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Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine


Daytona 500: When all else fails, apply more Bondo

            The one semester of high school that I took auto shop, the teacher had a homemade sign over his desk with these words:  WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, APPLY MORE BONDO.
            I always thought that was a joke. Then came the 52nd running of the Daytona 500. When the 32-year old track surface of the Daytona International Speedway developed a three-foot by one-foot asphalt gash squarely in the center of the racing groove between turns one and two.
            The race was stopped to try and fix the hole. Twice. During it all, there was anger, confusion, and chaos. Drivers, never the most patient people in the world, became even more anxious than usual. NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway officials, never the most easy-going people in the world, became even more sensitive than normal. And the motorsports media corps, never the most sunny-side-up people in the world, became even cynical than normal.
            It had all the makings of the perfect NASCAR storm.
            Then someone pulled out a case of Bondo and literally mended the situation. And no, it wasn’t Mr. Johnson, my shop teacher.
            “In the middle of all the confusion we’re sitting there trying to figure out what we’re going to do next when and if the race restarts,” said Lance McGrew, crew chief on Dale Earnhardt Junior’s Chevy, which finished second on Sunday night. “All of the sudden, NASCAR officials up and down pit road started asking all the teams to hand over any Bondo we had on our trucks. I was like, what? Seriously?”
            Yes, seriously.
            For those of you that don’t know, Bondo is an epoxy - a putty - used by auto repair shops to fill dents or cover rusted body work on automobiles. It goes on wet, dries fast, ends up rock hard, and its use has expanded to repair everything from computer casings to tabletops to collectible Star Wars clone trooper helmets (not a joke, Google it). As of this weekend, we can add race tracks to that list.
            “To a car guy, Bondo ranks right up there with the wheel and fire when it comes to inventions and discoveries,” I was once told by Ryan Newman, a race car driver and engineer who also spends a good chunk of his time restoring his fleet of classic cars. We were shooting a TV story about restoring an old Ford. “No one knows exactly what Bondo is made of or how it works. They just know that it works on about anything. Anyone who has ever worked on a car before feels that way.”  
            Car people love Bondo like they love their own kin. When I lived in Bristol, CT I played in a daytime softball in a league full of auto mechanics and one team employed a young kid as their bat boy. His name, and I am not making this up, was Bondo.   
            For all I know, no part of the kid’s body was made up of a combination of thirty parts unsaturated polyester resin, ten parts flexible acrylic resin, forty parts 325 mesh talc powder, and five parts each titanium dioxide, styrene monomer, fumed silica, and hollow glass microspheres. But I’m thinking that if he’d ever accidentally cut his finger on the swing set, his daddy probably grabbed a can of Bondo before messing with the emergency room.
            “When all else fails,” McGrew said with a chuckle, “Apply more Bondo.” Apparently his teacher had the same sign.
            I write all of the above because I want you to understand the process that went into finally filling and ultimately fixing the now infamous Delaytona 500 pothole. During the first hour and a half delay, track and NASCAR engineers attempted to mend the wound with “Cold Patch”, the same stuff that you can use at home to repair asphalt tears in your driveway. It is essentially ground up recycled asphalt that is applied by spreading like a putty and also hardens in a hurry … usually.
            But the unseasonably cold weather in Daytona, made worse by the fact that the hole was draped in shade, kept the Cold Patch compound from bonding and curing as quickly as it normally would. That’s why we saw blow torches and jet dryers down there attempting to generate some heat in the asphalt. As we all know now, it didn’t work. As soon as the cars started hitting that spot at speeds nearing 200 mph the patch came undone.
            Their options exhausted, their patience shot, and with 200,000 fans booing and ready to bail on the Great American Race, the men who call the shots in NASCAR Race Control all at once heard the words of a thousand high school shop teachers ringing in their ears.
            As one pit road NASCAR official explained to me (he asked not to be identified): “Everyone that’s ever worked on a car knows that Bondo dries fast, even if it’s wet or cold. It gets harder than hell. And it’s white, which we thought might make it easier for Race Control up top and the drivers on the track to see any cracks that might come up. Part of the problem with the other stuff was that it was so dark you couldn’t see when it started to come apart. So we knew we wanted to try Bondo, we just had to find enough of it to fill such a big hole.”
            Not so long ago, Bondo was easy to find in the Cup Series garage. Before the Car of Tomorrow was introduced three seasons ago, the older car bodies and looser rule book allowed for more creativity when it came to what crew chiefs could do with the shape of their rides. Initial inspection mornings, especially at Daytona and Talladega, were covered in Bondo dust, as teams were told to reshape fenders, noses, and rooflines to fit the NASCAR templates.
            However, the one-size-fits-all CoT eliminated those gray areas and teams stopped carrying so many body men and so much Bondo to the track. They simply weren’t needed. Besides, if anyone needed more they could buy it from the handful of parts supply trucks that come to the track each weekend.
            One problem - by the time the crack had appeared the supply trucks had already left the track, standard operating procedure on race day. As McGrew recalled on Sunday, “That’s when they came looking for Bondo from us. And for what they needed, they had to round it up from a lot of people.”
            If they’d come to me I could have helped them out. No, I don’t keep a case of Bondo in the press box, but I could have reminded them that 3M bought the Atlanta-based Bondo folks two years ago. So I’m thinking Greg Biffle’s team, they of the number sixteen 3M Ford, probably could have hooked them up. (If nothing else, they could have met the giant red 3M “Pit Bull” that was hanging out in The Biff’s pit … pit bull, get it?)
            At any rate, they eventually found enough. So they started filling. And filling. And filling. And when they were done with the job that took less than half the amount to time that the previous Cold Patch attempt had taken (and eventually failed), they stepped back and allowed the fans to get their first glance at the repair job.
            “Holy cow…” one sportswriter said to another. “That patch is so white! Is that … Bondo?”
            Yes, yes it was. And for forty laps of ridiculously hard racing (eight more laps than the scheduled distance) the big white Bondo patch took a beating and kept on keeping on. The Daytona 500, er, 508, was completed. Dale Junior thrilled the crowd, Jamie McMurray cried, and for the most part everyone went home happy.