NASCAR team owner Richard Childress knows a thing or two about operating a race team. A former racecar driver himself, Childress is a 47-year veteran owner in the NASCAR Cup Series, winning six championships with the late Dale Earnhardt.
But Richard Childress Racing (RCR) has not hoisted a championship trophy in the sport’s premier division since 1994. While the Chevrolet-backed organization has finished runner-up or third in the championship standings seven times since Earnhardt’s final title, the time has come to try something new.
Childress is not a man who can be convinced easily. And when hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the table, well, good luck telling him how to spend his money.
Enter Dr. Eric Warren, who took over as RCR’s competition director in 2012. The team began a transition period as Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, was set to replace veteran team leader Kevin Harvick in the organization’s lead car.
Warren began noticing potential areas of improvement at the end of Harvick’s tenure at RCR. And that’s when he approached the boss about making a massive investment.
The time arrived for Richard Childress Racing to lead the way in predictive analytics and AI. Other NASCAR teams have plenty of technology, but RCR wanted to be different. Warren’s idea was complex, and it meant creating an entire command center within the Welcome, N.C. campus.
“If you see everything it takes to put this together, with the number of computers, cameras, screens and the building itself, it’s a huge investment,” Childress said on a Zoom call with Forbes.
This is no cheap investment, either. There are six large screens within the command center, which is based off the setup from a Formula 1 team. Each screen shows a different scene as a race plays out, enabling Warren and RCR’s top engineers to analyze data in a unique, complicated way. There are about 10 seats in the command center, each situated about six feet apart with multiple screens available per person, besides the movie theater-style ones at the front of the room.
“I said, ‘How is it going to pay off?’” Childress said, recalling Warren’s pitch of the idea in late 2013. “As we started using it, I started seeing some results.”
The command center is a one-of-a-kind facility in NASCAR. As the technology within the sport continues to improve, so does RCR’s ability to predict the outcome of the team’s races.
NASCAR enables the team to look at approximately 12 pieces of data during a race. Now, RCR looks at it in a deeper way, with graphs galore.
“What we’ve done in the past is work on using this room to analyze data more deeply to help communicate with the crew chief on the pit box,” Warren said. “We help them make a more informed decision, see damage on other cars and really dig into more data.”
The crew chiefs can analyze the same data as the engineers do while at the track. It’s a multi-faceted process, with AI software analyzing data that utilizes Amazon AMZN technology. Then, the crew chief decides what to do based on that data.
Crew chief Justin Alexander, who works with Dillon, uses the command center to his advantage week-in and week-out.
“You have to think two to three steps ahead,” Alexander said. “It’s very hard to do that without any data. With the information they’re giving me, we can predict two to three stops ahead. I’m looking at what we can do to put us in a better position a couple of stops from now.”
The combination of predictive analytics and AI technology is known as Pit Rho, which now works with Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing in a similar capacity.
However, this is a building process. RCR is still figuring out how to fully utilize this technology to its advantage.
The greatest benefit to the command center might be its ability to predict when the two RCR Cup cars should pit during a race. Evidently, it sets the team up two to three pit stops ahead, helping the crew chiefs formulate a proper strategy to end the race with a result they might not have earned without Pit Rho.
“You have to get off sequence sometimes from the leaders,” Alexander said.
That’s exactly what happened in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which was Alexander’s first race on top of Dillon’s pit box. And it’s what led Dillon to victory lane on July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway, with rookie teammate Tyler Reddick finishing second. The one-two finish is the first time the team did exactly that since 2011, when Clint Bowyer won at Talladega Superspeedway with Jeff Burton in second.
“This is a culmination of many years of working with this,” Alexander, who also led Dillon to a win in the 2018 Daytona 500, said. “As far as the end of the Texas race, it started when we knew the leaders were on a certain strategy. To get off strategy, we knew we would need to get off strategy to get track position.
“With the prediction and data we were looking at, we did it differently than those guys. We had a long green-flag run, and they had to pit earlier than us. Those guys got caught a lap down, and the strategy itself was recommending we take left-side tires, which we ultimately ended up taking.”
The command center’s technology predicted a caution, and it properly said to take two left-side tires. Now, Dillon is in the playoffs, and Reddick is not far away from the 16-driver cutoff.
Reddick, who’s considered one of the top NASCAR prospects after winning back-to-back Xfinity Series titles in 2018 and 2019, is now gaining confidence in the software.
“For Tyler, who’s a rookie, he’s never had this kind of data or analytics in the Xfinity Series,” Alexander said.
The organization is slowly but surely bringing predictive analytics to its Xfinity Series program, which currently fields the No. 21 entry with multiple drivers. Eventually, the goal is to have its AI-backed program at a level similar to the Cup Series.
While many in the NASCAR industry were surprised with Dillon’s win at Texas, the folks at RCR’s headquarters believe this was a long time coming.
In 2017, Warren transitioned over to be the team’s chief technology officer, focusing on predictive analytics, AI and engineering. At the same time, former team owner and crew chief Andy Petree became RCR’s vice president of competition.
Warren is, quite literally, a rocket scientist, holding a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in aerospace engineering. But his strength is most notable in the world of stock car racing, leading the competition efforts for multiple times.
And with the coronavirus pandemic preventing teams from having all of their employees at the shop at once, this is the perfect time for RCR to take advantage of its growing command center.
“We’re talking about things we’re going to do in the future with it, and that’s really exciting to me,” Childress said. “I’m not the most tech person in the world, but they’re telling me things that are getting me excited. There’s so many things we can’t even talk about that it does for us today.”
Childress and Warren are watching each race from the command center since NASCAR returned to action in mid-May. This is actually giving the dynamic duo a chance to watch races in a whole new way. They can still communicate with Alexander and Reddick’s crew chief, Randall Burnett, who are calling the shots at the track.
At this point, Childress even feels like an engineer during a race since he’s not watching from his usual vantage point, which is the top of the No. 3 team’s hauler.
“When we first put the command center together, it was a ton of money,” Childress said. “I questioned it for a while. As I see the results over the last couple of years, it’s made me believe even stronger in it. I can look at the screen and see Austin’s race, a lapped car or anything on another screen. I’m watching a lot closer, just like the engineers.”
As Childress’ belief in the AI technology grows, the team’s performance is increasing. The trials and errors of learning how to communicate the data to drivers and analyzing it before it gets to the drivers are all but gone.
“We learned how to present the actual decision,” Warren said. “On top of that, as a human, how do you see something? How quick can you understand it? If it’s counter-intuitive, you want to get an understanding of it quickly.”
Reddick’s 16.9 average finish is an impressive 5.6 positions ahead of predecessor Daniel Hemric. Dillon is on pace to potentially have his best season in NASCAR yet, with five top 10s through 19 races.
The limited on-track time might be another advantage for RCR as it continues to use predictive analytics. NASCAR will not allow practice or qualifying for the rest of the year, and that means RCR might have an advantage.
“We almost did it in foresight for this moment, although we’re in a state in this country we could’ve never foreseen,” Alexander said. “Ultimately, whether we’re going through Covid-19 or a regular season, it allows us to put more people back at the shop to communicate with engineers.”
RCR’s drivers are all-in with the team’s increasing predictive analytics, and if the cars’ performance continues to head in the right direction, they might hoist a championship trophy in November at Phoenix Raceway.
“The ultimate goal is to have him [Dillon] and Justin at Phoenix holding that championship trophy,” Childress said. “I’ll definitely be there for that one. It would be great. We’re more advanced than I ever dreamed.”