Offseason Busy Work
NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton never could have dreamed what he would unleash when he made the off-the-cuff comment, "Boys, have at it, and have a good time," this past January in a preliminary meeting before the 2010 season.
But while Pemberton wouldn't have wasted time imagining what "the boys" might try -- or, that after a season's worth of rollicking, slam-bang racing on a variety of tracks a music producer would make Pemberton's comments the centerpiece of a video montage of the action tuned to a hip-hop beat -- he, along with the rest of NASCAR's hierarchy, was taking a lot of time contemplating where the sport was heading.
Pemberton took time to sit down with NASCAR.COM during Goodyear's test last week at Daytona International Speedway to discuss fuel injection and E15 ethanol fuel, restrictor plate sizes and the changing of plate racing dynamics, new noses on Cup Series cars, changes to the Chase, Sprint Cup drivers' participation in lesser national series, and Daytona's new configuration.
While the repaving of Daytona and quantifying Goodyear's decision on tires for Speedweeks 2011 was the primary reason for the session, Pemberton was ready to clear the decks on all topics heading into the Christmas and New Year's break.
"It's been a year of getting our thoughts together," Pemberton said. "We knew we had some updates to the car coming. We have [new] fuel. We have better horsepower now because of the E15.
"It's nice to know you can show up at one of these [tests] -- so many different things that we faced and challenges over the last year -- to get ready for this. Looks like the plan came together nicely."
Q: What's your take on Toyota's recent test of electronic fuel injection at Walt Disney World Speedway? How much has NASCAR been involved in all the fuel injection work teams have been doing?
Pemberton: It's just been a lot of communication. All summer long, teams and different groups have got thousands of miles of testing of different types of fuel-injection systems, different electronics and different fuel injectors themselves.
At some of those tests, what we look at are the placement of certain things -- where the injector goes and how big or little the size of the manifold needs to be, the type of injectors and type of fuel rip. All of those things are open right now. We're asking the teams to tell us, 'what makes the most sense for you.'
We'll put all of our groups together and on a 1-to-10 [scale], here's five questions, and where are we at? We'll try to throw out the highs and the lows and just keep working it together. The goal is, when we bring on fuel injection, every manufacturer's had the same opportunity for the right placement for the injector in the manifold for themselves and to weigh in on what injector is going to be the best -- what type, and how it sprays and all of those things.
The software and all of that other stuff, that's more of the governing body thing -- that's kind of a non-issue except for the fact that it needs to be easy to use and user-friendly. So it's been a long process, but we've all worked together on it.
Q: Are you taking into strong account what the teams and manufacturers are learning, or will NASCAR test and tell teams this is what you're using?
Pemberton: Here's why it has to be cooperative. Every manufacturer has different mechanics in their engine. All of the dimensions aren't the same. So we have to be the ones to manage through all that so a team or manufacturer isn't disadvantaged for the rules and then you're in the middle of the year and it's all upset -- upside down -- because somebody can't make a go of it. So we do regulate it, but we take everybody's best guess at stuff, and what their premium setup would be, and we hone it down to what's best for the industry.
Q: Have there been any red flags with the system, to this point?
Pemberton: Not really. One of the reasons it's gone as well as it has is because we've got groups out there that have got a lot of experience in a lot of different forms of motorsports. The Roush Yates guys have been building engines in the 24 Hours [of Daytona] for the Daytona Prototypes -- the same with [Earnhardt Childress Racing]. Roger Penske, that group has got knowledge with their open-wheel stuff and their [American Le Mans Series] program in the past. Toyota, obviously, is world renowned on what they do. So they all have a lot of experience so we really had some pretty good places to start from.
Q: Are you zeroing in on an implementation date?
Pemberton: It's more important for us to get it right than it is to get it early. We will have stuff that will not be run in competition in the first half of the year. We're still looking at the timeline there and nothing's set in stone. It's more important for us right now to get the right supplier of parts and pieces and electronics for our teams. And we're real close on that. We're hoping that everything's set pretty soon.
Q: What percentage of the teams at the tire test used the E-15 engine package?
Pemberton: Some of the teams are using E15. Maybe half of the  teams are using it. It was a team option. We're pumping the [Sunoco] 260 GTX. But teams have brought some E15 with them. Not everybody was on the E-15, but from the reports, all the engine builders are very happy with that.
Q. Are you giving them a little extra attention, as far as getting feedback as to how the fuel is running?
Pemberton: You have to remember, we've been working with the teams now, almost a year on this. A lot of work has already been done. They've all been dynoing it and they've all run it at their tests at Rockingham and Orlando and other places that they go to. So everybody's got quite a bit of time on E15. It makes more power -- and they like that -- and they're just working on the tuning of it.
Being that it's 2010 still, we weren't officially starting that fuel till 2011. Some teams had last year's engines that they didn't want to take them apart. ... Other teams have taken this opportunity to bring their latest and greatest and get some miles on it and see how it looks when they get it home and take it apart.
Q: What's the time frame for assessing whether or not the 15/16ths of an inch restrictor plate will be used during Speedweeks? What was NASCAR's take on drafting speeds of 196-197 mph?
Pemberton: We'll continue [to evaluate the restrictor plate size]. You never know, and you always have the option [to use plates]. When we go to the track we take restrictor plates -- not just Daytona and Talladega. We have restrictor plates that we take for an emergency's sake, because it is a safety thing, to every race track that we go to.
There are a few times where conditions were so perfect that we've had to reduce the size of the plate at an event. The good news is we'll have a large participation when we come back here [for open testing] in late January, and that's when we're really going to see what the speeds are, and what they need to be.
