There is a small metal part in a race car engine—a pickup frame, to be precise—that supports a coil of wires in the distributor. If this part breaks and the wires come loose, the ignition fails, the engine stops and the race is lost. The race-car driver does not win the prize money or get face time on national television, and the sponsors who pay millions of dollars to see their logos flash around the track a few hundred times go home deeply unhappy. Last May, pickup frames started breaking in engines made by Hendrick Motorsports Inc., one of the largest and most successful companies competing on the NASCAR circuit.
"When the first one broke, out at the California Speedway at Fontana on May 2, we didnt panic, because we had used these parts for years," says chief engineer Jim Wall, standing in the middle of a spotless workroom at Hendricks 70-plus acre campus in Charlotte, N.C. "But the next race, at Richmond, two broke in practice, and all of a sudden it was, Oh man, weve got a problem."
The longest race of the 10-month NASCAR season, the Coca-Cola 600, was next on the schedule, giving Wall less than three weeks to redesign and manufacture a new part that would not fail under the stress of racing conditions—and over all of those 600 miles. "We went from our CAD (computer-aided design) library to steel in two days," he says.
The real test of the new part would come 24 hours before the big race, at the Carquest 300 at the vast Lowes Motor Speedway in nearby Concord, N.C. If the new pickup frame failed on the Hendrick entry, there would be no chance to re-engineer it before the main event. But with Wall watching nervously, Hendrick driver Kyle Busch took the checkered flag. By the next day, when Hendrick star Jimmie Johnson won the Coca-Cola 600, Wall had already moved on.
During the race, he says, "The least of my concerns was the distributor pickup frame. I felt like we had addressed that issue."
Hendrick Motorsports runs at the technological forefront of NASCAR, and the guy with his foot to the floor is Jim Wall. The 41-year-old Engineering Group Manager has spent his career at Hendrick, where he has pushed innovations like computer-controlled machining tools and sophisticated design and database software, often pulling competing race teams along in his draft. "Investing in technology is now seen as something you have to do in order to survive," says Jeff Turner, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. "Thats changed a lot since Jim first started talking about it. He is the original visionary of information technology in this sport."
It wasnt always easy for Wall to champion IT at Hendrick. Hes had to do more than computerize the processes pioneered by moonshiners and dirt-track racers: Wall also had to create a culture in which information technology strategy is not only valued and understood, but defined by clear business goals. "It took him a while to get the right ears to listen," says Turner. "We were slow to embrace technology because of the evolution of our sport. We went from being a seat-of-the-pants company, buying what we needed from everybody else, to being an information-gathering company that used reverse engineering to make our own stuff."
Initially, Wall says, management "looked at me and saw a dollar sign, because I was costing them money. They wanted to see a connection straight between the checkbook and the stopwatch, and I had to say that it could take years to get all the benefits of new tools."
What management did understand is that speed in NASCAR goes beyond the track. Getting specialized parts in a hurry has always been a challenge, and thats exactly where Wall demonstrated IT could make a difference. NASCAR has an intense schedule that runs from February to November, and each race is a high-stakes, high-visibility test of product quality. Time to market is measured in days. "Time spent on an engine at the track equals a bad weekend," says Wall. "Weve got 38 events on the Nextel Cup Series schedule, and everything we do is driven by the race event schedule. They are going to have the show with or without you, and nothing you can do will change that."
So car-builders need to understand their product inside and out. Racing is both a knowledge industry and a manufacturing business, in addition to being a sport. And, at Hendrick, the most important benefit of technology is how it allows engineers and designers to share and deepen product knowledge, letting them quickly tap into the accumulated information of the organization, thus accelerating the design and manufacturing process.
"We are publishing information for ourselves, building a database and making it available to everyone who needs it," says Wall. But thats still just half the equation. "Having it on the screen doesnt do us a damn bit of good," he adds. "It has to go on the race car to mean something."