Ben Collins Stig > Writing > Taming a Raging Bull – Autosport


Taming a Raging Bull – Autosport

NASCAR is America’s wildest motorsport series. BEN COLLINS got to try-out Red Bull’s Toyota Camry ‘Car of Tomorrow’ – boy, did he love it…

Most of the cliches you’ve heard about NASCAR racing might be true, but nothing can prepare you for actually driving one of its 800bhp stockers on a short oval for the first time. Our ‘ride’ for the day was a Red Bull Racing USA Toyota Camry, built to the Car of Tomorrow specification now mandatory in the series’ top-level Sprint Cup. And it wasn’t just any chassis – it had race pedigree in AJ Allmendinger’s hands at Richmond. It was abundantly clear that crashing this car would be nothing short of catastrophic, so we kept the engine on our rental car running just in case…

Red Bull’s team is the youngest two-car operation in the Sprint Cup paddock, and is unique as the only outfit that’s owned by its sponsor. It entered the sport just 18 months ago and has since been fighting to earn every starting spot: as a start-up operation, it has to fight its way into the all-important top 35 owners’ points, the only way to guarantee race starts. Often it’s had to face the pain of going home when pre-qualified teams, who ran far slower, metaphorically push their cars off the grid. What a soul-destroying experience that must be.

In spite of the fact we spoke in ‘foreign accents’, the crew were surprisingly open and, fortunately for me, very trusting. From a NASCAR team’s perspective, my racing CV gave me as much credibility to drive its car as the Honey Monster. Trying to reassure them that I had a stock car title to my name only fanned the flames of mockery as they took turns pronouncing ASCAR as ‘Ass Car’. Cheers guys!

Our test venue is Lakeland’s grandly named ‘US International Speedway’ – somewhere to the left of the middle of nowhere in Florida. The track’s length of seven-eighths of a mile and warm temperatures make it an ideal testing facility. The good news for us was that the early-morning fog soon lifted, giving way to a warm day with no threat of rain. Imagine my pain if it had been rained off and I’d had to go home!

The teams test on Hoosier tyres instead of race-spec Goodyears to comply with (or get around, depending on which way you look at it) championship regulations. Conversely, it’s the only time they are permitted to operate data telemetry, which is banned during race weekends! For a driver with a European background, this is a step back in time, and must be a totally alien experience for the spy-in-the-cab generation of today. Here, on weekdays throughout the year, is where the team develops its suspension geometry, damper and brake technology, as well as experiments with the nuances of the chassis. Along with our Camry, there are two more new-for-2008 cars being put through their paces, both running in classic NASCAR testing primer. There’s something primeval about seeing a racing car running without its war paint, a sight that somehow makes the whole testing process seem more earnest.

Of these two cars, one is focused on brake development, one on engine and, to quote a team member, “other stuff”. Adjacent to the truck, there’s a hub of laptops and monitors that wouldn’t look out of place in Mission Control (ironically, Cape Canaveral is just a few miles down the Interstate). This is a serious set-up, so strike ‘NASCAR is a low-tech series staffed by hicks’ from your cliche list.

It’s strange to think you don’t see this at a race weekend, and development is achieved the old fashioned way, conducted in words between a driver and his crew chief. The only technology in the garage at competition time, beyond the timing screens and TV monitors, is one ‘notepad’ laptop that gets ferried between driver and engineer. He writes his thoughts with an electronic pen about what he’s feeling, the crew chief reads what he’s scribbled and then busies himself in the details with the mechanics.

On our arrival at Lakeland Speedway we were told to “look for Randy Cox” (the name of the crew chief, if you were wondering, but you can insert your own joke here if you like). Randy fitted a radio kit in my helmet in case he needed to rein me in – personally I would have installed a Taser gun, in case I got too excited – and with so many safety restraints and padding you quite literally wedge yourself into the seating position. “Y’all set?” asks Randy. “Okay, let’s go.”

