BRISTOL, Tenn. – Nextel Cup teams raced the car of tomorrow for the second time at Bristol on Saturday night, returning to the scene of its debut earlier this year.
In the fast-moving world of NASCAR’s top series, the cars the teams ran this time were significantly refined from those used in that first race won by Kyle Busch.
Even though NASCAR has significantly tightened the “box” in which teams are allowed to work on the new generation car, rest assured every Nextel Cup operation is constantly looking for a better way to build that mousetrap. That’s where Ronnie Johncox comes in. Johncox has a company called Technique, based not far from Michigan International Speedway near the town of Jackson. He began it in 1991, with his father’s help, when he was still a student at Michigan State and still harboring desires to be a race-car driver.
Technique made parts prototypes for various kinds of industries. A company would send Johncox a drawing and he’d use computerized forming and laser cutting machinery to turn that into reality. The business grew, and so did Johncox’s desire to race. He competed in the U.S. Auto Club’s midget series and made six starts in the Indy Racing League in 1999. He moved from there to the Infiniti Pro Series, but in 2003 gave up the search for sponsorships. Now, he races go-karts when he can find the time.
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What’s he’s also doing is building parts that were in several of the cars on the track Saturday night at Bristol.
Think of it as a type of outsourcing. The racing part of Technique’s business is growing. Its primary product is a chassis “kit” for Cup cars of tomorrow. A standard kit – really a misnomer since each kit is “optimized” to preferences specific to each team Johncox works with – contains 47 components. Cup teams weld the parts together to form the central “greenhouse” area of a new car of tomorrow. It started innocently enough. A top-tier Nextel Cup team – Johncox is careful about talking specifics when it comes to clients – asked him to create prototypes for things it wanted to try on its cars. Johncox and his employees use computers and machines of all shapes and sizes to build things to exacting standards. On a brief tour of his shop, he points out a six-axis laser cutting machine and tries to explain what it does to somebody who’s still trying to figure out how you can possibly have more than three axes and isn’t totally convinced the limit isn’t actually two.
When the new cars are inspected by NASCAR before bodies are even hung, they’re held to exacting tolerances that teams used to hand-crafting cars at first found hard to meet. Johncox and his machines can make parts, over and over again, to exact sizes and shapes with cuts made at precise angles.
They can grind steel tubes so they’re all within fractions of fractions of the same thickness – which can be important when you’re building race cars and weight is important. How precise is Johncox’s work? Ask him how much steel each kit contains, and he says it’s “about” 242.629 pounds. Johncox said he’s shipped about 100 kits so far. Six cars made with his kits have won COT races this year. He’s selling kits to five teams.
Even though each kit has the same number of components, each is enough different so that if he shipped Team A’s order to Team B by mistake, Team B couldn’t get the components to fit right with the parts and processes it uses to build a car.
It stands to reason Johncox knows as much about how different teams are tweaking their new cars as anybody in the business. Why wouldn’t one team offer him an obscene amount of money to use all of what he knows to help them build the best cars and not do work for anybody else? “One already has,” Johncox says. He turned the offer down. The way he figures it, if he has only one customer, what happens if that customer goes away? And if he tells that customer everything he knows, why would that customer need him anymore? After all, he’s still a racer at heart, too.