The race before the race

Features - Cover Story

Experts from racing giant Team Penske tell the unknown saga of achieving technical dominance.

May 7, 2018

One of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports, cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have won more than 470 major races, more than 540 pole positions, and 32 championships across open-wheel, stock car, and sportscar racing. Throughout its 52-year history, it has earned 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, a Formula 1 win, and overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

This level of execution would be impossible without an employee base of more than 500 team members, massive engineering and manufacturing capabilities, and strategic support from Team Penske’s technical partners.

Team Penske race team members prep a vehicle for delivery to the racetrack.

The race has already started

In his eighth season, Team Penske’s NASCAR Competition Director Travis Geisler is responsible for all facets of its championship-winning NASCAR racing programs and serves as liaison between crew chiefs and engineering departments. He generously rolled up the proverbial race shop doors to provide insight into a world many people will never get to see.

“It’s about seven weeks” to prep for a race, Geisler explains. “It’s kind of like building a house where you start with the foundation guys, and then you move on to each step, where it gets a little more detailed and a little more finished out.

“We start out with the guys in engineering setting the chassis spec and then you go build the chassis, that’s kind of your foundation. Then you put the body on… Then, about three weeks before the race, team guys will issue their build spec which is down to all the suspension parts, components and everything. About a week out from the event, the race teams get ahold of the car and execute their specific setup. It’s a workflow with all the different departments that repeats itself 38 times a year.”

This just scratches the surface of a technical process that would rival any aerospace company, the dedication and standards of the American military, and the winning heritage of the New York Yankees.

Grass roots rocket science

Big-time racing is big-time business. The name and corporate footprint of team owner Roger Penske reached a global scale decades ago, and as the most public facing element of Penske Corp., the team’s performance puts millions of dollars on the line every week.

Which explains the remarkable resources and technology Team Penske uses to gain a winning edge.

It takes honed skill and tenured hands to build a racecar. But take a close look into the fabrication shop, and you’ll notice that as one team member is using a traditional English wheel to shape a piece of sheet metal, another is using GPS measuring equipment to test the position of a fender down to a thousandth of an inch.

In the machine shop you’ll find a machinist operating a cutting wheel or lathe in one area, and another area filled with multi-axis automated CNC machines the size of school buses. Metrology systems, laser scanning, and digital twin software would have you think rockets are being built instead of 357in3 V8 stock cars.

“The most significant change is around the quality control and precision. The repeatability of the cars and the consistency of them is pretty incredible at this point,” Geisler says. “When I started, there were still people who were manually bending tubing and cutting and notching by hand. Now, we have a laser-cut, laser-bent tube that you weld together for your chassis. The number of CNC parts, the number of machined parts has exploded in the past 5-to-8 years.”

Team Penske racecars in Mooresville, North Carolina, go through final race prep before being loaded onto trucks to be taken to tracks. The facility also features state-of-the-art machining, measurement, and fabrication equipment.

Setting the pace

It is not the team which is constantly chasing better technology, Geisler points out, but often the team which influences advancements in manufacturing technology.

“The pace of development in racing is probably what’s pushing the technologies that we interact with the most,” Geisler explains. “Considering the normal work environment at the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) level or at an aerospace level, we are kind of a mix of those worlds. Except, we build a product every week. An OEM design cycle is 3-to-4 years, an airplane can be 7, 8, or 10 years. We’ve got to have things now and everything is expected to be ready to go the next week.”

The human element

NASCAR drivers are the most sophisticated computers on the car. Technology is limited by what’s permissible by the series, making driver input and a stopwatch paramount meters in performance. Designing a racecar that fits a driver’s style is as important as any wind-tunnel test or digital simulation.

Team Penske’s NASCAR Competition Director Travis Geisler (left) talks to Paul Wolfe, crew chief for driver Brad Kaselowski’s No. 2 car.
Photos Courtesy of Team Penske

“Each guy wants a little bit different information,” Geisler notes. “Our crew chiefs try to tailor their preparation each week for them… [via simulation], we have a way of predicting what it’s going to do. You also have previous events, previous races, and we rely on those a lot.

“We go through with the drivers and discuss where we were before with the cars, what they talked about during the weekend the last time they were there that they wanted to make better… We do have some basic driver data throughout the weekend as well which we can analyze.

“That’s the good part of having teammates. We can use Joey Logano’s data versus Brad Keselowski’s data versus Ryan Blaney’s data. We can look at where each are making speed and maybe where a driver is losing a little bit of time… and you try to pinpoint the issues that you may be fighting.”

The right people

“Everybody at the pinnacle level of motorsports has the basic parts, pieces, tools, and resources to go and run well. From there it’s the ability of the people with a common focus, to interact with all the different tools and technology at their disposal and make the right decisions on how to weigh each one,” Geisler says. “Where do you spend your time? Do you weigh your aero or your mechanical grip, what about your seven-post time? Where do you spend your resources and effort, and what technologies do you leverage to make your decisions each week?

“The people who have been able to do that and grow with the new technologies as they develop are the ones who have been able to really be successful,” Geisler concludes.

Team Penske