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Innovative plan spurs NASCAR to invest in R&D

NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- A revised rule book that teams can reference in a real-time, electronic format. An officiating corps standardized across all three national series. Streamlined inspection and parts-approval processes. Penalties spelled out based on the infraction. Pit road or in-race data that can be consumed by fans following on their tablets or smartphones.

Welcome to NASCAR, year 2015.

The 2015 Daytona 500 will mark a landmark shift for the now 65-year-old series, which is reinventing its competition department in an effort to add more technology to the sport. NASCAR officials on Monday announced a series of sweeping changes that will be implemented over the next year and half, with the aim of having all of them in place by the season opener in 2015. The goals are to make NASCAR more proactive in areas such as rules enforcement, more transparent to its fans and competitors, and more relatable to participants such as race teams and manufacturers.

"In general if you look at it, it's a little bit of a culture shift in how we've done business," Steve O'Donnell, senior vice president of racing operations, said at the NASCAR Research and Development Center. "? our goal is really to take a lot of the assets available to us, and really reinvest, and put even more money back into our R&D efforts. What that will allow us to do is get ahead of things in a much more advanced way."

The initiative follows an eight-month review of NASCAR's competition department overseen by a five-person steering committee led by NASCAR President Mike Helton, O'Donnell, NASCAR Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton and NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, along with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and former Chevrolet executive Brent Dewar. The plan is for full adoption of 11 key points by the 2015 Daytona 500, although some will be implemented before then.

"We're entering as new time, a new era," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. "It's exciting for all of us."

Many things will change, beginning with the rule book, which eventually will be made available to teams in an electronic form that will not only fall in line with the computer-aided designs (CAD) used in shops, but tighten up gray areas by using more detailed images in the place of text. That job falls to Stefanyshyn, the former General Motors executive who was hired in April as NASCAR's Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, and will take over rule-making from the sport's officiating group.

"The foundational element of this is for us to migrate from a rule book that is largely text-based, to one that is largely math-based," Stefanyshyn said. "? it will be computer-aided designed drawings, or CAD drawings. I think this is absolutely critical. We know ? most manufacturers do have engineering drawings, and most of these are now in a math-based world. We need to migrate to that."

That effort will require a line-by-line review of the rule book -- the Sprint Cup version of which encompasses 192 pages -- before it can be translated into electronic form.

"We'll need to walk to each part of the car," Stefanyshyn said. "We'll need to translate the written text into drawings. We'll also need to be careful with those.  Some of those words have a long history and (have) found their way into the rule book, so we need to make sure the ones that are really relevant and important remain on the drawings. ? it will be a fairly significant undertaking for us to get to the other side. Having said that, once we get to the other side, as we go on, it'll be much easier to work off of that base, so there is a big chunk of work ahead of us."

Part of that process involves scaling penalties in direct proportion to violations, with both clearly listed in the rule book. At the race track, Pemberton said officials across the national divisions eventually will be designated as NASCAR officials, rather than divided by series. There are also potential changes in the sport's qualifying procedure, although Pemberton said what those might be had not yet been decided.

One aim of this reinvention is to promote more fan engagement. O'Donnell envisions an at-track inspection process in which teams are scheduled, so spectators know what times their favorites are rolling through the technical bay. There's the possibility that technology will allow fans to receive more real-time data from either inside the cars or on pit road, all of it available at the touch of a screen.

"Ultimately, we want to put the fan in the driver's seat," O'Donnell said, "seeing that data, seeing what happens in the race."

O'Donnell characterized the movement as a reinvestment in technology directed by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, who during his tenure has made a priority of bringing science to the forefront. The further modernization of NASCAR's competition department will require "a big spend on our part," O'Donnell said, but he believes the benefits will be worth it.

"We want to be a proving ground," he added. "When you look at NASCAR, we feel that no sport is better positioned to really take technology and showcase it in front of some of the toughest conditions that exist in the world."

The modernization effort continues a movement that picked up momentum with the introduction of the Generation-6 car, which debuted in the Sprint Cup Series this year. A more brand-identifiable vehicle, it tightened the bond between passenger cars and their brethren on the race track. As part of this new initiative, NASCAR hopes to strengthen those ties over successive generations, and bring the vehicles closer together, both inside and out.

"We rolled out the Gen-6 car, which obviously mirrors the body of that car. As we go forward, ? the new Chevrolet car that gets rolled out three, four years from now, that technology that's in the car," O'Donnell said, "NASCAR (will have) delivered on some of those technologies in partnership with GM. ? It looks not only like the car on the outside, but on the inside as well."

It's all a sweeping initiative, and dialogue continues between NASCAR, teams and tracks on the details of the plan. O'Donnell said the effort is a "long-term play" that has received positive early reviews from competitors.

"It's very similar to the way (the teams) operate -- they have their team that goes to the race, while there's a ton of work going on for the race six months out, and preparing cars and getting ready," he said. "Those engineers who are working in advance now should be a direct link to our R&D Center. We've got to open those lines of communication. ? the Gen-6 was a really good start to that, and we've got to expand upon the success of that ? and really, for lack of a better term, formalize that process in everything we do."

And that process seems unlikely to change, even once the target date of the 2015 Daytona 500 finally arrives. This more technologically-minded way of thinking could alter even deep-seated traditions like the ban on telemetry inside cars during event weekends. Pemberton admitted opening things up in that area, which in turn could lead to more real-time data for spectators watching at home or in the grandstands.

"We are looking at that," he said, "and we feel like that's the direction we need to head into sooner than later in order to give a good experience for the fans."

Even the revered V-8 engine may be reconsidered one day as NASCAR moves to stay more in line with technologies coming down the assembly line. As it did with the introduction of electronic fuel injection in the Sprint Cup Series, the sport is trying to become more nimble, more responsive, and more relevant to the next generation of fans.

"? our objective is to have a plan that spans many years from short? to long?term, and develop technologies that ? are going to be relevant to our fans," Stefanyshyn said. "? the car on the track needs to have some commonality with the cars people drive. We need to move in a direction that the rest of the world is moving. To that extent, if we don't, we essentially will disenfranchise ourselves with our next generation of fans. So yes, we need to migrate in that direction. The speed at which we move will be important."

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FOUR KEY AREAS

Governance
?
Move rule-making from Officiating to R&D / Innovation
?
Enhance effectiveness of appeals process by redefining process and appeals board member criteria

Rules
?
Simplify rule book and increase objectivity by replacing written rules with CAD designs
? Enhance parts approval by formalizing submission and approval process
? Increase consistency of rule interpretation across National Series

Penalty/Deterrence
?
Strengthen deterrence model to reduce inspection required to ensure competitive racing

Officiating / Inspection
? Increase use of technology on pit road
? Maintain rigor of inspection while creating greater efficiency in the entire process
?
Improve efficiency of process by creating race team inspection scheduling system
?
Enhance effectiveness of inspection through data collection and trend analysis
? Create unified inspecting and officiating model across National Series

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