For race fans, these are the doldrums. The last of the confetti from the previous season's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has long been swept up. Champion's Week in Las Vegas has come and gone. The holidays have given way to a cold, dark, silent period that won't be broken until late January, when the engines fire for a full-field test at Daytona International Speedway. Any real racing is still a distant six weeks away.
It's during this period when Scott Miller's friends or family members unfamiliar with NASCAR ask what he does during the down time. The competition director at Richard Childress Racing just laughs. Because in many respects January is the sport's busiest month of the year, a period of preparation that precedes a 38-week schedule that, once it begins, unfolds at a breakneck pace and allows only limited time for adjustment. Don't let the silence fool you -- the wheels may not yet be turning, but inside the walls of race shops, everything is moving at full speed.
"The truth of the matter is, this is really the busiest time of the year," said Miller, who oversees an expanded RCR that now includes the cars of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard. "Because this is when we retool everything, and build new cars, and put new bodies on stuff, and do all the little things and all the odds and ends you don't have time to take care of during the year that may be a little problematic. You try to redesign parts to address some of those issues. The machine shop is wide open, the body hanging shop is wide open, the chassis shop is wide open, more so than at any other time of the year, because this sport obviously moves fast, and if you don't make improvements in the time you have to make them, you're going to end up falling behind."
Teams typically give employees the week between Christmas and New Year's off, depending on how those holidays fall on the calendar. But once the first of January arrives, what seems a slow period becomes anything but.
"January is a crazy time," said Steve Hmiel, competition director at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "I can remember one January where I was traveling 28 of the 31 days. You're not complaining, because you're doing exactly what you want to do. ... You don't even have to tell these guys. They come in after Christmas, and it's on. They're just wide open. The only reason they don't do more before Daytona is because they actually just run out of time."
Every team tries to strike a balance between preparing for the full season and preparing for the Daytona 500, which to those inside shop walls feels much closer than it actually is. Because teams work so far ahead, Daytona cars have typically already been built before the first of the year, and they'll be fine-tuned as much as the calendar allows. At RCR, among Miller's top priorities is the Daytona test looming Jan. 20-22, and ensuring the cars are ready -- because once that three-day session ends, there won't be time to make wholesale changes before the vehicles have to be shipped back down to Florida for real. EGR essentially devotes the full month of January to Daytona, trying to get its cars for the next few races ready before the previous year even comes to an end.
"Because Daytona is so important, and it's so tricky, and so hard to improve the cars with the amount of templates that we have now, basically January ... is going to be solid Daytona," Hmiel said. "It's almost like you come home from the Daytona 500 and go, holy cow, there are a bunch more races, and one of them is next week. I think all teams are like that. I think all of us are aware of the season, and we all work real hard to do the right things in preparation for it. But anytime you're looking at a deadline like the Daytona 500, you say, man, if I could have one more day to rub on my car a little bit, you're going to take that one more day. So that pushes Phoenix and Las Vegas and things like that a little further back. So what we try to do is try to get that stuff done closer to Thanksgiving, because we know that in January ... you're never going to say it's good enough until the truck closes up and you leave for Florida."
EGR prepares for the first part of the season in reverse -- get the non-restrictor-plate stuff for drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya built right after the previous campaigns end, freeing up January for the Daytona 500. It sounds strange, but Hmiel says it makes sense.
"It's not really all that hard," Hmiel said. "It takes a different mindset to do your superspeedway stuff than it does everything else, and you're in the middle of an Atlanta run, a Phoenix run, a Texas run, a Homestead run. You kind of know what you just raced that Sunday and where you need to improve. It doesn't seem natural when you first talk about it, but when you're actually doing it, it's fresh in your mind, and that kind of saves January for Daytona. Because we're going to take January no matter what. We just had to wise up and move our schedule around artificially, almost."
Why such a singular emphasis on the Daytona 500 after New Year's? Because of what it means to win that race, something the Earnhardt Ganassi shop experienced firsthand in 2010. "It's so dang important," Hmiel said. "We're a classic example. It made our year last year for Jamie to win the Daytona 500, possibly more than I think anybody else. There was all the stuff about whether the sponsor really wanted to be with us ... and Jamie was coming off a couple of tough years, and people were wondering, is that guy any good? Should he be a Nationwide racer? And to come right out of the box and do that ... our 2010, not in our minds, but it was fairly complete the evening after that race."
Smart preparation in the preseason can help make an entire campaign that much easier. Miller said RCR got such a good jump on the upcoming season, tweaking the vehicles to add a new nose and even building a fourth team around Menard were relatively hassle-free endeavors. With the Daytona 500 cars essentially complete, crewmen are working to build vehicles for the first stint of downforce races at tracks like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Then there's that first short-track race, at Bristol. And on and on and on it goes.
"We work as far ahead as we can get," Miller said. "You like to have at least three downforce races worth of stuff in the queue ready to go by the time you race in the Daytona 500. If you can be three weeks ahead on cars by then, slowly but surely you'll finish out your entire fleet. If you're fortunate enough not to wreck some things at the beginning of the year, by race five or six you'll be in pretty good shape with your fleet. Then the road course cars start coming into play, and Sonoma's right around the corner, and you've got to get the road course cars done, and it's kind of a never ending cycle."
Wait -- Sonoma? Right around the corner? In January?
"That's the way we've got to look at it," Miller said. "Because there's so much time involved in getting these cars ready, you have to start looking at when you're going to fit those road course cars in the schedule. You have to plan pretty far ahead."
That's the way it is in January, when teams lay the groundwork for everything else to come. Even so, most organizations try to keep their employee hours under control, with crewmen working standard 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday shifts with a half-day on Saturday -- or a full weekend as Daytona really begins to near -- occasionally thrown in. The worst part, though, is the unknown. Teams can toil away around the clock if they choose, but they still won't have any real idea of how they measure up against the competition until they unload the finished product in Daytona Beach. For racers accustomed to taking stock of the opposition by simply glancing over at the next truck, a month of being in the dark can play with the mind.
"The biggest thing is, when you race every week like we do, you can always keep an eye on the competition. You're parked right next to them, you can see what they've got, you can see what they're doing. But when you're away from those guys for 10 weeks, you're like, are they working harder than us? Are they working smarter than us? Do they have new ideas we've never even thought of? You don't want to go down there like we did in 1981 when we all showed up in Buicks and Bobby Allison showed up in a Grand Am and just destroyed us," Hmiel said.
"That's the biggest single fear, the fact that you're with your buddies all year long, you leave every Thursday and come home every Sunday night, and you can stand next to them and see what they're doing. You can keep up with them really pretty easily. And then we're sitting here in the winter time in the office, going, are we burning our guys out? Are we not doing enough? Are we missing something? Is the tsunami getting ready to wash over us? That's the really nervous time. Daytona doesn't make you nervous. Racing for Daytona is what makes you nervous."
And Daytona will be upon us soon enough. Despite the outward quiet, preparation inside of shop walls is roaring along like a car on a qualifying lap at Texas. The first and biggest event of the NASCAR season is approaching at light speed, and the big race right now is to be ready for it.
"It's almost like it feels like it's that close once you get done eating Thanksgiving dinner, honestly," Miller said with a laugh. "It truthfully does, because there's so much that has to get done between when the checkered flag falls at Homestead and the Daytona 500, that it's always feeling like it's right around the corner."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.