Although a popular notion of the NASCAR Series (now Winston Cup, next Nextel) is that it is a group of good ol’ boys who have about one degree of separation from the folks who used to drive moonshine through the hollows at speeds that would have the Revenuers eatin’ dust. Technically, that folksiness is far from the reality of this enormously successful motorsports series. At least that’s the case at Evernham Motorsports. Headquartered in Statesville, North Carolina, some 50 miles north of Charlotte, which is what seems to be to stock car builders what Indianapolis is to open-wheel teams, Evernham Motorsports sits across the road from an airstrip that, given the surrounding area, might be confused for a pasture. The surroundings are unquestionably bucolic. But inside the 121,000-ft2 facility, the level of activity and the amount of technology makes it seem as though it’s not a NASCAR shop, but something even more exotic, like an aerospace firm. The hustle and bustle—people working on computer terminals that are networked to Evernham Engines in Concord, NC, people wielding MIG welding torches on exotic-looking tubular structures—are seemingly unceasing.
But in motorsports, time is key. If you don’t show up at the track with competitive cars (Evernham Motorsports campaigns Bill Elliott and Jeremy Mayfield in Dodge Intrepids numbers 9 and 19, respectively) each weekend, then you don’t really matter. The clock drives forward, inexorably. There are 39 NASCAR events. There are various types of venues: super speedways, long and short ovals, road courses. Cars must be prepped for each. Developments have to be made on an on-going basis in order to work toward a competitive advantage. Apparently, if they get time off for Christmas, it is a good thing.
Dr. Eric Warren is not the person that I would have imagined meeting at Evernham Motorsports, where he is the technical director. For one thing, that Ph.D. It is in computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Outside of a university, an OEM research center, an aerospace firm, or an engineering software company, you’re unlikely to run into someone with a Ph.D in CFD. There is another place. NASA. Warren used to work there before he became involved with NASCAR.
Apparently, Evernham Motorsports is not wholly unlike other NASCAR teams. The level of technology that is becoming increasingly pervasive in the sport is, indeed, rising. Warren admits that compared with, say, Formula One, they are way behind. But gaining.
One way Evernham Motorsports is different is the way that it came into existence. Ray Evernham, who had been Jeff Gordon’s manager (the duo put together 47 NASCAR wins and won three championships), was asked in October 1999 to bring the Dodge division back into NASCAR after 20 years out of the series. Which was certainly a big opportunity. But there was also something of a caveat attached: the task was to be completed in 500 days. Ready to race. And no extensions to the deadline. None. What this meant was a new team. A new company. A new engine. A new car. And a deadline tighter than a gnat’s anatomy. Evernham is a charismatic leader who has even been featured in as non-racing a magazine as Fast Company (its name sounds quick, but it is a business publication, if you’re not familiar with it). He has what he calls “20 Points for Success.” They include: 2. Hard Work. That sounds cliché...but it takes hard work to be successful...Life is not easy...It’s not supposed to be. 3. Doing What Ever It Took. Do whatever it takes...any job that must be done...any position that must be filled to complete the mission is your responsibility...Find A Way. 4. Being Surrounded by Good People. “Over achievers”...Learn to identify good people...Figure out how to get them on your team...Learn what motivates them and provide that motivation.
Which he presumably called upon to be ready for the first race: the prestigious Daytona 500. On February 18, 2001, Evernham Motorsports driver Bill Elliott started the race in a Dodge Intrepid—from the pole position. What might have seemed impossible to many was probably just difficult for the Evernham Motorsports team.
Evernham Motorsports was not the only team to have Intrepids during the ‘01 season. Bill Davis Racing, Petty Enterprises, Melling Racing, and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates also had the cars. But Dodge, which took what was described as a “one-team approach,” designated Evernham Motorsports to serve as a team coordinator for the development activities with relation to Dodge. In fact, when I visit, there is a group of people who actually work for other teams who were being briefed on a 3D scanner, the Capture 3D ATOS, from a German company (Gesellschaft für Optische Meßtechnik), which will be used to scan entire bodies, from bumper-to-bumper, with an accuracy of 0.003 in. They’re inside the Evernham shop. Of course, whatever’s proprietary is kept out of their view.
