Transcript: Robin Pemberton and John Darby at NASCAR Thunder Test Session

KERRY THARP: Good afternoon, everyone, and appreciate everybody’s attendance here. Great turnout at the media center here at the world center of racing. We knew that you folks would be interested in talking to Robin Pemberton and John Darby here today, first day of the test here at Daytona International Speedway, and certainly a great way to talk about, again, the excitement that builds for 2012 Speed Weeks here at Daytona. We’ll be back here in probably just a little over a month.

But at this time I’m going to ask Robin to maybe just talk a little bit about the test in general, purpose of the test, Robin, and maybe a thing or two that has been gleaned from today’s first morning and afternoon session and then I’ll ask John to maybe add on to that.

ROBIN PEMBERTON: It’s really certainly good to be back here at Daytona. I mean, everybody has been working hard in the off-season, I think on both sides of the fence, teams and our group alike. As everybody knows, for the last six months or so, probably close to a year, probably six to eight months, we’ve been looking at different options and different things as it pertains to the two-car draft, and we’ve been burning the midnight oil and working on some things. You know, this is an important test for us down here, not only for the teams but for us, also. We’ve had a lot of time in the wind tunnels. We’ve had two track tests that everybody knows about, at Daytona and Talladega last fall, and we think we’re making some great strides.

The test is going pretty good for us right now, if you notice the speeds and the drafting, but today being just a day that it’s mostly single cars or some two-car drafting going on. So other than learning about your equipment and the limits that the teams will be under as far as water temperatures and things like that, it’s them learning about all of the mechanicals. You saw springs, a little spoiler, quite a reduction in downforce, temperatures that change and change rapidly due to the cooling system changes.

But so far, I think we’ve had a good test. We’ve got almost an hour left today, and things are going well. We’re pleased with the progress that we’ve made so far. With that, John, do you have anything you want to add?

JOHN DARBY: Yeah, when you look at the restrictor plate racing over the last few years even, typically we’re not real anxious to make a lot of changes prior to the Daytona 500. What changing we do we’ll try to focus maybe into Talladega in the fall or maybe even Daytona in July, just so that the teams are more accustomed to and have tried and true things to come to Daytona with.

We chose a whole different path coming down to the 2012 Daytona 500, and probably the biggest and most notable of those changes, and the one that we’re the most excited about, is we’re coming to the close of a two-year project, and that’s completely redesigning and changing over the fuel delivery systems in the cars. This year, and everybody should be well aware, that the 2012 Daytona 500 is going to be — everybody will compete with, and there will be a car in victory lane for the first time ever in NASCAR racing with fuel injection on it.

Although that may be getting a little overshadowed by all of the what-ifs and what’s going on as far as the cars and the drafting and everything, that’s still really, really big news for us, and we’re pretty proud how hard the manufacturers, the race teams, our engineers and everybody has worked together to pull a pretty massive project together in a relatively short time.

One of the reasons we’re not hearing a lot about it is because of all of the legwork that’s been done and the testing before we got here. Most of those problems have worked themselves out, and the drivers — other than the drivers starting to feel the difference and understanding the operational difference of fuel injection, it’s been pretty seamless. But that’s probably the biggest — if I’m focusing my concerns and concentrations on something, it’s making sure that that conversion now goes into competition smoothly.

The folks from McLaren have been really active with the teams all day today in fine-tuning some of the fuel maps and ignition maps and so on and so forth. The amount of problems we’re seeing from test to test are almost diminished.

The one thing that we can feel comfortable about is we can line 43 cars up on that Sunday and know that we’re going to be successful in that part, and that’s a really good feeling.

The other part that we were talking about is we’ve made a very large number of changes to the race cars through grille openings and bumpers and radiators and radiator surge tanks and overflow tanks and pressure valves and spoilers and everything else. It was for a number of reasons. One of those was to put some excitement back into qualifying. If you look at the first day of the test where most of the teams took their opportunities to shake the cars down and understand what the sum of all of these changes was going to be, I am pretty encouraged and pretty happy about the fact that I think you might be able to pencil in about a 195-mile-an-hour pole lap we’re going to get down here for the Daytona 500 when everything is real and it all counts.

