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NASCAR: Where the science of racing meets the business of entertainment

by David Scott | May 6, 2014

Gene Stefanyshyn

Calculating kinetic energy, protecting the body from excessive G-force and designing a safer $15-million vehicle sounds more like NASA than NASCAR, but there is a lot of science that goes into the multi-million dollar business that has its roots in bootleggers outrunning police cars.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded in 1948 by Bill France, Sr. NASCAR is second only to the National Football League (NFL) in TV ratings for professional sports franchises in the United States. And yes, moonshiners did modify cars with faster engines to escape the authorities during US prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

While he wasn’t born during Prohibition, Gene Stefanyshyn, MBA’85, did grow up in the auto-producing community of Oshawa, Ont., after moving from Red Lake in the Kenora District at age 7 with his family. The city was home to General Motors Canada. A lot of its citizens were employed by the auto giant.

“There tends to be a bit of a car culture there. Of course growing up in the 1970s, there were the muscle cars (Camaros, Mustangs, Challengers, etc.) from the ’60s roaming the streets,” recalls Stefanyshyn.

The father of one of his good friends owned a wrecking yard where people brought their old cars, sell them for junk or come in and buy used parts.

“I used to spend quite a bit of time there with my old friend working on old cars and repairing them. I had another friend who was going to be a mechanic.”

His interest grew into a love affair for cars and “all things technical.” He chose the more applied stream in high school versus academic. Stefanyshyn signed up for shop classes like welding, machine shop and drafting, but he also liked math and science.

“I came from a fairly blue-collar background. My father always carried a lunch pail. My friend’s father had a tie on and it wasn’t Sunday and I said, ‘why does your Dad have a tie on? Does he go to church on Wednesday?’ ‘No. He’s going to work.’ I didn’t realize there was that other world of people working in offices. I thought everyone carried a lunch pail when I was a young kid.”

Stefanyshyn was determined to be a tool-and-die maker. As he was graduating high school, the economy crashed. A few of his teachers with backgrounds in the trades took him aside and told him “Gene, you’ve got a lot more capability than just going and being a tool-and-die maker. You should think about going to engineering school.”

He looked at engineering programs at Queen’s, Western and Waterloo. Then, through a friend of his sister, he learned about a co-op program in Michigan. The school was called  GMI (General Motors Institute), now named Kettering University, in Flint, Mich.

The co-op program meant Stefanyshyn could gain work experience and earn money while attending school. It also meant he was at school or work year-round and he would be done in five years versus four. But his co-op sponsor was GM Canada in Oshawa. The door to the auto industry was open and through that he got to work in many different areas starting as a supervisor on the lines, working in plant engineering, powertrain engineering and product engineering.

Believing that if you’re going to work for a company, you really have to understand the business and financial side of it very well, Stefanyshyn decided to return to school. He took an educational leave from GM to do his MBA at the Ivey Business School, a course he considers “outstanding.” “To me, it was not only about the hard skills – about finance and strategy and that kind of thing – it was also about the orientation of leadership and what is a leader and that I think was a watershed experience for me.”

He returned to GM after his MBA, but this time to the finance department.

He stayed with GM Canada in Oshawa until 1988. Then, it was moves with GM to the United States, Sweden and Germany. From 1996 to 2006, he was back in the United States, then spent three years in Australia and back again to the States before taking his present position at NASCAR. Over the last half of his 30 years at GM, Stefanyshyn was a vehicle executive, leading teams to create new vehicles for the marketplace. Over that period, he led and introduced 14 models, and about 20 body styles.

The fifth generation Camaro that was designed and introduced by Gene Stefanyshyn’s team at GM in 2010. (Photo by Nick Ares).

The last car he designed, possibly his favourite, was the new Camaro.

“As a young kid, you see these muscle cars on the street. You see your first Camaro Z-28 and say, ‘wow.’ Then fastforward 30 years and you get a phone call from Bob Lutz and he asks you, ‘Hey Gene, can you do a Camaro? Can you look into it?’ I got back to him and said, ‘Hey, I think we can do one, Bob.’ ”

The prototype fifth-generation Camaro premiered at the Detroit Auto Show and was a huge success. “Then we had to do it. We did all the design work and conceptual stuff in Detroit. But we did all the final engineering work and development in Australia.”

Then the dream really came true. The decision by GM was to build the new Camaro in Oshawa. “So, can you imagine that? You know, a kid growing up in Oshawa, loving Camaros and 30 years later being able to do one and put it in his home plant? How’d that ever happen?”

At that time, Stefanyshyn was told the market segment was very, very small for something like a fifth-generation Camaro. People said “there’s not a business case to do this. You’re not going to have enough volume to support the investment.”

But it was his team’s belief that they would make the segment bigger if they introduced it and that is in fact what happened with the 2010 Camaro. After his more than 30-year journey at GM through manufacturing, plant engineering, product engineering, finance, planning, being a vehicle executive, creating cars and working in program management, it was time for a change.

He thought “well, maybe it’s time now to try something new or something different.”

So, in April 2013, he became Vice President, Innovation and Racing Development, at NASCAR. He leads the entire Research & Development Group, which is considered one of the most critical areas for the for injecting science and technology across the entire business.

