Fine tuning for flat-out speed
Oct. 14, 1999 - By Marty Smith, NASCAR Online
TALLADEGA, Ala. - The proverbial fruits of Jon Richardson's labor will either blossom in triumph or wilt in failure this coming Friday at 3 p.m., when NASCAR Winston Cup Series qualifying gets underway at gargantuan Talladega Superspeedway.
You see, an engine builder such as Richardson lives for restrictor plate racing. The all-out, pedal to the floor for 500 miles format is largely considered the grandest stage that the meticulous motor manufacturers at racing's highest level can truly show their talent.
"There's so much more time consumed in restrictor plate motors," said Richardson, 41, a native of Seoul, South Korea. "Every little thing is so crucial. The open motors (used on short and intermediate tracks) have to be right, but in a restrictor plate motor, everything has to be completely perfect, every little trick you can do, you do. Everything we can think of, we'll try.
"There's seven engine builders here, and we're constantly brainstorming. We just know how good we've always run (on superspeedways), and every time we go there we know (Dale Earnhardt) and (Mike Skinner) have a good chance to win. That's something we really take pride in."
Never before has Richardson been as proud as he was at the start on the 1997 Daytona 500, when the rookie No. 31 Lowe's Home Improvement team took a rookie driver and won the Bud Pole in the most storied even in all of racing. Then, five months later, they turned around and did it again, marking the first and only time the same driver has sat on the pole in both Daytona races in the same year.
"Back in '97 when Skinner sat on the pole at both Daytonas, that was something we just couldn't believe," Richardson said. "It was the first race as a team together, and that just shows the work that we strive for here, and how Richard wants this program run. You really know that when we pull up on the line on Sunday, those cars both have a chance to be in Victory Circle every time."
"When I came here we had a good speedway program, and I've been here for five years," Richardson said. "We just keep working, even when, like right now, we're right in the middle of an 11-race run, we're constantly working on our superspeedway stuff. We're testing everything you could think of. Even when we're at Martinsville, we're still thinking restrictor plate."
Such dedication to the restrictor plate program has certainly paid off for all involved at Richard Childress Racing. In the past three years, Earnhardt and Skinner have been two of the most competitive rides in the series, with Earnhardt winning the 1998 Daytona 500, and finishing second in both Daytona races this year.
"The whole package is there, we have excellent cars and we have two excellent drivers on superspeedways," Richardson said. "You give these guys something they can race with, that's got as much horsepower as the next guy, and they're gonna be there at the end.
"The speedway program here is a constant ongoing process, all the time. Not that our open stuff isn't, but we really concentrate our efforts to excel on superspeedways. On the restrictor plate stuff, we'll work an entire year for five horsepower. And, it makes a heckuva difference. Everybody in this sport will tell you, five extra horsepower in a restrictor plate motor, an engine builder is like 'All right!' It's a huge difference, it really is."
How much of a difference you ask? Try more than 300 horsepower. A restrictor plate is a thin piece of aluminum with four holes bored in it, placed between the carburetor and the intake manifold, utilized to limit horsepower. In short, restrictor plates are the biggest nuisances in the life of an engine builder.
"They're a big headache, cause they're so different from our regular engines," Richardson said. "You're taking a 750 horsepower engine and taking 300 horsepower out of it. The problem is, it's not like we can just take a regular engine and throw a restrictor plate on it. It just takes an entirely different combination. It's different cams, cylinder heads, everything you could think of, it's different than a standard engine. It's a different animal all together."
"When I came here, I just always assumed there was a separate few guys that just did restrictor plate stuff, but it's not like that. It's everybody putting their heads together and coming up with new ideas all the time. The thing about that that's so frustrating is, nine of those things don't work.
"I'll tell you the difference between regular engines and restrictor plate engines - if you lose 10 horsepower on an open motor, it's not that big a deal. But if you lose three horsepower on a restrictor plate motor, it's a huge deal. That's why it's so frustrating and time consuming."
