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Winston Cup Testing at Rockingham: Coming Down to the Wire

16 October 1997

ROCKINGHAM, NC -- As the Winston Cup season winds down and you can count the number of races left on one hand (three fingers really) there are a few teams out there that are HUNGRY. Hungry for their first win, Hungry for a few points and hungry for a few positions in the series standings. Those who were the hungriest, and still have a test date left, loaded up and headed to North Carolina Motor Speedway for a little pre-race testing this week.

The task, on paper, is easy - wring a bit more speed out of a setup in preparation for next weekend's ACDelco 400 Winston Cup event. The gyrations that come from that simple task are an amazing thing to watch. A few laps - a new shock. A few more laps - new rear springs. The process is then repeated.

For those that have a good setup the game becomes one of learning what the car will do over a long run - measuring fuel and tires.

As we were in the neighborhood, we thought we'd stop by and see who was trying what and who was saying what. The following is a compilation of 'tid-bits' that we picked up along the way.

First things first - North Carolina Motor Speedway has been a busy place since we were there last. They have added 4,100 seats down in turns one & two, closing the gap the used to exist between the back straight seats and the turn one seats. They also made various infrastructure improvements outside of the track.

According to Kristi Richardson, track PR guru, as of 9:00 AM this morning there were 108 tickets left for next Sunday's race. Of course there are still plenty of good seats available for the Busch Grand National event on Saturday.

Who was there? Well a ton of Pontiacs, that's for sure. Rockingham has always seemed to smile on the Pontiacs and Ward Burton, Bobby Hamilton, Kyle Petty, Bobby Labonte and Johnny Benson were there to see if they could score on some of that magic.

A few of them were running SB2's, Chevrolet's new power plant for 1998. They sounded nice..... a meaner rumble at idle and more throaty at speed.

We also learned that the SB2 was tested last Monday at Talladega with ummm blase results. The motor was setup to the '98 spec 12.0:1 compression. The test pilot said of the new motor package, "It felt different."

We also learned that there was some testing of unleaded fuels being done at Dega but we did not get the opportunity to talk to those doing the test to learn more about that.

And even more news from Dega (ya I thought this was a Rockingham report too). Several Pontiacs teams tested the new nose for the '98 model. The pieces tested were described as..... ummmmm I can't say it. But the addition of the piece slowed the cars down b5y about five miles per hour.

Oh and Michael Waltrip also tested @ Dega. He ran a new Taurus but no details were available on the results. We also learned that a goodly chunk of the Ford teams were at Atlanta shaking down the '98 Taurus this week.

The Taurus, that is far from done, is still getting worked on. A few of the current Ford teams are looking at -maybe- sticking with the Thunderbird through at least Daytona if the problems aren't corrected PFQ. (yes those are screams of anguish from Dearborn). a

Now...... to what is going on with the teams @ da Rock.....

Kyle Petty is "pleasantly surprised" with his new team's performance. The son of seven time champion Richard Petty was there with two cars thrashing away. Kyle has done well at this track years gone by and would like to rekindle that spark with a win next week.

"Rockingham has always been good to the Pontiac's," said the Hot Wheels Pontiac pilot. "Ward got his first win here. I've won here. And Bobby Hamiliton almost won here. So Rockingham has been good to Pontiac."

Kyle, who just seems more driven than I've ever seen him, continued by saying, "It's tough though. There's a lot of teams going for a first win and there are a lot of teams running for the Championship."

It was the second Atlanta race when Bobby Labonte scored his first and only victory in 1996. The event was special for the Labonte family as that was the same race that brother, Terry, clinched the series championship. Not wanting to "wait until Atlanta" Bobby brought the Interstate Pontiac down for a shake down.

When asked if the recent rules changes helped his team over the hump Bobby replied, "I can't really tell you how much the changes helped. I can't tell you if it helped a lot or a little. We have definitely turned the corner but I'm not sure just what put us there. Sometimes it just comes together.

"Folks ask us what has changed -- heck if we knew that we'd run good all the time."

You can wipe the smile off of Bobby Labonte's face in a heart beat just by saying the magic phrase - restrictor plate. He, like every single driver we talked with, can't stand the things. They call plate racing 'nerve wracking' (wonder why? traveling 190 mph 3 wide 10 deep shouldn't be a problem should it?).

The number one recommendation that we've heard in our unscientific pole is - move the fans back and let's go racing. "I'd like to see them take the plates off. And that's without me having ever run without one," said Labonte.

So what do they have for instrumentation on the cars when testing? A bunch. They monitor all vital engine and driveline parameters as well as how the car is reacting to the drivers input. The shock graphs were the most common ones on the computer screens. The displayed singles of shock travel look like 'square waves' with hair on them. You could see the shocks stressing through the corners and then relax a bit on the straightaway. Then you could see millions of little spikes on the major waves from the shocks. When I asked, 'hey what's that stuff' (referring to the 'hair') the operator indicated that it was the imperfections in the surface that move the tire up and down enough for the sensors to pick up. You should know that Rockingham is pretty darned smooth.

