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In The Garage With: The Hendrick Engine Tuners

Horsepower counts for a lot in NASCAR competition and one of the most heavily relied upon people in the garage is the team’s engine tuner.  Hendrick Motorsports employs a full-time engine tuner for each of its NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series teams, as well as one for each of its leased engines.

Accountability for all three of each team’s engines brought to the track each week falls into the tuner’s hands. It is their responsibility to diagnose and correct any engine problems that the team may come across during the course of a race weekend along with making sure the motor has the optimum tune up for the weather conditions each day at the track.

Though technically considered a member of the Hendrick Engine Department, each engine tuner is considered to be part of their respective team’s “road crew.” They travel with the road crew and are stationed at the track from the time the garage opens through the end of the race.

“One of the best parts of the job is facing new and different challenges each week at all of the different venues we visit throughout the season,” says John Smeltzer, engine tuner for the No. 24 DuPont Chevy and driver Jeff Gordon.

When the NASCAR garage first opens each race weekend, the tuner will assist the team with unloading the race transporter, setting up the generator, cool down unit, and the garage stall. In preparation for the day’s first practice session, the tuner will fire up the engine and run it at idle until the water temperature reaches 200 degrees Fahrenheit. They will also change spark plugs and set the ignition timing in preparation for the first practice session.


“When you set the ignition timing it is imperative to take the weather conditions into consideration. You have to monitor the current humidity and vapor pressure in the air very closely whenever you set the timing on the engine,” says Mark Wilkinson, engine tuner for driver Brian Vickers and the No. 25 GMAC Racing Chevrolets.

When the driver brings the car into the garage for adjustments during the first practice session, the tuner will again assess the status of the ignition timing and the spark plugs.

After the first practice session is over, qualifying preparations will begin. The first step is to cool down the engine with the cool down unit so that the temperature of the water is down to 45 F. Next, the front grill is taped off, and the oil used during the previous practice session will be replaced with oil specifically designed for qualifying.

For qualifying the grill opening is taped shut to achieve maximum downforce on the front end of the car. Because the nose is taped off, the engine temperature must be cooled down prior to time trials with the cool down unit since air will not be able to flow through the front grill into the radiator. The blend of oil used during time trials is thinner and lower in viscosity than that used during the actual race.

“We use thinner oil when we qualify because it is more effective in the reduction of friction, and it also requires less power from the oil pump to move it through the engine.” Smeltzer says.


“The demands of race conditions however require using higher viscosity oil due to the variables that come into play such as elevated oil and water temperatures from running in traffic and debris from the track impeding air flow into the radiator,” Wilkinson says. “Factors such as these can raise the temperature of the water by 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The tuner will also verify that the proper gear ratio is set and that the correct rev-limiter chips are in place for the upcoming qualifying session. Any other specific track-oriented changes necessary for qualifying are also made at this time.

“For me, winning a pole is one of the most rewarding aspects of tuning engines. I rank winning a pole as high as winning a race, especially when you sit on a pole at a large track such as Texas or Talladega,” says Howard Shipwash, engine tuner for driver Kyle Busch and Team Lowe’s Racing.

When the driver has completed his two circuits for qualifying, the crew will then begins to change the car into “race trim” for “happy hour,” or the final practice session.  Any special modifications made to the car principally for qualifying purposes will then be undone.

The engine tuner will remove the tape covering the front grill and then re-tape the grill for race conditions.

“When we race in general we’ll leave 66 to 70 square-inches of grill space open to allow air to flow through the radiator to ensure that the engine will perform at optimum temperature during the race,” Wilkinson says.

They will then change the oil and oil filter and install cooling fans in the car. The gear ratio is also adjusted and race condition rev-limiter chips are swapped with those used during time trials.

When “happy hour” has ended, the tuner will change the jets in the carburetor based on readings from the spark plugs, perform the necessary fuel mileage checks on the engine and begin setting the engine up for race day conditions. The valve springs will be changed and the engine will undergo a complete inspection by the team’s tuner.


“Our inspection process includes an in-depth examination of the fuel, oil, and water lines; belts; valve lash; and oil filters,” Smetlzer says. “We will also go ahead and change the engine’s oil one last time to a special blend we use exclusively for competition.”

On race day, prior to each team’s NASCAR-mandated inspection, the tuner will warm the engine and scan it one final time to verify the gear ratios, rev-limiter chips, gauges, and check the ignition and charging system settings.

“The last thing we do prior to the start of the race is to warm the engine oil to 200 degrees Fahrenheit with the generator while the car is lined up on the grid,” Smetlzer says.

While the race is in progress, the team’s tuner will calculate the engine’s fuel mileage and then compare the results with the team’s race engineer, whose race day duties also include keeping track of fuel mileage.

“When the cars are on the track we have to be ready for anything and everything that can go wrong with the engine during the course of the event,” Wilkinson says. 

Besides dealing primarily with the engine, the tuner may also be relied upon to serve other roles such as catching tires, pulling hoses, cleaning the grill, or operating the sign during pit stops.

“One of the highest achievements you can have as an engine tuner is to win a race on fuel mileage,” Shipwash says. “When you can win based on the efficiency of your engine and have people come up to you in the garage after the race and ask you how you did that, it is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

“When you get complements in the garage on how your engine performs, or other teams watch you tear down after a win—those are the things I like the most about my job,” says Devin Barbee, engine tuner for driver Kyle Busch and the No. 84 CARQUEST Chevrolets.


Many engine tuners also derive satisfaction from working with younger drivers and watching them enjoy their first successes in NASCAR competition.

“Tuning engines for a younger driver is highly challenging yet incredibly rewarding,” says Shipwash. “I have been fortunate enough to tune for Kyle and Brian’s first Busch Series wins, as well as Ricky Hendrick’s first win in the truck series. Seeing the look on their faces and on the fans faces when they climbed out of the car in Victory Lane for the first time is unforgettable. Things like that make all of the hard work worth while.”

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