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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.

This article was originally published on 08-01-2004
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