Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion spent years in the Cup series after successfully leading Martin Truex, Jr. to two XFINITY series titles. After leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, Manion ventured to Kyle Busch Motorsports for the 2016 season, heading up the No. 51 team.
This season marked his first visit to Eldora Speedway and first opportunity as a crew chief to race a vehicle on dirt. Thanks to the timing of the race it also afforded us a chance to ask a couple of post-race questions for this week’s edition of Tech Talk.
For his first race on dirt, Manion leaned heavily on the knowledge base of his fellow crew chiefs at KBM. The veteran prepared an older truck for the event rather than building a specific dirt truck. He also had to prepare for the amount of dirt that could potentially enter the engine. Manion recognized that the track conditions would change but was not prepared for the extent to which they would morph from one day to the next.
Based on history tire wear was not a concern, so race strategy did not really revolve around tires. In the end it was about tweaking the truck and getting his driver valuable seat time, which led to a strong run in the last chance race and a good truck for the feature that was unfortunately involved in and incident that prevented them from running all of the laps.
Mike Neff – How has the transition been over to working on tailgaters versus the stock cars, has it been a little bit different?
Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion – It has and it hasn’t in a lot of different ways. The schedule, the length of the races, the tire allotment, how you call the races, the caution clock, the list is endless of the differences between them. The mentality of calling races is different. I haven’t done the best job at a few races. I’ve been like a squirrel stocking his nuts up for the winter. I’m saving my tires where, when you only have three sets to use you better just do it and everyone tends to use them at the same time. Strategy is definitely different but the number one thing that is different is 24 races with only one on a Sunday. I get a lot more time with my family and at home. Number one is working for an excellent organization where Kyle (Busch) has a huge desire to win every race. To have that fire back to win and have a chance to win every week has been a lot of fun and is something I’ve been missing and needing for some time.
Neff – We are headed to do a little playing in the dirt. It is the only NASCAR national touring series race on dirt. Do you have to build a special truck purposely for this race?
Manion – KBM has had great success the last two years at Eldora, so it was nice to sit down with Jerry (Baxter) and Rudy (Fugle) and listen to everything they had, the tricks of the trade for dirt racing. I wouldn’t say it is purpose-built, but it definitely has some things that NASCAR allows us to do with running no splitter and taking the splitter bars out. You have to protect your engine and your fuel and your driver with better ventilation for the dust. There is definitely a few things we do differently. However, here at KBM we do not build a purpose-built dirt track truck. Watching the races back and listening to them guys about how you will hit the wall and knock the right side off. You might take a truck that kind of needs a body so you take it to the dirt track to kind of finish it off so to speak. It is a change, and it is going to be a lot of fun I believe.
Neff – Attacking a dirt track vs. an asphalt track is certainly different. On asphalt the mantra is always low, light and left. Is there more loading weight on the right side at a dirt track to get it to dig in and bite than you normally have on an asphalt track?
Manion – The way we set the trucks up is a little bit different for sure. The wheel offset in the chassis is different. This is basically new for everyone just a few years ago. I know a couple of people that have gone and tested. There are a lot of dirt racers, there are dirt racers at our shop. I’ve done limited dirt racing with some friends in upstate New York but definitely not a dirt expert. I remember when I was part of Earnhardt Ganassi one of the boys who worked in the shop was a dirt racer. He went with Kyle Larson when he drove a truck. Those guys have their little tricks and a little of this and a little of that, and track conditions play a major role in the setup and stuff. The few dirt races I have been to you get a few laps of hot laps, you qualify and you go race. I think there is quite a bit of technique, there is definitely some setup involved for sure. Today, even talking to Cody (Coughlin) a couple of days ago about the plan, it is watch the track, go out and get some laps, have fun is number one, learn what to do and what not to do, put your best foot forward and hope for the best.
Neff – How adjustable is your truck and how late in the going can you make changes to the truck between the heat race and the feature?
Manion – NASCAR allows you to do just a handful of things. Looking back at the little bit of dirt racing I have done and watched, you watch the races and I’ve been to a few, the crew chiefs or guys or driver is out there watching the different heat races or qualifying. Last minute they’ll make adjustments. Obviously NASCAR has a schedule of when and when you cannot work on the truck. We’ll look at that and obviously look at when we have the opportunity to work on the truck and what adjustments we think we need to make to the truck for the track conditions. Dirt racing is a different animal. NASCAR has done a really good job and this is a well watched race. A lot of people enjoy it. I remember going to an Eldora dirt party a couple of years in a row just to watch this race. It is a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it.
Neff – There is a lot of technology that can transfer over from full-time dirt racers. You definitely have to worry about electronics and mechanical parts on these cars dealing with the amount of dirt that is in the air and getting mixed up inside the car. Are there any additional precautions that you have to take, from a mechanical standpoint especially with the engine, when you are at a dirt race to seal things off or add coverings to handle all of the dust that will be flying around?
