NASCAR's Robin Pemberton apologizes for Indy fiasco
Our guest today is NASCAR Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton. Robin, welcome.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Thanks for having me.
Q. We're just a bit past halfway in the 2008 season. What are your thoughts on the competition this far?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, I think we can get to that. But I think the first and foremost it's probably on everybody's mind right now is what went on with the tire situation this past weekend at Indianapolis.
You know, I can't say enough how sorry we are, and you know, it's our responsibility being NASCAR that we don't go through this situation again. We've already got after it, and we're moving forward with a plan to get ahead of the situation so we don't go through this again.
Once again, you know, I think it deserves to be said that the race didn't come off like we had hoped. The fans didn't get what they exactly wanted, and we'll do everything in our power and it won't happen again, I can tell you that much. So we're going to put a lot of effort towards it and get a better plan moving forward.
I just want to let everybody know and get ahead of that and try to put this behind us and we'll work hard, all us that are involved at Indianapolis - from the tire manufacturer to NASCAR, to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That being said, let's get on with the rest of the show.
DENISE MALOOF: Questions for Robin Pemberton.
Q. I was wondering with the Brickyard issues, obviously, does that help the cause for NASCAR to take some more responsibility in testing the new car and testing the tire? I know there had been some talk previously about forming an official Goodyear tire test team?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You know, that's been something that's been done in the past, a Goodyear tire testing. But one of the things that we have learned, we need to test the current cars, the cars with the current engines, the best horsepower, and you need to test with the best drivers that you can.
So having substitute drivers, I know it's been kicked around, but I think the examples are Darlington where we had Jeff Gordon, we had Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman there to conduct a test. They did a great job, and we got good information. We came out of Darlington with a great tire.
So we probably need to do a better job at testing different racetracks obviously, offer different challenges with their services. Indianapolis probably gave us the most trouble we've seen in recent history.
Q. Is it the high center of gravity and the roll or the decrease in downforce that's putting so much stress on these right side tires? And also knowing that you had an unknown quantity with the new car and the entire package this year, why didn't you go into this year and allow more testing on track-specific testing?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: We followed suit with last year's test policy. As you know, we allow the teams to pick as a group where they thought they needed to go test.
This car does have a little higher center of gravity. The track is a little bit wider. That does help make up for that with a lot of the safety features on this car, this car winds up having more of an even balance of weight from left to right, which, therefore, does load the right side tires a little bit more.
So taking the things that we have learned this year with our test policy and things of that nature, I'm sure – and I'll tell you now, we're taking a good look at it. We're probably in the 80% range on our test policy for next year.
We look at giving the teams more of an opportunity to test at places that they feel like they need the most help. So you won't see the big test that we've had in the last two or three years that we go and conduct and manage. It will be more of a team-specific type outing with the proper tires from Goodyear.
So that moving forward, moving forward will probably, I can almost guarantee that almost every track next year will have some sort of activity with a private test leading up to the race at some point in time.
Q. How much are the teams changing their set ups as they learn about the Car of Tomorrow? And how is that impacting the tires? In other words, if you tested in April at Indianapolis, are all the set-ups now totally different?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, I think that's a very fair question. You look in the past, and we've all said it, you know, we were on a 25-year history with basically the same chassis and body style. The car evolved, and as competition drives the car, the teams take and they perfect it and they get their advantages.
So I think the change in car from a team's perspective is probably, there's probably greater changes in shorter periods of time with this new car.
We haven't been to every racetrack yet. It was obviously the first time at Indianapolis. We've got Kansas City coming up. So I think if you couldn't take last year's set-ups and run them this year, I think the teams have evolved that much.
You know, we are forced and we'll have to do a better job at staying ahead of the curve on some of these issues as it comes to the teams and the tires and things like that. So to answer the question in short, I think six months is an eternity on car improvement from the team's side.
Q. I just want to get your reaction to Tony George's comments that this is NASCAR's problem not Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the track won't be changed for next year if you guys want to come back.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, I didn't get a chance to see that comment. It's obvious that we don't go there with the right car/tire combination. We raced them on that surface the last four years and realized we wouldn't ask them to change that surface. We've got to do a better job.
I didn't read Tony's comments. A few of the people have told me what they were. You know, we haven't asked the Speedway to make any such changes. We're just going to move forward and do a better job leading into the race when we get there next year.
Q. My question is that fans called in and said why not drag tires around the track? They would have been up all night if you could run cars around the track. Is there anything you could do overnight or could have done to get the track to come in and rubber in and still not have had a problem?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I think when you look back on the weekend, you know, Goodyear followed suit on their tire test in April like they have those past two or three years. And we know that it takes the track a while to rubber in.
