Car knowledge can't be measured in degrees

They don't make 'em the way they used to, but what drivers and mechanics of days gone by lacked in schooling they made up for in good, old-fashioned intuitive physics.

Updated: May 29, 2008, 7:39 PM ET
By Bill Borden | Special to ESPN.com

Today's Sprint Cup garage is papered with all types of engineering degrees and related sciences. You can hardly take a step without bumping into some type of engineer or other degreed specialist working on today's race cars.

[+] EnlargeJunior Johnson, Ray Fox
RacingOne/Getty ImagesJunior Johnson, second from right, celebrates his cagey 1960 Daytona 500 victory alongside owner Ray Fox.
That was not always the case. In fact, years ago many of the team crew members weren't even high school graduates. So how did all of these "shade tree mechanics" accomplish so much with what would seem to be so little? I call it "intuitive physics." Some would call it "native intelligence" or "common sense."

Are today's degreed specialists necessarily smarter than the old timers? To the contrary, I believe the old guys were infinitely smarter.

They weren't book educated but they learned how to overcome difficulties through their native intelligence and the school of hard knocks. They could not express themselves in physics terms or even necessarily understand those terms. They had their own language for communicating.

In the old days you would hear such phases as "slow down to go faster" or "be smooth" as descriptions of how to drive a race car. They were talking about the basic laws of physics in the manner in which they had learned them. The phrases that they used dealt with [among others] the "equal and opposite" laws of physics, such as every action has an equal and opposite reaction and centripetal force creates centrifugal force, etc.

I had the pleasure of working with David Pearson for several years. He could tell you what to do and what not to do in a race car but he could not necessarily tell you why you should or should not do those things.

When he teamed up with Leonard Wood of Wood Brothers fame those two great minds created some masterful accomplishments on the track. They communicated in their own language and fed off of each other to dominate the Cup series for many years.

In fact, probably four of the smartest people I have ever known are A.J. Foyt, Junior Johnson, David Pearson and Leonard Wood. Richard Petty was no slouch either but he had factory help most of those years. You would probably be hard-pressed to come up with one or two high school diplomas amongst all of them, but they were quick learners and had a native intelligence that helped them to be successful in a highly competitive arena.

Of course there were others from their era who were plenty sharp as well. Two good examples would be old timers such as Harry Hyde or Jake Elder who were excellent crew chiefs and were not highly educated but experienced tremendous success on the Cup circuit in their time.

They learned by trial and error and when they learned something they never forgot it. Foyt used to amaze me with his recall and sharp eye when it came to setting up a race car. However, many times he was his own worst enemy by his trying to improve on what he had even though it was near perfect. He would lose ground and then have to back up and regroup to get back to where he was. Most times he did it. Not always in the calmest of manners, but he would get it back.

A.J. Foyt
AP Photo/GBA.J. Foyt's ability to recall details about the setup of his race cars was amazing.
Johnson was a last-minute entry to drive a Chevrolet in the 1960 Daytona 500 in a deal that had been thrown together by veteran car owner Ray Fox and the owner of the Dog Track in front of the new speedway. Unfortunately the Chevrolet was woefully underpowered compared with the Pontiacs that year. But Junior discovered something while he was out practicing for the race.

Whenever a Pontiac would go by him he could feel his Chevy pick up speed so he started practicing staying tucked up behind the Pontiacs and found out that his Chevy could run with them because of what we now call drafting. Johnson drafted his way to the front and, late in the race, was hanging onto the back of a Pontiac when its rear window popped out from the suction that was being created by Johnson's Chevrolet tucked up behind it. That stroke of luck allowed Johnson to pass and win the Daytona 500.

Johnson took a car that was not competitive and turned it into a winner through his intuitiveness. He could not explain it at the time but he knew how it worked.

Johnson is also credited with discovering the benefits of "stagger" when they were dealing with the old bias belted tires years ago. Everything you do is geared to trying to help the car turn into and through the corners. Junior, so the story goes, was sitting and rolling an empty Styrofoam coffee cup around on a table when it occurred to him that the cup was rolling around in a circle because of its conical shape. Translation: bigger tires on the outside of the car would help it turn better through the corners.