That’s exciting in itself because one of the places we did struggle with some of the old packages was that the pole speed was just — it just seemed way off. Qualifying day on Sunday for the front row of the Daytona 500 is going to be — it’s going to have a lot of excitement back in it because the speeds will be back up where they belong. That’s most of what drove us to put the small spoilers back on the car because that’s what helped that situation the most, okay.

The rest of what we’ve been dialing in on and really working hard on is the cooling systems, and it’s not there to give anybody a written guarantee that there won’t be a two-car push because there will. There’s speed there. Once a driver learns that, they’re not going to forget about it. But our objective is to more control the duration of that push, which we’ve already seen is becoming a little more effective.

We’ll watch what happens tomorrow when we get more cars into a drafting mode and how that plays out and what style of drafting the drivers choose to try when they’re on the racetrack, probably make a couple of tweaks before we get into tomorrow and see how it all goes as we go forward through the test.

Q. Could you go through the evolution of the radio policy and what it is at this test versus what will be during Speed Weeks?

JOHN DARBY: Testing is testing, and testing is probably a time where there’s more communications going on amongst teams and the drivers and everything than what we normally see in competition. Where we were was we’ve had a number of drivers kind of weigh into us anonymously that the last few plate races with the ability to carry as many as 20, 30 channels on their radios that there was a point where it got so confusing to them that they actually lost focus on what they were doing and felt much better if we could back that off somewhat and get it to a standard or more common communications between driver and spotter and driver and pit crew as we’ve known it in the past.

Matt Kenseth said it the best to me in the garage. He said, anything that NASCAR can do to help us get back to 1 against 42 others, he supports, and I think that’s part of it, whether it be the confusion from the driver’s seat or the being able to cut a deal or whatever it is. The teams will still work with inside the rule, whether it’s spotters on the roof, swapping notes back and forth. There will be plenty of communications going on and the drivers will be just as — almost as aware as they were, I guess. But it just seemed like that would be helpful to unclutter the airwaves a little bit if you would and make the communications more point blank and direct to within the team.

Q. Robin, are you going to ask the teams to get out there in a big pack tomorrow, because it seems to me that’s really the only way that you’re going to tell if it package is going to work is if you’ve got 30 cars out there.

ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, we’ll — it’s normal at the end of the first day. We’ll gather our information, and we’ve talked to a few already, and they know it’s in the best interest of everyone to get out there in larger groups, so the message will be coming down to them soon. So that’s why we have a three-day test. Generally the first day always kind of goes like this.

Q. John, following up on the radio communication, the band extends to all races, all tracks, not just Daytona and Talladega; is that right?

JOHN DARBY: All tracks, in the rule book.

Q. Why would you do that, because obviously it’s most prevalent at Daytona and Talladega and sometimes teams like to have their teammates communicate with each other at various and sundry other tracks like a short track or mile and a half track?

JOHN DARBY: If you work that backwards, typically there’s four times a year, or last year there was four races where we saw driver-to-driver communications. I would disagree with the fact that they do that weekly because they don’t.

The teams will still have the ability to talk amongst themselves. If Chad Knaus wants to talk to Steve Letarte or Alan Gustafson, they’ll have the ability to do that. The only thing the new rule controls is the actual car-to-car communication, which for the most part doesn’t happen. It’s not like we’re taking away a tool that’s commonly in use. It basically affects four races, so by putting the rule in play, it’ll just make these four more like the other 34 that we run, 33.

Q. They already hit 202 miles per hour today. Is that too fast? Do you anticipate possibly making any changes throughout the test this weekend?

ROBIN PEMBERTON: I’ll let John elaborate, but I feel we’re not going to get backed into a corner. Today is just the first day of a test, and I would venture a guess that there will be changes around the corner in one form or fashion.

The 202-mile-an-hour lap, we knew that was a pretty good lap. It’s something similar that you see at any of these places where you have two cars that are not just pushing but catching other cars. You know, we saw that, too, and we watched it as it happened, and right now we’re not concerned with anything.

