In nonracing nomenclature, happy hour is when you gather with friends and imbibe a favorite adult beverage after work-but at the racetrack it means something entirely different. In Winston Cup racing, the final hour of practice is known as happy hour. This is the time for a final critical on-track race car evaluation before the green flag waves. The name seems to be derived from the fact that everyone is generally happy (maybe even giddy!) to have made the show, and that race action begins the next day
It's during this hour that each team shifts into a final prerace strategy to make sure the car and driver are ready to go racing. Throughout the whirlwind hour, teams are trying to get the car dialed in. If all has gone well in qualifying and early morning practice, this hour is kinder and gentler. If not, this can be an excruciating time. In either case, each team has mapped out a plan of how to get the car and driver tuned for the show.
At the second Charlotte Winston Cup event, we spoke with three crewchiefs to better understand how teams approach the final hour of practice. We asked Doug Hewitt, Bill Ingle, and Larry McReynolds to give us their approach to happy hour.
The Bahari team springs into action, making adjustments during happy hour at Charlotte.
Crewchief-Bahari Racing car #30 driven by Derrike Cope
"What we do in the final practice has a lot to do with how well we do in qualifying. For instance, if you don't qualify in the first round, it's hard to get focused on happy hour because you still have to get into the race. In that scenario, the morning practice is concerned with qualifying issues. On the other hand, on a day like today we are the pole sitter, so the early morning practice allows us to go through a number of changes that help us zero in on the more specific changes we will make during the final hour of practice. We obviously prefer this situation to having to qualify in the second round.
"You really can't talk about happy hour in isolation. Early morning practice has a lot to do with our approach to the afternoon session. Beginning with morning practice, the first thing we do is get the car dialed in chassiswise. That means we will try different setups with springs, shocks, and tires to see the kind of feel we get from the car. Once we've narrowed that down, we turn our attention to the final hour of testing.
"At the final hour, one of the first things that happens is our engine builder Ron Puryear will do a plug check after a few laps have been made. This will tell us if we have any engine concerns. If all is well, we continue our procedure. Since we have narrowed our setup scheme from early practice, we go out and put laps on the car to tweak the setup. We do a couple more plug checks as well read the carburetor jetting. Once we have the car right, we put about 25-30 laps on the car to see how it may change. During these laps we also are racing with other drivers to see how we stack up and to see how the car runs in traffic. If everything has gone well, we bring the car in, fill it with gas, put on sticker tires, and run 20-30 laps for a final race-conditions check of the car. This also helps us pinpoint adjustments we may have to make on race day.
Hurry up and wait. Much of the time crewmembers play the waiting game during happy hour. T
"Most of the time our strategy remains the same from race to race, but it will differ some depending on where you are in the field. For instance, if you are in the back of the field, you may do larger changes in an effort to put you with the faster cars during practice. But, if you are with the top runners, you don't have as much to change.
"When happy hour time is over, our driver Derrike Cope and I go through a debriefing. We talk about any lingering concerns or changes we need to make before the next day's race."
Happy Hour Hiccup
"As it happened, today our engine was not up to the performance we had hoped for. That did not alter the adjustments we made during the session, but we knew we were faced with an engine change after happy hour. That is a disadvantage, because now we will be racing with an engine we have not practiced with and that may have different characteristics than it did during practice. That, of course, is a situation no team likes-especially when you're on the pole."