The opening day for the 54th National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) season is February 26, 2012 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Fla. Hundreds of thousands of viewers will pack into the 2.5 mile arena while millions more will tune in at home to watch 42 cars battle, crash and roar past the black and white checkered flag.
To an engineer, this sport may look a little different than to a NASCAR fan. For example, what are the different ways to make a stock car capable of producing 190-mph speeds? Exactly what types of materials and techniques are teams using to build a machine capable of withstanding hours of high-speed racing? The short answer is: Sheet metal, powerful engines and good tires. However, composites are slowly integrating into NASCAR’s race manufacturing team designs thanks to faster prototyping tools and more engineers focusing on composite concepts in approved areas of the cars.
Race cars could employ expensive techniques to lightweight and design an impressive racing machine, but NASCAR is intent on keeping the cost down to allow small teams to compete in the growing sport. The officials even use a “magnet rule” to check that the race car uses steel in all the correct places, such as the body panels, before allowing the car onto the track (a magnet won’t stick to another metallic surface or composites.) That’s not to say that composites have been opted out of the racing arena; composite parts are heavily integrated into the nose, tail, interior seats, dash panels, fan housing, overflow tanks, mirrors and other non-structural components. Teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) have even brought composite manufacturing in-house to get concepts built on the car faster and increase the team’s competitive edge.
The Joe Gibbs engineering team
On a tour of the JGR headquarters, based in Charlotte, N.C., Technical Sponsorship and Marketing Director Mark Bringle showed Composites Manufacturing how 50 plus engineers, including a composites department, create parts for 11 racing teams. Bringle was previously in charge of the vehicle designs and has a background in manufacturing.
“Seeing the car on the track is one of my favorite parts of the job,” says Bringle. “It’s good to see something you’ve built on a worldwide arena.” Bringle reflects on the 2005 Sprint Cup Championship win as one of his favorite experiences with the company and mentions that Gibbs’ leadership is the driving force that pushes the entire organization to do its best. “Gibbs is an amazing owner and has picked a team of employees that will sacrifice in order to meet company goals. He motivates the organization to work together and he’s at the office way too often,” laughs Bringle.