June 14th, 2016 by Matt Holden
The incompatibility between multiple drivers and setups is well documented in the real world of motorsports. Almost everybody who’s been following NASCAR for a few years knows that Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch might have very similar cars, but Matt Kenseth’s car is probably very different. A few years ago, even during the toddler years of iRacing, that was far from the case. Even when Gale Force Racing was founded in 2011, one single setup could still be used across multiple drivers. In some cases, the entire field may have been on what was essentially the same setup. In the past couple of seasons, we’ve started seeing that change and become less the norm and more the exception. With the new updates to tires, physics updates inching closer and closer to real-world physics, it’s becoming detrimental to run a single setup as a team. It’s by no means an easy thing to break free from, since the practice of one-setup-fits-all can be traced back all the way to the 1990s, and we all know old habits die hard.
The 2013 NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series was pretty cool. Nick Ottinger won six races in that season, something that still goes unmatched today. Kenny Humpe only managed five in 2015, and Richard Towler had five as well in the inaugural season. What is most remarkable is that all six of those wins were basically on the same setup. The rest of our drivers at the time usually ran whatever he was using, and looking back on that now, it’s clear that it was only working for a single car and not the team as a whole. That trend carried into 2014, with one setup going across multiple drivers. For each race, it was usually one car that did well, while the others suffered. The 2014 season saw the #05 win only two races, and both races ended with Nick asking us to toss the setups in the garbage.
Fast forward to 2015, and we fall upon a race that got the wheels turning for 2016: Watkins Glen. It’s the only PEAK Antifreeze Series race so far with no lead changes, with Nick leading all 50 laps of the event. A lot of focus was put on Nick’s domination on the road course, especially after coming up short in 2014. Outside our team, however, little focus was placed on the other GFR cars in that race. Despite Nick being clear of the field by 7 seconds, the other team cars finished 7th, 14th, 20th, 23rd, 28th, 30th, and 40th, a clear indication that the car was not good for all of them. While it worked well for Nick and Matt Bussa, Brian Day said the setup was “pretty bad” and Alex Scribner still says that was the “worst car [he’s] ever driven”.
After the 2015 NPAS season ended, Brandon Buie told everyone at GFR that he wouldn’t be racing Pro-level events anymore. He had a plan in place to run Class B events for a full year, with the possibility of grooming new drivers for Gale Force Racing’s Pro-level classes. I saw this as an opportunity to test a LOT of things I couldn’t do with the Pro-level guys and jumped on board. Alex Scribner also joined in, followed by Jeffrey Parker and Rob Ackley. I laid out the plans to try out driver-specific setups to Alex, who has real-world experience in the upper levels of stock car racing, and he was on board with the idea. We figured bumpstops were coming to the Xfinity car, so we decided to use the same setup for all cars until that update arrived. For the races at Daytona, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, everyone used the same thing, and looked at each driver’s feedback to spot trends. When the build with bumpstops arrived, it was time to get to work.
The major issue with a single setup is the difference in driving styles among the drivers who are using the given setup. Something we discovered very early on was the difference between how Nick and I enter a corner. Coming from a road-racing background, I tend to release the brakes before entering a corner, while Nick tends to trail brake into most corners. This results in the car having a different attitude entering the corner for each of us. My car is usually flatter, with the rear lower and the nose higher, while his tends to carry a bit more rake down into the corner. This difference alone means that we can drive the same setup and come back to the pits with drastically different feedback and tire data. We found similar things when running the blanket setups early in this year’s Class B season when looking at how we all drive. Alex is very similar to Nick in his corner entries, while Jeff tends to be extremely aggressive on the throttle. Between Alex, Jeff, and myself, the data was showing that we’d all need something different in how the cars were set up, which was not an issue back in 2013.
