Roush seeing light at end of tunnel
So why is Ford winless in NASCAR this year, off a terrible slump last year?
Short answer: computer software, data analysis and outsourcing.
Not engines, not chassis, not aerodynamics, not drivers, not crews, not money.
This according to the man positioned best in all the world to know why Ford is winless: Jack Roush, engineer, entrepreneur, team owner and such a total Ford loyalist that you wonder if he's not really in the bloodline (maybe one of the Ford daughters married a Roush somewhere in the family tree?)
First, Roush's disclaimer: "I won't take the rap for not winning in all three series because we haven't competed in the Truck series this year."
But if Ford's flagship team in NASCAR, Roush Fenway Racing, is oh-for-the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series this season, how can a handful of lesser Truck teams be expected to keep up?
At Cup level, "We've got third-party vendors, not Ford and not Roush Fenway, that were engaged in our data analysis and in our simulations," Roush told me during a teleconference this week, "and quite frankly we haven't got the results this year that we had expected.
"Certainly the results aren't as good from the simulation data as we had in 2008 [when Roush's Carl Edwards won the most races in Cup, nine, and barely missed the championship]
"And given the fact that we don't have testing, that has been a handicap."
Computer simulations have become crucial to teams since NASCAR banned on-track testing after the 2008 season. Armed with data from that year, Roush's Matt Kenseth won the first two races of '09, and then the slump set in.
Roush and Ford didn't win again until Nov. 1, when Jamie McMurray won the crapshoot at Casino de Alabama (aka Talladega) as a lame-duck driver.
And they haven't won since.
So while Roush lobbies NASCAR for a return to on-track testing -- "between eight and 10 times per team," he suggested -- he is also bringing some data work back inside his compound near Concord, N.C.
"We're taking more things inside, and taking them on ourselves at Roush Fenway," Roush said.
He goes home this weekend to his beloved Michigan International Speedway, where his drivers have won 11 Cup races and where he hopes to turn and make a winning stand.
All nine Fords entered for Sunday at Michigan -- four from Roush, four from Richard Petty Motorsports and one from the Wood Brothers -- will carry the new FR9 engine, which Roush admits has been "rolled out slow."
Ford's initial redesign "has been wonderful," Roush said.
But here again, more outsourcing: "We had to qualify many new vendors for castings and various internal components." Then, Ford engineers and the technicians at Roush-Yates Engines "had to go through the prototype parts, work our way into the production series of parts, which are now done."
So Michigan might -- but only might -- be a turning point. Data acquisition has not been completely corrected.
Roush's explanation of his and Ford's woes brings a complete and undeniable end to what has been a myth for more than a decade now. In a way, it kills the very mystique of NASCAR.
The myth -- the former truth -- is that in NASCAR, a bunch of blue-collar guys armed with socket wrenches, tin snips and duct tape can conquer anything. Book-learnin' be damned. That was and is much of NASCAR's appeal to its core following.
Now the self-taught guys are lost at the tracks without the proper book-learnin' -- the engineering -- to go on.
"On the race weekend," Roush said, "we have this year arrived at the racetrack, unloaded with simulated strategies for setups that have not been as good as our competitors' "
No socket set or tin snips or roll of duct tape ever made can overcome that.
The blue-collar crewmen of the competitors -- Gibbs and Toyota, Penske and Dodge, Hendrick and Chevrolet -- are no less lost; it's just that their maps, their data, have been better than Ford's/Roush's.
The drivers in their way are just as helpless. Since the 1990s, as one veteran of the testing and racing wars used to put it, "the driver is just the monkey in the seat" -- he's supposed to sit down, shut up and do what the engineers tell him to do.
So here sits Roush's stable -- Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle all accustomed to multiple-win seasons, and young David Ragan, who'd hoped to be at that level by now -- waiting waiting for cars they could push to the front again.
"I think everybody has pretty much done a good job of not getting frustrated," Roush said. "Carl has obviously matured. He's gone from being brash and, if not ruthless, certainly overenthusiastic in some of his actions on the track, and he's matured into being a card-carrying senior by now.
"Matt has certainly been a good soldier. Greg Biffle has done a nice job David Ragan has done a nice job
"But they look forward to winning races."
As for Roush himself: "Well, let me tell you what my schedule was in happier times and easier times. I would spend one day [at the compound] in North Carolina, doing administrative things that I had to do, and two days in Michigan, either bouncing grandbabies or getting my battery charged and getting ready to go to the next race.
"My schedule now is a solid two days in North Carolina. This week I'll be three days in North Carolina, just looking the guys in the eyes and saying, 'OK, are we missing something here? Has anybody seen something that they think is different or revolutionary?'
"We've reviewed spy pictures off satellites from Pocono of other cars at various places on the racetrack. We saw some things. Those things will be reflected in our cars at Michigan.
"But the thing we need, the thing that the guys are being patient for, is to get our simulations organized to the point that we can arrive at the racetrack with a setup in the car that is going to be close .
"We think we see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Until then, Roush lobbies NASCAR to allow testing again. "I encouraged NASCAR. They're certainly listening. I think we'd have less reliance on our simulations and on the technicians that are behind the scenes."
Not so long ago, testing itself was considered a highfalutin, newfangled notion in NASCAR. Now it's an old-fashioned idea Roush wants back.
Now he speaks of computer simulations, the difficulties with outsourcing, and even of spy-satellite photos.
That is, of course, just the world today. But it is by no means the primal appeal of NASCAR, and simple Fords that an everyman could work on.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.