An interview with: Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton and John Darby
Before day 2 afternoon practice session
KERRY THARP: Winding up our lunchtime media session here, we thought we'd bring in our president Mike Helton and then our vice president of competition Robin Pemberton and our NASCAR Sprint Cup Series John Darby to talk to you folks.
I'll start with Mike. We finished up the 2011 season with arguably the most competitive and exciting season that NASCAR has seen. Maybe talk about how some of that momentum can be carried over as we now look at 2012 and the launch of another season here at Daytona.
MIKE HELTON: Yeah, and you reflect back, and time kind of gets away from you and you start focusing on something else. But every time I think back to '11, the first faces we saw in victory lane, the performance that all the drivers did on the racetracks all year long, but particularly Tony and Carl at the end of the season, was just incredible. There's no script that could be written that would reflect the outcome of the 2011 Sprint Cup.
You know, the fresh faces in the Nationwide, Ricky and Austin in the trucks, and you sit back and you reflect now after some time on '11, and you find things that remind you how remarkable '11 was.
You know, there have been seasons where we get through them and you'd be at this point in the next year, and you'd say, well, this is a clean sheet of paper, thank goodness. So now we're sitting here after 2011 with a clean sheet of paper and it's still thank goodness because we've got a nice wave of momentum behind us from the 2011 season to push us into '12.
We've got a lot of things in January; the test this week, Hall of Fame next weekend, the acceleration weekend that includes a preview on Saturday, the 50th running of the Rolex 24 here in a couple of weeks that has a tremendous amount of international interest to it as well as from all forms of motorsports. And then you start back over with the Daytona -- you start the '12 season with the Daytona 500 and all the different changes and the personality, the chemistry changes between crew chiefs and drivers and drivers and owners and so forth and so on.
So it's always a fun part of the year to sit back and reflect a bit but also start going to school on all the new things that are getting ready to unfold.
Q. Mike, from where you've been sitting and watching, what do you think of the test up to this point?
MIKE HELTON: Well, first of all, I'm just glad to see cars on the racetrack. I've enjoyed the last weekend when they did the 24-hour Rolex test. It was fun to have those guys in the garage area and hear the cars on the racetrack. But when these guys showed up this weekend it kind of authenticated that we're back at it.
I guess it's too early to answer from a regulatory side. I think the level of attention and interest that is being paid by all the members of the teams and Robin and John and everybody from our side to get the racing right is at an all-time high. And what we saw on the racetrack yesterday, the ability to react from our side and from the team side, to make adjustments and adapt to those adjustments I think is what we're seeing unfold in front of us.
The outcome, the proof in the pudding of the outcome will be the Daytona 500. But we've not seen anything that we dislike, but we know there's other things that we'd like to see more of. I think the progress of the weekend -- we're kind of in the middle of it right now. I think the progress of the weekend is going in the right direction, but the biggest thing is I think from our perspective is the level of interest in being sure that we all get the racing right.
Q. The other day when Michael Waltrip was talking about wanting to win the Daytona 500 and there was talk about maybe him driving for another team, he said that he can only drive for a one-car team because he owns three cars, he can't drive for a two-car team. Can you explain kind of how that four-team cap works in the sense of when you have a driver who's also an owner and how those teams count?
MIKE HELTON: Well, it comes down to any attachments to more than four cars. Michael was right, that if he were to drive for somebody else besides Michael Waltrip Racing, it would have to be a single-car operation because any more than that would push him over the cap. The same thing holds true for guys like Dale Jr. with J.R. Motorsports. He drives for a four-car team, so a driver from a four-car organization can't fill a car. That would be considered a fifth car. It comes from a list of defaults, but it's basically any of the major components that would tie the teams together, so certainly a driver/owner situation, either way you look at it, would tie those groups together.
Q. Mike, to follow up on kind of your opening comments, everyone is well aware there's been struggles over the last several years, many tied to the economy and sponsorship and attendance, but there was also coming off a great season where a lot of those things took a different, more positive direction. Do you feel in general that NASCAR has turned the corner here and kind of weathered the storm that it had, or do you consider there's still a lot of work to do or just your general thoughts on the direction?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think there's always a lot of work to do because it's a moving target, whether it's the economy or different elements that affect the way that you do things or causes you to do things. I think there's always a lot of work to do.
And I think we're still in a cycle of business models being adjusted. Some agreements overlapped at critical times, some come up, some go away, and that's fairly traditional in our sport. When relationships come time to renew, most of them renew. Some of them don't. But certainly the economy plays a big part in that.
