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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Believe It, A Generic Race Engine Will Come to NASCAR

The ‘shoe’ continues to fall in what this column has foretold will be the future of NASCAR racing with the news that NASCAR and folks from Detroit have discussed a generic ‘spec’ engine or ‘crate’ engine that would, if reports are believed, be used at least initially in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. GM, Ford and Chrysler previously had cut all but the most meager engineering and technical support to their respective teams in those two series, with Toyota reported to follow suit by year’s end.

NASCAR insider Mike Mulhern reported Monday that talks have taken place amongst the racing heads for the four participating manufacturers and NASCAR to develop a single, low-cost engine to be used by all teams. However, Mulhern reports that NASCAR has showed little interest in the idea as presented by the group of manufacturer representatives. Possibly NASCAR has qualms about the proposal by the consortium as presented, but it is beyond the pale to believe that a cost-cutting, non-factory dependent engine is not on the minds of NASCAR executives.

As Turn 5 has on numerous occasions pointed out – the advent of the present racing platform [formerly known as the CoT] developed at the NASCAR R&D facilities scratched another “big itch.” Besides creating a safer, more economical fleet of racecars to team owners, it has allowed the sanctioning-body and team owners to become far less dependent on factory support to compete on the track.

In fact, besides actual cash infusions from the automakers, which has become scarce and seems very likely to dry up completely, there is little left in way of factory support that is essential other than the very expensive engine parts and research and development thereof. Engines are the last vestiges of the present factory-support era that reemerged in the early 1970s. For all intent, dependence on a decimated Detroit can be severed with the implementation of a singular racing engine specific at least to Sprint Cup and Nationwide teams to plug in with the already ‘spec’ chassis and bodies that are now being used.

Though the always exciting Camping World Truck Series does not have a common-template designed race truck, it undoubtedly would benefit more from a low-cost, one-supplier ‘crate’ motor than any of NASCAR’s top-three racing divisions. The three American-branded manufacturers have significantly, or entirely, completed their withdrawal of support for truck teams and the paltry payouts offered in the series make a low cost, competitive engine a particularly appealing thought.

The basic difference in a ‘spec’ vs. a ‘crate’ engine is in how the power plant is acquired. A ‘crate’ engine would be built by an approved builder that then ships the engines directly to the teams. The engines are sealed and its internal parts are not allowed to be accessed or tampered with. Such engines, built with durability and cost in mind, are sent back to the supplier for refreshing/rebuilding. ‘Spec’ engines are built in-house by teams or an engine builder of their choice, but to very specific specifications and with parts that cannot be detoured from. Compliance to the rules with ‘spec’ engines is verified through ‘tear-down inspections’ conducted randomly by the sanctioning-body.

To be sure, there is a tradeoff in performance with the one-engine-for-all concept. For those that follow NASCAR racing strictly for the engineering innovativeness, there will be little to cheer about. The engines, though stout, do not stretch the limits of mechanical imagination. Furthermore, a drop-off in overall speed can be expected – though only a slight decrease as dependability trumps exceedingly high RPMs.

Okay, time for the smug remarks that NASCAR is becoming more and more like the now-defunct International Race of Champions (IROC) series. There is no way around it, yes it is… albeit, IROC on steroids.

However, as anyone that truly followed the under-funded, and under-promoted series can attest to – the racing itself was pretty darn exciting. The equally-prepared racing machines left little advantage to any one competitor except for any edge that a driver’s own abilities afforded him. As stated in this column in the past, “the only thing IROC truly needed is more cars on the track” – 43 relatively equal, full-bodied racecars chauffeured by drivers experienced with the cars is a recipe for some great door-to-door racing excitement.

The concept of the ‘crate’ engine is one that, in the last several years, has gained popularity among lower-tier race organizations and local tracks on both asphalt and dirt from coast-to-coast. Late model divisions throughout the country, faced with fewer car counts and escalating engine costs that caused a serious divide between the haves and the have-nots, opted for the single-engine concept over the last handful of years and have been rewarded with an increase in the number of competing race teams and more competitive shows.

The fractionally slower lap speeds are unnoticed by fans – the engines provided to competitors are sure-enough genuine, high performance machines and the significant improvement in the parity in power has brought fans, in many instances, back to the grandstands.

Today, NASCAR teams are almost in a state of chaos as news and rumors of further cutting and shifting of manufacturer support finds some teams still supported and others not so much. Many team owners are in limbo as manufacturers currently in or emerging from bankruptcy court are less certain of their future. Ford and Toyota, the two car builders not in bankruptcy, are likewise reeling from, in Ford’s case, years of financial losses, and in Toyota’s, coming off their worst financial performance in 70 years.

Look for NASCAR to become increasingly more autonomous as far as its relationship with the changing automobile industry is concerned. Reports of preliminary discussions in respect to a single-engine series is just the first of what will eventually become reality for not just NASCAR’s lower divisions, but the Sprint Cup Series as well.

In October of last year, in this column titled As News From Detroit Worsens, Changes For NASCAR Are Inevitable, the topic of a generic NASCAR engine was suggested:

“The demise of the American auto manufacturing industry has clearly been on the radar of most racing organizations for quite some time. It is no accident that the racecar of today can be called a Ford one week and a Dodge the next; because the truth is, they are neither. They are NASCAR racecars; throw a few stickers on that chassis and drop a motor of any manufacturer in it, and you can go racing. Fact is, should the worst occur and manufacturer support leave, teams will be installing NASCAR-specific engines in the chassis and bodies, allowing the racing to continue.”

Perhaps not the most prophetic words ever written, but as events continue to unfold for owners and the sanctioning body with their ever-changing relationship with the car builders, it is clear that “the worst” is occurring and “manufacturing support” is, if not leaving, certainly becoming less dependable and plentiful.

In the same article as referenced above, another observation that still rings true was offered. “Change is tough. However, NASCAR is not responsible for the dying U.S. auto industry. What will be of interest is how the organization manages the inevitable changes… and how accepting fans of the sport will be to those changes once they become reality.”

Sometimes the “good ‘ole days” of NASCAR racing were not quite as good as folks want to believe. There has been a constant struggle to keep some semblance of a level playing field between the manufacturers that has been difficult at best. One brand and team or another has, at different times, dominated on the track. Charges of favoritism and graft have always been a topic of conversation. It is very possible that a NASCAR without major involvement from the manufacturers could be more competitive and entertaining.

Regardless, it will not be long before we find out.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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