The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are hot and heavy heading into Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the time constraints on teams are ramping up. Drew Blickensderfer and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team, driven by Aric Almirola, has had a challenging season with the team’s driver having to sit out while recovering from a broken back in early summer.
RPM is also enduring the rumors and speculations about the future of its organization, now that Almirola and sponsor Smithfield have announced their departure.
Last weekend, the No. 43 was among the teams that were caught laps down by the caution that flew on lap 88. It also dealt with tires that were giving up and pulling rubber off the track during cautions. This week, Blickensderfer has to make his car handle over the bumps that are becoming more pronounced at Charlotte and manage the cooling of his car with the race now taking place during the day.
He also touches base on the new rules that were just announced for 2018. All of that and more in this week’s Tech Talk.
Mike Neff – NASCAR gave you a new tire at Dover. It seemed to lay rubber down quite quickly, but it also seemed to peel up from the surface rather easily. Is that the way you experienced it up there?
Drew Blickensderfer – Yeah, I think they’ve had that problem there a long time. The things they have to do to the tire now to make a tire, we’ve had it ever since. You see it in qualifying; most drivers don’t want to go out right off of the bat. It isn’t because of the weather or you’re waiting for it to cool off. What happens is, it takes about three cars. Their left sides rolling over the rubber in the lines, and after three to five cars go it peels all of the rubber up and the track gets faster. You don’t want to be one of the first three-to-five cars to go, you want to wait for that rubber to start peeling up. Then you run your rights where they ran their lefts and you’ll have more grip. That is what everyone waits for in qualifying these days.
Neff – The asphalt at Charlotte doesn’t seem to have aged very much since the last repave; it is a weird circumstance. It has happened at a couple of tracks that were repaved around that time. Is that the case from how the cars have reacted there for you?
Blickensderfer – I think it is close. This year in the spring was the first time we saw tires having an impact on what we have going on at Charlotte than we have the last few years. The bumps at Charlotte are getting bigger. and you’re hearing quite a few drivers complaining about them the last two trips there. I think we’re right on that cusp. You’re still going for track position and tires aren’t a huge falloff, but I think you’re really close to where Charlotte is getting back to where it starts to become a tire game.
I think Darlington is the same way. I think they were paved about the same time. You’re seeing the same things cycle, though, where Darlington is starting to get where tires are mattering like they did before the repave, obviously. Charlotte is getting close to that. I would not be surprised because we don’t race there tonight this time, provided it doesn’t rain we’ll race there at night. I think you’re going to see Charlotte, in the middle of the day, play more of a tire game than it has in the past.
Neff – It isn’t nearly as bad as Chicagoland Speedway was, but we are seeing some bumps. Does that force you to be more compliant with your suspension, or can you still be aggressive and just tell the driver to suck it up for the two or three bumps that he has to deal with?
Blickensderfer – We had Regan Smith drive our car at Charlotte in the spring when Aric was hurt. Bumps are a huge thing for Regan. I don’t know if it was our car or the way he was driving it or what. Every track is different. [Las] Vegas has bumps into one that people talk about a lot. Texas had a big bump before they repaved. Where the bumps are in the corner determines whether we need to give up anything for it or not. There are different things going on, what is the driver doing with his feet.
There are a lot of things that can determine whether a driver feels the bump and whether it disrupts the way the car drivers. A lot of that depends on who is driving the car and where the bump is in the corner. At Charlotte they tend to make the car drive bad if you don’t make the car drive well. There are a couple of bumps going into [Turn] 1, which will be fun to see in qualifying because you’ll see the spark show going off into there and they’ll determine how the car drives.
There are also a few, down the backstretch, getting into [Turn] 3 that really disrupt the car on corner entry. That is where the car is the lightest and where the driver complains a lot about how the car handles. He’s trying to go 200 mph and turn to the left. If there is a bump there in the wrong spot, bad things happen. You usually hear them bellyache quite a bit at Charlotte over the handling and the bumps.
Neff – We’ve been racing at Charlotte for several years at night, and this year we’ll be racing Sunday afternoon. We’ve also got a new aero package that is producing less downforce than it did in the past. How much can you rely on previous years notes for this weekend’s race, and how much will be more dependent on what you learned about the new package at the Coca-Cola 600?
