There are two simulators housed in the Ford Performance Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina. Installed when the 33,000-square-foot facility was built in 2014, both Ford production vehicle groups and NASCAR teams have access to various resources within the facility.
Those two simulators have recently been the most popular item. Ford closed its doors in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic became more serious, and just after NASCAR began postponing races. Soon after that, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper mandated that non-essential business shut down, and Ford only re-opened its tech center on May 4 when a return to racing was on the horizon.
And since then, the sims have been logging long days at the hands of Ford NASCAR teams.
“Basically, every day both simulators have been running from early in the morning into the evening,” Ford Performance Motorsports global director Mark Rushbrook told RACER. “We’ve had our Cup teams, Xfinity teams, Truck teams, and ARCA drivers in there as well to get ready, and I think looking at the schedule, all of our teams have been in and at least nine of the drivers out of our 13 full-time cars.”
Those using the simulator have had split agendas. While some of the drivers have used it to get familiar with racetracks, the teams are leaning on the simulator for car setup.
The revised schedule NASCAR announced for May and June, aside from the Coca-Cola 600, does not include practice or qualifying for any race. Teams are unloading cars and doing minimal work at the track, while drivers simply show up and race.
“It’s been really important to get that simulator time to work through those setups, to be confident that when you unload it off the truck and take the green flag that it’s going to be good going into Turn 1,” said Rushbrook.
Ford driver Kevin Harvick dominated and won the sport’s first race back at Darlington Raceway. Ford drivers led 240 of the race’s 293 laps that afternoon. In the second Darlington race, Ford drivers combined for 112 of 208 laps led. Five Fords finished inside the top 10. And most recently in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ford placed four drivers in the top 10, led by a Brad Keselowski victory.
Rushbrook said the simulator had been visited by those who frequently use it as well as those who don’t, proving its importance given the unique circumstances teams are competing under.
“I’m proud of our teams because they’re great racers, and they do a great job putting great cars on the track, and just happy we’re able to contribute to that,” Rushbrook said. “One thing that stands out is not just the Stewart-Haas and the Penske cars and Wood Brothers, and Roush Fenway, all running up front at different times during the two races at Darlington, but especially John Hunter Nemechek in the Front Row car as a rookie in Cup at Darlington.
“He spent time in the simulator to get the familiarity with the track as well as the team on the setup, and he finished in the top 10 on the first race there, which to me, is a testament to how great a driver he is, how strong Front Row is, but also how the simulator helped them prepare for that.”
Some veteran drivers choose not to use the simulator because it doesn’t have the exact feel of their race car. However, the simulator is much more sophisticated than the iRacing rigs many fans have recently seen for the first time, and moves to account for racetrack banking, surface bumps or smoothness, and other variables. The room in which the simulator sits also has large wraparound screens to help provide familiar sightlines.
OEM simulators are continually evolving to become a better tool for teams and drivers. Now more than ever, it is a good thing they have.
“At this point, I think all the teams rely on the simulator,” Rushbrook said. “That’s become more and more true every day since we installed it. It wasn’t perfect when we installed it in 2014, but our team internally at our tech center has continued to progress it with working very closely with the race teams, to the point now that we’ve got confidence in it.
“I think you saw that in the race at Darlington – the teams hadn’t been racing in over 70 days and they took a car that they established a setup based on the simulator and they all went barreling into Turn 1 together. But I think the key to that success is the level of detail in the modeling of the simulation. Some of those hardest areas have been in the tire modeling; to be able to model the effects of pressure or heat or heat generation in the tire and how that affects the handling. Tire fall-off – especially being so quick at Darlington – being able to model that is one key area where we’ve really made progress over the last several years.
“The other is in the aero modeling both in the car in air, but the car in air next to a wall. That needs to be modeled accurately, and the car-to-car interaction is something we’ve put a lot of focus on. So, it’s not just one car driving by itself, but we can simulate the car in dirty air or near a wall as well. That level of detail and being able to replicate how the car really behaves in that situation is what has really allowed the drivers or opened up the eyes of the drivers and the teams for the real benefits they can get from the simulator.”