Q. Can you just explain for all of us why it’s so important to get rid of the two-car tandem drafting?

JOHN DARBY: I don’t know where you put the importance. We’re here to put on good racing for our fans that come and watch us. The majority of the fans have been pretty vocal about the fact that they prefer the old-school style of drafting. I think the goal is actually to create a nice blend of the two. There’s a tool there now that the drivers have learned that they’ll never unlearn it, and it’s not one that’s new; it’s been there for a long time. But as conditions have come together, they’ve now been able to optimize that, okay.

So if it’s a tool in everybody’s pocket that makes the last couple laps of the race more exciting than what we’ve seen in the past, that’s okay. They’re going to do that. We can’t stop the competitors from trying to win a race, nor do we want to. You know, it’s probably just putting a bigger piece of the race back to normal if you want to call it normal or old-school style drafting and help the end of the race become as exciting as we can make it.

Q. Matt Kenseth and Dale, Jr., both mentioned earlier today that they thought that the kind of goal of the rule changes was to make the cars more difficult to handle, thus making them not — encourage them not to stay together or more difficult to stay together for a longer period of time. Is that a fair assessment of what you consider the direction towards two-car drafting, and as a follow-up, there was a time when you did just outlaw or had no bump drafting zones. Why is tinkering it this way preferable to just saying don’t do it?

ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, Clint Bowyer thinks that they’re a little bit harder to drive. We watched that.

You know, we’ve tried different approaches over the years to try to get the best product that we can on the racetrack, and we learned from things that we say and do and from others say and do. I think as a group we feel like it’s best to let drivers drive and leave it in their hands to do the best that they can, and telling them to not do something is probably not the correct way to go nowadays.

Q. Is there a perfect scenario that would make you guys say, if we get here with this tandem drafting this will be success? You’re not going to get everything you want. You said you’re not sure there won’t still be some of it. Where is the scenario where you think, that’s how it should be in the Daytona 500?

ROBIN PEMBERTON: You know, it’s a difficult question because really you’re trying to answer something that’s for the masses to answer, right. When you’re putting on a show, you’re playing a sport, you’re doing all these things, we’re all in — trying to entertain fans, millions of them, you know, around the world. You could come out of the tower — I’ve said this for years: You can come out of the tower thinking, man, we just had the most craziest, greatest, stand-up-all-night-long race, and you’ll get down there and somebody will have a completely different opinion than you did.

We’ll know when we feel like we’re going to slow down the two-car push. We feel good about that. And I think that everybody will. I think that small doses of the two-car push are okay. It’s a tool. You know, it’s like anything we do. When the competitors learn something, they’ll use it when they can to their advantage, and they’re supposed to do that.

What we have to do, and we’re here to regulate the sport so everybody has the same opportunity to do that, and we’re here to regulate, hopefully naturally, how long you can have that push, you know, what’s too long. I don’t know, five laps may not be too long. Five laps may be way too long. We don’t know that. But what we do know is tomorrow when we have more cars out there, and John encourages them all to run and they’re drafting in groups, we’ll have more answers then. But right now we’re at a happy place. We’ve made some good strides and some of the things that are coming back to us we’re pretty pleased about.

Q. There’s been some talk that not all the parts and pieces are in abundance for the ECU. I’m just — what I’ve heard, it sounds like a lot of the people at the top of the chairs will be taking care of it. It might be problematic for guys further down the food chain. Another question is I heard it kicked around that there might be changes to the purses as far as how the money is distributed.

JOHN DARBY: I’m a car template and fuel injection kind of guy, so I won’t even go near the purses, but I don’t know if any of that is real. It’s real easy to talk about the fuel injection, though, and there is an ample amount of parts and components and pieces for everybody that needs them. Obviously if you order everything today, you’re not going to have it tomorrow, so there’s probably a little bit of that person, a couple of folks that may have been a little late to the dance, and it’s not that the parts aren’t available, but it’s just — it takes a little more to put this package together.