You know, our best guess at it or Goodyear's best guest is it is going to take the same path that it did in previous years. It looks like it was headed in that direction on Friday. Friday was not much different than past Fridays at Indianapolis.
But Saturday it didn't rubber in, and we were left with tires that only lasted ten laps. Now the fans that wrote in and said why didn't you drag tires? We didn't realize until race time that the track wasn't going to be in tip-top shape at lap 40 like it was a year ago.
At the end of the day, you look at it, and we ran a 400 mile race there with 43 competitors and at the end of 400 miles, the track wasn't even rubbered in.
I don't think there's anything we could have done given the circumstances that could have gotten us over the hump and gotten the track rubbered in. It never did all day on Sunday.
Q. Do you think it's too late to adjust the schedule for the year? You mentioned Kansas, could you schedule some type of a test at Kansas before that race?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: When you look at the racetracks, there's a lot of them that are very similar, you know. Chicago, we just had a great race there. We've had the race at Charlotte and Atlanta.
So I think when we move forward, we've got one more test left that would be at Charlotte before the end of the year. So I think we should be in good shape as far as the testing goes.
We have added a test this year. We added the spring Charlotte event in hopes that that was going to help all of our mile-and-a-half to almost two-mile racetrack. So next year will be a different set of circumstances, and the test policy will be a little more wide open where teams can hit the places they need to hit. But right now we're not going to change where we're at.
Q. I wanted to ask there has been some talk about Goodyear possibly making a radical change to the wider tire. So is that possible without changing the car and the body of the car? I mean having a much larger tire made forcing a change in the car?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I'm going to answer that the best I can, your phone was breaking up. We had a bad connection there. We're working with Goodyear. As far as evaluating a wider tire, a tire that is a larger circumference that allows it to have a larger volume of air in there and helps its durability. I think part of your question was about the tire width and size versus the body. I think I got that out of it.
If we come to a place that Goodyear needs to be to help the performance help the tires and help the feel as far as the body goes, and the sheet metal, those type of things can be changed in a matter of days or weeks or months with proper planning.
We're looking at some different things with Goodyear. You know, we'll follow their lead on what they need to help the performance and durability of the tires.
Q. You talked about moving forward, what does that mean? What kind of things will you start doing from this point on?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, moving forward, I don't know what specifically you're getting at. I think that until we get through a full round of testing and at least a full round of races on this car, I think we have to go in and probably go the extra measure of– I think it refers to the fact that we've thought Indianapolis was going to take a normal path for us like it has in past years.
I think what we'll have to do is just put the extra effort forward and make sure that we do get everything, everything covered as it relates to what we're all talking about today which is tires and car. You know, I think the test policy moving forward for next year will be a little bit more liberal and will help us do that.
Q. Eight years it's been building, researching and developing the Car of Tomorrow. Where was Goodyear in all the process? How involved did you guys let them get?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, Goodyear has been involved right along. I mean, their tire tests, they have been running load sensors at all their tire tests comparing last year or the old car compared to the new car. So they've been getting plenty of information on what it takes to develop a tire that's a little more durable and will handle the loads.
But when you look at Indianapolis, it's, yeah, the car loads up a little bit harder on the right-hand side. But at Indianapolis, the tire handled the load. The tire just could not handle the wear rate, and that's a little bit of a different situation.
Q. Just two quick things, ultimately, was it a lose-lose situation in regards to fans when you guys throw the competition caution, they don't like that racing. If you guys were to let them race and blow tires, again they'd be upset with that.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Repeat the question again?
Q. Regarding the competition cautions being thrown. If you guys throw the cautions, the fans are upset. If you don't and tires get blown, the fans are upset at that as well
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah. I mean, our goal – we have to run the race and we have to run the safest race possible. When we're in situations that we think we have to take control under adverse set of circumstances, that's what we do.
At the end of the day it's about safety. I think that if we allowed the race to just run and have a caution fall naturally every time somebody had a tire issue or whatever it wound up being, I think you would have wound up with more cautions.
To get ahead of it and to have the safest route possible, we had to take control and we had to do what we did. Let them run 10 or 11 laps at a time and let the caution fly.
Q. We all saw that, obviously, the track didn't rubber up and the tires turned into a very fine powder. Do you guys know specifically why that happened or what happened that was different from in years past?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, that's where we're confused. We had an extensive call this morning with Goodyear, quite lengthy. They're looking into things to see if there is something. Right now the right sides – it's the same compound. I was assured that it was the same compound that we had run there the last three races, basically. The left side was softer to help the driving part of the car and the construction was a little bit different.
It is something we have seen in the past, but I don't think we've seen the powder to that extent. We're still working on it. We're trying to find out what was different, if anything, but everybody's pointing towards the fact that the rubber looked to be a little bit drier or a little bit dustier look. So we're going to look into it and find out, you know, exactly what it is.