“It’s kind of an interesting blend because it’s the technology element but also of course, it’s the entertainment business. Which puts another kind of interesting spin on my background,” says Stefanyshyn.

According to the VP, NASCAR is the only motor sports governing body in the world that has an R & D centre and resources dedicated to so much research to improve the sport. Balancing the demand of an exciting sport by fans with safety concerns for cars and drivers can be a challenge.

“Our history is based in safety and we have a very proud record that I could speak to but basically if you look at what’s happened over the last 25 to 30 years, we’ve essentially gone from approximately 575 hp up to 850 hp. Our maximum speed has gone from somewhere in the order of 165 to 195 mph. We’re carrying around about 45 per cent more kinetic energy.”

Some of the tracks NASCAR uses for Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck racing series can be decades old, dating back to the late 1940s and ’50s. Because Formula 1 (F-1) cars are so completely different and more expensive (about $250-million per car), Stefanyshyn doesn’t even look to F-1 as direct competition for their fan base.

“We view our prime competitors as other A-entertainment properties, whether it’s the NHL, NFL, those types of things. We need to put 43 cars on the track every weekend. Our teams can be somewhere between $10 million to $15 million per car. So, it’s a different proposition.”

There are four key areas that his team focuses on to make the competition closer and more exciting for fans. First, the car itself, with the technology, and what rules are put on the car.

The second one is the racing infrastructure and the track itself. NASCAR has not had a fatality at the national level since Dale Earnhardt Sr. crashed (2001 Daytona 500). Tracks now feature the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier “and when cars hit it, that already gives, it’s got an absorption system, which begins to take some of the kinetic energy off of it. Our objective there is to scrub some kinetic energy off, send the car back into the track without losing too much speed because we don’t want a huge closing speed differential, with the other cars coming. So we can bounce a guy off and get him back in the track moving at the same speed down the track, that’s our ideal world.”

Area three is the event itself when the event is happening. “There’s officiating that goes on at pit road and the tower. We’re doing some automated Pit Road officiating to bring more objectivity to the officiating piece of it to speed it up, to make it more accurate. Also deploying things like track drying.”

The fourth area is all about fan engagement “and how do we bring the fan in and a lot of that will be telematics out of the car and getting them into that whole part of it.” Even if or when the changes take place to reduce horsepower in NASCAR, Stefanyshyn says fans won’t notice a difference on the track, especially if it’s only a 5 mph difference in speed.

“What they want is side-by-side racing. They want to see a bit of bumping here and there once in a while. They want to see passes. They want to see different leaders. These are the kind of things they want to see.”

Momo wheel

Throughout NASCAR history, they’ve developed leading-edge safety equipment, like the HANS device to mobilize the head and stop it from whipping forward in a crash, without otherwise restricting movement of the neck. In a crash, an unprotected body is decelerated by the seatbelt with the head maintaining velocity until it is decelerated by the neck. “We have found a human body can easily endure 70 G’s of deceleration and even higher. So, we hold very, very firmly so the body doesn’t move. The next thing we need to do is contain the head (with the HANS device).”

For another perspective on G-force in a car, according to the PBS program Nova, in the car accident that killed Princess Diana, the G-forces on her chest were about 70 G’s (and 100 G’s on her head). That acceleration was enough to tear the pulmonary artery in her heart, an injury almost impossible to survive. If Diana had been wearing a seatbelt, the G-forces would have been in the neighborhood of 35 G’s, and she may have lived.

Stefanyshyn and his team also take a very holistic approach to the carbon footprint of the sport – not just the fuel cars consume but fans driving to their event and going home. The sport has developed its own fuel-recycling program called NASCAR Green.

“Actually, out of all professional sports, we are the biggest recycler and the most advanced in that area. We use E15 fuel in our cars. We’re always working on things to improve our carbon footprint.”

NASCAR under Stefanyshyn has just introduced an advanced track drying system called Air Titan 2.0. “On a per hour running basis vs. Air Titan 1.0 it reduces our fuel consumption and our CO2 by 80 per cent just on a per hour basis. Then if you put in the improved efficiency of the dry, where you need less time, we actually get a reduction of 90 per cent.”

Looking into the crystal ball, does he ever envision anything other than cars powered by internal combustion engines competing in NASCAR, possibly an electric car series?

Stock Cars
Cars in action during NASCAR race. (Photos provided)

“We’re very open minded to that. These decisions we don’t make on our own. We involve the owners and the teams. We involve the engine builders. We also involve our key OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). In this case, it’s Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota in these discussions because what we try to do is craft a strategy that creates great racing for our fans but also is relevant and supports our manufacturers’ participation in this sport. So, we’ve talked about electric – is this the way to go? But again, there is a lot of technology with KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and ERS in F-1. But when you talk about their $250-million bill to do that, there’s also the financial realities of it.” It’s clear Stefanyshyn loves the work he does. It’s that blend of business and technology that has kept him on track throughout his career.

“I just like moving the sport forward, and contributing. Making a difference really, knowing that I can come in and work with my team and if we have a problem, we can solve it. Not only solving a problem but we can move something that’s better and keep improving. Those are the kinds of things I enjoy, getting up in the morning and coming into work.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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