Despite the hassles Richardson's job entails, he adores every minute of it. In the early '80s, Richardson was laid off from a factory position in Columbus, Ohio, which he now calls "the greatest thing that ever happened to me." A knowledgeable drag racer, Richardson opted to try his hand at engine building. He sought out world-renowned drag racer and engine builder John Lingenfelter, who in 1988 took Richardson under his wing and handed him seven years worth of invaluable knowledge.
During that time, he had been corresponding with two friends he had at RCR, and sent his resume' several times. Then, finally in 1994, Childress invited him for an interview and gave him the job on the spot. He's been associated with NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing for five years now, all with RCR.
"I'd been sending my resume' down here for about two years, and it was just one of those deals where I was in the right place at the right time," said the modest Richardson. "They needed a guy who could build engines and do machine work, and with my background, I came down here for an interview and Richard looks at me and said, 'You got the job if you want it." I said I most definitely want it. It'll be five years this November."
During that five-year span, Richardson considers that day back in '97 when Skinner drove to the Bud Pole at Daytona his finest yet. However, Skinner has yet to earn a victory in a NASCAR Winston Cup points race, but the 31 team has drastically improved over its three-year existence, and especially over the second half of this season. On Monday, the No. 31 Lowe's Chevy led more than 50 laps in the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway and was in position to win, but a late-race falter prevented it. That's been the case for the majority of the year. If they can get a break, a new chapter will be written in Richardson's storybook.
"I think that day Skinner sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 and knowing that when they dropped the green flag on Sunday, we had a legitimate shot at winning that thing with a rookie team, a rookie driver and all, that was probably one of the best moments of my career at RCR," he said. "Even though we finished 12th that day, we knew our car was fast enough to win that race if we'd have gotten that one break. That was the highlight so far.
"We're right on the verge of a win this year. Just like Charlotte, when Skinner got up there and led all those laps and what happens, we get cloud cover for the last set of tires and we get tight. I guess it's good when you're upset with a third place run. We've got four or five races left, and we like we've got a legitimate shot at winning that race this year and finishing in the top-10 in points. Look at it year by year. Our first year we finished 31st in the points, last year we were 20 or 21st, this year, knock on wood with any luck at all we're gonna finish in the top-10. We're getting better every year. We're right there.
"Once we win one, that'll be the highlight of my career for sure. Then, once we get one, if we win Talladega, I really think we'd have a chance to win another one before the end of the year. That's the type of program we have. Larry McReynolds says it best: 'Boys, we can't keep having this kind of effort, this kind of cars, this kind of engines, this kind of teamwork and not win one."
This weekend could very well be the moment the entire organization has been waiting for. They've certainly put in the work - you don't work for crew chief Larry McReynolds and not strive for greatness, it's disallowed - and it's time to receive the proverbial fruits of their labor.
"We've always had a good superspeedway program here," Richardson said. "We take a lot of pride in that, I know Richard the drivers do and the guys that build these cars definitely. I'm telling you, our fabricators, our crew chiefs and the guys that piece these things together they are fantastic. We have some of the best speedway cars in the business. Even if we don't qualify good, we'll race good. That is directly a result of those guys that bust their tails on those cars. I'm sure that stuff gets old cause it's only four races per year, but when your man goes down there and wins that race, it's all worth every bit of it."
Blk3GM's Dale Earnhardt Site was born on
July 26, 1998 and is owned and maintained by Gary Harris. This site is a
tribute to "NASCAR's Greatest Driver" and his up and coming son. We are
not affiliated with any official Team, Sponsors, Media Group or NASCAR. This site is
solely for entertainment purposes. Information and statistic's on this site have
been collected from various NASCAR related sites on the internet, from Winston Cup Scene,
Newspapers, Television and our personal experience at Winston Cup and Busch Grand National
races. All statistics are believed to be accurate at the time they are updated but
cannot be guaranteed.