One car gets to lead the field around the track before every race and on every restart and that is the pace car. Brett Bodine has been the pace car driver for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2004. A quick look at the numbers means that very early next season he’ll be setting the pace for his 400th NASCAR points race. The duties of the pace car driver are much more than just keeping the field in check while the caution flag is displayed. Bodine also confirms the race track is in competitive condition, identifies debris and confirms pit road speed for the competitors.
Bodine has been part of the NASCAR family since 1987 and is the middle of the three Bodine brothers who have competed in the NASCAR national touring series. Bodine has not only been a driver but was also a car owner and brings that unique experience to the table for his NASCAR duties. In this week’s tech talk he enlightens us on several things that you might not know about the pace car driver and bringing the field to the green every weekend.
Mike Neff: Most people know but some don’t: you are the pace car driver for NASCAR. How did you get into that role and when did you start it?
Brett Bodine: In 2004 I showed up in Daytona for the Daytona 500 with a helmet bag and a helmet, kind of looking for a job. Mr. France and Mr. Helton made me an offer to come and work for the company. I asked them to give me one month to think about it, because it would be a big career change for me, deciding to officially retire from the racing driver seat and climbing into the pace car driver seat. Then of course to come to the R&D center and work on different things. In March, I came to work for the company and I’ve been in the pace car ever since. I get my 10 years of service award coming up.
Neff: On a race weekend, there are a few different things you have to do with the car. We have different speeds that you use for the pace laps and caution laps. How do they confirm that the pace car is running at the speed that is displayed on the speedometer?
Bodine: Every week we have different types of cars that are used for pace cars. Those decisions are based on the individual tracks arrangements that they have with manufacturers, some tracks are Chevrolet, some are Ford, some are Toyota. When Buster Auton (senior director, transportation) has the timing and scoring system set up and ready to go, Buster takes the cars down pit road, at pit road speed depending on the race track, whether it is 45 mph or something else. They will use the loop timing system that is used on pit road for speed timing for the event to calibrate the cars to that individual pit road. We know that the car is calibrated to the pit road. The speedometer may be a mile or two per hour off either way. Every car is just a little different. They might have a tire change on the car or something else that could throw off the speedometer calibration. That way we know, when we go out for the initial pace laps and roll off of pit road, we know what the speedometer in the pace car needs to be to be exactly pit road speed. That way all of the competitors will have an accurate reading on their tachometer of what pit road speed is.
We take nothing for granted. We don’t assume every car is the same. We go through that check every single week.
Neff: How many pace cars do they have at the race track for a typical weekend? Is it two or more than two?
Bodine: Usually it is three to four. We always like to have at least a spare for the spare. Very rarely are we there alone with just one event for the weekend. Usually we have two or three and sometimes the manufacturer will choose to use a different pace vehicle for each event. We could have a Friday night Truck race where they’ll use a truck. Then Saturday night for a Nationwide event they will use one model of vehicle and then for the Cup race use a third. On those weekends we could have six to eight vehicles designated as pace cars.
Neff: There are obvious modifications that fans can see with the lights and strobes on the cars. We learned at Daytona that there are batteries in the trunk of the car to help power all of that lighting. What modifications do they have to do, to upgrade from a street car, for it to be a NASCAR pace car?
Bodine: It has to have performance characteristics that are suitable for the race track that you are going to. Obviously you don’t need the performance out of the pace car at a short track that you need at Daytona or Talladega or most of the tracks in between. There’s no chance at a short track of us having to chase the field down to get in front of the leader, there’s just not much room so that just rarely happens. Now at Daytona, Talladega, Michigan or California, where you have some room, we might leave a little late out of our position where we stage the pace car and catch the leader on the back straightaway. That means we’d need a little more performance out of the car at a track like that than we would at a short track. Performance-wise, that is the kind of criteria that we want.
As you mentioned there is the lighting. Some of the cars it is a completely temporary system that we install. Our track services people will install the lights on the cars when they arrive at the track, that is just a temporary system. Some manufacturers designate vehicles and literally hard wire and hard mount strobe lights and light bars and all of the lighting.
Don’t really want to get into the issue of what happened at Daytona during the Shootout. That was strictly a wiring issue. A faulty wire happened and that is what caused the problem, it wasn’t anything to do with the car. It was just the addition of all of the lighting.
Neff: You note that different manufacturers have different cars depending on the race track. Is that a challenge for you on a given weekend to jump from a Camry one weekend to a Corvette the next weekend? Do you have to adjust your driving style to get the car up to speed and maintain the pace?
Bodine: No, that is a common question, we always use the cruise control. That makes it much easier, except on the road courses. With the elevation changes you can be more consistent using your foot than the cruise control. It really isn’t a big deal. You take advantage of the media pace car rides race morning. It isn’t that big of a deal. I do a few things for road courses. I run a little more air in the tires on the road courses for stability. Pit road speed in some of the tight corners, like at Sonoma, it makes it a little difficult, so you want to make sure the car is handling well.
Neff: You mentioned setting the cruise control. On the pace laps leading up to the race, we have three or four laps before the race starts. The teams get to set pit road speed but once the field gets together for the last lap or two, is it still pit road speed at that point or do you pick up the pace a little before the green flag?
