LOUDON, N.H. — The radio feed crackles, replaced immediately by the roar of a car engine.
Then a voice breaks in. A calm voice with hints of urgency.
“I can’t feel the tires gripping onto the track,” NASCAR driver Ryan Preece says.
More crackling, more roaring.
“I don’t feel the tires,” he says, 10 minutes into the practice session.
Moments later, the No. 47 Chevrolet rumbles down the asphalt in the garage area based in New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s infield. Preece passes hauler trucks that carried the cars to Loudon on his left, and garage stalls on his right.
The car whisks into the 20th stall, and within two seconds the hood pops open and crew members slide onto the floor. To help Preece and the 47 grip better as it flies into turns, the crew installs shocks on the front tires. Within three minutes, Preece returns to practice.
It’s only the second of three practices. The race isn’t until the next day — Sunday, July 21 — a race Preece eventually finishes in 21st place. But each practice is valuable, providing a chance for the crew to work out kinks, make alterations, and change parts, discovering what doesn’t work.
There is no shortage of math, physics, and engineering involved in preparing a car for each weekend of the Cup Series. It takes high technical knowledge and precision to perform well.
Yet auto racing is also art. It’s sculpting. It’s molding. It’s shaping. It’s a 28-person team putting its experience and skill together to create a masterpiece.
The vehicle is so much more than a car.
Jeff Shano measures the success of each trip to the track not by wins, but by safety. It’s his job, along with fellow hauler driver Andy Gillis, to transport the 47 and its backup car from North Carolina to the track in an 80,000-pound ride.
Shano traveled overnight to New Hampshire. Fueled by iced coffee and sometimes Five-Hour Energy, Shano prefers to drive in the early hours to avoid traffic.
“[Other cars] will pull in front of you and just stop,” Shano said after arriving Thursday. “I just back off. That’s the whole key to these things — to be at least a truck length, if not more. To make one of these things stop dead, it’s going to take a whole lot further than the car.”
In the hauler, Shano carries $1.5 million in equipment: parts and a backup engine to computers and food.
The job stressed Shano somewhat in his first six months. That was 16 years ago, though. Now the time on the road late at night relaxes him.
But one early morning was anything but calm. Shano was returning from New Hampshire about a decade ago when his rear axle caught fire. To keep the flames down until firefighters arrived, Shano used bottles of water after he ran out of fire extinguishers.
“It wouldn’t go out because it was oil inside the rear-end axle, and that oil was red hot,” Shano said. “Trying to put that fire out . . . that’s very scary.”
The hauler serves as a point of pride for Shano, who represents the 47 team wherever he drives. Such was the case when he steered it through the hauler parade Thursday at 6 p.m., an event at the start of all race weekends along a path of a couple miles lined with fans that ends in the infield. Shano drives with his right hand and honks with his left, almost always obliging fans who signal for him to blare the horn.
Once Shano parks in the garage area, it’s time for him and Gillis to unpack and roll out the toolbox.
This isn’t the toolbox you have in your home. It’s a 4,000-pound blue box on wheels with two television screens and 34 drawers filled with tools and parts. They move the toolbox to the garage stall in which the 47 team will work.
They leave the track for the team hotel at about 7:30 p.m. The garage is ready to go for when the rest of the team arrives Friday morning.
Rubber meets road
Not all tires are created equal. Brian Carrigan has a job because of it.
Carrigan, the team’s tire technician, is measuring, arranging, and marking the sets of tires outside the hauler after the Friday practice ended at about 1 p.m. Qualifying, which determines starting position for Sunday, is coming up at 4:35. The car needs different tires for practice, qualifying, and racing.
Carrigan has a puzzle to put together. Not all of the tires are in the same condition.
“You don’t want four good sets and three bad sets,” he said. “You are trying to make every one of them [as] consistent as you can. So for the race on Sunday, you know what you have got from the first stop to the last stop.”
He looks at the tire’s age, circumference, mileage, and more when deciding which ones to pair together. He entered this line of work 19 years ago. Carrigan, who grew up around racing in North Carolina, started working part time for Hendrick Motorsports after he stopped pursuing mechanical engineering.
“After getting to [Calculus] 3, I didn’t think engineering was for me,” he said.
He has spent six years working for JTG Daugherty Racing, the owner of the 47 car. Over that time, he has learned that no matter how much measuring, counting, and sorting he does, a stray nail or bolt can undo it all.
“There are so many things you can’t determine,” he said.
So, Carrigan controls what he can. He also brings crew chief Tristan Smith in on the process as they decide which tires Preece will use and when.
Carrigan’s work has only begun.
Lines of communication
It’s 12:35 p.m. and the black railing on the outside of the stand on top of the hauler is hot to the touch on this 91-degree Saturday. The rest of the black surface slowly cooks the people on top as they watch Preece speed around the 1.058-mile oval.
