Not your average NASCAR race: At the Roval 400 in Charlotte, the cars don’t just turn left

A traditional NASCAR race features fast cars turning left, counterclockwise around an oval track. A road course like the Bank of America ROVAL 400 presents engineers with a challenge you wouldn’t expect. How do they reconfigure cars to turn right?

The ROVAL course at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a special case for several reasons, explained engineer Steve Hoegler of Joe Gibbs Racing, a team fielding four cars in the race on Sunday, Oct. 9. They’ll be driven by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell.

“In past years, we had very specifically designed and built road course cars, different chassis and different parts, everything top to bottom was pretty much different for a road course,” Hoegler said recently. But this year, with the launch of its seventh generation of cars, NASCAR requires the same car chassis to be run every week, regardless of the type of track.

“They basically say, ‘Here’s how you bolt the car together for an intermediate track, and here’s how you bolt together a car for road courses,’” Hoegler said. “So the main difference is kind of how your tires are aligned.”

The car is set up asymmetrically for intermediate tracks to make turning left easier and symmetrically if it needs to turn both ways. On a road course car, Hoegler explained, they replicate their right-side suspension on the left side. NASCAR also requires windshield wipers, mudflaps and flashing red lights for better visibility in spray and wet pavement.

Cars for NASCAR road courses are vastly different from cars used in Formula 1 road courses, Hoegler said. Key differences include a metal tube chassis used for NASCAR and carbon fiber used for F1 — and the budget. A 2020 F1Chronicle article estimated that a NASCAR stock vehicle cost about $25 million, while a pair of F1 cars costs up to $470 million.

How Charlotte’s road course is different

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL course in Concord presents a unique challenge, Hoegler said.

“The banking loads we run on the oval track are way higher than you’d have in a normal road course. So there’s some challenges there with not letting your car bottom out.” And then there are Charlotte’s infamous blue turtles – 6-inch-high steel kerbs bolted to the track. They help direct cars at turns 11, 12, and 15 through 17.

“When you hit those, it’s really a violent event on the chassis and the suspension parts,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is trying to design the suspension geometry and everything so we could do a little bit better job than everybody else. That’s what it’s all about, you know, seeing that checkered flag.”

How Hoegler got to NASCAR

Hoegler’s primary focus is developing simulator programs and tire models. He grew up in Cleveland, studied mechanical engineering at Ohio University, interned at Goodyear, which later hired him full-time to design race tires. He eventually found a job at Joe Gibbs Racing and moved to Charlotte.

Joe Gibbs Racing engineer Steve Hoegler.
Joe Gibbs Racing engineer Steve Hoegler.

Hoegler uses simulators to test models, evaluate how drivers perform with them, then make changes and observe the drivers again. As models improve and the fake world acts more like the real world, he said, driver decisions resemble more closely what happens on the track.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s approach to the sport

Although Joe Gibbs Racing has access to almost any technology it needs, Hoegler said people are the team’s primary focus. The company employs more than 400 people. Twenty to 30 engineers work in various roles, including simulation, production, piece parts, tires and failure analysis, Hoegler said. The team also partners with Toyota Racing Development, which makes its engines in Costa Mesa, California.

“You know, Coach [Gibbs, former coach of the Washington Commanders] has a philosophy that people are what drive results,” Hoegler said. “He talks about that a lot in team meetings. He’s very much a people person and getting the right people in place. As you look at how much success he’s had, it’s all kind of relationship-based and based on the people.

“That kind of resonates all through the building, and you appreciate the fact that you’re part of a team and that everybody has their roles. You have to just pull your string and that big rope as hard as you can to help everybody succeed.”

Shannon Kingston, Kayla McDuffie and Sebastian Shered are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.