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NASCAR Scrapping Steel Friday In Richmond

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 8 2017

Composite flange fit bodies will be on the track for Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

RICHMOND, Va. – For nearly seven decades, steel-body race cars and NASCAR have been synonymous, but at Richmond International Raceway on Friday the sanctioning body ushered in a new era that will eventually make sheet metal obsolete in at least one of its three national touring series.

In Friday’s Virginia529 College Savings 250, 30 NASCAR Xfinity Series teams will use a composite car body for the first time. Much lighter and less costly than those constructed from sheet metal, the flange fit composite bodies are manufactured by Twin Lakes, Wis.-based Five Star Race Car Bodies and easily assembled.

“Our whole goal with this thing was to try to help the owners with labor expenses,” said Wayne Auton, NASCAR’s Xfinity Series managing director.

“One thing that’s hard to control and help the owners with in our business is the rising cost of labor. We feel like this is a definite way (to do it). You may not need specialized body people like you did before. We don’t want to see anybody lose their job, but we’ve got to take care of the owners. Everything about this car was about cost savings to the owners. We’re going from 14 days to build a race car to 2 ½.”

In addition to Richmond, the Xfinity teams will have the choice of racing steel body or composite cars Sept. 30 at Dover and Nov. 11 at Phoenix. Auton said the races in which the composite cars would be used were selected by the teams.

In 2018, only cars with a steel body will be used at Daytona during Speedweeks. However, the rest of the season teams may use either a steel-body car or a flange fit car. Only the flange fit car will be used in the Xfinity Series in 2019.

In preparation for the composite car’s introduction, Auton said NASCAR provided a body to every organization in May so they could start working with it. In July, every car number received a body.  

While the teams have a choice as to which car to use through next year, those racing one constructed of sheet metal face a handicap.

“If you run a steel-body car, there is a 150-pound weight difference between the two cars,” Auton said. “We’ll add 60 pounds to the steel body and we’ll take 90 pounds off the flange fit car. A lot of that is the body itself being so much lighter than a steel-body car. On a steel-body car, you don’t get to run the aero pan underneath. We want to make sure the flange fit car is the body of choice.”

At Richmond, Auton expected some drivers to complain about the car’s handling because more downforce had been removed.

“It’s not a lot, but we wanted to make sure the balance stayed the same in the car,” Auton said. “You have a different weight in the car, a different left-side, right-side weight and that’s going to change the handling of it. It’s a work in progress. Hopefully, by the time we come out of Phoenix we have all of the bugs worked out of this thing.”  

Transitioning to the composite car was something NASCAR had worked on since Gene Stefanyshyn joined the sanctioning body in May 2013 as its senior vice president of innovation and racing development. It was then that Auton told him they needed to look at a way to reduce the cost of bodies and engines in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series.  

“The body parts themselves are about the same price as a steel body, but the cost savings is going to be the labor,” Auton said.

The car has 13 different pieces with mounting tabs laminated into the greenhouse. The tether system is built into the hood and the body panels are flame retardant. A roof hatch has been installed and will be used everywhere, not just Daytona and Talladega.  

“You can replace a fender, you can replace a door, you can replace a quarter-panel in a matter of minutes,” Auton said. “You can get into the wall and have a brand-new race car ready to go qualify instead of spending six to eight hours in the garage just trying to get it fixed to get through inspection so you can go race.”

The Xfinity Series isn’t NASCAR’s first experience with a composite car. Its K&N Pro Series currently uses composite cars built by Five Star. For those Ford and Toyota bodies, the complete package is $7,920 while it’s $8,093 for a Chevrolet.  Auton put the labor cost at $26,000 to hang a steel body on a race car. He cited the total cost for the composite Xfinity car a little above $13,000.

Initially, the conversion will be costly for the teams, but Auton said it will be a cost-saving one in the long run. Still, converting to a composite car is difficult for a low-budget team that relies on used equipment. Road America winner Jeremy Clements’ team is one of those. The car he drove to victory on the 4.048-mile road course was constructed in 2008 by Richard Childress Racing. He used one built in 2013 at Darlington last weekend.

“We have to do this stuff to stretch our dollar,” Clements said. “It’s not something I want to do. It’s not something my team wants to do, but to be here and stay here, we have to do it. Everything we buy is used – used parts, used cars. That’s just how we can get by.

“We’re getting ready for the composite body because it cost a lot of money to change those over.”

Xfinity Series point leader Elliott Sadler said his crew seemed “to like the way they (the cars) go together.”

“I am interested in seeing how they race each other and affect each other in a pack,” Sadler said. “I feel like we are going to Indy again where there are a lot of unknowns on how these cars are going to race. Not by themselves, but contact and rubbing, some of the things we put our cars through in the course of a race. There’s not supposed to be much difference in the bodies from what we have now.”

Unlike the steel-body cars, however, the body parts on the composite car cannot be manipulated through fabrication.

“We have interlocking pieces so the teams can’t manipulate whether the body is in or out where the flanges fit,” Auton said. “The flanges have to show. You cannot put bondo on this race car. You can paint it or wrap it, but all of the seams have to show. It’s also defined where the templates have to sit on the race car. Only the A pillar on the driver and passenger sides can be painted. The car’s interior can’t be painted.”

Auton also noted with the flange fit car, NASCAR officials inspect the car’s parts, not the complete car.  

“You’re inspecting a door, a quarter panel, a front fender, a tail,” Auton explained. “There are five points on this car that every team has the numbers to, to be able to make on their chassis. You just take the greenhouse, which is the whole top half of the car, you pick it up and you set it on the car; you’re done. Right now it takes you four days just to put a greenhouse on a car.”

The templates for the composite car are identical to those used on a steel-body car, Auton said. Each car also is equipped with an ID chip, thus allowing NASCAR to track it and know its history.

Steve Desouza, the head of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity and development programs, admitted they were “learning as we go” with the composite car.

“NASCAR has done a pretty good job with the car as far as developing it so you can put it together and come out of the shop with it ready to go,” Desouza said. “It looks like it’s going to be similar to what we have now aero-wise, so I don’t think that will be a huge detriment. They (NASCAR) have been very straightforward in what they’re looking for in the car.”

Auton noted he had been in the racing business for more than 30 years and described the move to the flange fit car as “probably the most rewarding one project that I’ve ever got to be a part of because everybody in the garage bought into it.”

“The reason is you buy a car in a box, you put it together and you go race,” Auton said.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 8 2017
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