But I think what we're beginning to see is the return of the level of energy around attendance at the racetracks, viewerships, that contribute to the interest level of sponsors and other partners to be involved in a sport. You know, but it's always a work in progress. It always has a lot of work to do to maintain. But we've seen cycles before, but this is the one that we're in now, so that's the one we have to pay the most attention to.
Q. Jimmie Johnson just said that he feels a little bit reluctant in terms of participating in the pack draft this afternoon. What do you guys want to accomplish with that, and what level of participation do you expect on the track?
JOHN DARBY: I think it'll be pretty well attended. What we're looking for is just the ability to collect some data and put another check in the box, if you will. We've seen a lot of time spent on qualifying laps and qualifying runs. We've seen a little bit of time spent with two-car tandem type of a push. The one snapshot we haven't been able to capture yet, though, is what does 10 or 15 or 20 cars in an old-school style draft look like, what kind of speeds do they generate, what type of RPMs do the engines run at, so on and so forth. That's something that we need. It's a piece of the master equation, if you will, as we close in on a package to come back to Speed Weeks with.
I think we'll be good. I just spoke to most of the drivers in the garage before we came up here and got a lot of nods. So we'll see what happens at 1:00.
Q. For either John or Robin, what downloadable data can be derived from electronic systems and how freely can the teams access and use it?
JOHN DARBY: The downloads are pretty much identical for both the teams and us. The good thing is we both look at the same data. We both understand the same data. You get a little bit more confidence about what you're looking at is real. In the old days of testing where teams would run restrictor plates upside down and manipulate some of the data that they collected, or at least that they would share with NASCAR, some of those days are gone because we've each got our own separate little ride-along monitors, if you will, inside the ECU that give both NASCAR and the teams the same information.
The parameters that we're interested in, obviously, is not so much about how they tune their engines but the results of the engine performance as it is on the racetrack, and that's what helps us make adjustments in regards to restrictor plates and everything else that we do.
Q. (No microphone.)
ROBIN PEMBERTON: We'll be in the wind tunnel over the next 30, 45 days with the new prototypes as they are -- as we do our evaluations on the submission cars, parts and pieces. Everybody seems to be pretty far along and the changes that will come out of those will be based on parity due to the wind tunnel numbers. We're optimistic that there will be some real race cars on racetracks probably in the second quarter this year doing some evaluation runs, if not before then.
Q. Mike, from an overall NASCAR perspective, when you roll out the 2013 car, maybe just talk about some of the impact that that possibly might have.
MIKE HELTON: Yeah, as we started talking about the '13 car a year ago, we reminded everybody we've still got '11 and '12 to go, so I would preempt this conversation with the fact that we're still excited about starting '12. But having said that, throughout our history and in any business there's milestones, and some of them are by design, some of them are just handed to you. But this, I think, as it begins to unfold, and it's not an overnight effort, it's been going on for some time, will represent a significant milestone in NASCAR, I think. It complements the launch of the Mustang and the Challenger in the Nationwide garage, but never before I think has there been such a collaborative effort between NASCAR and the automobile manufacturers that are involved in our sport to start from the ground up and design a race car that they participate in the design of. And we regulate it so that there's a level playing field across the board.
And the energy level that came from that, from the manufacturers and all of them sitting in a room together to create what we'll begin to see unfold in 2012 and see on the racetrack in '13 I think is pretty remarkable and certainly a sign of the time. And as we see the car unveiled and the contributions by the manufacturer in working with the R & D Center and NASCAR's regulatory side to produce the 2013 Sprint Cup car I think is something that we're all excited to see unfold.
Q. For Mike, there are less than 30 full-time teams competing here or testing here this weekend. You've got, I think, three part-time teams and three or four teams that aren't here, which is combined well short of 43 teams. Is there a concern at NASCAR that you guys might find yourselves with a field this year that's less than 43? How much of a concern is that, and how do you think fans would react to a situation like that?
MIKE HELTON: Well, you can kind of start the answer with saying there's nothing magical about 43. That just happened to be the number that we established. But it's been established, so then that's the benchmark that everybody goes by, and a lot of people will use that as a determination factor on success or not being success.
We could sit here and argue that that doesn't necessarily contribute to that, but it is the benchmark that we go by. But having said that, I think there is a good deal more activity out there than is represented by testing and some of the other things, and the fact that there will be in excess of 43 cars trying to make the Daytona 500, and we've been through cycles, particularly when we get to the June-July stretch, where we may only have 43 cars show up at the racetrack. But I don't see us going below 43 this year. I may be surprised, but I think just knowing the chatter and the conversations that we've had with race teams and organizations that either have participated or are going to participate that we'll have full fields.
