ATLANTA (Oct. 13, 2003) - When Tony Stewart won his 17th career NASCAR Winston Cup Series race Saturday night at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, he was most happy about the fact that he did it with raw speed. The fastest car finally trumped pit...
ATLANTA (Oct. 13, 2003) - When Tony Stewart won his 17th career NASCAR Winston Cup Series race Saturday night at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, he was most happy about the fact that he did it with raw speed. The fastest car finally trumped pit strategy and fuel mileage. It was racing the way it's supposed to be, where a driver's savvy behind the wheel outfoxed an engineer's calculations on the laptop. It was old school racing, the perfect segue into the next stop on the Winston Cup tour - Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
The tight and fast .526-mile oval is best described as a bullring, where 43 cars bump and grind against one another for 500 laps before a checkered flag mercifully waves. It is tough on suspensions and tough on brakes. It doles out abuse to cars and drivers alike, thanks to straightaways that dump into tight corners and high curbing that rings the inside of those corners.
As challenging as it is for drivers to navigate, it's equally challenging for their crews. Bodies must be hung to withstand substantial wear and tear. Brake systems must be top-notch to handle the searing heat generated from slowing down a 3,400-pound race car over and over again. And your chassis must be strong enough to handle the inevitable bump with the inside curbing.
Do all that, says Stewart, and racing at Martinsville is fun. We'll see how fun when the Subway 500 gets underway this Sunday at venerable Martinsville, the fifth to last race of the 2003 season.
How does the curb around the inside of Martinsville's corners affect your racing line?
"At times you can use it to your advantage, but most of the time it's a disadvantage to get on the curb. Either way, you always have to run right up against the curb. It's like standing on the edge of a cliff. If you get around it just right you get a pretty nice view. If you go overboard, you're going to fall."
What happens to your race car when you hit the curb?
"The biggest thing that happens is that it de-wedges the car. It puts a lot of cross weight from the left front to the right rear tire, and when that happens the car gets really, really loose. And when you get that loose, you typically spin out while four guys behind you pile into each other before they hit you."
Where do you have the potential to hit the curb?
"Mainly through the middle of the corner is where you want to stay right up against the curb. But as tight and short as those corners are, you're right on that curb for a long time. It's kind of like driving by brail. You feel the curb when you get to it, and you do it so many times that it's easy to rub the Goodyear letters off the tires. But if you have a car that can get down there and you can knock the letters off the tires because you can stay down there consistently, then you've got a good driving race car. But Martinsville has a pretty good outside groove now too, so if you're worried about hitting the curb you can at least get in that outside groove and make some good time as well."
You used to hate Martinsville, but now you seem to have found respect for the track. Is that true?
"It's one of those tracks where if you have a good qualifying run and you have a great race car, then the race is a lot of fun. If you have a car in the race that's not driving well and you have a bad qualifying run and a bad pit selection and you end up fighting the car all day, then Martinsville becomes a very tough track. But that's also one of the reasons why when you do win there it means so much. Plus, their grandfather clock is one of the coolest trophies in Winston Cup."
The propensity to have the front end knocked off your car was one of the things that made you dislike racing at Martinsville. What gives?
"You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like Martinsville. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient - out of necessity, basically."
Martinsville seems to be a physically demanding race track. How so?
"The air doesn't circulate really well there, so carbon monoxide is an issue. It is a physically demanding race. It's 500 laps around a track that is extremely hard on brakes and tires, and it's easy to lose your cool. Guys that can keep from beating their race car up and can keep a cool head all day normally wind up with a pretty good finish."
Bumping at a short track like Martinsville is to be expected. But where is the line drawn between what's acceptable and what isn't?
"Everybody knows that we're going to get bumped around. All the drivers at this level have raced long enough to know when something is intentional and when it's not."
If you make a mistake, depending on the circumstances, is it proper to let off the throttle, let the guy you hit gather his car back up, and let him have his spot back before getting back to racing?
"There are a lot of times you'll do that, and if something happens where it's more severe than that - a guys spins or something like that - a lot of times the driver will radio their crew chief or their spotter and have their spotter tell the other guy's spotter what happened and that it wasn't intentional. Normally when you handle it like that, the problem is solved before it ever has a chance to get bad."
When you're racing at Bristol and there's a wreck, it tends to slide down the race track because of the banking. But what about Martinsville? Where do wrecks tend to wind up?
