NASCAR: How Hendrick Motorsports Uses I.T. To Tune Performance

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

The company, which fields six NASCAR teams, turned to product life-cycle management software to improve performance and reliability of its race cars.

Imagine being behind the wheel of your car when you suddenly notice gasoline dripping on your leg. Pretty scary, huh? But when it happened to four-time NASCAR champion race driver Jeff Gordon in a 2002 race, he was pushing 200 miles per hour—which made it a whole lot scarier.

As soon as Gordon's car headed into the pit for repairs, his crew of engineers swung into action. They quickly found the problem: a malfunctioning fuel gauge.

But by using the design application of Teamcenter, a product life-cycle management (PLM) system from UGS Corp. (formerly Unigraphics), the engine crew redesigned the part, remanufactured new ones and had them installed in time for the following weekend's race. The result: Gordon's team took first in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

"The goal in our business is to raise our level of performance and improve reliability," says Jim Wall, director of engineering at Hendrick Motorsports, a Charlotte, N.C.-based racing organization with 550 employees. Hendrick fields a half-dozen NASCAR racing teams, including those for top drivers Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers.

Reliability and performance, in fact, often spell the difference between a win and a loss, or a non-finish due to engine failure. In the world of NASCAR, while the drivers are the "jockeys," the "thoroughbreds" of the 36-race season are the cars' engines. They must not only be capable of speeds of about 200 miles per hour, but they also must withstand flat-out punishment for hours at a time.

So, it's no wonder parts crack, wear out or burn up from loss of lubricant or intense heat and pressure. "Unfortunately, we do break a lot of components," Wall says.

After every race, each engine is completely remanufactured by the Hendrick engine team. "We manufacture the product, test it, race it, use it up and manufacture it again," explains Jim McKenzie, applications manager at Hendrick.

NASCAR racing vehicles are ostensibly "stock" cars—e.g., production-type sedans that have been modified for speed. Although the engines are based on production internal combustion engines from General Motors or Ford, and the cars have stock bodies that are basically the same as those on production sedans, each NASCAR race car is built from scratch by racing outfits such as Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Racing.

Hendrick rebuilds 700 engines per year with an engine-department staff of 82. The company confronts a data management challenge similar to that faced by many large enterprises. In the past, the company depended on a smorgasbord of product data in different databases and formats. As a result, when one or more race cars experienced a part failure, the engine staff combed through piles of data to track down engine history, past failure reports and other information.

But the UGS software helps Hendrick achieve its twin goals of faster parts troubleshooting and greater reliability. "If we have a component with a failure on the track, we have to document it and be able to reference it, because we don't want to have the same mistake twice," Wall says. In other words, a few pounds of preventive maintenance today can avoid a couple of tons of trouble at next weekend's race.

A part that breaks in one race has the potential to affect all teams' cars at any time, since they use the same engines and components. Thus, any fix or retrofit must be made to all cars in time for the following weekend's race.

Once a failure is noted, say, a leaking fuel line, Hendrick engineers at the track immediately check the part's history online using their laptops. The idea is to give company engineers a jump on redesigning the part before Monday rolls around. "Teamcenter has allowed us to improve our speed of response when we have a problem," Wall says. "It enables us to produce an upgraded component in the shortest time possible."

For example, an ignition component failed on May 6, 2005. "We typically don't react to just one failure," he says. "Then, we had the second and third failures of the component on May 14 and 15." On May 20, one of the engines was torn down; a change was put in within two days. Hendrick retrofitted the fleet of 30 engines in time for the May 22-27 Busch Series races, in which Hendrick's teams scored wins with the new components.

This article was originally published on 2006-06-07
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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