Q. For any of you three, I know you don't know exactly, but when the teams go back, how much will vary -- you do all the planning at the test, they go back, maybe they decide that they're going to drop back at the Daytona 500 because they don't want to blow water out and you'll see a different Daytona 500 than you saw at the test or they make changes after this test. How much will change between now and the Daytona 500 that might change what you apply in general?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: That's a good question but a difficult one to answer because the teams are down here testing to learn things to go back and change, right. And so we're in that same mode right now. I mean, it's a test. We're all learning from the test. And when we get our information and when we're done, we'll go back and we'll sit down with our groups and make decisions on how we come back to start Speed Weeks. As many of you know, you've become accustomed to the fact that when Speed Weeks unfold, many times we do make an adjustment when we're down here to address what the teams have done to make their improvements. We expect that out of them, and they expect that out of us. But I think we're all geared up to come back and have a pretty good Speed Weeks. I think it's one of the better test sessions that we've been at in a number of years, and I think we feel pretty good about it.
MIKE HELTON: And that's not unusual. It was unusual -- what made it unusual was when we suspended testing for a while and everybody showed up for Speed Weeks without any real time laps at Daytona. Then we had the test last year because of the new surface, and I don't remember the gap, but I think it was only like two or three weeks before the 500. And we saw a whole lot happen between the test and the Speed Weeks opening up.
But that's the way -- that's the nature of the beast. They know, like Robin said, they're down here testing for their own benefit. We're asking them to do a lot of things for the benefit of the entire decision-making process that we have to go through, but they're as much down here making a list of things they can do, oh, by the way, over the next five weeks before we come back for the 500 or for four weeks before we get back down here. But it's the common practice. And our goal and our responsibility is to try to make decisions so that the racing is as good as everybody expects it to be or better during the Daytona 500.
That's the one variable that all the teams, once they get through doing everything they think they can accomplish and get done, all of them know, all right, now let's wait and see what NASCAR does, and we have a reputation for that, but it's all in the best interest of having the best racing on the racetrack that we can deliver.
Q. Mike, has any consideration been given to having one rules package for qualifying and a separate one for the race?
MIKE HELTON: There has been, but as we -- quite frankly we've discussed it more than once over a stretch of time. But we end up yielding on the side of the economy and preventing the teams from having to spend a lot of money on a qualifying package setup, even more than they may do already, because if you'll remember a lot of the rules that we migrated through the last dozen years or so were to help save money between qualifying and racing.
And so every time we look at that topic, we go back and remind ourselves that that gets expensive for race teams, so we haven't figured out the formula yet to make that make sense.
Q. Do you guys have a date scheduled, tentative date scheduled, for when the 2013 models, when the first test will be?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: No. It's based on the manufacturers actually, so we'll work with them to organize tests when they need that. And it may be individual tests, but more than likely we'll have some tests that they'll all be at at one certain time. But we're waiting on those guys to get everything buttoned up, and a lot of it hinges on wind tunnels and how that approval process goes.
Q. The speeds I think this morning were like around 204 for the top cars. Is there concern at what point you guys are going too fast out there, and with the small spoiler is there a risk of going airborne more with that package at all?
JOHN DARBY: We've been at -- traditionally at Daytona and Talladega both we've been at 202, 203 during the race probably for the last four plate races. When you look at it that way, what is it, a mile an hour that's quicker? At the same time, we constantly look to test and upgrade liftoff speeds and things like that. If you've been in the garage, I think a lot of you have noticed the new fin down the back window that people are using. It's there for a purpose. It's there to increase that liftoff speed.
204 is exciting. I don't think it's nervous yet. So we're okay.
MIKE HELTON: And just to put an exclamation point on John's, we watch the speeds and everybody knows we watch the speeds. There's a balance between what we're comfortable with. You know, the good thing that's happened over the years is all the technology and the things that we have access to today and all of the effort by the guys at the R & D Center, we've learned a lot, as John mentioned, being able to contribute to that liftoff speed. And the new surface at Daytona even contributes to that, as well.
But it's one of those things that we have to kind of monitor. It is a test, so we may be a little bit more lenient at a test than we would be on race weekend. But we'll see how everything settles out and what kind of rule package we come back with. Like John said, 204 is okay for a test. It's okay for now. But we'll have to take back everything we learn and then make a decision after that.
KERRY THARP: Mike, Robin, John, thank you very much for your time and the insight you shared here today.