Already there are issues on his first trip out during the final practice.
“Air pressure is building,” Preece says on the radio.
“At least run a couple more laps here,” Smith responds.
Preece returns four minutes later, one of six return trips over the course of the session. These chances provide Smith the final opportunity before the race to direct modifications for Preece to try.
While Preece darts around the track during his fourth time out at 12:59 p.m., Smith squints. Atop the hauler, Smith rotates his body to follow Preece’s location on the track. He scribbles in his notepad then tells Preece over the radio that he wants to try a left front shock on the next trip.
“Let me know your feedback on it,” Smith says, “and we’ll put the next one in.”
The communication is important for Smith and Preece, working together this year for the first time. Preece is a rookie Cup Series driver.
“So it has taken a little while to kind of figure out . . . especially his magnitudes,” Smith said. “What he means if he says he is loose, how loose or tight he is. But as we work together more and more we have gotten a lot more in synch with that.”
The relationship is akin to that of a quarterback and offensive coordinator. As the two individuals who have perhaps the most significant impact on the success of the car, the driver and crew chief have to share what they see. The crew chief oversees all team operations and overall strategy. The spotter and Preece chat more often as the spotter informs him of what he is seeing from up above, but the crew chief jumps in from time to time.
“It’s challenging but it’s fun, taking what you provided as a baseline, taking what he has to say and seeing how much you can improve it from there,” Smith said.
This final practice ends at 1:25 p.m. In about 24 hours, they will put their work on display.
Back where he started
Four minutes after the final practice, Preece turns a saunter into a jog as he nears the end of the garage area. He has to get to a race at 1:45 p.m.
Not Sunday’s race. That’s the Cup Series. He is racing in the Whelen Modified Tour, 100 laps around the track. The tour serves as the top developmental series. It’s how Preece got his start as a young driver from Berlin, Conn. It’s more of a hobby now. The modified body style is an open-wheel car, compared to the stock cars in the Cup Series. The 47 team is not involved in this race because Preece works on and drives his own car.
“Some owners don’t want you to race other stuff than what they are hiring you to do,” Preece said. “Tad [Geschickter], he smiles and lets me do it.”
Geschickter — who owns the team with his wife Jodi, Gordon Smith, and former NBA star Brad Daugherty — does not believe it would do Preece any good to have to sit and watch the modified racing.
Preece not only drives the car and has direct control of the outcome, but his time spent working on cars, specifically his modified, also gives him insight not many other drivers have in the Cup Series.
“He is much more rooted in actually mechanicking on the car and building the cars, more so than just driving them,” Smith said.
Preece pairs this expertise in cars with a calm demeanor that allows him to communicate with his crew about issues with the car as he whips around the track. He doesn’t usually show any stress or uncertainty, displaying a no-big-deal attitude in most situations.
Preece certainly wanted to qualify better than 28th, but he couldn’t go back and change that.
“You just have to keep working on the car and keep working on everything,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”
Finally, after three days of preparation, it’s race day, the busiest day for the pit crew.
Roles vary for the individuals who are busy at 10 a.m. setting up their station on pit road, which runs parallel to the main track. There’s Kevin Novak, the front tire changer, and Orane Ossowski, the rear tire changer. R.J. Barnette carries the tires. Then there’s Nick Covey, the jack man.
Several crew members expand the pit box that has two levels and looks similar to the toolbox. Below, the crew members will work during the race with tools and multiple screens. Up top, the crew chief, car chief, head engineer, and competition director sit under an awning in the front row with seats for sponsor guests behind them.
Covey and Barnette are cleaning up tires. They are double- and triple-checking the tires to make sure they are race-ready. They don’t want any issues when they replace the tires during pit stops that last 11-12 seconds.
That short time span doesn’t stress out 10-year veteran Covey anymore.
“It keeps your drive going,” he said. “All of us grew up in sports, so it was something we could do professionally and have something active and to compete against all the other guys on pit road.”
The pit crew members don’t show up until late in the weekend, but their attention to detail and ability to move quickly maximize the car’s potential once the race starts at 3 p.m.
The time has come
The car rolls down the ramp and out of the garage stall. The 47 team is directed to turn the car left, a good sign after the final step of technical inspection at 10:40 a.m.
Turning left instead of right, a sign they have passed the final inspection, allows the team to guide the car out of the garage area and onto pit road.
With the car in neutral, seven crew members keep at least one hand on the vehicle. They enter pit road at the finish line. From there, they push.
Each stride moves the car closer to where it will wait until the race starts.
The car is not near as heavy as most automobiles. Still, even in neutral, having one person push it from the end of the technical inspection to its final stop in line would present a difficult task.
It’s manageable because a variety of people with a variety of talents move the car forward. Mechanics, engineers, car chiefs, tire technicians. They are there, helping each other, each set of hands placed in different locations on the car.