Right now I don't have an opinion, other than we'll see what happens then. But so far it looks like things are pretty good. Speeds are actually a little bit on the high side but we'll just have to see what happens.
The restrictor plate, right now we're the same [size] as at Talladega. We're not sure if we may need to come down a little bit off of that, which would be like a 64th of an inch or something. I think we have some high-water marks at 197-and-a-half [mph], which depending on where they pulled up in the draft, it may be a little quick, but it's hard to say.
Q: Is NASCAR compelled to do anything technically to change the racing dynamic, either at Daytona or at Talladega -- things like going to skinnier tires?
Pemberton: 'What do you want?' is the question you have to ask. The thing is, what do you want for the end result? Is the end result you want, exciting, close racing? To be any closer you'd have to run them on top of each other.
You're three-wide and you're 10 and 12 deep. I don't know. Everybody wants it exciting -- I don't know how you can make it any more exciting. And if three-and-a-half hours is a little nerve-wracking, well, sometimes the jobs you have are a little nerve-wracking.
Q: Is there any feedback to the new nose configuration, without splitter braces, and might we have to see some cars slide through the grass before we really know much?
Pemberton: I think the only feedback we have now is from the competition side, and it's really been seamless so far. I don't think we've been to enough places but I think for the most part it's a positive change for the look and the feel of the car -- what little feedback we've gotten so far. Here, they're racing as hard as they can race and in the testing out here we haven't seen any issues yet.
The nose, anytime you change aerodynamics of the car, there will be some work that has to go in. It's about how the cars pull up in the draft. You work on the nose, and you have to tune the engine to get it to run different in the draft.
As these guys have experimented with the larger packs to try to get the cars to hook up, some of them have some work to do and others have hit the home run right off the bat. That thing has gone fairly well.
Q: What's the discussion of possible changes to the Chase format been? Are you leaning toward anything? When might that announcement be made, if there will be an announcement?
Pemberton: We're still looking at a lot of different things, but I don't have any idea [of exactly what]. We're looking at a lot of stuff and I think we'll probably have some stuff to add or talk about in January when it comes to the Chase.
Q: What's the time frame for any announcements on organizational or procedural changes in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series regarding Cup drivers competing in multiple series as championship contenders? Can you give us any clue on what you're thinking, there; and when it might come out?
Pemberton: Dealing with those series is in the same ballpark [as changing the Chase]. You try to wind down the season and then you go right into testing and things like that. We've been pulling our groups together that have been off and working on these projects and it looks like some time in mid-January, maybe, we'll be able to talk about these things. They'll be more solidified by then.
Q: As the author of "Boys, have at it," from your seat, assess the 2010 season in relation to that premise?
Pemberton: That rap thing was awful, wasn't it? It has not been a big hit [laughing]. I have to take that verbiage out of my [dictionary]. I don't think about, 'Boys, have at it,' but I do think about the competition; and I do think about what has happened.
We've had a lot of great things happen. I think bringing back the spoiler to the sport was a big hitter. I think the drivers like the way the car felt better with it, I think the fans and the drivers and the rest of the world may have liked the way the cars looked with the spoiler, better.
I think letting the drivers know that they could be more aggressive behind the wheel -- and also learning the fact that if you dish it out you better be able to take it. I think we've gone through that first-year learning curve with people figuring out the boundaries of everything.
And to be quite honest with you, I feel in my heart, that we've seen some of the best on-track racing from beginning to end that we've ever seen -- ever, ever, ever. And I've been around through a lot of it. But I don't know of anything that compares to an entire season, the way this season unfolded.
Q: Talk about the changes at Daytona, particularly on pit road, which was widened from 50 to 60 feet wide, with concrete pit pads.
Pemberton: You seldom get an opportunity to remodel on some of these places. We've worked well with Joie [Chitwood, Daytona track president] and the people at Daytona and different race tracks throughout the years.
But when you have an opportunity to remodel, they'll call and say, 'Are there things we should look at?' What you have to remember is a lot of these race tracks were laid out a long time before we had 43 starting positions, whether we had 42, some of the shorter tracks were less than that.
It was an opportunity to say, 'OK, we need to make sure our pit boxes are concrete, need to make sure they're the right length.' One of the things that you tend to forget about, we have so many cars finishing on the lead lap nowadays, when you open pit road, all those guys run pit road at the same time. It makes that pit road feel a lot smaller than it really is.
We asked for some width, and they gave it to us. That was just some of the things we talked about, whether it was we changed transitions on some of the SAFER barriers -- skid pads are a little bit bigger; things of that nature.
It's been a good process. We've been hand-in-hand on this, the two groups, for quite some time now.
Q: How important is it to get off to a good start in February without any problems, both from the Daytona's and NASCAR's perspectives?
Pemberton: You never see the same thing twice. As many races we run, as many years as we've been around -- whether it's a pothole, a lens falling out of a caution light, a pace car pulling out in front of traffic -- all of those things add to a long laundry list of checks and balances you go through with advance teams, safety teams and training.
All of those things we do on a regular basis throughout the season. We train and we look at things in the offseason for those groups that go out, our advance team.
We'll be doing our due diligence here at Daytona because the track was totally disassembled, reassembled with new paving, SAFER barriers reinstalled, light fixtures, light poles -- all those things that go in there. The [scoring] loops that we freeze the field with are all new. Fiber [optic cables] will have to be pulled around the race track, things of that nature.
There's a lot of moving parts and pieces to this stuff. We feel our guys do a good job of adjusting and covering the bases when it comes down to it.