I think there were probably a few teams that were late enough in trying to assemble everything for this test that — it’s not that they’re not available to them, they’re just not completely ready to compete with it yet. So the good thing is everybody has got another month to finish those projects and get up and running. But I think overall the individual components are not at issue at all. It’s completing the systems as it relates to your own race cars that may be a little bit behind with a few of the teams.

ROBIN PEMBERTON: As far as the purses go, I think you could ask that question about anything in our day-to-day business. You know, we look at a lot of things in the off-season and through the years and prepare for the following year. There’s not an — I don’t have an answer for if there’s a purse structure change or not, but I can tell you you can probably put it in a category that there’s been a group in our company that has looked at that and probably looked at it like they do every year. So there might be some questions that were asked and answers given, exchanges with competitors and some of our business folks.

But as far as an answer for that, I don’t have it. But I do know that there’s things that we talk about all the time, and that’s probably one of them.

Q. What are your options? Obviously I know you can change everything if you want to, but is there anything in particular that would be kind of the easiest option if you wanted to either break them up more or slow them down? And also, are all these changes really short-term in the sense of does anything relate to what the car will do next year with the new bodies?

JOHN DARBY: If it was as easy as you referred to, we probably already would have accomplished that. But it’s such a large combination of things that come together to allow the drivers to take advantage of what is available to them that you kind of do — at the end of the day, everybody has still got to be able to finish the race. So yes, you’re right, there’s things we could do that would prevent immediately some of the styles of drafting that we see, but at the same time you’ve got to remember we’re here to put on very exciting races and more specifically the Daytona 500 is to be one to remember. It is a slower approach to get just what you need and make sure that you haven’t gone too far is what we do. You know, you don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem.

Q. The fuel injection, John, how are you going to police that? We had a driver sort of come in here and say, some teams will get this faster, they’ll understand it better during the first part of the year. So is there any way to police this, and can you talk about the control unit and what’s in there? Is it all sealed? Can teams get in there and do stuff with it?

JOHN DARBY: Let’s see. Let me go back to where you started. Yes, it’s true, some teams are going to get it a lot sooner than other ones do. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing anything illegal or something that we have to police because of it. Any time we release something new, there’s teams that come, that rise back to the top quicker than others.

The fortunate part is that the project has been undergone for, like I said, coming to the close of two years. Most of the organizations have already had a lot of that catch-up time.

Now, the system itself is very secure. Any electronics, I guess, is always subject to the ability of a nine year old kid that’s pushing the right keys and being able to hack into our national security system, I suppose, then I would be very naïve to say that nobody could ever break the codes that surround our ECUs and the important parts of the software that drives it. But we have spent a great deal of time working with McLaren and their organization to install enough firewalls and security measures that the chances of it are diminished to a point where we feel comfortable putting it into competition.

We have the ability to lock systems in and out to prevent the teams’ even entrance into parts of the ECU that would be an advantage to them to play with. And the other part of it is the system is liberal enough that there’s enough adjustment, there’s enough new bells and whistles and technology and toys for everybody to play with that hopefully they won’t feel the need to go that way.

Q. NASCAR has made say in the last decade all kinds of changes. What do you think are the most significant changes in your tenure that have had the most impact?

ROBIN PEMBERTON: I think safer barriers has probably been the biggest thing. I think you always put safety in front of everything. You know, it’s something that we, along with probably all forms of motorsports, it’s the thing that you never quit working on. There’s other projects you work on that you get done with and you may not address it for six months or a year or six years, but I think safety is one of the most important things, and I think that safer barriers to me has probably been the biggest thing, and then off of that has been the car safety and understanding with the proper people about biomechanics and securing the drivers and things like that. I think that’s something that we’re proud of, and I know that we’ve worked with other motorsports groups on safety issues, and to me that’s probably been the big one.

JOHN DARBY: I would echo Robin’s part. The accelerated advances in all of our safety programs is probably the biggest single issue from — if we go back early on into the early 2000s where the restraint systems were improved, seats have been improved, the introduction of the new race car, the safer barriers and all of that, and knowing that’s a perpetual program that’ll never stop. But we did make a lot of huge gains in a short period of time when you think about the duration of the sport and everything that it’s been through from competitive sides.