Q. I am curious, are you worried as you go forward? Are you worried about Kansas?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: No, no, not at all. We've had good success with our mile-and-a-half race tracks. You know, I don't think we have any concern whatsoever. We haven't had any tire problems at any of our tracks this year.
Atlanta, we probably overshot them. I think the vast majority of drivers thought that the tire was too conservative there. Goodyear's gone back. I believe it was about a week ago, and they're done doing a test there in Atlanta to get that tire more grip.
So Indianapolis is a one offset of circumstances with the surface being as abrasive as it is, and it just goes back to not doing as a group not doing the best job that we probably could have to have a good tire there at Indy.
When you look at Kansas City, Chicago, and all the other places the rest of the year, there should not be any issues whatsoever.
Q. I noticed on TV on Sunday you were down on pit road. A, is that normal? B, when did you realize that you needed to get actively involved in things?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: A, it was not normal. I'll throw a 1a in there. It's not like I remembered it six years ago when I was stuck on pit road on a toolbox.
But we knew going into the race that I was going to go down when we started on the first competition yellow. And talked to some of the crew chiefs, get a good feel for what they thought the driver comments, things of that nature.
So I was down there at lap 8, and made a couple of visits during the race back up to the tower. Trying to communicate with Mike Helton and John Darby and myself what the crew chiefs were saying, what the drivers were relating to the crew chiefs.
Q. NASCAR.com is reporting that Mexico City is off the schedule for next year's nationwide series. What is the reasoning behind that?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, if that announcement's true which it hasn't been confirmed to me just yet. But through the years we go to different places. We've always gone. We've gone to Australia. We've gone to Japan. We've gone to Mexico.
I think Mexico, I don't think we've ever said that we would be there permanently. We went down there to establish, to help establish a new series down there, the Mexico Corona Series. And that series has taken off nicely. They built some new facilities, remodeled some, car counts are great. And their series has really, really gotten a good boost from the Nationwide cars being down there in Mexico City.
I don't think that we've ever been a real – we're not going to be global, you know. But we'll race in and out of the United States occasionally. We've always done that. Done that for 20 years that I know of.
Q. My question is off the tires and on your experience. Can you comment on the impact of engineering and technology, the most important changes on NASCAR racing say in the past decade?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: The changes in technology in the last decade?
Q. Yes, and the influence.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: It's been incredible. And I think it's been the support of the manufacturers. I think when a number of years ago, the manufacturers had all the cool equipment. They had their own wind tunnels. They introduced teams to compliance, KNC rigs, they introduced the teams to Shaker Rigs 7 Posters.
I think as the sport has continued to grow, we've generated a lot of interest with our younger guys and gals coming along that are real car buffs that come along with their engineering degrees. I think they've been instrumental in encouraging their teams and team owners to make budgets available to put a lot of that equipment into or into the race teams and in house.
So many of the teams that you talk to nowadays they own their own 7 Post and Pulldown rigs and KNC rigs. Many of the teams have strong affiliates with wind tunnels.
The Haas Group, they've got their own wind tunnel, which they sell time to over here in Concord. Roger Penske has his own scale-model wind tunnel. I think Red Bull has used its own tunnel in Europe. I know the manufacturers have used many, many test facilities around the country.
So it's something that I think as the sport has grown we've had a really, really big influx of new, young, talented guys and gals out of college that have really taken this sport and pushed it very, very quickly along in the technology world. So it's just been a logical progression over the last ten years. It's grown immensely.
Q. How do you not beat yourself up personally on something like this? Or do you take it personal when an event goes like this?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: That's a personal question, and I'll be glad to answer it. Everybody takes it personal. There's a reason we're here. There's a reason Mike Helton is who Mike Helton is, and John Darby and myself and all the series directors.
You know, I've been in I think next year will be my 30th year in the cup garage. You know, I love this sport. We all love this sport. We take it personal.
I grew up a race fan, and only being able to watch tape-delayed broadcasts on Wide World of Sports or wherever it wound up being. We take it and it hurts us when we have a weekend like we've had.
There is nothing worse than coming away from a race and knowing that the result wasn't even close. It wasn't even close. It wasn't even in the 25 percentile of what we're capable of doing and what we do, week-in, and week-out.
So I don't feel real good about it right now. I think if you had talked to anybody that's been around me the last 48 hours, they'll probably back me up on that. It's difficult, it's hard. We do beat ourselves up.
But, you know, that's what makes us one of the best Motorsports in the entire world. We take it personal. When we see things we know we can fix, we're going to go fix them. That's what we're going to set out to do. We're going to put this behind us. When we go back to Indianapolis next year, we'll probably have the best brickyard race we've ever had.
DENISE MALOOF: Robin, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Appreciate it.
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