Johnson's teams enjoyed an advantage on the track until his competitors figured out what he was doing. They would measure the tires, select the biggest ones and then blow them up with excessive air pressure to stretch them to their desired size. He would then match out the sets and gain stability in how the car handled from one set to the next. Intuitive physics.

You are currently seeing and hearing about a modern day version of Johnson's old trick where the teams are turning their rear wheels up hill to make the car want to turn left all of the time. If the rear tires are aligned with the frame then they want to push the car forward in a straight line. Normally that is good but with the new race car they are having trouble getting it to turn in the corner so they are turning the rear wheels to the right and thus freeing it up and helping it to turn.

Aiming the axle downhill is an old dirt track racers trick to get the rear end to dig downhill when accelerating out of the corners to combat it wanting to slide out toward the wall. The Sprint Cup teams are just doing the opposite to get the rear end to turn better except they are keeping the axle straight and canting the wheels uphill. That takes some engineering to get the axles and the bearings to work in concert with each other but they did it -- at least until last week when NASCAR tightened the rules.

For many years the teams made the left side wheel base longer than the right side figuring that the left tire would lead going into the corner. Then someone figured out that by moving the left front wheel back or the right front forward the car would be freed up more and thus turn through the corners better. They were playing with the caster, toe and Ackerman. What had worked for years was suddenly reversed by someone who found a better way. I'm betting that they did not find that idea in a book somewhere.

A similar situation occurred when the teams started playing with front steer versus rear steer cars. Bobby Allison is credited with figuring out that the front-end geometry worked better with a front-steer-style steering setup versus the universally accepted and used rear-steer setup. Front steer versus rear steer simply means the steering box and tie rods are either in front of or in back of the centerline of the front spindle points. It does not have anything to do with the rear wheels or axle.

Smokey Yunick
Smokey Yunick, right, constantly pushed the rules envelope while running in NASCAR.
Smokey Yunick was probably the most "creative" mechanic to ever play in the earlier days of NASCAR when the rule book was much thinner than it is today. Stories about his creativity are legend. Way too many to mention here.

However, suffice to say that even though General Motors' Ed Cole is credited with being the father of the V-8 engine, Yunick was its favorite uncle. Yunick did a lot of development work for GM back in the early to mid-1950s. He also studied chemistry and physics extensively so he would have to be considered better educated than his peers.

One of the most memorable attempts at "intuitive physics" that I recall was back in the early '80s when NASCAR downsized the cars to reflect the then-current Detroit models. The teams were having to battle to keep the rear of the new car planted to the track with the lighter car and smaller rear spoiler. After much negotiating back and forth and several serious wrecks at Daytona, NASCAR announced a new edict that changed the rear spoiler rule from a specified height and width to a total area of square inches of surface allowed to give the teams some room to adjust for the various car models.

Foyt read the new rule and decided that if he drilled a bunch of holes in a larger spoiler then he could make it higher and wider and stay within the amount of surface square inches allowed by NASCAR. Foyt spent an hour or so up in his hauler drilling away on his new spoiler that eventually looked like a piece of Swiss cheese. And, he was proud of his work as he installed it on his car.

But about that time Dick Beatty, who was the John Darby of that era, came strolling up to admire Foyt's work and to tell him it was illegal. Foyt started doing his war dance around Beatty and telling him how "unfair NASCAR was being to this poor old Texan." He pleaded, he cajoled, he begged and he threatened but to no avail. Beatty was not going to change his mind.

Finally, in a last desperate play, Foyt threatened to load up his stuff and go home. Beatty calmly looked around the garage, found two of his officials and motioned them over to where he was standing. He then turned to Foyt and told him if he needed any help loading up that his two officials would be glad to help him. Beatty then calmly walked away. Foyt ran that race and he did it with a legal spoiler. You had to give him an "E" for effort though.

Ingenuity and creativity are not found in books or manuals. They are the product of fertile minds that often think outside the box. They are not constrained by books and theories that were written by others telling them "you can't do that."

The next time you take the family sedan out for a spin, just remember that many of the things you take for granted on it were the result of some racer thinking outside the box and doing what was previously thought to be impossible.

Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.