Commentary

Relationship between street cars and race cars a lot closer than you think

The next time you step into your car or SUV, thank NASCAR. There's a very good chance an engineer with a racing background played a key role in the development of your favorite ride, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: June 19, 2008, 2:16 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Jack Roush
AP Photo/Mike McCarnJack Roush says communication between Ford Racing engineers and engineers on the consumer side is at an all-time high.

For race fans, NASCAR's two annual visits to the Michigan International Speedway are just another pair of events on the seemingly endless racing calendar, a summer stop during the long, hot months that separate the Cup contenders from the peloton.

For the race teams, going to Michigan to race in the backyard of the Motown three is like going home to show their report card to their parents.

"We always come into Michigan early," said Doug Yates, owner of longtime Ford affiliate Robert Yates Racing. "We go to [Ford headquarters in] Dearborn, we visit the men and women who build the street cars, and we sit down and talk with the engineers and executives to see what they can do to help us and what we can do to help them."

What we can do to help them. It's a simple statement, but it speaks volumes about a part of the NASCAR/manufacturer relationship that few race fans realize exists -- despite the fact that they benefit from it every time they step into their cars or trucks.

For proof, you need to look no further than a street vehicle that rolled off the assembly line for the very first time just this week.

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday
When Bill France Sr. unveiled NASCAR's Strictly Stock series in 1949, he did so with the strict mandate that the cars on the track must be the same vehicles that Mom and Dad drove to the grocery store, driven right of the showroom floor and onto the high banks of Darlington.

The automakers began to notice an effect almost immediately. When Lee Petty or Buck Baker or Curtis Turner won a big race, car buyers began showing up on Monday mornings to nose around the dealerships that carried the cars the stars had driven to victory. Soon, those same manufacturers began to pour money into their race teams, knowing they'd see the return in car purchases.

Thus the now familiar battle cry of the car lot jockeys: "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

But as NASCAR race cars evolved through the 1970s and beyond, the direct connection between street and track became harder to find, save a few identifiable decals here and there. That's when a strange sort of role reversal began to take place. Instead of the street cars giving birth to race cars, everything began to happen the other way around.

"As the cars have grown apart, the engineering behind the cars has actually grown closer together," said Jack Roush, a former Ford engineer who now owns the blue oval's most potent race team. "I think probably more than any other time, the communication between our engineers and the engineers on the street and consumer side is constant."

Reverse engineering
When Ford rolled its new Flex crossover SUV into showrooms this week, one of the minds behind its design also worked in Cup Series paddocks from Daytona to Fontana.

Thirty-three-year-old Louis Jamail served as vehicle dynamics engineer for the Flex, helping to design a ride that isn't a gigantic gas-guzzling SUV, but with five doors and seating for seven isn't exactly a car, either.

"It looks like and carries all the amenities that consumers are used to with an SUV," explained the Ohio State grad. "But it drives and handles like a car. Just because you want to haul a bunch of stuff and people doesn't mean it should be boring to drive."

Jamail knows a little something about exciting rides. In 1999 he helped develop racing chassis for Ford, leaving his office in Dearborn for weeks at a time to set up camp as the official engineering liaison for Ricky Rudd's Ford-backed race team as well as Robert Yates Racing. He helped develop and fine-tune the new-look '99 Taurus that Dale Jarrett used to win the Cup title and Ford rode to the manufacturers' championship.

Then it was back to Michigan to begin work on what would become the Flex, along with a new NASCAR-honed more flexible mind-set.

"When I came back to work on street projects, the biggest thing racing did was change how I approached it," Jamail said. "In racing, decisions have to be made very fast and solutions have to be developed even faster. Because of that you're able to rationalize and make decisions quicker in the production setting. The benefit to having worked in racing isn't about bringing parts and pieces back with you, it's about bringing back a process."

Cross-pollination
Jamail wasn't the first to be plucked from racing for his newly learned high-speed know-how. The overhauled 2005 Ford Mustang was the brainchild of Ford Racing alum Hau Thai-Tang, who is now Ford's product development director in Brazil. And engine guru Mose Nowland has spent more than 50 years using knowledge gleaned from Talladega and Le Mans to produce horsepower on the street.

Most members of Ford's current NASCAR liaison group, including vehicle dynamics and chassis supervisor Pat DiMarco, have done tours of duty through the consumer street division. That's no accident. Engineers are constantly being sent to the garage for two-year stints and then moved into production vehicles or vice versa.

The big bosses in Detroit know the benefits of garage time, from practical applications such as using the wind tunnel to find fuel efficiency to the racer's swagger that makes the whole office feel a little better about the job it's doing.

"I deal with a lot people in a lot of different departments," Jamail said, adding that he still hits the proving grounds with the Ford Racing test team from time to time. "You can tell almost immediately who has racing experience. There's just a different mind-set, a different way of going about business. It's engrained in you."

You can go home again
Years of success in racing created a whole new generation of engineers who have helped Ford strengthen its position as a global auto giant. So when its NASCAR teams put up a cry for help last season, it wasn't hard to find some folks in Dearborn who were willing to help out. The result was a fresh influx of engineering help and advice and a fast start to the '08 season.

"We have all benefited from our racing experience," Jamail explained with the deliberate tones of an engineer. "And on the production side we still benefit from the exposure and success of our race teams. When we launch a new model like the Flex and all the publicity and exposure that comes with it, I think it helps them in the same way."

Win on Monday, win on Sunday.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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