The invitation to visit Statesville came from IBM. Having had the opportunity to visit the shops of teams from other series, I had expected that the Evernham shop would be much the same. Some small pockets of technology that are interesting, but not particularly astonishing. But in point of fact, the team is doing some things that companies much larger ought to model themselves after.
Like many NASCAR teams, Evernham gets a chassis from Ronnie Hopkins. “We spend approximately 110 man-hours on each chassis that we get in,” Warren says. Given that there are two cars—Elliott’s #9 and Jeremy Mayfield’s #19—this means that they’re spending a lot of time doing the modifications. So they’ve decided that they’re going to apply technology to design and build their own chassis. This is not a case of throwing the proverbial switch. They’re not dropping the sourced chassis immediately and going with their own. Rather, they are working slowly and methodically. “Other teams are building their own chassis,” Warren admits. “They started with an existing car and built fixtures to it.” While there are an abundance of fixtures on the shop floor at Evernham, they’re taking a different approach. “We started from scratch. We’re designing it with CATIA, and are doing the proper FEA analysis. We’re even taking a new approach to building it. We took a look at the pilot plant operations at Auburn Hills and how they do fixturing, and we got ideas from them.” The main idea is that all of the fixturing information is also designed in CAD. The consequence is that they’ll have spatial relationships between all of the pieces—from the tubular frame parts (they outsource the bending, which is being done on CNC equipment so that there is, Warren explains, no need for manual bending, coping, or hand fitting: “It comes in the door, and we start welding”) to, eventually, the body panels (presently, with the exception of the hood, roof, and decklid, which are stamped for the team by Dodge, all of that sheet metal you see is hand-formed, mainly of 24-gauge sheet steel; the nose and tail are Kevlar). Everything will fit. This design work is being done with CATIA V5, which they’ve transitioned to from V4. Which puts the team at the forefront of the latest CAD technology. (They started the car design in V4 but are moving it over the V5.) Before the 2003 season is over, there is full intent to have an Evernham Motorsports Intrepid racing car.
Initially, it will take them longer than the 110 man-hours. It will be 240 man-hours at first. Then they’ll get faster. And faster. Because they’ll have the data.
Each team has 14 cars. Although a NASCAR vehicle is comparatively Spartan vis-à-vis your dealer-sourced Intrepid, there are still plenty of parts to contend with. So in order to keep track of the parts, they have developed an in-house system, the Parts History Maintenance Log (PHML), which is based on a SQL database. “At any moment,” Warren says, “we know where parts are, what cars they are on.” After a race, all of the mileage for each of the parts is entered into the database, so they not only know what parts they have, but how many more miles a given part is good for before it is retired from active use or otherwise handled.
What’s more, this capability is particularly good for vehicle setups: If one of the team’s two vehicles is doing well during qualifying, they know precisely what’s on that car. Say the steering is really good: they can see, for example, what control arm is being used. Then, if they have another just like it (which, of course, they’ll know because of the real-time inventory capability), they can put it on the second car.
They are looking at integrating their PHML system with their SMARTEAM product lifecycle management system (like CATIA, a Dassault Systemes development); Warren says they are also going to be linking their CATIA system to SMARTEAM, as well. “It was managing the development and change processes that led us to SMARTEAM,” he notes. There are also plans to integrate CATIA and SMARTEAM, as well, thereby facilitating better control over the vehicles and the elements that are used to produce them.
The implementation of these systems is fast and deliberate.
“A year from now, we’ll have our own fairly large-scale Linux cluster doing our in-house computations,” Warren says. They are testing the use of tablet PCs for use at the track so that they’ll be able to (1) communicate from garage to garage (it may be that Elliott’s pit position is at one end of the lane and Mayfield’s at the other) and (2) communicate back to the race shop—once they’ve established a network that will provide this capability. Warren looks forward to installing CFD software, Cobalt, that has evolved out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The level of technology that they’re working with at Evernham Motorsports is nothing if not state-of-the-art.
Why are they doing this? Warren has a good explanation: “People at some other teams will go fast, but they won’t know why. We go through periods when we can’t figure out what it is that we’re doing to perform the way we are. But the more time we spend knowing what the products are, doing the analysis properly, taking an engineering approach, the more we’ll understand why we’re quicker.”
And the more they understand why they’re quicker, the quicker they’ll become.