Weekly NASCAR Q & A · Mike Neff · Thursday September 13, 2012
After speaking with Doug Yates last week about growing up around racing and how he ended up in the engine business, we’ll explore the technical side of building engines that go very fast. Fans always hear about finding horsepower and helping cars gain speed. Yates will give fans a glimpse at what it takes to make a car produce horsepower, talk about his role in the EFI program for NASCAR and settles the direct fuel injection vs. throttle body injection question. He also touches on Hendrick’s engines woes at Michigan, building engines for drag boats and aftermarket performance nuts.
Mike Neff: EFI was a big initiative for NASCAR and it was a big initiative for you too. How did it come about that you were selected to spearhead the whole EFI effort?
Doug Yates: For one, we kind of raised our hand. I think a lot of it goes back to our history; how passionate we are and I am about our sport. Somebody needs to stand up and try to help promote the fact that these are arguably the highest tech engines in racing, in the world, and they have a carburetor sitting on top of them. It really doesn’t make much sense.
We have been fortunate enough to work with some Formula 1 engine suppliers and suppliers of components of engines around the world and every single one of them, when they see our facilities and they see our technology and when they look at our people and what we can do — they are blown away by what happens here every Sunday. However, when you look at pushrods and carburetors, that part is pretty low tech in the grand scheme of everything and it is not relevant to the manufacturers who support our series.
We are Ford, and Ford Motor Company wants us to be racing something that is relevant. When fans are sitting in the stands, it is a great story that they can see something that resembles Ford Motor Company. Even when the hood is shut, guys are still up there pulling for Fords, and Chevys, and Toyotas, and they want that power plant to be something that is representative of Ford. The NASCAR piece to become more high tech, the Ford piece to become more relevant and the right thing for the environment in the fact that we can cut fuel off when it is off throttle saves a lot, were all benefits to this program. These engines are 10-15% more efficient because of fuel injection. That is a big leap. It is hard to get an engine that makes 900 horsepower and turns 9,600rpm to make very good fuel mileage. A 10 percent improvement was pretty big.
Anyway, we put ourselves out there and wanted to help and wanted to be proactive. The best thing in my opinion, that I think NASCAR did was take their time and selected world-class suppliers to be part of the equation. I have had the fortunate availability to work with Freescale Processors who provides the chips that go into the ECUs. They’re a huge semiconductor distributor across the world, they do a lot of work with Ford, the Sync system, and their airbags. I got to go to a Freescale technology forum earlier this year, and we tend to get trapped in our little bubble here inside of racing and don’t realize a lot of other stuff is going on in the world.
There were 3,500 engineers and customers and suppliers of Freescale at this conference. I was up on stage talking about racing and what we do to these things, and it all hit me when someone noticed the Kenseth show car sitting outside the hall that had a carburetor engine in it and beside it was a mock up engine of our fuel injected engine. They asked, That car doesn’t really have a carburetor on it does it? (laughs). It kind of hit home then. I am proud of the sport and I’ll tell you what it has done. It has made a lot of these young engineers and some of these guys working on this have a new energy that we never had before.
We actually have data off of the cars now which we never had before. The more you know, the more you realize what we didn’t know before. The crew chief and the driver would give you information after the race, what their temperatures were and what their max RPMs were . That was actually a very small snapshot of what happened during the race. I think that is a big deal.
MN: Here’s the big question, and I get so many fans arguing with me about it: I went to your presentation when it was first rolling out. Is it throttle body injection or direct injection? The presentation said direct but I have a lot of guys tell me it is throttle body.
DY: That is true. It is a throttle body with port injection. The injectors are in the manifold. It is not direct injection. If I misrepresented that I apologize. We are racing a direct injection engine next year in the Daytona Prototypes. We’re taking the EcoBoost engine that is in Ford’s current lineup and we’re going to be racing that next year. It is a direct injected, turbo engine.
MN: Where did you go to school?
DY: N.C. State
MN: Sorry to hear that.
MN: You’ve talked about the technology that has been around since Henry Ford put it in a Model A, and yet we still hear about guys and teams finding horsepower. It boggles the mind that we’re still dealing with the same hunk of metal that you’ve been dealing with for 100 years, and they’re still finding ways to get more horsepower out of it. Without giving away trade secrets obviously, what are the things people work on to be able to find horsepower.
DY: It amazes me as well. When I graduated from NC State in 1990, these engines were making about 650 horsepower. At that time it was unlimited compression, same cubic inches, same carburetor, a lot of the same rules. Today they are making 900 horsepower. Every year we seem to make 10-15 more horsepower.
The things that have advanced that technology are, in the end it is an air pump. The things that really count are friction and airflow. If you can decrease friction and increase air flow, you’ll make more power, so those are the main things we work on. With material science getting better, the valve spring is a highly stressed component, so if you can make a better valve spring you can accelerate the spring faster which gives you more air flow, and in turn more power. Also, the frictional side of things, there are coatings and other materials that are continuously reducing friction between parts. So those are the things that we continuously work on to try and advance this engine. It is my hope that those technologies will get back to our manufacturer and other manufacturers in this garage, and I’m a big supporter of just that so hopefully that will be more relevant like it used to be.
