NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

Tech Talk: Mike Wheeler on Brakes, Pit Stops & Technical Inspection

The challenges of road course racing are many and diverse. From pit strategy to suspension pliability and brake cooling, there are more options on the road courses than any other tracks that the series visits. This week, heading to Watkins Glen, the teams are looking at a track that is faster and less technical than Sonoma. For Mike Wheeler and the No. 11 team, it is a track where they have won in the not too distant past.

This week’s Tech Talk gives a great look into the inspection process, especially on these condensed race weekends, and some perspective on how 13 teams could fail post-qualifying inspection last week in Pocono. As the team prepares for this week Wheeler looks at the intense braking demands of The Glen, shock and suspension interaction and pitting the car in the opposite direction. He also looks at engine cooling and road course transmissions, or lack thereof.

Mike Neff: The weekend at Pocono is in the books. You had a great position to start the race but didn’t quite end up where you’d have liked to at the end. How do you feel your weekend unfolded in the Pocono Mountains?

Mike Wheeler: We had a solid car all weekend. We weren’t the fastest, there were probably a couple guys who were faster. The thing handled pretty good, not perfect but pretty good. We kind of had a nice solid day. Never had a bad moment to get us out of the top 10. We were running fifth there with that five to go restart, and I thought we were going to have a top-five finish but a couple bad restarts on the inside kind of knocked us to the back of the top 10.

Neff: The talk of the weekend was technical inspection. Looking at how that whole thing went down, did they check more items after qualifying than they did before qualifying which caused so many teams to fail?

Wheeler: Yeah, there is definitely a greater level of scrutiny after qualifying. They have all of the officials there for post-qualifying inspection. Early in the day a lot of those officials are over at the Truck Series or the XFINITY Series, depending on who is there inspecting those cars. So, it is kind of a split force then. I’m not sure what everyone failed for, but you must pass before we get on the track. Splitters, some of the body and all of that kind of stuff, must pass before you go to qualify.

We actually had to work on our body a couple of times before we were cleared to go qualify. You have to get an all green type of scan so that NASCAR knows you are within the limits and you can get there. They verify, after qualifying, that you are in the same parameters again. I think some of those guys failed body afterward. Either they had some stuff deflecting, or moving, hitting the track or whatever else, I’m not really sure.

Obviously, if you fail the toe and cambers and tread width, that is just the scrutiny you’re going to get if you push it too much. There are some other ones. We failed at Chicago where we had an official measure something that hadn’t been measured all day and you realize you’re just over the limit, barely. It wasn’t anything intentional, it was just a stack up of tolerances that, by their gauge, was too much. We learned the hard way in Chicago and over a dozen cars learned it the hard way this past weekend at Pocono.

Neff: That was the confusing thing to fans. If cars passed tech before qualifying what could be done to the car after that inspection that would cause a car to fail four times? You don’t normally make changes to the car that would be enough to cause them to fail the body scan during the qualifying process, do you?

Wheeler: The same thing, there are a couple of stations that you go through in the morning, when you arrive, that don’t have the level of scrutiny that they do after you qualify. No different than before, when you qualify at these tracks. A lot of times, when you go to qualify you do pre-qualifying inspection and you have 20 cars fail for something. It might be hose locations, suspension infractions, or fan or sealing, all little things that they will tell you that you have to fix and go around. Obviously, it gets light shone on it when you qualify top 10 and have to start in the back because of a small infraction. Yes, it is all the same. You must make sure your car is legal when you go to qualify. I don’t want to say that it is something we learned the hard way at Chicago, but it definitely was reinforced this weekend.

Neff: We head to the twisty turns of Watkins Glen this weekend. There are a handful of things that are unique and different at a road course and especially at Watkins Glen. When you pit, it is the one and only track, now that they tweaked Sonoma, where we pit in the opposite direction. Has your pit crew been doing any extra practice the last week or two to get ready for that?

Wheeler: The pit crew has definitely spent some time doing it. It is one of those deals where you can’t spend weeks doing it because you have to keep your normal routine going and improving your normal process to be better at the last couple tracks and the next couple coming up. The guys definitely do practice going backward, or the reverse way. Obviously, for human beings with muscle memory, doing different motions is not that easy. Pit stops are a little slower usually, but you try and do all you can to get as fast of a pit stop as possible this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Neff: On that same subject, do you make any changes to your pit crew like some crew chiefs do, or is it just the same only going the opposite direction?

Wheeler: We do change up a bit, I don’t want to get too technical on that. It is more of a comfort thing than a need to do something different. Some of the guys have a motion they want to keep and that is important. If someone feels awkward about trying to lean the wrong way or carry a tire the wrong way, it is definitely something you want to take into consideration because you don’t want to get someone hurt. You don’t want to have loose wheels or have a tire rolling away.

All of that is kind of played out and that is some of the stuff you actually work around to figure out what is the best way to do it. Not every team is the same because not every guy is the same. It is one of the things we are still sorting out and finalizing, but I am sure we’ll be one of the best teams on pit road.

Neff: The Glen is a little higher speed and a little less technical than Sonoma. Does it give you an opportunity to be more aggressive with your springs, shocks and other suspension components because of the fact that you’re not twisting and turning as much at Watkins Glen?