Post day 2 afternoon test session
THE MODERATOR: We mentioned earlier today that we would probably bring Mike, Robin and John back in after the afternoon drafting session as well as giving them time after the test today to gather some additional information and decide then if there were going to be any changes made for tomorrow's test. So at this time I'd like to turn it over to John and Robin to talk a little bit about their thought process after today's practice and going into tomorrow's final day of practice here at Preseason Thunder.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: To bring everybody up to speed, I think we've had another good day of testing here. I think as the teams have worked on it, even though we gave them some more plate back, but it shows that the cars can actually handle that type of speed. We feel like that the things that we're learning here are things that we'll be able to apply towards our baseline when we come back for Speed Weeks. We're not done yet. We're going to continue to work on aero packages and plate sizes and all types of things from now until the day we sign back in here at Daytona. So John is going to bring you up to speed on our changes for tomorrow as we continue with our test. John?
JOHN DARBY: Yeah, for tomorrow we've just kind of followed suit and the same path that we've been working on all weekend, and it's some -- it's actually looking at some different configurations of radiator grille openings. Tomorrow they'll close up a portion of the bottom of the grille opening. We worked on the sides a little bit today. There was some value there, but it seems like there may be even be some more value on the bottom side of the grille.
We're, again, going to reduce radiator pressure another step, if you will, which is about four pounds. We wanted -- some of these things that we learned in today's draft at 1:00 have helped point us in that type of a direction, understanding what water temperatures run and radiator pressures and cooling system pressures do in an old school or a conventional style of draft and trying to install those parameters into the race cars so that it becomes maybe a preferred way of getting around the racetrack.
And just to keep a lot of the engine builders a little calmer, we'll probably pull -- we are going to pull the plate back to where we started yesterday with it, not so much in regards to the speeds. I think the one thing that was shown today is the cars, the aero package that we have on them, as well as the drivers, the speeds are not as big of an issue as what the engine RPM is. We can fix that very effectively and very quickly just by going back to yesterday's plate. So we'll be at a 29/32 plate again tomorrow.
Q. John actually just kind of answered my question, which was about the speeds. Gordon was in here and he thought he was comfortable 20 miles an hour faster qualifying and even more so -- not 20 miles an hour in the pack. The three who have been through here at over 200 miles per hour, that's traditionally been a taboo number. Where do you think you'll end up?
JOHN DARBY: We'll still end up over 200 miles an hour. We'd like to stay as close to that mark as we can. Probably the last four or five plate races we've been in a range of 200 to 203 miles an hour, maybe not a consistent, every lap speed, but we've seen those speeds, followed by -- we've done a lot of wind tunnel work over the winter and have effectively brought the liftoff speed of the cars up, which is good. It keeps them -- helps keep them down.
If we were to put a target mark, it would probably be right at 200 for our race speed, which the drivers like. Obviously the excitement level of 200 miles an hour is always present for the fans, but a lot of the work we've done is to try to close the delta between a conventional draft and a two-car push. And what's become very apparent very quickly is that as we get into a little bit of the higher speeds of racing, that helps us greatly. Last year it was a seven-mile-an-hour difference, we've more than knocked that in half just in a couple of days quickly. That's what we'd like to continue to work on.
Q. I asked Jeff Gordon about just taking the restrictor plates off for qualifying, just letting them run, just for the show of it. Any thought about that?
JOHN DARBY: Well, what I can tell you is when we were here for a day in November, we experimented with some larger plates, not removing them, but just some larger plates. At an inch and a quarter plate, which we tried in November, it instantly put the engine so far over its RPM limits, even at what we would normally see at an open track, that it would put the teams in a situation where they would have to build specialized engines and everything for qualifying again, and obviously we don't want to do that.
But we were able to generate some qualifying laps, over 200 miles an hour, but it's not as easy as it sounds. It's not just replacing a restrictor plate to put up a big speed. The faster the cars go, the chassis has to change with it. So it's a tremendous amount of work. What we feel good about, and it's attributed most to the new spoiler that's on the car here, the small spoiler, where we've affected the speeds of the car the most is in the single-car laps. So we didn't like pole speeds at 180 at tracks like Daytona and Talladega, and you won't see those. I think a fair prediction for the pole is going to be somewhere around 194, 195 miles an hour, which is back in the respectable rage. So we can do all that, and we've accomplished that with the smaller spoiler, but still, not having to go into the toolbox of upsetting the team so much that there's a complete overhaul from qualifying to race.
Q. Are you guys going to make any sort of request that they try to draft in a pack again tomorrow?
JOHN DARBY: We might. I think when we get in there in the morning we'll see what's left in the garages for inventory of teams. A lot of schedules are starting to come into play. We'll see who's left.
