NASCAR is fueled by gasoline, tech, and capitalism

nascar a behind the scenes look chicagoland speedway
Nigel Kinrade

Erik Jones is having a very good day.

The 20-year-old driver just won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, branded the “Drive Safety 300” thanks to a deal with, as unlikely as it may sound for a sport based around the danger of high-speed driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Having survived 300 miles of racing, Jones stands atop his battle-scarred car in victory lane, with teammates and fans cheering, and TV cameras and smartphones recording every second. It took a lot of manpower to make this moment happen.

Wind the clock back about 24 hours. Jones stands in the Joe Gibbs Racing semi truck—a “hauler,” as the teams call them—that carries his car and everything needed to put it on the track from race to race. Looking if anything even younger than his 20 years, he leans against the small counter space that serves as a kitchen for the team. On the opposite wall are cabinets for the team’s gear and just ahead, further into the bowels of the hauler is a pair of workbenches. Talk about space efficiency.

NASCAR is by far the most popular form of motor sport in the U.S., but it’s also arguably the most ridiculed. The relative simplicity of the cars and the sport’s redneck image mean there’s very little crossover with fans of, say, Formula One. But for Jones, it was NASCAR or bust.

“It was the highest-achievable level of motor sports for me growing up,” he said definitively.

Jones’ race car is an unusual beast. As far as NASCAR is concerned, it’s a Toyota Camry, but it shares only a name with that banal midsize sedan. Under the hood is a 358-cubic-inch (5.8-liter) V8 that produces over 700 horsepower. Things start sounding less impressive from there. While cars in the higher-level Sprint Cup series use fuel injection, this Xfinity Series (considered the minor league of NASCAR) Toyota uses carburetion to deliver fuel and air to its cylinders—something that was abandoned by the major carmakers in the 1980s.

All of that carbureted V8 muscle is sent to the rear wheels through an old-fashioned four-speed manual transmission, an anachronism in an age when most road cars offer at least six speeds—and often more—in their gearboxes. Despite sporting an interior that’s little more than a seat and a steering wheel, the “Camry” is also pretty heavy for a race car, tipping the scales at around 3,650 pounds.

The crew of engineers and mechanics that preps Jones’ number 20 car for each race also does without what has become the lifeblood of teams in other series: data. The team runs 100 to 150 simulations, consisting of one lap each, per race, noted Ryan Bowers, one of the engineers who works on the car. But the Xfinity Series does not allow onboard telemetry (the Sprint Cup does), so all of the parameters are determined by feedback from the driver.

“Erik is the data system,” crew chief Chris Gabehart explains. He’s essentially the coach of the team, coordinating changes to the car with engineers and mechanics, and calling strategy during the race. Computer simulations help predict how the car will behave on track, but those predictions must be confirmed from behind the wheel. There are also limits on what teams can actually change.

“The rules are highly restrictive,” says Gabehart, raising his hand to indicate how tall a binder housing all of the various technical regulations would be. When cars are first rolled out of their haulers, NASCAR officials even use a laser measuring system to check everything from the shape of the body to the wheels’ camber. Finding competitive advantages is a “very slow, iterative process that happens over the years,” Gabehart says.

“The rules are highly restrictive.”

Simulations are run on from a bank of screens in a cramped room inside the team’s hauler. Engineers also monitor a television feed from here, for timing and scoring, and a data app that links them to the other Joe Gibbs Racing crews. “JGR” is one of the biggest teams in NASCAR, fielding multiple cars at every race. While the individual crews do pool information, they act more or less as separate units come race time.

The next day, after pre-race festivities that include an opening prayer, a parade of Toyota trucks, and some daytime fireworks, it’s time for the main event. I’m seated in the pit box behind Gabehart and two engineers, who will be monitoring fuel economy, listening in on the other teams via scanner, and “taking lots of notes… for next year,” Bowers explained. Their eyes remain glued to the screens in front of them for most of the race.

Across pit lane, the grandstands are mostly empty. Most spectators are in the infield will watch from a motley assortment of RVs, many with purpose-built rooftop viewing decks. It’s a land of coronary-inducing food, tricked-out golf carts (the best way to get around at a racetrack), and vehicles that put NFL tailgaters to shame. The field is crowded with everything form luxury motorhomes to ratty converted school buses. NASCAR fans are as mobile as the teams themselves.

