(Credit: Mike Neff)

Tech Talk with “Bono” Manion – NASCAR Offseason Prep Begins

2015 is going to be a very intensive year for crews, crew chiefs and especially engineers with the implementation of tapered spacers and reduced downforce in the Cup series. For a smaller team like Tommy Baldwin Racing, the challenge is even greater as areas for experimentation and research have to be prioritized due to limited resources. Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion will once again be leading the charge for the No. 7 team at TBR. Trying to regain the downforce that will be lost with a smaller spoiler and reduced radiator pan is going to require some outside of the box thinking.

This week in Tech Talk Manion looks back at 2014 through the eyes of a father-like figure who watched his infant team learning to walk and then run. At the beginning of the season they didn’t expect to finish on the lead lap and by the midway point of the year they were striving for top 15 runs. The disappointment of several part failures late in the year prevented them from reaching all of their goals but he beams with pride as he talks about their successes. With a thorough notebook and 38 races of experience under their belts, the TBR team is preparing to attack 2015 on a different level with the new ruled package. It started the Monday after Homestead when the new ban on testing went into affect.

Mike Neff: 2014 is in the books. What do you think the strongest points of your season were?

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Driver Michael Annett (center) and his No. 7 crew had a strong finish to their rookie season due to the leadership of Kevin “Bono” Manion (not pictured). (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Bono Manion: I’d say making improvements all year long. Making improvements to the race team and making improvements to our finishes. We didn’t quite meet every expectation and goal that we had hoped for but we did have a few strong runs that we’re proud of. We built a solid foundation and good notebook put together and had some other positive things come out of the year. Toward the end of year we did have quite a few really unfortunate failures with some parts that really shouldn’t have failed. We learned a lot and implemented a lot of new policies and rules to make a stronger team. Unfortunately it was at the cost of finishing in a points hole to where we felt we needed to but you’ll have those things in big time auto racing.

Neff: What do you think your biggest weakness was?

Manion: Our short track program was definitely a struggle for us. I think we did improve on it throughout the year and I felt pretty good about our Phoenix car. Short tracks were the biggest struggle for sure. Our mile and a half program seemed strong. Our speedway program was strong we just only finished one race but that’s the nature of speedway racing. If we can step up our short track program a little bit we can definitely attain our goals next year.

Neff: The new ride height rules seemed to make the cars faster at just about every track we went to this season. What do you feel like the biggest changes were that you guys made to your individual cars from Daytona through Homestead?

Manion: I would say the spring package that you had to run in order to get the cars lower. They didn’t change much with the other rules. As for the outer body the rules were the same. The structure of the car was basically the same. It was just the setup to get to the lower ride height is what changed on the cars from last year to this year.

Neff: You’re already diving into the off-season to prepare for the 2015 season with this humongous change to the rules package for next year. What do you think your biggest challenge is as you head into next year?

Manion: I’d say, right now, the challenge is understanding all of the rules. We talked about the package this morning and what has to be certified for next year. Understanding the testing policy. When is it going to be our first opportunity to go test, being a small team? Testing was shut off, or is very, very limited, other than Goodyear tire tests. Understanding, if we are able to go to the first test and when is it? That, along with getting the complete rules package, with the less spoiler and less horsepower and just implementing all of those changes to be ready to go when we hit the first downforce race.

Neff: At first blush, what kind of suspension changes to you envision when having to deal with a car that has less downforce on it?

Manion: I don’t think there will be a whole lot. The cars are still going to be on the ground, as far as the ride height rule goes. So it will still be back to probably the shocks and springs, as for the suspension parts being relatively the same parts since you’ll be riding around at the same height as you were last year. Potentially we might run a little different pitch in the car where the back of the car would be higher to get the spoiler back in the air to the point that it was cut off from. Those are the things we’ll learn throughout the winter doing some wind tunnel testing and so on and so forth.

Neff: That leads into the next question, with losing all of this downforce, do you think there will be more time spent in wind tunnels over the off-season this year than we have seen for some time?

Manion: I think, especially if they cancel testing, which has been highly talked about and we’ve been told we cannot test, but they’re re-talking about that rule a little bit. Teams starting Monday after Homestead, cannot test anywhere. A lot of the bigger teams have been out doing some initial testing with the spoiler cut off. The rule, in layman’s terms, anywhere inside you can test. Which is a wind tunnel, so I think people will be spending their budget toward the wind tunnel through January leading up to the first race, whether it is Daytona or the first downforce race at Atlanta.

Neff: Along the lines of aerodynamics and just searching for downforce for next year. Do you anticipate a clarification or a technical bulletin on the whole issue of pulling out the side skirts once the green flag waves?

Manion: Yeah, that has obviously gotten way out of hand. WAY out of hand. On TV, watching the cars come down the straightaway, it just didn’t look right. I’m surprised it wasn’t addressed earlier. It always had been. I guess it is something they thought they couldn’t police and be fair with so they kind of made it ok to do. I just don’t see that happening beyond today. With the cameras that they’re going to use next year I think, maybe, they’ll watch you do that and call you in and show you that they have it on tape. Kind of putting the fear into people. I don’t want to be the first one to come down pit road because they have us on camera pulling out fenders out. You could see that people were modifying their fenders and their skirts, putting no welds or breakaway welds on them just to make it happen easily.

Neff: The garage always tries hard to get back to a point where they were when a rule is changed to take something away. With people trying hard to regain downforce and horsepower, do you envision a little more gray area work in the rules next year with people trying to find advantages in what little bit of gray area there is left?

Manion: You think you’ll eventually run out of areas to work in but that is when you go outside of the box and look at things that you haven’t looked at in the past. There is always something and the rules are always changing to a point where it opens another door to another door to another door. Just like with shaving weight off, it becomes expensive and it also becomes a risk/reward deal. It is just an avenue that people are going down for sure.

Neff: You get engines from more than one engine supplier at TBR. With going to the lower horsepower engines next season is that a situation where they’ll approach you guys about testing something during race conditions in exchange for considerations down the line?

Manion: No, not so much with ECR. I can’t speak for PME. Every once in a while they’ll have a new part and ask us about it. It isn’t anything risky or anything like that. It isn’t like we’re the guinea pig or the test dummy. With limited testing that may come up a little bit more next year where they might want to do something like that.

Neff: Heading into 2015, after the goals and strides you accomplished in 2014, what are your goals for next season?

Manion: Being more consistent, starting off with the same points as everyone else. We’re just going to try and improve our qualifying position and our finishing position on a week in, week out basis.

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What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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