Bodine: I try and pick the pace up to what the pace speed will be during the event. Once the lights go off that is a signal to the drivers. When we roll off of pit road and the lights come on that is a signal to the drivers that we are at pit road speed. Once the lights are off on the one to go, I will slowly bring the speed up to what I will normally pace the field at. The initial start and all of the restarts they will be used to that speed because that is the speed they will see all day.
Neff: At the moment that you drop off of the track to pull away from the field. How fast are you running on the majority of the tracks? It will be a little different at Martinsville and maybe Richmond because they are smaller. At the mile and a half or two mile tracks, how fast are you running when you hit pit lane?
Bodine: I step it up but I really don’t pay attention to what speed I’m running. I just want to be out of the way. I raced a long time and I’ve been the guy on the pole and had the pace car in my way. I want to make sure the pace car is not in the way of the pole sitter on the initial start or the leader on the restarts. I want to get away from the field and try really hard to be consistent on where I pick up the pace to get away from the field.
Consistency is what is critical. Just do it the same all night so the drivers can depend on you, not only exiting the track but getting on the track. I like to stay on the apron for a while and make sure they see us. Once I’m sure their speed is under control, then I’ll pull up into the racing groove. I don’t want to be in the way if I misjudge the speed that they are catching us, particularly on the faster race tracks.
Neff: When you are on the track under caution and communicating with race control, what roles do you play? Do you analyze the track and give them your opinion of raceability and spot debris and things like that?
Bodine: Yes to all of those questions. Our first responsibility is to find the leader and get in front of the leader and get the field under control. Then the tower will have the ability to dispatch equipment and personnel knowing that the field is under control and we should be traveling through the accident scene or the area with debris at a controlled speed, the pace speed. That also allows us, the first time by pit road, to open up the pits so that the cycle of pit stops can happen.
Once we get out on the race track, we’re trying to evaluate the surface conditions and any equipment that the tower might need to get the track back into a raceable condition. As we circulate the race track we will constantly make those evaluations, not only at the accident scene but perhaps in the corners where we might need to vacuum tire debris. If we’ve had a long run and there is a lot of tire debris outside of the groove, we may call for vacuums or blowers to get the race track clean in those areas. At some tracks, for some reason, we have a lot of paper debris that is pulled out of the grandstands by the vacuum of the cars going by and sucked onto the track. Under caution that might get up near the wall and we’ll call for a vacuum truck to come out and clean that up. Anything we feel needs to be addressed on the race track we’ll call the tower and they will dispatch the equipment. Once all of that work is winding down and things are getting tightened up, then it is our call from the pace car to inform the tower that the track is in a raceable condition.
Neff: Before the races start, the media gets to take pace car rides every race weekend. Do you get to do that with people outside of the media? Is that an ambassador role that you play for NASCAR to be a liaison for guests?
Bodine: Certainly we like to keep not only our beat media informed about the race track but the local media who might be from the area. Sometimes we’ll do live TV shots from the pace car rides. VIPs that come to our events sometimes we like to give them a little more information about what is going to happen during the day and try and educate them about our sport. It is kind of like getting out on a playing field before the game while the teams are doing warmups. We’re kind of out there giving folks a little bit closer view of what we do and how we do it.
Neff: In your role as the pace car driver do you have any part in meetings or discussions with drivers, especially rookies, to lay out how things happen and inform them of what the pace car does or is that up to the series directors?
Bodine: The series directors hold their rookie meetings before any practice sessions start. Those kind of things are discussed in those meetings. Every race morning we have our procedures meeting where the key folks that are going to be responsible for putting the event on and conducting the event. Pit road supervisors to the folks in the tower to the series directors to race directors will sit down and review what is going to happen and the times things are going to happen. You see umpires meet before a baseball game to review the ground rules for a given field. We talk about the individual nuances of the tracks in that procedures meeting to make sure everyone is aware of the slight differences between every track.
Neff: A lot of times we here about how difficult some pit lanes are to enter for the competitors. At the same time, with you being in a street vehicle it can’t handle as well as a racecar. Do you have challenges getting onto certain pit roads and what are the toughest for you to get onto?
Bodine: The toughest and the one with the most difference from other tracks is Sonoma. We don’t use pit road at all. When we are coming to the green, as we come around turn 11 we actually go off of the race track to drivers right prior to the restart zone. We sit in the area that used to be called Gilligan’s Island, where they used to have the auxiliary pits, sit there until the field passes by and then follow the field for roughly a half mile down the race track and park to drivers right before turn 2. We are really on the track during competition at Sonoma to get to our location where we park. It is tricky when the Lucky Dog car comes around because they normally pass the pace car in turn 7 coming to the green. When that happens they aren’t always caught up to the field, along with people leaving pit road late. We have to watch the esses because we don’t want to jump out in front of a car that is trying to catch the field. We have to be on our toes and watch for that because we don’t want to be in the race unintentionally. Where we pull off we can see up to turn 7 by looking up the drag strip. Buster is really my eyes on that one. I’m managing the field and he’s paying attention to any stragglers that are coming down toward turn 11.
Neff: What is the coolest thing about being NASCAR’s pace car driver?
Bodine: The coolest thing is I’m still on the race track and part of the show. Started back in 1987 driving a Cup car and in 2014 I’m still on the race track. I’m not in competition technically but I’m still on the race track every weekend.