MN: Hendrick had their issues at Michigan with valve springs and it harkened back to 2002, which I looked up after the race and was surprised how long ago that was. Valve springs are made in a batch off of a wire on a big coil. Is there anything that an engine builder can do, x-ray technology or whatever, to be able to analyze these things and get some advanced warning to cut this off before it makes it all of the way into the engine?
DY: There absolutely is. The way we go about it, the valve spring will be the highest stressed component. Valve springs and pistons are the two things that you’ve going to have a problem with. All of these manufacturers out here have valvetrain test rigs. When we get a new batch of springs we’ll load up and run a race simulation and there is a certain criteria that those springs have to pass to be able to go into race engines. That’s one, the other is visual checks. A lot of people use different types of microscopes if you will, to look at the surface of the springs, and that is kind of how you do it. It is a very intense process and it never stops. We build lots of engines and every spring is critical.
We use a lot of similar suppliers, so if you see someone have a problem, the first thing you think is ‘oh man, what batch were we in?’ We’ve got to go back and check more thoroughly. There aren’t many people who supply valve springs to racing teams because it is so hard. It is really difficult. That Michigan race, the cycles were really high; you might have been able to go to a different track and not have a single problem. It is a tough business and I don’t ever like to see someone have an engine problem because you feel their pain. Engine problems are like deaths in the family for us.
Those guys were pushing hard. You also don’t know what was going on behind the scenes. Everyone is speculating, but they were locked in the Chase so maybe they were pushing some limits trying to test some parts or take a win.
MN: There may have been something completely different and they just said spring to divert the attention. Like the old story of the crew chief that covered up the part of the car that was good so they wouldn’t look at the part at the other end which was actually cheated up…
DY: Oh yeah, that was famous in drag racing. Ask Jack Roush about that sometime; they would cover up things with fender covers and blankets and stuff just to mess with the minds of their competitors. It was as much of a mind game as anything else. Building engines is a tough job because of all of the details; it is all about the details.
MN: After the discussion of springs and valves, I wonder if you could touch base on float. Somewhere around 11,000rpm or so I believe it comes into play. What is valve float?
DY : It depends on your system as to what the max RPM is. Float is when the system becomes disconnected; the valve has reached its peak lift and the valve just hangs open. There are all kinds of technical terms for it. We do some ultimate stability testing now that we have data, we get to see what drivers are doing. Some drivers are pushing the valve train beyond its limits just warming up the tires, and you never knew that before.
The way we limited engines, if we had a driver who was rough on engines, we would build the engines more durably even if it caused it to give up horsepower so it will last. Now we know what a driver is doing and we’ll drag them into the shop and explain what they’re doing and how the engine can’t handle it. The EFI system has allowed for a lot more data collection.
MN: We hear stories about Formula One engines turning 19,000 RPMs and I think that is with hydraulic lifters. I assume using the fluid allows the valves to keep up with those extensive numbers.
DY: They’re air springs, pneumatic stuff, it is different, but they still have valves bounce from time-to-time. It is a different system, it is overhead cam and is a lot more controlled than NASCAR engines. They started where we were today and they’ve worked themselves up. The beauty of F1, they want to be the highest tech racing in the world; NASCAR wanted to be the best racing.
MN: You talk about diversifying your portfolio of business and I know Roush Yates is getting down more and more to the local level. I know Scott Bloomquist runs Roush Yates as does Burt Myers. What was the impetus for that? Was it to diversify because Cup was saturated or was it just to broaden your horizons?
DY: In 2008 our business dropped off significantly. It was pretty eye opening. The world felt like it was crashing with the economic crisis, so we decided to diversify and focus on what we do well. We’re engine guys and we like competing, so we went out into the market to see if we could find a home for some of our older engines.
The 452 engines were takeoffs that you could take off and bolt onto an engine and make a pretty good dirt late model engine. We wanted to get in that market but we had to convince the market to run Fords. The local markets are almost exclusively Chevrolet engines. We decided that we would align ourselves with someone who could win and go win. That is what we’ve done with Scott. He’s been a great ambassador for our company.
The trap that you can fall into is building it like a Cup engine. It is not a Cup engine. You have to really tailor the power band to the individual driver. You can’t say go turn it 9,600rpm because they don’t want to do that and they won’t do that. So we’ve learned a lot by working with Scott. The 360 sprints were another obvious fit. Ricky Stenhouse and Jason Johnson have a team and Ricky is running in the ASCS. He’s won a bunch of races this year and is competing for the title. That has been a great place for us as well.
We even have drag boats racing down in Australia with the 452 competing with big block engines and beating them up pretty good down in Australia. They are all over the world and this year we’ve had over 100 wins so far. It has been a lot of fun and I think we’re doing a good service for the people we’re partnered with.
MN: Any interest or desire to branch out beyond engines and start doing Roush Yates components like tires, shocks or other items?
DY: It is interesting you mention that. Obviously the street market is a huge market. We’re looking at doing engine upgrades for the street market , primarily focused on the Ford EcoBoost engine platform that is Ford’s global platform of the future. I think we’re going to see some neat things out of the Roush Yates shop for the street performance market in the near future.
Yates’ name is synonymous with speed in NASCAR and it is beginning to infiltrate the lower tiers of racing as well. Yates has two engines in the Chase and it is a safe bet that engine woes will not befall either of the drivers chasing the title. Like his father, Yates will most likely own a racing team sometime soon and it will be interesting to see if he can have the success his father did.
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