For Charlotte’s NASCAR Road Course, Engineers Prepare Cars for Blue Turtles and Right-Hand Turns | WFAE 90.7

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A traditional NASCAR race features fast cars turning left, counterclockwise around an oval track. A road course like the Bank of America ROVAL 400 presents engineers with a challenge you wouldn’t expect. How do they reconfigure cars to turn right?

The ROVAL course at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a special case for a number of reasons, said engineer Steve Hoegler of Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that will field four cars in Sunday’s Oct. 9 race. They will be driven by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell.

“Over the last few years we had very specifically designed and built road race cars, different chassis and different parts, everything from top to bottom was quite different for a road race,” Hoegler said recently. But this year, with the launch of its seventh generation cars, NASCAR requires that the same car chassis be used every week, regardless of track type.

“They basically say, ‘this is how you put the car together for an intermediate track, and this is how you put together a car for road racing,'” Hoegler said. “So the main difference is kind of how your tires are aligned.” The car is configured asymmetrically for the intermediate lanes, to facilitate the left turn, and symmetrically if it has to turn in both directions. On a road course car, Hoegler explained, they replicate their suspension from the right side to the left side. NASCAR also requires windshield wipers, mud flaps and flashing red lights for better visibility in spray and wet pavement.

Cars for NASCAR road courses are very different from cars used in Formula 1 road courses, Hoegler said. Key differences include a metal tube chassis used for NASCAR and carbon fiber used for F1, and budget. An article from F1Chronicle 2020 estimated that a NASCAR stock vehicle costs around $25 million, while a pair of F1 cars cost up to $470 million.

How Charlotte’s road journey is different

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL course presents a unique challenge, Hoegler said.

“The angled loads we execute on the oval track are much higher than on a normal road course. So there are challenges in not letting your car bottom out. And then there are those of Charlotte infamous blue turtles — 6 inch high steel curbs bolted to the track. They help steer the cars at turns 11, 12 and 15-17.

“When you hit those, it’s really a violent event on the chassis and the suspension parts,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is trying to design the suspension geometry and everything so that we can do a little bit better than everyone else. That’s what it’s about, you know, seeing that flag checkered.

How Hoegler got to NASCAR

The main focus of Hoegler is to develop simulation programs and tire models. He grew up in Cleveland, studied mechanical engineering at Ohio University, and interned at Goodyear, who later hired him full-time to design racing tires. He eventually found a job with Joe Gibbs Racing and moved to Charlotte.

Hoegler uses simulators to test models, evaluate driver performance with them, then make changes and observe drivers again. As the models get better and the fake world looks more like the real world, he said, the pilots’ decisions become more like what happens on the track.

The sporty approach of Joe Gibbs Racing

Although Joe Gibbs Racing has access to almost all the technology it needs, Hoegler said people are the team’s main focus. The company employs over 400 people. Twenty to 30 engineers work in various roles, including simulation, production, parts, tires and failure analysis, Hoegler said. The team also partners with Toyota Racing Development, which manufactures its engines in Costa Mesa, California.

“You know, coach [Joe Gibbs, former coach of the Washington Commanders] has a philosophy that people drive results,” Hoegler said. “He talks about it a lot in team meetings. He is very sociable and puts the right people in place. When you look at the success he’s had, it’s all about relationships and people.

“It resonates throughout the building, and you appreciate the fact that you are part of a team and that everyone has their role. You just have to pull your string and that big rope as hard as you can to help everyone succeed.

Shannon Kingston, Kayla McDuffie and Sebastian Shered are students at Queens University Charlotte’s James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the news service in support of local community news.

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