Without stalling, I pull away down pit road like a thief under Randy’s watchful gaze: “Well, you made the hardest part,” he quips over the radio. “We’ll see!” I reply, as I drive onto the banking and realise just how tight the line is from the apex to the wall. Soon I’m up to fourth gear, and despite the heavy decelerations for the corners there’s no need to downshift; the car has such unbelievable torque.

I feel I should point out at this juncture that on a superspeedway a stock car can spin even if you just lift off the throttle. This car, set-up for a short oval, was totally stable and I could stamp on the brake pedal deep into the corners, while turning in ridiculously early to maintain the speed on a low line. At 3400lb, I expected the car to really wallow in the corners, but it didn’t. The car was set up to ‘run tight’ (understeer in Euro-speak) so it had to be driven hard on the brakes towards an early apex, releasing the brake to let it run until the front could bite, before committing to the power.

At that beautiful moment, you unleash the fury of the 5.8-litre motor and the car simply fires out of the corner. The in-line traction from the tyres was hugely impressive, and the overall feel of the car as it jolted along the bumpy short straights was just awesome.

I tried using the power to drive through the mid-corner ‘push’, which sent the rear end fully sideways down the pit straight on one occasion. This was shortly followed by a sharp “Pit this lap, Ben!” instruction on the radio. I duly do so, expecting Randy to post a fist through my helmet for my unintentional show of bravado. Just in case, I kept the visor shut! Fortunately, he wasn’t in the slightest bothered at all; it turned out I had just completed the first 10-lap run. Doesn’t time fly… On short tracks like this, NASCARs run on the springs in the straights, rolling onto bump rubbers in the corners to load the front-right tyre and hook the car into the corner. As you commit on corner entry, the car becomes neutral, the steering is nearly straight as the rear glides into the turn. For a fast lap the car has to stay low, close to the inside yellow line that separates banked racetrack from flat apron, but the real key to optimum pace is to pick up an early throttle.

The view through the cockpit is different from any kind of racing car, with the steering wheel taking up most of the driver’s vision. I could also hear the engine barking as the car spun its wheels over the bumps on the straight, which all added to the sensation of this car’s raw, brute power. Heading into turn one, the car pitches into the banking, which sucks you into your seat.

Hunting for the throttle, I searched for a straight kink in the apex, which points the car in a direct line to the exit. Miss it and the car goes off camber and into the wall. The run to turn two is slightly downhill and, oddly enough, you really feel the extra speed. A service road helps as a marker and it feels very, very late on the brakes. Turn two opens up a little easier, and following test driver Tim Fedewa’s advice, I opened the car out towards the large black tyre marks on the retaining wall (without hitting it like some others had clearly done).

My 20-something laps came and went all too quickly; it was so busy compared with driving on the longer oval speedways that I’m used to, with the ever-present concrete wall punishing the slightest deviation from the racing line. Ragging a full-on Cup car around a such a short oval was, without question, the most exciting experience I have enjoyed in a race car, and it left me wanting more: “Where do I sign?” was my first question as I clambered out of the car.

The all-important debrief with Randy took place that evening at ‘Hooters Bar’ (I told you many NASCAR cliches were true!) over a bowl of chicken wings and a beer: “When you first drove outta the pits I was taking bets from the guys on which lap you’d crash,” he chuckles. “But the times you did in that car, with that set-up, it was really impressive.”

It turned out I had matched their test driver’s benchmark time by lap seven. That wasn’t bad given that I had never raced around Lakeland before, so naturally I had expected to go faster on my second run, but – bizarrely – I didn’t. Tyre degradation is such that with each heat cycle the car was losing about a quarter of a second on every run. I tried braking later and working the steering harder, but the car just wouldn’t go any faster. The secret is simply to drive the car within the limits of the tyres – just ask Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder.

Given how critical the line was to the handling of the car, it’s hard to visualise 43 cars even fitting on a halfmile short track, let alone contesting the racing line. Tracks such as Bristol are so short that the race leaders are on the tail of the backmarkers almost as soon as the race starts – they start lapping after just three laps! Track space is so limited that the cars touch, bump and rub their way around the 500 miles. If that prospect scares you, then stay clear of Daytona: it’s the same detail, just 100mph quicker.

