Mark Howell · Thursday July 14, 2011
Last week’s Sprint Cup electronic fuel injection test, held at Kentucky Speedway was one of those memorable days when you could almost hear a page being turned in NASCAR’s history book. Not that EFI was an overnight development – teams have been working on this technology for almost three years – but to watch cars circle the track and log lap times using this most “common” of fuel delivery systems was nothing short of fascinating. NASCAR’s use of carburetors has been questioned and debated for years, at least since mass-produced automobiles switched away from that form of equipment back in the 1980s. Certainly, it’s taken the sanctioning body awhile to catch up, but now, all looks good for a change to electronic fuel injection in 2012. That doesn’t mean, however, that the overall reception for injection will be a happy one, at least for those Cup teams struggling with limited manufacturer assistance and reduced/disappearing sponsorship. Fuel injection on Cup cars might be the next big thing in NASCAR racing, but it’ll come with a big price tag as older parts give way to newer ones.
As has been the case with blocking other changes in technology, the elephant-in-the-race shop has been money – as in “how expensive will this mandated switchover be?” It’s the same question we heard, and the same concern we expressed, a few years ago when the “Car of Tomorrow” became the “Car of Today.” The idea was really quite simple: a Cup team could arguably (with massive emphasis on this particular word) compete for an entire NASCAR season with a stable of two or three cars. A focused approach toward cost containment was put into place, especially as the national economy showed signs of weakness and the “Great Recession” loomed ahead on the financial horizon. Brett Bodine, the former car owner/driver who campaigned consistently on an annual fraction of the funding enjoyed by the bigger (and often more competitive) Sprint Cup teams, was charged with the job of trying to help engineers develop a new style of stock car that would be safer, more standardized to build, and less expensive to maintain.
The CoT became a reality, but to the tune of race team budgets that found themselves stretched beyond recognition. Fleets of “old style” cars housed in shops all across the Piedmont suddenly became obsolete, so much so that teams had trouble getting rid of them. Some of the “antiques” made their way into ARCA competition, but the weakening economy limited the number of teams capable of affording the Sprint Cup castoffs. The same will be seen yet again once electronic fuel injection becomes the new NASCAR standard in 2012.
Think, for a moment, about the number of engines built, raced, and maintained by a Sprint Cup team. Think, then, about the sheer number of parts and pieces needed to keep those engines operational. Every engine runs a carburetor, and engines use varying numbers of different/highly-specifically tuned carburetors, all dependent on the demands of the race, the track, and the performance-output sought by the driver, the crew chief, and the team. With a simple revision of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rulebook, race teams will suddenly find themselves with an excessive amount of worthless equipment. As other divisions shift to new technologies on the heels of those Cup changes, the “aftermarket” audience for out-of-date and out-of-use carburetors will cease to exist; instead, many tens of thousands of dollars will sit on storeroom shelves as “what is” quickly becomes “what was”.
Not that the conversion over to electronic fuel injection will be cheap. Some early estimates have these McLaren-built (as in Formula One) systems costing as much as $26,000 per car, but then rumors travel fast and deep across NASCAR Nation. As Robin Pemberton alluded to during a press conference last week at the Kentucky test sessions, such a change involves “upfront costs”. How severe these “upfront costs” will be has yet to be seen, but race teams will certainly have to pay-to-play if they hope to compete in 2012.
As sponsorship continues to be scarce, I’m reminded of the late Neil Bonnett and his observation regarding the inherent nature of racing in NASCAR: “How fast can you afford to go?” To paraphrase NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson: “The best way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a big one.” Emerging technology is always costly, even if it makes fans happy by putting Sprint Cup cars one tiny step closer to the machines we see on our streets and highways every day.
The correlation here relates back to NASCAR’s emphasis on what they call “cost containment…” or in this case, lack thereof. Yes, in NASCAR, there is – realistically, if a team hopes to run well on a consistent basis – no such thing. When asked about the lifespan of McLaren’s Electronic Control Units (ECUs) for Sprint Cup engines, John Darby said that a Cup team “could feasibly race 38 [events] with two race cars, excluding damage.” Race teams could, therefore, swap out their ECUs from car-to-car as needed. Such was NASCAR’s argument in favor of the CoT.
Yet The idea behind the CoT was that the car’s standardized design and construction would render multi-car stables of eighteen or twenty Cup machines obsolete. Even the smallest (as in least-funded) operation could compete each week over the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule with – on paper, and in theory, at least – as few as two of the new cars: one for oval tracks and perhaps one for road courses (which call for a fuel dry-break/filler tube on the right side). Given the damage from a wreck on any given weekend, a Cup team might keep a third car as a replacement, but even this additional cost might be considered excessive.
