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By Edward Cone  |  Posted 08-01-2004

Knowledge is Speed: Hendrick Motorsports Inc.'s Jim Wall

 

Page 1

: Introduction">

There is a small metal part in a race car engine—a pickup frame, to be precise—that supports a coil of wires in the distributor. If this part breaks and the wires come loose, the ignition fails, the engine stops and the race is lost. The race-car driver does not win the prize money or get face time on national television, and the sponsors who pay millions of dollars to see their logos flash around the track a few hundred times go home deeply unhappy. Last May, pickup frames started breaking in engines made by Hendrick Motorsports Inc., one of the largest and most successful companies competing on the NASCAR circuit.

"When the first one broke, out at the California Speedway at Fontana on May 2, we didn't panic, because we had used these parts for years," says chief engineer Jim Wall, standing in the middle of a spotless workroom at Hendrick's 70-plus acre campus in Charlotte, N.C. "But the next race, at Richmond, two broke in practice, and all of a sudden it was, 'Oh man, we've got a problem.'"

The longest race of the 10-month NASCAR season, the Coca-Cola 600, was next on the schedule, giving Wall less than three weeks to redesign and manufacture a new part that would not fail under the stress of racing conditions—and over all of those 600 miles. "We went from our CAD (computer-aided design) library to steel in two days," he says.

21 Days Later
It hardly matters how quickly one can go from zero to 160 if you're engine craps out before the finish line—and thanks to a faulty part, Hendrick's NASCAR racing engines had been doing just that in early May. Three weeks later, Jim Wall's IT team had reverse-engineered and prototyped a replacement part that led to two checkered flags.

Day 21:
May 6
—A pickup frame fails in the engine of the 48 Nextel Cup Team on May 2 at Fontana, Calif.; the faulty part is found during an engine "tear-down" on May 6.

Day 13:
May 14
—A second pickup frame fails in the 10 Nextel Cup Team during practice runs at Richmond.

Day 12:
May 15
—Finally, a third pickup frame fails in the 10 Nextel Cup Team during the race at Richmond, this one found during an engine tear-down on May 20. The serial failure is cause for alarm.

Day 5:
May 21
—Wall and his team at Hendrick gather all component prints and information the pickup frame vendor will share.

Day 4:
May 22
—Used CAD software, in connection with the UGS product lifecycle database, to reverse-engineer and improve the pickup frame.

Day 2:
May 24
—First new pickup frame prototype produced on computer numerically controlled machine with production run of about 25 parts.

Day 1:
May 25
—First prototype tested by dynamometer while production continues. Retrofits with new pickup frame begin on race engines.

May 27—Kyle Busch wins his Busch Series race with new pickup frame in place. The next day, Jimmie Johnson wins the Coca-Cola 600, also relying on the new pickup frame.

The real test of the new part would come 24 hours before the big race, at the Carquest 300 at the vast Lowe's Motor Speedway in nearby Concord, N.C. If the new pickup frame failed on the Hendrick entry, there would be no chance to re-engineer it before the main event. But with Wall watching nervously, Hendrick driver Kyle Busch took the checkered flag. By the next day, when Hendrick star Jimmie Johnson won the Coca-Cola 600, Wall had already moved on.

During the race, he says, "The least of my concerns was the distributor pickup frame. I felt like we had addressed that issue."

Hendrick Motorsports runs at the technological forefront of NASCAR, and the guy with his foot to the floor is Jim Wall. The 41-year-old Engineering Group Manager has spent his career at Hendrick, where he has pushed innovations like computer-controlled machining tools and sophisticated design and database software, often pulling competing race teams along in his draft. "Investing in technology is now seen as something you have to do in order to survive," says Jeff Turner, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. "That's changed a lot since Jim first started talking about it. He is the original visionary of information technology in this sport."

It wasn't always easy for Wall to champion IT at Hendrick. He's had to do more than computerize the processes pioneered by moonshiners and dirt-track racers: Wall also had to create a culture in which information technology strategy is not only valued and understood, but defined by clear business goals. "It took him a while to get the right ears to listen," says Turner. "We were slow to embrace technology because of the evolution of our sport. We went from being a seat-of-the-pants company, buying what we needed from everybody else, to being an information-gathering company that used reverse engineering to make our own stuff."

Initially, Wall says, management "looked at me and saw a dollar sign, because I was costing them money. They wanted to see a connection straight between the checkbook and the stopwatch, and I had to say that it could take years to get all the benefits of new tools."

What management did understand is that speed in NASCAR goes beyond the track. Getting specialized parts in a hurry has always been a challenge, and that's exactly where Wall demonstrated IT could make a difference. NASCAR has an intense schedule that runs from February to November, and each race is a high-stakes, high-visibility test of product quality. Time to market is measured in days. "Time spent on an engine at the track equals a bad weekend," says Wall. "We've got 38 events on the Nextel Cup Series schedule, and everything we do is driven by the race event schedule. They are going to have the show with or without you, and nothing you can do will change that."