Wheeler: Definitely a stiffer package at Watkins Glen than at Sonoma. You end up running more rear spring, stiffer bump stops, front suspension. Not going to say that platform control is more important — it is always important — but with the high-speed corners, keeping the nose down and keeping the body roll out of it is more important at Watkins Glen than at Sonoma.

Sonoma is more like a short track. You try and work on forward drive, try to get traction going. Watkins Glen is definitely faster paced, more of an intermediate type, sweeping corners. You still have to have good traction and good braking but at the same point you need to carry a lot of speed through the corners there too.

Neff: You mention braking there. We were reminded last weekend that brakes can jump up and bite you really badly. Is it still kind of a short track package at Watkins Glen just because you brake so often and you don’t necessarily get to cool them down very much in between?

Wheeler: I believe Watkins Glen still leads the league in the amount of brake you use during the weekend. Some guys talk about how they have to two-foot brake going into Turn 1. It is all you can stand to get that thing slowed down, downhill into Turn 1. Wheel hop is a problem there. You do have some corners that you can get the brakes cooled down off of them. You have the heavy braking of Turn 1 and into the bus stop. You do have a number of heavy braking corners, so cooling is a concern. Obviously, you want all of the brakes you can get around that place.

Neff: Being more high speed than Sonoma, aerodynamics are always important in these race, but is there more attention paid to the aero at Watkins Glen than there was at Sonoma?

Wheeler: I would say a little bit. You definitely work your tape down as best as you can. You keep your platform, your nose down as best as you can for aero concerns. Honestly, you still open the brake ducts up as much as you need to in order to get braking. As much as you think a little bit of front downforce and a little bit of total grip will help you, braking concerns trump any kind of aero. You run all of the cooling you can get and all that you need. You don’t limit yourself on cooling. Aero is a factor but there are a couple of things more important than that.

Neff: A bit of an aero question although you don’t know the particulars of it because it wasn’t your team. In Pocono, we saw the damage to Joey Logano‘s car early in the race. The team threw a huge patch over the front of the entire car. However, they were able to run the entire race so obviously, there was enough air getting to the engine to keep it cool from somewhere.

Is the cooling air that gets to your radiator coming from under the front bumper so that putting that patch on still afforded them the ability to get air to the engine to cool it?

Wheeler: Yeah, most of us have our grille opening on the bottom half of the facia. The upper grille area, with the character lines and all of that kind of stuff, is just for show. I believe the [No.] 22 car had a patch on the upper side of the facia. That is obviously for show. If you do get a crack there or have some damage there it can kill your downforce. As long as you don’t break your ductwork behind the nose you’re usually OK just to patch it up and continue on.

Neff: On the front geometry side, Sonoma is more technical and you mentioned that you get stiffer with the suspension when you get to Watkins Glen. Is it still more rebound in the Watkins Glen package than any other track than Martinsville besides Sonoma?

Wheeler: I wouldn’t say that in particular, but you can get away with more aggressive shocks at Watkins Glen than some of these other tracks. It was repaved a few years back and has been really smooth since then. You still have some of the big curbs which can get you in trouble. If you have too stiff of a shock you can kind of bounce over those, but obviously, you don’t have a lot of the cornering bumps that you have at some of these bumpy and older tracks.

As much as you use your shocks to control the attitude of the car a bit, you try to use your springs, first. You want to leave the shocks for damping ratios and to try and get the grip out of the tires. Yes, you do work your shocks around trying to keep some attitude and keep some aero, to keep your cambers in check, but ultimately you can get over the top in that and hurt yourself as well.

Neff – Knowing that you are heading to a road course and, by default, that involves more shifting, does your transmission involve any kind of different H pattern or springing designed to keep the transmission from slipping into the wrong gear and overreving the engine?

Wheeler – We don’t do that much honestly. Most of what we apply to the road courses we apply on the intermediates and the short tracks as well, in order to keep the same feel. There are little things here and there. The seat is in a little different position so that the arm reach and things like that might be a little different. We do run a transmission cooler to help keep the fluid temps down, so we don’t have trouble there. Obviously, running in second and third that much does spin up temperatures pretty high. Ultimately, no, not that much different. Any kind of improvement we make,whether it be an Intermediate or a road course we try and improve them for all of the tracks.

Neff: In the last couple of weeks we’ve touched on what crew chiefs look forward to enjoying around the race track, whether it was lobster in Loudon or the accommodations around the Poconos. What do you look forward to enjoying in the neighborhood around the track in Watkins Glen?

Wheeler: I really enjoy Watkins Glen and we are fortunate to stay right downtown in Watkins Glen. It is definitely neat to kind of walk around town and see the old stomping grounds. See what it was like when the F1 cars used to be there and see Seneca Lake. It is a really neat place to have dinner and lunches and all of that kind of stuff. Definitely enjoy the atmosphere. We go up a little bit earlier, an hour earlier in order for everyone to have lunch there on Friday, because we don’t have to be at the track at all on Friday with the enhanced schedule we don’t have to be at the track at all on Friday. We get there early and enjoy the restaurants they have there to offer. It is definitely a nice town to visit.

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About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
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.