Manion – Definitely. There is a company called Outerwear that makes coverings for radiators. That has transferred into coverings for air cleaners. I liked the product so much that I bought a couple when I saw it and we ran them at Loudon this year on the modified. In open wheel modifieds the air cleaner is out there in the open and that is basically, like a human it is the mouth and that is what goes into your body. That is what goes into your engine. When you cut the lawn and breath in all of that dust and stuff you don’t feel too good afterwards. Putting the Outerwear around the grill screen, around the radiator, around the air intake and the carburetor airbox area will keep dust out. That will prolong the life of your engine and promotes the cooling, it is just a plus for everything. Same thing with the inside the cab. Dust doesn’t really affect the electronics, but there are things we do for the driver. Cooling has a foam kind of screen in there to protet the driver from the air they receive through their helmet.
Neff – Tony Stewart is a master at setting up these dirt tracks and designing them to handle whatever cars are going to attack them. When they run stock cars and trucks on dirt they tend to try and make the track very hard so that it is similar to an asphalt track. Does that set you up to have to worry about tire wear or is it short enough that it is not a concern?
Manion – No, Goodyear has done a good job over the years. Watching the races back over the last couple of years and how the race is split up this year with the competition cautions, a lot of teams didn’t pit last year to preserve track position. The tires last a long time no matter what the track condition has been the tires seem to stay with the truck. All in all, I think it isn’t a track position race but the guys out front do tend to stay out when they can and use that strategy. I would not think tires will be a factor this year either.
Neff – If you do manage to hit Victory Lane this weekend do we see a switch over to a big block modified in Bono Manion’s car ownership future?
Manion – I’ve done some big block racing with some friends of mine up in New York state. I’ve always enjoyed that but I don’t think you’ll see one in my future. I always wanted to go and attend and be a part of Syracuse Super Dirt Week at some point and unfortunately that is history now. Dirt racing is a lot of fun. I’ve been to a handful of dirt tracks helping guys that I work with and a little bit in Florida and obviously New York. Always been intrigued by them. Troyer race cars earn quite a bit of their business from dirt modifieds. I’ve been to quite a few and really enjoyed them. It is dirty (laughs). Those guys who dirt race in all of the series work hard. They have a hard schedule. I sometimes get jealous with the amount of races they do, when they do and where they go. They race Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. It is really fun for me and growing up as a young kid all I wanted to do is race so every night of the week would have been fine by me.
(Ed: Thursday afternoon we caught up with Bono to see how the experience went at Eldora.)
Neff – After you’ve had a chance to digest the two days that was Eldora, how was your first experience crew chiefing a dirt track race?
Manion – It was actually a lot of fun. I didn’t realize how different it was going to be. I had some ideas but just the format, the layout, the heat races, the last chance race. The track conditions changed from one day to the next way more than any other asphalt track we go to. Qualifying we drew second, which a lot of the guys who have been there before said was a really good draw and was going to give us a great shot at the pole because the track loses grip. The way the track was prepped this year it was really, really wet when we went out there. Almost every truck after us beat us. The best draw ended up being going out last. It was just a fun weekend. I don’t know that it is something the truck series should do more than once. It is what it is. It is different. There are a lot of fans there. There is a market there. Everyone tears up equipment and tears up a truck there. It is like Martinsville, when you go to Martinsville you know you’re going to need a body. When you go to Eldora you’re going to need a body. I don’t know how many races you could put a body on every week and still be in business. All in all it was an amazing week, an amazing track, to see a dirt track in the middle of some cornfields with that much history and that much infrastructure in and around the track grounds. The camping area and the fans, it was just amazing.
Neff – As the race unfolded and you realized what the track was doing, looking back what could you have done to make the truck better or do you think the truck was as good as it was going to get?
Manion – We had a little bit of a tough weekend. We ended up spinning out the first day. It was really dusty and someone came around when we were down low and they ran into the front of us. We were able to patch it up and make it back out for Happy Hour. With Cody never being on dirt before so I wouldn’t say he was a fish out of water but he was asking a lot of questions about techniques and stuff. I think we finally hit on it at the end and realized maybe our lap times weren’t that bad. The track changes and lap times change a lot. You go out early and you’re quick and then practice slows down and you don’t think you’re good until you start looking at everyone else’s times. We kind of just went off the look of the truck and gave Cody feedback. Qualifying was just a disappointment that put us last, basically, in the second heat. Our heat had three ringers and was really stacked for a heat race. We made a couple of changes and kind of used it as a practice, hoping to make it into the top 5 but we didn’t. We made another adjustment for the last chance race and we started last in that. Cody drove through the field and it almost looked like we changed drivers, it was that much of an improvement. Every time out Cody learned, he was able to watch the rest of the heat races. We had a driver coach there in Donnie Moran, so we ended up talking to him a lot. He really helped Cody out and maybe the changes we made to the truck helped a little bit. All in all every truck looked too tight. You could probably build a dirt specific truck and do really good but the guys that shine are definitely the guys with the experience of growing up on dirt. They were able to run the balance and style line they wanted, especially when the top groove came in, which was about halfway through the race.
About the author
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.