"You never know where they're going to go. Sometimes they slide up. Sometimes they don't slide out of the way at all. Sometimes they slide down to the inside. It's really unpredictable, and even if it happens four or five cars in front of you, you're most likely going to get caught up in it somehow just because you're racing so close together. It's a tricky track to get around all day for 500 laps without getting some kind of battle scar on The Home Depot Chevrolet."
Brakes are an incredibly important part of the race car, especially at Martinsville. How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps?
"You try to stay off the brakes as much as possible. You always hear the crew chief talking about floating the car into the corner, and what they mean by that is instead of driving it really deep into the corner and using a lot of brake pressure, the theory is to lift a little earlier and use less brake pressure. You'll end up running virtually the same lap time as you would if you drove hard into the corner. But when you've got a 500-lap race at Martinsville and you've got to use the brakes hard twice a lap, that's 1,000 times during a race where you're asking that brake system to slow down a 3,400-pound race car. If you can be easy on those brakes for the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race, then when you really need those brakes to battle for the win at the end - you've got 'em."
Last year at this time you were leading the points. Fellow drivers such as Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte talked with you and offered their insight as to how they handled a championship run. Do you know what Matt Kenseth, the current point leader, is going through, and have you offered him any advice?
"As a matter of fact I called him after the Kansas race because I could tell the last couple of weeks had been hard on him. I told him the best thing that he could do is just to keep doing what he's been doing all year. There's a reason he's leading the points by such a substantial margin at this point in the season. I told him to just go do the things that he enjoys doing this time of year to try to get his mind off the championship. With this many races to go, there's still a lot that can happen. You can over-analyze everything and mentally wear yourself out just by worrying about things that are out of your control. That's probably your biggest enemy - your own self. You can beat yourself with your mind and lose a championship."
JASON SHAPIRO, brake specialist on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
Heat seems to be a brake system's worst enemy. What do you do to combat the heat?
"That's a never-ending process. When we really started hammering these brakes about 10 years ago, the fluid was a problem because it would actually boil. Eventually, the manufacturers got the fluid up to snuff. Then it evolved to where the brake seals were burning out. Well, we got that fixed. Then it came down to caliper stiffness, and we got that worked out. Now we've got a pretty solid package - most all brake manufacturers do. AP, the manufacturer we use, is in our opinion a little bit more solid in the short track area. Today we're just refining what we've got, trying to figure out ways to run even cooler here or there. It's a constant evolution."
Is Martinsville the race venue where you work closer with Tony when compared to other race venues?
"Yes, I'll work really close with him, for two reasons really. First, you've got to stop, plain and simple. The other thing is that how you set your brake bias can affect your handling. Brakes and chassis work hand in hand at Martinsville. One won't work well enough without the other to be competitive."
How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps at Martinsville?
"I think it's important to slow down before you get to the corner and not charge the corner. That's key to a good lap time. There are times, however, when you've got to do what the other guy in front of you is doing in order to pass him, and that's when you abuse your brakes. You end up running into the corner harder because you've got to out-brake him going down the straightaway to get next to him. But the way you conserve your brakes is by slowing down in a straight line, getting off the brake, coasting through the center of the corner and then getting back on the gas. That's going to be better on the brakes and you're generally going to have a better lap time."
When the team travels to restrictor plate venues, the #20 team's engine specialist - Roger Purcell - is usually seen pacing the pit area. With brakes being such an issue at Martinsville, is that your time to pace the pits?
"Yeah, it is. Every time we go to Martinsville I take five years off my life. It's difficult, but you've got to do it. It's like going to the doctor to get a shot. You know you don't want to, but you know you need to."
Do you look forward to Martinsville because it's such a challenge to the brake system?
"I do, because I think our team uses tracks like that as one of our strengths. Every one of us works hard in our specific areas. The engine room makes good power that'll last all day long. Our chassis development is excellent on short tracks. And our brakes have to be top-notch or else all that work goes for naught."
On the Mondays after Martinsville when you're back at the race shop and you take the wheel off, have you ever been shocked at what your brakes look like after 500 laps?
"We try to end the race with a half a brake pad left. If we ever get into an issue where we knock part of the nose off and we lose some of our cooling, there is a cushion in place. But when I open up that wheel and there's not a half a pad, I get a little scared."