The Car of Tomorrow, which was introduced last year, has been developed for over six years in order to raise the bar on safety and create a level playing field for competitive racing. The car’s bodywork produces less aero grip than the old car, while the snazzy new rear wing and front splitter make up the difference with more bias on front-end bite. Safety headed the agenda following the death, in the 2001 Daytona 500, of the great Dale Earnhardt, who, to quote Dale’s former crew chief, Larry McReynolds, was “The Elvis Presley of NASCAR”. I kid you not: when we rocked up at a Daytona ARCA test a day later, and drove through the infield towards the turn-four tunnel past the spot where Dale died, there was a fan stood dressed in ‘Goodwrench’ black, head bowed in silent prayer.

The new era also heralds SAFER walls, which reduce up to 50 per cent of g-force on impact, safer driving positions, neck restraints and crumple zones in the cars. The racing, however, is just as intense as it ever was.

To prove this point, NASCAR has tacitly accepted the practice of ‘bump drafting’ whereby the cars physically push one another down the straights to increase their common speed; the new front bumper is positioned specifically to protect the splitter if the cars make contact. New bodywork is flatter on the sides, which means the cars produce less lateral turbulence. The upside of this means the cars should be more stable running side-by-side; the downside is less side-draft for cars to slipstream past one another.

Here’s one cliche I can dispatch as a falsehood: NASCAR is boring, because the cars just go round and round in a pack and turn left for three hours. Not so. Once you’ve attended a race, you instantly engage with the speed and realise the drivers are on the edge of control as the 43 cars run side by side in the nebulous slipstream. You can crash another driver out of the race without even touching his car, just by disturbing the air around it. You don’t get that in Formula 1.

Close up, the cars squirm, bump and scrape their way around the track until, inevitably, someone drops it which, on a superspeedway, leads to what they call ‘the big one’. When that occurs, my advice is to stand as far back as possible.

Learning what it takes to run at the front requires true racing skill and, to put it in 2007 IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti’s words: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done!”

Perhaps Dario’s right, but arguably the hardest part about racing in NASCAR is getting a drive there in the first place. Having sampled the goods I found it nearly unbearable to watch the ARCA series cars testing at Daytona a day later and not be a part of it. I reckon there’s room in this series for an Englishman, as well as a Scotsman. I promise, given the opportunity, I’ll be back because it was that good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Ben Collins Joins GRR as Chief Road Tester!

Posted by: admin · 19.01.16 | 8:37 am

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be joining Goodwood Road & Racing (GRR) as their Chief Road Tester. In this role, I’ll be reviewing the most… [Read]

Paddock Ignition! Event in Marin County, California

Posted by: admin · 14.01.16 | 6:32 pm

I’m delighted to have been invited to the inaugural Paddock Ignition! event, which takes place on 27 February 2016 in Marlin County, California. As the press… [Read]

AlcoDigital Partnership

Posted by: admin · 07.04.15 | 7:30 pm
Ben Collins AlcoDigital Partnership

The Gadget Show Live, now in its seventh year, is an opportunity for brands big and small to showcase consumer electronics new to the market… [Read]

Films & TV


Posted by: admin · 11.11.12 | 8:46 pm

Skyfall: it’s dark and cold. We are working nights somewhere in East London under stark moonlight, which does little to take the edge off. I’m… [Read]

The Dark Knight Rises

Posted by: admin · 11.10.12 | 2:29 pm

Words like epic fall short in describing my experience as part of Chris Nolan’s stunt crew for the final installment of his Batman trilogy. No… [Read]

Stig drifting

Posted by: admin · 03.09.12 | 9:54 pm

Watch the STIG drifting a Vauxhall Monaro on a wet track. Fans of the show, or even just of the STIG will love this!!!

Dunlop Behind Scenes

Posted by: admin · 03.09.12 | 9:52 pm

Find more great driving and behind-the-scenes video clips on the official Dunlop Inside Racing channel: Watch in this clip the exclusive making-of feature of… [Read]

© Ben Collins 2019. All rights reserved. WebTQ | Videography Newbury