Rudd Performance Motorsports was next on our list of things to do. We had a chat with Jim Long, crew chief of the #10 car. He told us that the team, after they got Ricky his wins for the year (Dover I and The BrickYard), went to work on designing and implementing new stuff in preparation for 1998. As I understand it, there are a few subtle changes under the car that took the team some time to adjust to.

Oh if that wasn't enough Rudd has had some horrible luck of late when nasty wrecks at both Charlotte and Talladega knocked him down from 10th to 15th in the series points standing. Long is pretty sure they team had a top-five car if trouble hadn't found them in those events.

RPM's goals for the remainder of the 1997? Simple - get back into the top-10 in points. The point gap to tenth isn't too far and a few good runs should get them there. Rudd, by the way, won the fall Rockingham race last year.

The last driver on our sojourn was the affable Dave Marcis. Marcis, who is playing injured after spraining his back 'fetching some wood', plans on doing everything he can to get into the last three races of 1997.

Marcis has a view on everything and isn't afraid to share those views with those that ask for them. His answers are always well thought out and to the point.

"Real hard and difficult" is how Dave describes his Winston Cup life. Of course it is because Dave is doing more with less in an environment that doesn't provide real support to the few owner/drivers left on the circuit.

"I've got seven full time employees." Then as Dave pointed down the garage, "most of those guys have 30 or more. How am I supposed to keep up with that? They can do things weeks in advance and I'm left to scurrying around at the last minute trying to make the show." The statement isn't made in anger, just in that matter of fact Dave Marcis way.

The problem, according to Dave is, "those multi-car teams."

With a sweep of the hand Marcis said, "Get rid of those multi-car teams. They're not good for the sport. They make it tough for everybody. They come in here and take our employes and they steal the good sponsors. And why are they doing it? Because they are making money at it. They can take a nice sponsor from a team like me and make it a primary on one of their cars. Then they go and put it on the other cars as an associate. Then when you look at the drivers uniforms they all have the same sponsors on them. They're just out here stealing sponsors is all."

Then the subject of testing came up. "Look, they need to stop all these testing dates. That is another thing that plays into the multi-car teams hands. Do you know there is one team that, in 1998, will have a combined 35 test dates. That's ridiculous. We need to go back to the way we used to do things. We'd roll in and test and go out and qualify. They should give us the whole day (Winston Cup) and let the others (Busch, ARCA, Trucks) come in a day earlier."

When asked if Dave still feels like he can talk to Bill France - president of NASCAR - and have it make a difference he said, "Oh yes. I've talked to Bill France many times over the last year. He's always open to suggestion. There has been different things over the years that I know he's at least talked about to the other teams about. It doesn't always result in a change but I know he is listening."

So how does 1998 look for the #71 team? "Well we're talking to RealTree (his current sponsor) and they are eager to work with us next year. We don't have anything signed yet but we're working on it. That's why I'm testing here. And that's why I'll test at Atlanta next week. I want to make the remaining three races of the year. I'd feel better talking to them after I accomplish that."

Then I asked the question that I hated to ask - but I felt needed to be asked. The question was simple enough - how much longer can you keep doing this. Dave, getting a melancholy look on his face and then taking a moment to regain his composure said, "Look, I've been in a lot of holes in my life. But I've always dug myself out of them. I don't believe in giving up and I won't. I'm not even close to it yet. This is my life and I can't just walk away. I wont do it."

Marcis then smiled and added, "Look everything is going to be alright. But I'd better get back to work. I need to get this car ready for the race that I'll be running next week."

And with that the #71 fired up and was off.

Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel

ROCKINGHAM, NC -- Practice times for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, 
Rockingham Testing 10/15/97:
Ps.No.  Driver                 Sponsor                   Make Lap Time M.P.H.
-- ---- ----------------------------------------------------- -------- -------
 1  27  Kenny Irwin            David Blair Motorsports   Ford 0:23.740 154.221
 2  30  Johnny Benson          Pennzoil                  Pont 0:24.110 151.854
 3  22  Ward Burton            MBNA                      Pont 0:24.300 150.667
 4  10  Ricky Rudd             Tide                      Ford 0:24.430 149.865
 5  18  Bobby Labonte          Interstate Batteries      Pont 0:24.460 149.681
 6  88  Dale Jarrett           Quality Care/Ford Credit  Ford 0:24.490 149.498
 7  71  Dave Marcis            RealTree                  Chev 0:24.510 149.376
 8  44  Kyle Petty             Hot Wheels                Pont 0:24.610 148.769
 9  43  Bobby Hamilton         STP                       Pont 0:24.840 147.391
All times are hand timed from random locations.
Not all cars running '97 configurations.
Weather Conditions: Cool (low 60's) & overcast. 
Track Length      :  1.0170 Miles