With the new build adding bumpstops, I started by building two styles of front end setups for our Class B team. The first setup rode the left-front bumpstop while binding the right-front main spring with no bumpstop. The second did the opposite: bound the left-front spring and rode the right-front bumpstop in the corners. The two required drastically different rear-end configurations and sway bar settings, but whenever you gave a single driver the two cars, the temperatures on the tires were usually the same. However, Jeff and I chose the first setup while Alex chose the second setup. The result in the race was pretty remarkable: Alex and Jeff both ran up front during the race, finishing 4th and 5th, neither having complaints about the car. We’ll gloss over my performance in the race…
The next major obstacle was Bristol. Alex and Jeff both wanted to run the upper lanes through the race, I wanted to be able to run on the bottom. This needed two different approaches to the setup because of how the cars would load up in the banking. Alex was able to use stiff main front springs with no bumpstops while Jeff used softer main springs with moderately stiff bumpstops. Since my car would slam down into the corner, I had the stiffest car of all three, running extremely stiff springs just to keep the car off the ground. Again, we had remarkable success doing this. The three of us finished in the top-10, and it was my first top-10 in a high-SOF race. We then gave Nick the setup Alex used, since their driving styles are similar, and Nick won a race at Bristol with it.
Since then, we’ve basically stuck to the same idea: Everyone works on their own cars, but the notebooks are available for all to see. In April, Alex and I ran a series of tests during an off-week where we found the effects of various adjustments, resulting in a massive pile of data that we’ve since used to tweak each car to better suit our own styles. In the past few weeks, the question, “Can I get the setup?” has been met with laughter and “Which one? There’s five of us!”. Each driver has his own spring package, we all know how to adjust our own cars for various issues, and if we run into a problem that we can’t solve, there’s a very good chance that one of the other drivers has the answer.
Now that the story time is over, let’s talk about how to go about this. It is by no means easy to implement, and it’s not something that will happen overnight. The key is to remember that everyone’s driving style is slightly different, and finding those differences is how to get the ball rolling. We began by running races with every car on the same setup package. Same springs, shocks, weight, and alignment, they were all the same, and then we compared feedback to determine what needed to change for each driver. If a driver tends to dive into the corners very aggressively, they may need a stiffer set of front springs to keep the car off the track. In the Xfinity car, that’s pretty easy since the main springs are basically there for ride height rules, but it’s like Pandora’s Box in the Cup car. Do you want to use the bumpstops? Do you want to use both or just one? There are a million directions you can go with that car, and it’s completely a driver preference kind of thing.
If you decide to go about doing this with your team (which I highly recommend), it’s important to remember that the rear end springs for an oval car will basically be determined by what you have in the front of the car, and the aero platform you’re looking for. Joey Logano said last year at Indianapolis that the front end setup was basically the same through the three aero-packages they were using, but the rear was drastically different, and that’s how we landed on our setups for the Class B series. The front ends were chosen based on how the driver went through the corner, and the rear was chosen to maintain the desired aero platform. If you can identify specific things a driver doesn’t like, whether it be large amounts of chassis rake, big rear spring splits, or even specific tire pressure arrangements, you can adjust the car to correct those things, resulting in a car that is built for that specific driver. In most cases, you don’t even need fancy telemetry to find it. The garage temps and a simple look at the replays can help. If you can do that for a whole team, everyone will be better off in the long run.
The last thing to remember when doing this is to never, ever, do the “setup dance” when you arrive at the next track. It took Alex and me about 40 minutes to get the setup roughed out for Texas this year, after which we began on long-run balance. We started with what we had from California, applied changes we needed to each car, and then we were on our way. If we had started by going through 10 different setups and starting with whatever felt the best, then we would have essentially started over from scratch each time, not knowing what the car would do with a given adjustment, or how it would behave through a race. We’ve had instances where drivers couldn’t find what they were looking for and they’ve had to fall back on older setups, but it’s always been previously-run packages. Last week, the Class B series went to Michigan, and Jeff wound up falling back on the setup I ran at California earlier in the year. That setup had been raced, and it was on a similar track to Michigan, so there weren’t any unknowns with him running that car. It worked out pretty well, he managed to land a 4th-place finish.
While this is a daunting task for anybody, and it would require a bit of work and patience from everyone involved, it’s produced some fantastic results. Nick has even started working on his own car to get away from the other team cars and build it around his own driving style. While this article has been an introduction, Mr. David Phillips has given me the green light to write more setup-centric articles instead of just race recaps. Hopefully, articles for the next few months will help those who want to get a better understanding of what’s going on with the cars. I’ve been asked many, many times when I’d rewrite the setup guide I wrote back in 2010, so to answer that question: We’re going to get started on it right now!