So car-builders need to understand their product inside and out. Racing is both a knowledge industry and a manufacturing business, in addition to being a sport. And, at Hendrick, the most important benefit of technology is how it allows engineers and designers to share and deepen product knowledge, letting them quickly tap into the accumulated information of the organization, thus accelerating the design and manufacturing process.

"We are publishing information for ourselves, building a database and making it available to everyone who needs it," says Wall. But that's still just half the equation. "Having it on the screen doesn't do us a damn bit of good," he adds. "It has to go on the race car to mean something."

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: Hendrick Comes of (Info) Age">

Hendrick Comes of (Info) Age

Whitish lubricant splashes inside the windows of a computerized, Mini Cooper-sized machine tool that carves and bores metal parts with extreme precision, extruding ribbons of scrap steel or aluminum while it works. NASCAR race cars, including the engines, must be built from certain stock elements that you could find at your local dealership, but everything else can be engineered from scratch. "We buy what we can, and build what we need," says Wall, walking past a row of finished engines.

Hendrick Motorsports, founded in 1984 by Charlotte automobile dealer Rick Hendrick, refurbishes engines over 700 times per season, some for its own drivers and the rest for lease to other NASCAR teams. The shop also serves as a development lab for General Motors, the maker of the Chevrolet cars Hendrick races. But, Turner says, the engine business amounts to just a fraction of the revenues of the profitable, privately held company, which average over $100 million per year. Nor does prize money account for Hendrick's profits: A good season might total $10 to $20 million in prizes for all drivers, while the cost of running a single top NASCAR team is over $15 million per year.

The real money comes from sponsorships, and it is sponsorships that make up almost 80 percent of Hendrick's annual revenue. Big brands—Lowe's Home Improvement stores, Kellogg's cereals, Budweiser— pay big money (over $15 million for a primary sponsorship, perhaps $1 million for a secondary sponsorship) to slap their names on NASCAR machines and stitch their logos on the drivers' fireproof suits. This is a sport where the championship trophy—formerly the Winston Cup, now the Nextel Cup—is for rent. Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge also pour tens of millions into the racing teams.

Wall has negotiated secondary sponsorship deals with two of his shop's key tool and software vendors, Haas Automation Inc. and UGS Corp. Hendrick gets the machines and software in exchange for advertising space on the race cars and marketing and promotional exposure for the products. "These relationships are extremely valuable to us because they equip us with engineering and manufacturing tools that help us produce more competitive vehicles," says Wall. "We also have access to some of the top people in these companies for support, training and previews of new technology that is coming out in their products."

The drivers are brands in their own right. ("You might see a rookie driver around the engine shop," says one mechanic. "Until they get their first jet.") Even the cars are anthropomorphized by fans and commentators, called by their numbers, as in, "The No. 48 car ran good at Michigan." Hendrick runs four teams full time on NASCAR's premiere Nextel Cup circuit, including the Lowe's No. 48 car driven by Jimmie Johnson, who has been at or near the top of the points standings all season; the No. 24 DuPont car, driven by three-time points champion Jeff Gordon; veteran Terry Labonte's No. 5 Kellogg's car; and Brian Vickers in the number 25 GMAC car. Kyle Busch will compete in six Nextel races this year in the No. 84 Carquest car.

Nobody is getting their money's worth if their ride is in the shop.

With over 400 employees, including more than 80 in the shop run by the storied engine-builder (and Wall's mentor) Randy Dorton, Hendrick is one of NASCAR's biggest companies. But corporate teams are now the rule in a sport once based in small garages and family compounds. Among the leading full-service shops, with multiple cars and engine-building capacity, are Dale Earnhardt Inc., founded by the late legend and animated by the star power of his son, Dale Jr.; longtime powerhouse Richard Childress Racing; and Penske Racing, the NASCAR venture of the fabled open-wheel racing organization. Roush Racing, one of the largest companies as measured by the number of drivers, gets its engines from another major Ford shop, Robert Yates. Like HMS, each of these shops has come to see IT as a competitive necessity, making Wall's job easier on the one hand (he doesn't have to sell people on the value of IT any longer), but more difficult on the other (he has to work harder to remain ahead of the curve).

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: 'CIO By Committee'">

"CIO By Committee"

Wall, a self-described "motorhead" while growing up in nearby Concord, started at Hendrick when it was formed in 1984, leaving only to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University. He began pushing for computer-aided design and manufacturing tools in the late eighties, and really got religion at the 1990 International Machine Tools Show, in Chicago. "My head was reeling when I walked out," he says. "There were computers embedded in machines that could do all the things we do. I went to the show to get numbers for a proposal, but I left convinced that we really needed to be using this."

Management was slower to respond. Without a formal IT organization, Wall picked up the slack. He strung cable, set up machines, and harkened back to some experience in grad school to repair the phone system. He even registered Hendrick's Internet domain names when the company was building its first Web sites. Eventually, he was allowed to hire some help, but even in the late nineties management still was not fully committed to IT. "Even then we didn't realize the level of commitment in terms of people that we needed to make an IT department," says Turner. "We took it for granted." When one of Wall's key hires left for a competitor offering more money, he deemed it time to force the issue.