Blickensderfer – You’ll rely quite a bit on previous years notes, mainly because the majority of the practice time, forever at Charlotte, as been in the middle of the day. We always used to bellyache that it was a bad time to do it. Practicing at 1 p.m. at Charlotte is absolutely miserable for a driver and a crew chief because the car does not drive good. The way the corners are configured, and everyone says it is a mile-and-a-half banked track and you do it every single week, the way they are configured at Charlotte is different than everywhere else. They are tighter, the radii are tighter and Turns 3 and 4 are way different than Turns 1 and 2 because of the way the sun shines on them.
In the middle of the day, Charlotte is tough. That is what we’ve fought in practice. There are a lot of times where you are like, “I don’t even know why we went out and practiced.” Now we are racing during that time, so that is what we’ll rely on. How did we get our car to drive the best in the middle of the day, which is very difficult to do. I think you’ll look at a lot of your notes from the past and use those because that is when you practiced.
Neff – Racing in the middle of the day means it is going to be warmer for sure, probably in the 80s. You have to worry a little more about cooling on the car. Is that something else that you can fall back onto the notes from the previous years and get a good idea of what you need for taping off?
Blickensderfer – What we do is we have a calculator that pretty much knows the square inches of our grill opening, how much on throttle time each track has, which determines how much heat will be created and then it determines how much of an opening you need to cool the motor to the temperature you want to run. We’re usually within a few square inches of where we need to be right off the get go and we can guess that for the race. Our Fords do a great job of running really, really hot and still producing horsepower, which gives us an advantage. We appreciate what Doug Yates does with that stuff. We can run them up there and get them nice and toasty and they’ll still make power, so we keep adding tape.
Neff – It is amazing that engineers have come up with a piece of software that will determine the temperature your car will run at based on throttle time and ambient temperature.
Blickensderfer – We have calculators that they ship to me every week. All I have to do is plug in what temperature I want to run and it tells me how many square inches I need to cover on a given racetrack. There are always some guesses that are made on the on throttle time that you’re going to have at a given racetrack, based on the tire, but we have a pretty good idea of how much on throttle time each of these racetracks is going to withstand during the weekend. We understand how much we can tape up based on that.
Neff – 2018 rules came out this week. A couple of the changes are big and the rest are just minor, allowing teams to continue to develop the package that we currently have. Having a common splitter is the big one. What do you feel like that is going to do, good and bad, to your cars next year?
Blickensderfer – It is going to take away a little downforce from teams and it is going to save teams tons of money in splitter development. Splitter development is extremely expensive. The type of wind tunnels we have to use to develop the splitters are extremely expensive. More expensive than other types of wind tunnels. So it is going to save teams money. I think it is going to take teams like us, who have a more limited budget versus some of the big teams, and get us a little closer. We can’t spend three days a week in the wind tunnel like some of the big teams do. When you’re spending three days a week at Wind Sheer, a rolling surface wind tunnel, it is paying dividends for them. I think it is going to take some of the competition and get it a little closer and save the team owners money from chasing these molded and developed splitters.
Neff – Do you also feel like that is going to shift the balance of the cars and make them a little tighter?
Blickensderfer – It should a little. One thing that I think, in the statement that Gene Stefanyshyn released, that people kind of misunderstand is that, just because you are changing an aerodynamic device on one half of the car doesn’t mean it is only going to affect that half. There are a lot of things we do. All of this underbody development that you hear about, under the engine and under the sway bar tube and under the radiator.
That development adds a ton of rear downforce. A bunch of the development we do up there adds a majority of downforce to the rear versus the front. Just like when we tape the grill area of the racecar. When we change from race configuration to qualifying configuration, it adds 200 lbs. of downforce to the car and 130 pounds of that is on the front and 70 of it is in the rear. While that is a 65 percent increase on the front there is still an addition to the rear of the car. So changing the shape of the splitter will probably change the balance and make it a little tighter. The balance will shift a little rearward but not a ton, just a little bit, probably.
Neff – The oil cooler is going to be universal next year as well. Was that really much different between teams and manufacturers this year?
Blickensderfer – It was probably five years ago, maybe seven years ago. Now we all buy them from basically the same manufacturer. If, for some reason we buy it from someone different, they all sell each other parts. You kind of know what you have. The only difference is whether you ran single, double or triple pass. That was a slight difference in pressure created, both water and oil, and what you really want to do with your system. It really isn’t going to be a ton different. We went to that speedway racing recently and no one noticed a ton of difference. We realized everyone was using the same stuff anyway. It isn’t going to be a huge difference but it is going to save teams money from developing from where we are right now.