June 26th, 2015
The trip to Northern California and wine country is one that many NASCAR teams anticipate year after year. This weekend the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual trek to Sonoma Raceway to turn left and right. While teams look forward to road racing as a chance to gain a Chase birth or improve on much needed point positions, this was not always the case in NASCAR.
Until the past decade, many teams considered road course races as their “mulligan,”of the NASCAR season. As the point system changed, so did the mindsets of those involved. Crew chief Slugger Labbe of the No. 3 Dow team recalls the attitude of many in the sport years ago: “People always went to Sonoma and Watkins Glen thinking ‘let’s just get through this race.’ They didn’t put much emphasis on road course racing; they’d take short track cars, change some things around and just go.
“Back in the late 90’s, car owners didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want a road course car just to sit in the corner,” Labbe said. “You had a limited amount of cars, so you kept running what you had. When teams started to build a road course car, they just built a short track car to turn right. Different noses, lower control arms etc. In the past, we’d take a short track car to a road course with the body mounted to the left, well it didn’t drive very well because the aero was messed up. Now teams alter the bodies to be able to handle the right-hand turns.”
As time progressed, teams started adding things to their list of what should be different on the car and it got longer and longer until it evolved into a specialized road course car.
In today’s world, we have GoPro cameras to show us different viewpoints of the race car as it navigates road courses. The veteran crew chief explained how drivers used to learn how to get better at road course racing. “In early 2000’s, we built a road course car and put a seat in the passenger side, and we made the right leg brace see-through. Our driver would be able to watch a road racing specialist navigate downshifts and work his feet…we didn’t have GoPros back then. The only way we could learn is actually put the drivers in the passenger seat to watch what was being done.”
Labbe knows the challenges ahead of him this weekend at Sonoma. “It’s a tough track; NASCAR limits us on our tire count. So you’ll have to be mindful on your practice, so you can transfer a set to the race.” He continued, “Usually it’s a “drive off” race where you spin the tires off the corner and the more you spin them, the faster they fall off and the slower you run. It comes down to the driver managing what he has. If you do a two-stop strategy, the driver needs to manage his tires really well.
“My goals are no mechanical failures, keep the car on course and finish the best we can. We’ll probably imply a similar plan to what we did with the No. 27 team last year where we finished fifth. We have two, three scenarios mapped out that we want to implement.”
Over the 30-plus years of road course racing, many things have changed in the outlook of left and right-hand turning, but two races a year are considered anything but a “mulligan.”