The race gets underway as 40 cars roar around the track in tight formation, spectacle unlike any other. In the middle of it all, Jones isn’t happy with the car. He qualified fifth, but quickly drops back to ninth, complaining on the radio that the Toyota has “no motor,” and is “way too tight” in turns 1 and 2.”

nascar_at_chicagoland_03
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Like a road car, Jones relies on a certain amount of rear-end rotation to help turn his racer into corners. A car that’s too “tight” won’t turn easily, while a car that’s too “loose” will have too much rear-end slide, making it hard to control. During the race, a pit crew can make limited tweaks by adjusting the tire pressure, track bar, and “wedge”—which basically alters the way the car leans into corners.

Driving a NASCAR racer is vastly different from just about anything else on four wheels. Most high-performance cars rely on downforce—the force of air flowing over their bodies—to stick them to the track. But NASCAR’s machines are “pretty light on downforce” compared to other race cars, noted Jones.

The 1.1-mile Chicagoland circuit is one of the shorter, slower tracks NASCAR visits, but drivers still hit upwards of 180 mph. It’s a pace drivers must keep up for hundreds of laps, making races as much about endurance as they are about outright speed. Staying focused for the duration is “probably the most taxing part of our job,” Jones said.

“It’s a multi-million dollar investment every year.”

After 25 laps, unsafe conditions have already caused two slowdowns, known as “cautions.” Jones uses the second caution as an opportunity to pit for four tires and fuel. The car has a 19-gallon fuel tank, but only gets 4 mpg, and tires don’t last very long under race conditions. Teams have to balance losing time in the pits with the need to maintain fresh rubber, and fuel in the tank. Certain tracks are also harder on cars, noted front end mechanic Tony Hamm, specifically the shorter ovals and road courses, where drivers ride the brakes more.

The call comes in over the radio and the six-person pit crew takes their positions, air guns screeching in anticipation. Jones rolls into the pits and within seconds, his car is jacked up and the crew begins manhandling the tires and shoving a gas can into the fuel filler. A few seconds later, the car is back on the ground and Jones is tearing out of pit lane, nearly colliding with three other cars jockeying for position.

From my pit box perch, I can see that bit of drama perfectly. But as the cars roar off onto the back part of the track, no amount of neck craning will allow me to keep track of them. That’s where NBC comes in.

Consistent television coverage is a key part of NASCAR’s appeal, and the network throws a lot of resources at each race that it covers. The amount of people and equipment it brings to each race is equivalent to what is used to cover a Super Bowl, encompassing 50 cameras, 75 microphones, and up to 220 people.

Outside the track sits a broadcast compound full of semi trailers that haul everything networks need from race to race. During a tour, I counted five that belonged to NBC. They house everything from a control room showing feeds from around the track, to an audio booth, to offices.

One trailer houses the remote camera operators, who sit in air-conditioned darkness manipulating cameras that are actually hundreds of yards away on the track, in places deemed to dangerous for humans. At the end of the weekend, all of this gets packed up and shipped to the next venue on the NASCAR circuit. The numerous sponsors that plaster their names all over the cars are counting on that coverage to make their investments worthwhile.

“It’s a multi-million dollar investment every year,” said Mark Viken, vice president of marketing for Chinese electronics firm Hisense, which sponsors Jones’ number 20 car (and, full disclosure, flew me out to Chicago to see this race). But the company views it as worthwhile, Viken said, because of the exposure that comes with being associated with a popular team and drivers. Fans even send Hisense notes on social media thanking the company for sponsoring their favorites, Viken noted. Of course, it also helps that Hisense sees a major overlap between NASCAR fandom and the demographics of target buyers for the televisions it sells here in the U.S.

Toward the end of the race, Jones catches a lucky break. An accidental collision takes out leader Kyle Busch, and Jones takes the number one spot with just four laps to go. He takes the checkered flag, does a victory donut, and scarfs down a Chicago hot dog (something you’ll never see in F1). Then the NASCAR traveling circus moves onto its next stop, fueled by gasoline, technology, and capitalism.

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