Daytona and NASCAR Racing: It’s a family affair

Dave Le Beau is old school. Having raced his own cars for nearly two decades and now helping his son, Dylan, break into the racing world, he knows all about what he puts on the track. He built, maintained, and repaired race cars after wreckage.

Le Beau, 53, is also the lead mechanic for the NASCAR Racing Experience Daytona International Speedway, the company’s most famous track. It’s a big responsibility. The NRE may have 10 or more cars on a 2.5-mile, 31-degree oval on a busy day, between junior students learning to drive and riding passengers.

Every race car must be in top condition before being introduced into the race lane, and for all that time running on a given day. You don’t want to break a part, or blow a tire, at 170 mph, causing an accident, no matter how well the cars are built.

We’ve already discussed company-wide safety practices and NRE maintenance procedures with Founder and CEO Robert Lutz, and COO Chris Daniel (story links below). Here, we get to learn more about the subtleties on a daily basis—where rubber meets asphalt, if you will. Here are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation with Le Beau, who is soft-spoken and thoughtful.

Jim Clash: I try to explain to friends that I’m actually safer in a race car at 170 mph than it is at 80 mph in an SUV or sports car. But it usually falls on deaf ears. Am I right in my assumptions?

Dave LeBeau: Yes. What we drive in Daytona is a custom-engineered, full roll cage, fire safety-equipped car built for high speed on the racetracks. A passenger car is not. They are built to look good. Ferraris and Lamborghinis are very fast, for example, but to make them follow cars, they’d need a lot of changes—strengthening the braking system, adding a roll bar, for starters. Our cars don’t have computers, like passenger cars, so we don’t have such a thing as traction control that can fail in a regular car. I think some Ferraris have rack-and-pinion steering, while ours is all direct and simple.

In short, it’s day and night between the two types of cars. You build a race car with the understanding that you are going to destroy it. Passenger cars have some built-in safety systems – airbags and simple seat belts – but for the most part they are designed for comfort and appearance. So yeah, it’s probably safer at higher speeds in a race car then at lower speeds in a passenger car on the highway.

Clash: Sometimes when I’m on a plane, I think about Earth’s mechanics — did they get it right, did they miss anything? You can’t just pull over to the side of the highway and call AAA. I suppose something similar is the case with racing cars?

Le Beau: Racing and flying are parallel. In aviation, you have checklists, maintenance schedules, hour meters—for us, it’s the mileage counters. In addition to all our company-wide long-term maintenance, every morning at every track we run visual and mechanical checks, whether it be fluids, belts, tires, brakes, etc. This is all done before the vehicle is presented to the ride driver or student.

Then, while the car is on track, I’ll be there not only looking at tire wear—making sure you haven’t picked anything up—but also at temperatures, fuel levels in the gauges, fluid leaks, and weird sounds. The student or the ride-hailing driver may not even know what I’m looking at. But I make mental notes about what to tackle now, or maybe later, after a few more laps.

At the end of the day, there is another examination paper. There is a lot of repetition, as in aircraft maintenance. If something is not flagged, the car must be returned to the mechanic. Each team member assists with these checks. But all said and done, it falls on me to make sure everything is as smooth as possible. It’s a demanding job.

Clash: You’ve gone down other NRE tracks. But there is just something about Daytona that feels special.

Le Beau: The Daytona is the crown jewel in any racer’s mind. So we have a sense of pride here. The foundation was laid, of course, back years. I have been with and prior to NRE for the past 14 years. When Bob (Lutz) started the company as Richard Petty Driving Experience in the ’90s, he designed the policies and procedures, the check sheets, all that stuff we trained on. Now that’s changed some over the years, and things have been added.

Our crew, operating under the direction of Mike (Carullo) and Kelly (Coogler), of course under the leadership of Chris (Daniel) and Bob (Lotz), work as a team. I am an important part, but it’s not just me. Doug Howard, Drew (Gil) and Albert (Gutierrez) all work with me on the mechanical side. We all have special talents where one may be stronger than the other, but that’s why it works. You have a family atmosphere here. That’s what makes Daytona special to me, and this job is fun.

Clash: I suppose you’ve probably worked most NRE jobs, from connecting customers to cars, to managing a lane of freshmen, to spotting. Spotting, where you’re high in the stands, guiding a student by radio as he circles the oval himself, seems particularly difficult.

Lu Bu: The students are nervous. They’re in Daytona, a special place in its own right. They are wearing a fire suit with helmet and Hans device. They are tied with a narrow belt. It might be hot. The engine is noisy. Most of them have never sat in a race car, and now have to make up for a test drive.

So first, you can’t make it matter if the student is having trouble getting out of the hole way. It may have been a while since they’ve driven a car with a clutch. Once they are on the right track, tell them to breathe and trust the car. Sometimes they get so caught up in the full thrust of the thing, they forget to turn the wheel. Sometimes they think that by turning the wheel, the car will loose and spin. It won’t – cars with wide tires that don’t have tread, are designed to make left turns at high speed. I always try to maintain a calm demeanor, too, let students know they’re doing well when they’re doing, and assure me that they’re going to be okay, and that they should try to enjoy it. If your anxiety level is too high, you can’t enjoy it, and that’s not how we want our customers to feel.

(Editor’s note: Next is an interview with Mike Carollo, Track Director at Daytona, the final part of this four-part NRE series.)

More from ForbesWith 33 years in the racing school business, Bob Lutz is looking aheadMore from ForbesThe skills of a good racing car mechanic cannot be overstated. Life depends on it
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(tags to translation) Daytona International Speedway

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