"I had to say that I did not want to be IT, I just wanted to use it," Wall says. "I was willing to participate on a committee with management to get beyond the nucleus we had established, to professionalize the function." That led to what Turner calls a "significant increase" in the company's investment in staff, including the hiring, in early 2001, of Chris Newsome, who had previously worked in the snack-food and textile industries, to become Hendrick's Director of Information Technology.

"We had to get more sophisticated very quickly, and thanks in large part to Jim we've been able to do that on both the financial and engineering sides of the business," says Turner. "We could do that because of the confidence we had in the engineering group."

Wall describes the current setup as "CIO by committee." He still oversees the major design and production systems, and he manages relationships with technology sponsors Haas and UGS. Newsome serves as the de facto technology officer, with a staff of eight, probably the largest of any NASCAR shop. Together, they have upgraded network infrastructure and put key applications on the network, and also rewritten a critical data acquisition Web application in order to make its dynamometer and engine performance data accessible via Web browsers. The CIO "committee" can include non-techies, too. An online application called Avantis that provides real-time parts inventory, along with features such as automated procurement and reordering capacity, was driven by Chief Financial Officer Scott Lampe as way to better understand and control the costs of parts and material.

In an ideal world, Wall, Newsome, Lampe and company might use their data to create a fail-safe NASCAR engine, but, given the complexity of the product, and the stresses of its environment, that remains a pipe dream. For now, Wall is focused on expanding the searchable product data management system, Teamcenter Enterprise from UGS, that he used to redesign the pickup frame; when completed, it will allow the organization to know its engines down to the material composition and tolerances of any component.

"Right now, we can't afford to have every small part documented and drawn in the system," Wall says—this, just days after a tiny, vendor-supplied doohickey, called a retaining ring, failed in Jeff Gordon's engine during a race at the Michigan International Speedway. Gordon had to drop out of the competition. Wall's argument remains that successful teams must know how to find—or build— a replacement in a hurry.

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: Going Mobile">

Going Mobile

Down a hill from Hendrick's engine building is the chassis-engineering shop, a warehouse-sized space where the race cars take shape. As with NASCAR engines, the body has to be made from a handful of stock parts and a lot of custom-built pieces designed on-site. Engineers at the chassis and engine shops can work concurrently via the Teamcenter software that makes CAD modeling and other systems available.

Around the perimeter of the complex are the individual team shops for Johnson, Gordon, et al. By the time a car reaches these particular team shops, the focus shifts to preparing the vehicle to meet the wants and needs of its driver, and for weekly variables such as race length and track conditions. Mechanics there install the wiring and other critical systems, using online access to the parts database.

One day in June, at the garage of Terry Labonte's No. 5 Kellogg's car, a mechanic showed Wall a part of the brake line that had vibrated loose during the Coca-Cola 600, knocking Labonte out of the race. Wall and the mechanic talked about possible fixes for the vibration problem—a face-to-face conversation that would later be translated to the design screen, and ultimately into a new part.

At the race track, Hendrick teams use Panasonic Toughbook laptop computers and a wireless LAN and satellite links to communicate with the computers at headquarters. As Hendrick's rival teams have made laptops and wireless networks standard equipment, rather than the exception, on the left-turn circuit, Wall hopes to have handhelds in use soon that also will allow his team to access information from the main library, back in Charlotte. Brian Vickers, the youngest driver on the Hendrick roster, has shown a lot of interest in understanding test data, so the IT team recently purchased him a laptop, too.

Curiously, while NASCAR racing teams have embraced IT, NASCAR itself has not. While the family-owned, Daytona Beach, Fla.-based organization has undertaken projects such as the installation of radio-frequency modems to archive information from the pit areas of racetracks, and while NASCAR is considering enhancements to its own wireless communications system between the tracks and headquarters, the sport's sanctioning body declined to comment in detail on its tech policies for this article.

"They do as much as they can to repress technology, in part to control costs, and in part because they don't want technology to be the centerpiece," Wall says. "They want the focus on people, on teamwork, so it's a human competition and not a technology competition." But when technology can reinforce its message, as with a slick Web site, NASCAR is willing to make the investment.

The competition, though, is definitely in the hunt. Joe Gibbs Racing, for example, the successful team owned by the once-and-future coach of the Washington Redskins, now uses the same UGS product lifecycle management software that Wall uses to accelerate the redesign of parts such as that simple pickup frame. "Product data is intellectual property, and what you know about your product, and how you manage that information, will help determine your success," Wall says.

As a pair of disembodied engines rev and whine their way through dynamometer testing in the next room, Wall secures one of the old pickup frames in a vise and whacks it a couple of times with an orange-handled hammer. It fractures. He shrugs. "Failure is product information, too," he says.