Even as the group first walked inside the door to the massive Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant – wearing clear plastic eyeglasses, sporting tape over any metal pieces on our clothing – it was immediately clear the awe and excitement this particular “tour” was generating; and it went both ways.
The many hard-working plant assembly workers were obviously delighted to host Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet drivers Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman and their crew chiefs earlier this week in advance of Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
And the drivers were equally as intrigued by what awaited them inside the building – part of 3.4-million square feet of massive hyper-organized assembly space for the street-version of their Camaro ZL1 Cup cars.
“This is a lot bigger than what I was expecting,” Larson said smiling. “I guess I didn’t really know what to expect but I was really surprised at how smoothly everything looks like it’s run, and all the technology that goes into here to build one car is pretty spectacular.
“There’s stuff from floor to ceiling moving, bicycles riding around with parts, people in here and everything’s running so smooth.”
This was a sort of behind-the-curtains look at an automotive “Oz” for the drivers and a much-appreciated red carpet access for all the proud workers, eager to show off their wares and offer encouragement for “their” NASCAR racers.
One stop on the assembly line where the chassis was “married” to the fully-constructed underbody amazingly lasted no longer than a minute and a half. Each station in the building was so refined and efficient it amounted to roughly a minute per job from dashboard installation to the check ride at the end. Complete build – very start to fine finish – for a car is 48 hours.
Yet as mechanically interesting as this rare opportunity was, it was a definitely a reminder of the strong human connection the sport has maintained and benefitted from. Especially here, where it all begins.
One woman working at a station near the windshield assembly proudly pointed to a computer screen flashing a huge color screenshot of Bowman’s famed No. 88 Chevrolet.
Everywhere the drivers walked through the building – navigating a carefully routed walkway alongside and underneath amazing assembly machines – it was very obvious how much the hundreds of workers loved the sport and these competitors.
One man installing dashboards wore a vintage No. 24 shirt honoring NASCAR Hall of Fame’s newly-elected and long-time Chevy driver Jeff Gordon. Alongside another workstation a large piece of cardboard read, “If you’re not first, you’re last” – referencing the popular racing movie, “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
There were bright red “42” hats, a nod to Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing car number. And the Cup rookie Bubba Wallace generated a long line of “selfie” seekers, eager for a chance to meet their favorite driver.
Wallace, who drives Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Meijer Camaro ZL1, was as interested in the process as the people manning the process were in him.
“I think about we’re in 2018 and we’ve already got robots and assembly machines, so what’s it going to be like in the next 10-20 years? What are we going to see?” he said smiling as he looked all around. “It’s really … really cool to be here today and see how the Camaros are built from start to finish.”
Alex Bowman echoed the sentiment. His family owns a body shop in Arizona and the afternoon definitely hit home for him in many ways.
“I think it’s just cool to see how everything is all scienced-out and efficient, how quickly everything goes together,” said Bowman, who drives the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet. “I grew up in a body shop and worked on cars my whole life, really mechanically inclined. So I know how long things take to fix at a body shop so to see a whole car get built here so quickly is really cool.
“Everything comes ready-to-go and in the right order, and it’s cool how the dashes come in all ready and then the drivetrains. .. it’s pretty incredible.”
Beyond the behind the scenes, all three drivers were given back slaps and asked questions about this weekend’s race at the nearby Michigan two-miler. Larson, who has won the last three races at the track, was cautiously optimistic. He didn’t want to overstate his chances or underestimate his expectations.
A fourth victory for Larson Sunday would tie NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott’s standard of consecutive excellence here. But Larson hasn’t won yet this season. Chevrolet’s lone 2018 victory came in a last lap pass from Austin Dillon in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Of course, standing in the midst of the most positive support imaginable – a building full of Camaro’s most ardent fans – it was easy to feel that a trophy is more imminent than not.
“I guess I don’t really think about the wins I’ve had there. … I go in there as it’s another race I’m trying to win and hopefully we’re as strong as we have been the last few times,” said Larson, who will start 26th in his No. 42 Credit One Bank Camaro. “Just got to wait and see. But you definitely have a little more confidence when you come back to a place you’ve won at.”
Wallace and Bowman remained equally as optimistic that Chevrolet was due for another trophy soon. Both are in the first full seasons with their teams but have shown glimpses of what success is possible. Wallace was runner-up in the Daytona 500 and added another top-10 at Texas Motor Speedway in April. Bowman has four top-10s and is ranked 16th in the standings.
Wallace is a big fan of the Michigan track, where he scored a Camping World Truck Series race victory last season. He started 26th and finished 19th in the season’s second Cup race at Michigan – one of four races he ran filling in for RPM’s then-injured driver, Aric Almirola.
“Look what we did in August in the truck race? I love Michigan, always have,” he said grinning. “Even in the Xfinity car, we had some great runs.
“I did a Cup run here and I really learned what a big wimp I was when I thought I wasn’t,” he allowed with a big grin. “This was a humbling week for me last year so I’m excited to get back and give it another shot.”
Bowman is similarly encouraged about the weekend. He will roll off 21st on Sunday and is looking for his first top-10 in his sixth start at Michigan.
“It’s one of my stronger tracks I feel like, but it’s tough though,” he said. “It’s hard to race, but it’s fun to drive. I enjoy coming here. We were strong in testing and I think we can be really good.”
“Overall, I feel like we’re getting closer. We’ve obviously been off, but we’ve made progress every week and we’re getting closer and getting better. If we continue to do that, success is right around the corner.”
And pride was the all-access pass this week.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!