Behind the Scenes with a NASCAR Engineer

In professional motorsports, while the camera might only focus on the driver, there is an army of specialists behind him providing the tools to win. Phillip Bell is a lead engineer for J.R. Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team. A seasoned engineer with six years of experience in the position, and countless years under the hood of a racecar, Bell has been a part of two championship teams with many wins under his belt.

As an engineer, Bells’ job is to analyze data that helps build a racecar.  He goes between the Crew Chief and the mechanics and relays information to prep the car for a race.  He focuses on things such as vehicle dynamics and driver feedback, tracking the drivers’ car and also the competitor’s car. 

NASCAR is known for having the longest season of any professional sport, with 38 races spanning 10 months. With each track being different, the cars need to change almost entirely for each race. The team must waste no time between races in order to perfect the setup.

“The more data you have, the better your car’s going to run. The more data I can give the driver, it helps him do his job better,” said Bell. “Same with the Crew Chief. The more data I give him, the better decisions he can make regarding the cars. The more data I give the mechanics, the faster they get the job done.”

On Feb. 15th, Bell’s team, with driver Noah Gragson, won the Xfinity season opener at Daytona International Speed. After the celebration, the team loaded up the car, and hopped on their plane back to Charlotte, North Carolina.  Bell took his seat, grabbed his laptop and got right back to work on the next weekend’s car.

Racing is in Bell’s blood.  His grandfather Hence Pollard built Senoia Raceway in 1969, and the family never got away from it.  Before he could even walk, Bell was tagging along to watch his dad and uncle race, and eventually his older cousin.  At eight years old, he finally got to join the fun and race a car as well.

Bell graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in mechanical engineering, after growing up in a family deeply intertwined with motorsports. Growing up in the sport, working on racecars always came naturally to him.  He raced for most of his childhood but found true enjoyment in what was under the hood and wanted to make the cars that he worked on the most advanced and powerful vehicles on the track.
            “Starting at an early age gave me a better foundation. It gave me a big base for the big picture in terms of racing,” said Bell. “I learned the basics and had the fundamentals down, then when I got my engineering degree I learned why it happened like it did. I already knew what happened with changes, but I learned how with my engineering degree.”

As he got older, Bell knew his calling would be under the hood and not in the seat.  He found his true enjoyment in working on his cars, rather than just racing. He got his first professional experience working on ARCA driver Frank Kimmel’s car at the age of 15.  At that point he was still too young to travel alone, so his dad, Jon, would tag along and worked as Kimmels’ spotter. 

After graduating high school Bell moved to Indiana to continue working for Kimmel, but three weeks later decided to move to Charlotte and work towards his engineering degree instead.  He got a job working under NASCAR legend Ken Schrader on one of his KSR teams.  Here, Bell moved from a mechanical position to an engineering position.  The transition was not necessarily expected and took time to adapt from the very hands on work, but it helped him find his niche.
            “There’s always small curves, but it was generally the same path. I mean you always get off to a certain extent, you adapt and overcome with changes,” Bell said. “But mainly it was pretty straight. We knew what we were going to do young and just made it happen.”

In 2016, JR Motorsports hired Bell. The team has evolved greatly in the last four years, with all four cars being top contenders on the track every weekend.  Although the four JRM teams share a workshop and information, they are still competitors.  Communication between the teams can serve as a challenge. 
            “You have a bunch of different personalities in racing. People from all walks of life,” said Bell. “It’s the biggest challenge. It’s like that in any business really. It’s about getting the most out of myself and the others.”

After a strong start to the season, Bell and the number 9 team look forward to another great year. Now that they’ve secured their spot in The Chase, NASCARs’ version of playoffs, looks to continue to perfect craft and to chase the ultimate goal of a championship.



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