I know after we did today's drafting session, there was still a lot of excitement, amongst a lot of the other drivers to where they actually did try to formulate their own draft session later on in the afternoon. But yeah, if it seems attractive, we'll certainly entertain putting that together.
Q. Jeff Gordon was saying that when the initial drafting pack at 1:00 p.m., it was a little wilder than he thought. As you guys thought, was it a good simulation of race conditions where they got after it and were aggressive and were you pleased with how they handled the speeds and the conditions?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, I think we were pleased with that. It's like anything, I think when you get to these first drafting sessions of now at least we get the test, but Speed Weeks and others, it always took a while for the drivers to get more comfortable and get down in the cars, and with the big aero changes that we've made, the cars are going to move around a lot, a lot more than they have in the past.
But I think that things settle down pretty good, and I know that -- I'll let John add to it, but we were pretty pleased with what we saw during that one session.
JOHN DARBY: Knowing it's a test and there wasn't any points or money up on the board, it just looked like 24 guys having a hell of a lot of fun out there, and that's kind of what they reflected to us when they got back in the garage.
Q. Is there any information that you gleaned from the EFI, like data, that helps you make those decisions and/or like after the Daytona 500 will you have a set of information, more information after that, that can relate to these decisions?
JOHN DARBY: Absolutely, and I think we've already put the new resource into play for us. Obviously ECU has the capabilities of recording live data, and we can sample that at any speed selection we want. We can sample it at the beginning of a lap, the middle or the end or the whole lap. So the EFI system allows us a lot of flexibility, and especially in a lot of areas that we never had before, and I lot of that is data collection.
Like we spoke of earlier today, the teams and NASCAR both have a value in the same data in a lot of these situations. We have tapped that. We've downloaded a lot of ECUs and looked at a lot of information. When we come back to race, there will even be some extra channels added out of the things we can watch to help for future decisions.
Obviously it's our responsibility to manage all of this, to make sure that the Daytona 500 is one of the best ones ever. But in doing that, as a regulatory body, we've got to make sure that the same 43 cars that start the race finish the race is all. We're not here to put the teams in a bad way or to cause them mechanical problems. All of that data helps us make those decisions correctly so that that doesn't happen.
Q. Can you review the fin changes? Have there been any fin changes since we came here? Just review that, please.
JOHN DARBY: If you're talking about the rear window fins, I'm assuming? Yes, up until Speed Weeks, that fin was just three inches tall from where it started at the back of the roof down the back window and then a consistent three inches along the deck lid. It's hard to describe the fin today in size because it's not a consistent height all the way across it. It has a dedicated contour shape.
But to try to give you an idea to make it simple, it's approximately three and a half inches tall where it starts at the roof and three and a half inches tall back at where it ends at the spoiler. But if you look closely at the area where the bottom of the rear window meets of the front of the deck lid, that's been filled in in more of a contoured shape. It's about -- yeah, it's almost five inches tall right in that V. So there's some pretty good square area that's been added to it. That rear window fin is one of the components on the car that greatly affects liftoff speeds as the car starts to rotate. So there's a lot of value there to us.
Q. (No microphone.)
JOHN DARBY: Well, a lot of our information -- we had our information that we got late and brought some template shapes for the teams to fabricate once they got here because of the time we were done with the project everybody was pretty much loaded up and headed this way.
Q. John, you mentioned the fact that you downloaded some information from the ECUs. How is that accomplished? This is kind of educating Godwin as we go along here heading into Speed Weeks.
JOHN DARBY: There's an actual NASCAR data port on the side of the ECU that our inspectors simply walk up and plug into just like the teams would walk up and plug into their data port and download a file, much like you would off of a memory stick or off the internet or anything else.
Q. John, in your discussion earlier about the taking a look at using the larger plate during the previous test, could NASCAR decide to do -- is it possible we could see a larger plate used strictly for qualifying only this season?
JOHN DARBY: Well, that's where I was headed the question before. If it was simple as just changing a plate, yes, that would be probable. But as cars go faster, they travel more, they get closer to the racetrack. So it's not just a matter of changing a plate. The teams would have to go back and look at different springs, different shocks, how the steering geometry changes as it settles closer to the racetrack, and all of the preventative things that they do to keep the race car from bottoming out on the racetrack.
That's what gets complicated about it, you know. Had the small spoiler not been as beneficial as it has been to the single-car laps, we probably would have investigated some of that stuff to get back into the 190s for qualifying speeds, but the aero reduction of drag, right, with the small spoiler and everything has accomplished that for us, so we're feeling pretty good about that.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you very much.