You can also go back to the early 2000s when the single engine rule came into play. The evolution of the NASCAR racing engine to a tighter parametered box that was supported by all of the manufacturers that allows them to compete on more of an even level was still a very good confidence in the reliability of the engines. Now the transition into the fuel injected age. Those type of technological advances are more and more to come and probably much quicker than we’ve seen over the past 50 years.

You know, there’s technology that’s available to us, as it is the race teams, as well, that will only enhance NASCAR racing and make it more exciting than even what it is today for the fans as the competitors use those tools and our fans become more in touch with what’s actually going on on the racetrack.

I think the part I feel the best about is we don’t make changes just to make changes. All of the changes we make are to put a better product and a better sport out in front of our fans, and not only for today’s fans but for the next decade of fans and the next decade of fans. If we continue down that path and are successful doing that, when I’m no longer here, I want the new guy to enjoy everything that I have over the last 25 years, and his kids and my grandkids and everybody else. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s just to keep the sport healthy and exciting as we can.

ROBIN PEMBERTON: And I also think that where we’ve started about three or four years ago with more of our product developments, approach to things got us working hard on the fuel injection. I think you saw the efforts that we’ve put into the Nationwide car and the look of that car, and moving forward I think that the way — our approach to cars and race cars, I think people like the road, the path that we’ve taken. I know over the next period of time there will be some new vehicles out there for you guys to look at, race vehicles, and I think we’re — to look forward, I think that’s something that we’ll all look forward to, and it’s about us and our product development. It really is something that’s been going on behind the scenes but everybody has been working hard on it, along with their day job.

Q. I have a two-part EFI question. The first one: Will NASCAR regulate mapping? The simple way I’m looking at it, will mapping options be regulated like your issues now?

JOHN DARBY: They’re regulated — probably the easiest way to explain it, the size of the maps are regulated, okay. We’re currently using a — it’s a 25 by 15 map. If you go 25 spots this way and you put dots and you go 15 spots this way and you put dots, those are all the different control points that the teams have over a selected RPM range, and that happens every place they go. It’ll shift and move a little bit. But that’s where the teams actually achieve more adjustability and more fine-tuneability than what they’ve had in the past. That’s the limits of the map.

The other thing that we will do, even to go back to the earlier question about policing is we’ll share everybody’s maps at the conclusion of a race to help everybody accelerate their programs and just to employ our competitors as some of our watchdogs because at the end of the day they’re all going to be pretty close, and if we’ve got eyes looking at what those tunes were and can pick out an area that doesn’t look right, then it gives us an easier path to go back and more closely scrutinize what’s going on inside.

Q. And the second part, now that we’re on the verge of beginning to race with this system, has the expense of implementing EFI been about where NASCAR felt it would be, and do the teams have pretty much a comfort level of where they are with it?

JOHN DARBY: I think so. I don’t think we’ve exceeded any estimates, and that’s a good thing. You know, when we released the new car, there was a buy-in cost, and it takes a few years of amortization to make that all make sense.

The fuel injection system is the same way. There’s a buy-in cost because you have to take usable components off of the car and set them on the shelf because they’re no longer usable. But that’ll be offset pretty quickly, and what it’ll give us the ability to do moving into the future will help even further offset those costs.

Q. This is kind of probably not that relevant, but if Tony and Danica switch points, say the 10 gets Tony’s points from last year and then he uses the provisional points to get in if he needs it, would Danica be P-1 in the Cup garage for the 500? Would the 10 hauler be parked in the champion’s position?

JOHN DARBY: No, because that stays with the champion. The champion earns that. That’s not about points, that’s about being the Sprint Cup Series champion. The 14 truck is going to be the first one in line every time we park it, and it will be in garage stall 1 for this year.

KERRY THARP: Robin and John, great job. I think you covered a variety of topics. You did a good job of summarizing a lot of things that have gone on this first day, and we’ll see you two back here tomorrow I believe at 12:45 along with NASCAR president Mike Helton who will be in here, as well. Gentlemen, thank you very much, and good afternoon.