get close to gunning their engines, the people back at the Hendrick engineering facility have crunched enough data to make a driver's head spin.

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That data serves up a recipe for creating and fine-tuning the engine parts and configurations to enable Johnson, Gordon, and their teammates like Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to demonstrate the winning speed that has some analysts calling Hendrick Motorsports the New England Patriots of Nascar.

What's in a Nascar Car?

Jim Wall, engineering group manager at Hendrick Motorsports, and his team face a pressure-cooker situation back at the Hendrick campus in Concord, N.C. They're responsible for creating and configuring highly technical components that build out the almost primitive Nascar-regulation parts: the engine block (or cylinder block), cylinder head, intake manifold and carburetors.

Nascar: Hendrick Motorsports cars rely on technology to create winning engines
Hendrick Motorsports goes hi-tech to create winning engines.

The combination of part specs and configuration possibilities can seem almost infinite, and finding the winning combination requires hard-core testing and data analysis.

Creating that perfect balance is an ongoing challenge as conditions change and problems arise. The cars spend race day and a couple of days before a race testing at location; each week, engineers in Charlotte may have only three days to troubleshoot the cars at the main facility, design a solution, manufacture components that will solve the problem, and test and retrofit a fleet of engines, Wall says.

"We try to push things as hard as we can," he adds. "We're constantly searching for a better level of performance."

To match the furious pace required, Wall's team uses tools such as Siemens PLM Software's computer-aided design applications, which allows it to save time and money by creating and testing various designs virtually. After deciding on the best design, it produces a limited number, then builds the engine with that part. The sample engine is strapped to a dynamometer, a machine that measures the engine's horsepower and torque. If the part succeeds in that test phase, a small number can be produced and then tested on the track. If successful there, it can be produced on a wider basis and distributed throughout the team.

Using Technology for Information

All that testing produces a lot of data (a terabyte of data is backed up every night). To keep track of it, engineers use product lifecycle management tools (which help manage a product from birth to "death") and product data management applications, which warn the team of any problem configuration a part has had and which will show quality check history. All this information is accessible both at headquarters and at the racetrack.

Such information, before implementing the Siemens tools in 2003, would have lived in random PCs throughout the organization, or been written on paper and tucked into a folder somewhere. Now, all data is organized and ready for use by the engineers.

Real-Time Data, Nascar-Style

The following is a sample of at-the-track data that the engineers and pit crew team at Hendrick Motorsports use to make technical adjustments and system checks:

  • Weather: Wind speed and direction, temperature
  • Texture of track asphalt
  • Air flow through engine
  • Fuel distribution through the carburetor when the car moves on the track. This includes fuel use changes that occur when the car makes a turn.
  • Weight distribution
  • Tire air pressure
  • Engine tune-up requirements, made according to track and weather conditions
  • Shocks

A major use of the application is problem reporting. An engine can be configured in a myriad of ways, with parts put together with all different combinations (for example, the way the airflow is maximized to flow through an engine, the bore diameter is pushed to maximum without becoming oversized, and the cylinder head castings and the combustion chamber are varied). A part or configuration can work well in some combinations but not in others, and these findings are kept in the PLM system so that any engineer can search for a particular part and see its history, especially its problems. Wall says not getting such information to the right people has big costs—for example, an incorrect fitting being used and causing the engine to fail during the race.

What Can Go Wrong (or Why Tech Is So Important)

Countless problems can arise during a race, and keeping track of the whens, whats and whys is a tough job.

This is why Hendrick's use of technology is so important. Case in point: In 2002 (the year before implementing the Siemens PLM system) the Hendrick team experienced the worst—and most spectacular—engine failure when six engines died mid-race at the Talladega Superspeedway. Many lessons were learned, says Wall, but unfortunately they're scattered. "If we had had the Siemens PLM system in place at that time, those records and details would be available for a quick Google-type search in our database and not landlocked in individual records or lost when people move on," says Wall. "This is important technical history of our product information that needs to be preserved so that we do not repeat those mistakes."

After an incident in Michigan, Wall and the team even extended the use of the PLM applications to ensure quality of products purchased from suppliers. In June 2004, Gordon was poised to win a Michigan race—he'd been leading for 81 laps and had only seven more to go. Unfortunately, his engine suffered a catastrophic failure. After sorting through the wreckage, the issue was traced back to a piston pin round wire lock that cost 80 cents.

The problem? The European supplier had made a change in its supply chain without telling Hendrick, and the quality of the part was not to the standard it should have been. Documenting the problem in the Siemens Teamcenter tool (part of the PLM system) allowed engineers to do deep analysis of the problem and connect this analysis to the specifications of the component and the supplier. From there, Wall and team were also able to create a quality-control procedure that links into the information chain of the part to track quality moving forward.

As a result, since June 2004 engineers have rejected more than 1,000 of these parts that do not meet the specifications. "This one example has prevented many potential engine failures in the field," says Wall. "[We now have] 'technical memory' for our product information so we can learn from our past mistakes and provide a higher performance and a higher quality engine to our race teams," he says.

Nascar: Hendrick   Motorsports relies on technology to create a winning team
Jimmie Johnson's IT-fueled #48 races to the finish.

Info at Track

Nascar owes its roots to bootleggers in 1930s Appalachia who used souped-up cars to outrun the law. And such visceral energy and renegade spirit thrives on the track, despite the sport's solid spot in big business. (According to Nascar, it is the top spectator sport, holding 17 of the top 20 attended sporting events in the nation. It's the number-two rated regular-season sport on television, second only to the NFL, and has 75 million fans who purchase more than $2 billion in annual licensed product sales.)

But these days, high-tech fuels Nascar. Cars are forbidden by Nascar to use computerized systems during a race. Beforehand, however, is a different story.

The Hendrick Motorsports team, along with certain engineers, travel to a racetrack several weeks and sometimes months prior to an event. Each track is unique. That along with a multitude of other factors, such as weather and wind speed, determine what should be the perfect engine configuration. For example, testing with a dynamometer can't reproduce the distribution of the fuel as it corners the track in Daytona. Engine staff will test the car during allowed times and use that information to tune and make jetting adjustments to the carburetor. Other things that will be fine-tuned once in Daytona: weight distribution, air pressure, shocks, springs, sway bars, brake and aerodynamic trim configuration, and others.

"You have to find the combination of things that will give the driver the best performance at track," says Wall. Everyone showing up to a track meets the same situation, he says, so the challenge is "taking all those variables and in a short amount of time come up with a configuration that allows the driver to reach optimal speeds."

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