March 15, 2000 – What Really Happened in Atlanta

I guess all that can be said is we knew this type of a weekend might come. Did we think it would happen in this exact fashion? No. I’ll explain why in a moment, but everyone at Team Gordon is upset about the fact that we had to go home from Atlanta without a chance to qualify Saturday.

First off, there are some tracks that we know are tough tracks. Daytona was scary because we needed to race our way in, and Rockingham; that’s just a tough place period. Everyone talks about Darlington as being a harrowing deal. And Bristol I’m told will be a gut check too. Hmmm. If you throw Atlanta in there as an obvious because we made it tough on ourselves, you’re looking at five out of the season’s first six races being tough. Must be Winston Cup.

Atlanta, however, we all felt good about Atlanta. Robby’s done well there in the past and we tested there only a few weeks back. So what happened?

A couple of things happened. Here’s the down and dirty story…

First off, we did something that you try to avoid as much as possible in this industry; we brought a brand new car to the track. We did this for a couple of reasons. This particular car is one that Team Gordon built from the bottom up. It’s the first in a line of chassis that we hope to standardize as the season goes along. As a new team taking over another team’s operation, the chassis’ we inherited were a mixed bag. Some good and some suspect. Our goal is to have a fleet of chassis all built to the same spec by our in-house chassis department. It’s something Robby was adamant about from the beginning of our Cup venture. Ultimately what this accomplishes, if done correctly, is achieving “repeatability.” All tolerances are the same. If you watched the IROC race following Atlanta (as I did from the couch), you heard Ray Evernham talk about the steps IROC takes to make each chassis equal. It’s really no different in a Cup program. The goal for any team is to have identical chassis so that there are no surprises come race weekend. Any testing input gathered from one chassis can be applied to another without worrying about variables that might surface due to imperfections, non-standardization or differences in production.

This isn’t to say you can’t purchase a chassis from any of the numerous manufacturers and make it a good car. Many teams do and will continue to do so with success. It’s an issue of philosophy. One of the best cars we have right now is a customer chassis, one we hung the body on. When Robby drove it for the first time in testing he immediately raved about its balance and feel. It’s the same car we ran at Rockingham and immediately turned around for Las Vegas. Preparing that car for Vegas was an all-out effort, a situation we don’t want to be in week in and week out. Much of that can be attributed to the damage incurred at Rockingham. But we made the effort because we know what type of feedback that car gives us and it’s positive. Why didn’t we take it to Atlanta? Simple, we didn’t have the time to turn that car around again, and really, we couldn’t afford to wait another race to roll into our own chassis program. Ultimately, we’d like to have every car exactly the same, and as good, as the Vegas car.

Suspension mount with three holes

Back to Atlanta. In Friday’s first practice session we were turning wheels on the new car for the very first time. Robby reported a problem after the first three laps, which we used as a short shakedown and system check. When he drove into turn one, the car would start to turn, then as it compressed into the bank would want to turn right towards the wall. Initially it was thought to be a steering issue. The crew changed the steering box and examined the front end trying to resolve the problem based on its telltale signs. The changes were ineffective and the problem persisted so the crew dug deeper. What was ultimately discovered was a problem with the trailing arm in the rear suspension. There’s a mount underneath the car where the trailing arm meets the frame. That mount has three holes in it, aligned vertically (see picture). The arm can be mounted in any of the three, depending on the arm and what you want to accomplish in terms of chassis setup. Our new car chassis’ mount is slightly different than the others. On the other chassis we had the arm mounted in the top hole, closest to the underbody. We found out the hard way that under a full load the top hole wasn’t low enough for that arm. It was hitting the underbody and not allowing the shock absorber to compress completely, throwing off everything the other three corners of the car were trying to accomplish to get it through the corner.

As Robby said, “We made a mistake in our preparation. That’s inexcusable.” By the time the problem was fixed, the first session was a wash.