The COT was intended to keep costs under control, but the theory behind the new car was unrealistic. Walk into any Sprint Cup race shop today, and you’ll see the same old “fleet” of race cars; the number of cars may be reduced by a few, but any team running for a place in the Chase will still be maintaining a stable of Cup cars well up in the double digits. As such, any switch in equipment or technology will require a wholesale swap from the “old” to the “new”. Since Sprint Cup teams run with a large inventory of cars and parts, moving to electronic fuel injection will be a significant change involving both time and money.
But finances aside, the move to electronic fuel injection won’t be a major evolutionary step for NASCAR. Allow me to whip out my double-edged sword, as I’ll even go one step further: the switch from carburetion to fuel injection might just prove to be one of those watershed moments in NASCAR’s history. This technological transition might rank right up there with other equipment adaptations, like the inclusion of power “assisted” steering and power brakes. Might electronic fuel injection be regarded someday as one of those developments that forever changes the nature of competition, as was the case when inner-liner, “safety” tires were developed many years ago? It’s impossible to say now, but could the transition to EFI in 2012 offer more benefits over the long run than we ever thought were possible during the era of carburetion?
One of the selling points for electronic fuel injection is the environmental angle: the notion that fuel injection saves gasoline by controlling usage and reducing waste. Fuel injection lets engines burn only the amount of gasoline they require, without the excess build-up that ignites inside exhaust headers and results in the bursts of fire often seen when the cars exit the corners on short tracks. This “environmentally-friendly” approach is another way that NASCAR has been thinking globally while acting locally. The same is true for the new dry break/vented fueling system that’s been in place since the start of the 2011 season; while eliminating the need for a catch-can crewman, the new system also reduces fuel spillage and evaporation. This development in a “greener” approach to racing is another market-driven pressure that NASCAR has had to consider. If the sport wants to attract younger fans (especially that pesky, hard-to-catch “twenty-something” audience), swapping green flags for “green” technology is essential.
We know that electronic fuel injection saves a bit of gasoline, we know it allows race cars to run a bit cleaner, we know that this technology puts Cup cars a tad closer to the machines we drive each day… but we also know that EFI will enable Sprint Cup engines to run longer, and with fewer race-ending failures, because of their increased (and computer-controlled) efficiency. Engines have been getting stronger and more durable for years now, but might the advent of EFI allow Cup motors to run harder and longer and, in a very small way, actually cost race teams less money over the course of a season? Any cost-cutting measure is a good one, so long as higher performance isn’t lost in search of higher savings. NASCAR administration needs to remember that it’s all about the fans, and fans are all about the racing.
But winning widespread fan approval is only one aspect of the electronic fuel injection conversion. Yet another aspect seems deeply rooted in NASCAR’s need to maintain control over its race teams and the overall ebb-and-flow of competition. Because the injection systems to be used are controlled by computers, it will be simpler for teams to keep an eye on the performance of their engines; individual cylinders can be “tweaked” so as to provide the best/most appropriate amounts of fuel necessary to maximize horsepower and efficiency. This flexibility comes, however, with what might be seen as a less-than-optimal fringe benefit – one that puts competition squarely in the hands of NASCAR officials and administration. It may not seem very realistic, but what in the world of NASCAR ever truly is?
The computerized nature of this new fuel injection technology allows for an even-more “transparent” competitive culture within the Sprint Cup Series. In the words of NASCAR’s John Darby, at the Kentucky Speedway test session’s press conference: “The one advantage, I guess, or the one additional feature to all of the fuel injection components is there’s obviously the ability to log and record everything that happens during the process of today…. we don’t have to stand over their [the Cup teams’] shoulder to watch anything. We can walk in tonight, hook up, [and] walk off with what we need to look at.”
While Darby’s comments in Kentucky were in regard to gathering data collected during that day’s test runs, one can only presume that the sanctioning body has the ability to gather and regulate fuel injection criteria before and after races, as well. Will mandated use of fuel injection provide NASCAR with a new way to govern its competitors, limiting the sizes of nozzles used and electronically “snooping” into the amounts of fuel being atomized and shot into race engine cylinders? If NASCAR can download fuel injection data, what’s to say that the sanctioning body can’t also upload said data in an attempt to control race day performance? It’s already fairly apparent that restrictor plates will go the way of the carburetor next year, but will the attitude of “Boys, have at it” be the mantra of fuel injection in 2012? As we’ve seen over the decades, if there’s something to monitor, govern, and/or control, NASCAR will give it its best shot.
Electronic fuel injection allows NASCAR to do all three…
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