That’s almost two hours of practice time erased by a problem that really shouldn’t have been. In fact, it’s a problem that can be traced back to the reason Robby wants to have a standardized chassis program. It isn’t that this chassis is bad, actually it’s quite the opposite. The chassis is beautiful. And as we proved Saturday in practice, it’s very fast. But it’s a little bit different from the other chassis we ran at Las Vegas and Rockingham. At the end of the day, it’s our fault for not catching the problem at the shop before loading; but typically that’s not something that presents itself as a problem, especially when all cars are equal. We can chalk it up to being a new team, but ultimately that doesn’t change the fact that we didn’t make the race.

As I mentioned, the problem was sorted out for the next session. But the damage was done. We continued to gather data and make progress, but we couldn’t hope to catch up before first round qualifying. Especially with what surfaced next.

There was a small oil leak in the motor. It was determined that the leak was enough to warrant a change. The crew worked like mad to change out the motor before Robby rolled into line and did so successfully. It was a race motor, however, and a typical race motor carries about 10-20 less horsepower than a qualifying motor. Robby’s qualifying lap echoed the frustrations of the day and we were looking at having to make it in Saturday with a considerable time leap.

That night we had a new qualifying motor trucked down from Charlotte by one of the shop-based employees. Robby and his engineer spent hours that night looking at ways to find speed. One thing about Robby, he doesn’t give up. In NASCAR, the garage closes shortly after the last track event each day. Everybody is ordered out, but you are allowed to take things from the car with you to work on off the premises. So, once the garage closed, the crew loaded the old qualifying motor in a pickup, drove it to the hotel and put it in our engine tech’s room so he could undress it and prepare the new motor for the morning. That’s the way it is in this sport, you do anything you possibly can to make things happen. If it means sleeping next to the engine, then so be it. I’m sure there are stories in the paddock that would make this one seem tame.

When Saturday morning practice rolled around, Robby and the crew had the car figured out. He was the fastest car in the entire session, blazing the number 13 on top of the pylon. I understand that many of the cars were running race laps and not trying to set fast times, but there were a number of cars in our boat that needed to re-qualify. I have to believe we had them covered. Nobody seemed to question our ability to get the car in the race. What was killing us was the prospect of rain. The radar showed this enormous green blob that spanned 150 miles west/southwest of us. To the middle of the blob were orange and red sections, which denoted severe weather. Based on the wind and where the track was located, the blob looked like it might move northward and just miss us. This was at about 10:45am. Second round qualifying was supposed to begin at 11:30am. So we had 45 agonizing minutes to wait. The aggravating part of it all was that nothing was happening on the track until that time. No Busch cars, parades, foot races or swap meets. Nothing. I asked the Winston Cup officials if we could start the qualifying early. Seriously, why wait? Let’s ramp this thing up and beat the rain. We were ready, and I’m sure if you asked the other teams they’d have been game to give it a go as well, rather than wait for the blob. Only seven cars were slated to take runs. The whole deal could have been completed in less than ten minutes. The reply was, “no.” The funny thing is, if we were on the bubble like Derrike Cope was in 36th we’d have been waving the flag demanding they stick by the rules. That’s the just the way it goes, you have to be staunchly in favor of whatever is best for your team, regardless if it changes from week to week! The next question quickly became how long they’d wait to get the qualifying in, should it start raining. The answer to that was fairly simple once again, “no.” As in, no waiting. The Busch race was scheduled to start at 1pm and since it was a live telecast, it was the priority. Basically, we were doomed.

At 11:20 the rains came – even a little thunder and lightning for good measure. NASCAR called off qualifying right away and that was that. The humiliating process of packing up and going home began immediately.

Was there any upside to the weekend? Certainly. It’s hard to assess blame in a situation like this, but it’s really not needed anyway. Everyone feels the blame and everyone is bent on it not happening again. What we loaded into the trailer was a damn good race car. That’s a credit to the crew for not giving up. Like I mentioned earlier, guys were working on motors and setups in their hotel rooms, doing whatever it took to get the car in the show Saturday. And by all signs, that would have happened had we not run into Mother Nature.

Moral to the story ­ No mistakes and no wasted time; Winston Cup racing doesn’t wait for anyone.

– Kinnon