Progress and change. Both are touchy subjects, and, more often than not, have no bearing or influence on the other. One can fly in the face of tradition while the other may support and reinforce it. I’ll spare you the political diatribe (for now) however, and cut to the chase where in NASCAR, the opportunity to make some gains may be on the horizon.
On Thursday, our own Jeff Meyer in his Voices From The Heartland column, wrote a piece detailing the recent rumor that fuel injection may replace the tried and true carburetor in NASCAR competition. Jeff’s opinion was it was an answer in search of a legitimate question, and that it was yet another example of a tradition in NASCAR being cast aside in the name of, “improving” the sport. On Wednesday in our Mirror Driving segment, a few of us also debated the pros and cons of such a drastic change to the induction system that has seemingly worked so well for over 50 years.
While many oppose the thought of abandoning the iconic Holley four-barrel carburetor for computer controlled fuel injection, I think it is a change worth exploring for a number of reasons.
First of all, outside of the trucks on Monster Jam as seen just about every day on SPEED TV, NASCAR is just about the only major racing series left that runs carburetors. Even NHRA Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars that still utilize the basic Chrysler 426 Hemi architecture have a fuel injection set up. Does that mean carburetors have no place in racing? No, not at all – the Pro Stock division still uses them.
However, when the argument against using fuel injection comes around to it being far too costly and complex, it doesn’t hold water. Formula One, IndyCar, Grand Am, and the American LeMans Series just to name a few have been using fuel injection for decades without incident. The reliance on 50-year old technology (albeit proven and sound technology) has been one of the knocks against NASCAR. To be at the forefront of motorsports in North America, it may serve well that the vehicles used in competition share something a bit more than just headlight and tail light decals with those in our garages.
Which brings me to my next point, and the reason why motorsports existed in the first place; developing useful parts and pieces that can be implemented into production.
I remember back in the early 1990s, Ford had an ad touting that the Thunderbird achieved its impressive low-drag coefficient and, “cross-wind stability”, through the development of its namesake in NASCAR competition. When was the last time something from NASCAR worked its way onto the street? About the last thing I can remember were the handful of Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aero Coupes and Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2s of the late 1980s that made their way onto the streets. Dale Earnhardt’s Lumina that he won championships six and seven with bore very little resemblance whatsoever to the one my mom had – and that I unceremoniously plowed head-on into a guardrail with.
It’s time for auto racing and NASCAR in particular to start implementing the sorts of things that will pay dividends to the public, as they once did in the past. Disc brakes, rear view mirrors, three-point harnesses, independent suspensions – all basic things we take for granted today, were birthed from auto racing and motorsports competition. By bringing fuel injection into the mix, the manufacturers would have more of a vested interest in producing power plants that would bear some kind of fruit that may be derived someday for the showroom.
Manufacturers have had little motivation to develop new engines over the last 40 years to compete against each other. During the late 1960s when the horsepower wars had reached a crescendo, there were cars and engines being developed on a yearly basis – car and engines that reached the street and today are some of the most valuable and memorable machines of their kind.
While we likely will never be privy to a time like that again, there is no reason that motorsports can’t serve as a test bed once again for cars you and I will purchase in the future.
There is another issue that is becoming readily apparent these days in NASCAR as well: these cars are going ridiculously fast. Engines today are now nudging north of 900 horsepower, using just 358 cubic inches to get there. Dodge has recently unveiled their new engine this year, and Ford is preparing to start competing with their new FR9 design. Couple this with a new top-heavy car that doesn’t like to turn, has little downforce, and a tire that was designed originally for cars making nearly 1/3 less power, and the equation looks a bit sloppy to say the least. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the competition lately at the 1.5-2.0 mile tracks; less than compelling.
When I sat with Mark Martin for an interview back in June at Michigan International Speedway, I asked him if racing would ever be like it was during what we both considered, ”the good old days” of the modern era – the early to mid 1990s. He sounded less than optimistic – even by his standards – for a return to that quality of racing. Part of that was attributed to how fast the cars are going these days, and the aerodynamic issues that have arisen from that.
Might it be time to downsize these engines and cut some power?In the past, that has always been done through the use of a tapered spacer or the dreaded carburetor restrictor plate.
One look at the Nationwide Series shows why that is not an option – the racing there has suffered immensely, in a car that has plenty of downforce, but has poor throttle response and precious little power to get off the corners. Fuel injection and a smaller engine may be the way to curb those ills, yet maintain a reasonable level of power and responsiveness. If there is one thing the IROC series showed us at places like Michigan and Atlanta, you need not have 900 horsepower to make for an exciting race.
So after touching on the pieces that affect manufacturer and consumer interests, as well as the competition side of things, there is one more piece to this puzzle that I think makes a strong argument for making the move to fuel injection from carburetion – the environmental impact.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not some Ed Begley, Jr. eco-nut job pedaling my trike car to work, erecting a wind farm in my backyard, or recycling my used toilet paper. My last five cars have been three musclecars and a pair of SUVs, one of which right now would have qualified for the CARS (i.e., Cash for Clunkers – a term I resent. There is nothing clunky about a small-block Mopar, so shut up.) program.
Unfortunately, the prospected of increased scrutiny is a legitimate concern, from many of our elected officials and those who carry influence in these circles regarding the consumption of fossil fuels and the manner in which they are used. Let us also not forget that those same officials now have a vested interest in two of the Big Three automakers who compete in NASCAR. It would not hurt to at least offer the perception that a conscious effort is being made to join the 21st century. Like any business that has investors, a case needs to be made for viability, sustainability, and return on investment.
Having seen motorsports budgets neutered and advertising budgets slashed to the point of virtual elimination in recent months, it would be a wise move to anticipate and overcome the objections that may be soon forthcoming.
For as old-school cool and dependable as carburetors have proven, it is not as efficient or clean as computer controlled fuel injection would be. A collection of springs, screws, and floats can only achieve so much. Fuel sloshes around in carburetors in the corner and that is fuel wasted. Improved fuel economy and reduced emissions are just a side benefit of the reduced risk to the drivers from breathing in carbon monoxide fumes of unburned hydrocarbons.
I’m not saying you have to throw a catalytic converter on these things, but it serves to show one more benefit from using technology that is readily available and relatively inexpensive.
Back during the mid 1980s when I was becoming car conscious, it was during the second coming of the musclecar era. Buick Grand Nationals, IROC-Z Camaros, and Mustang GT’s were all the rage. Many however decried these new cars because they utilized electronics and computer controlled fuel injection, claiming you, “couldn’t work on ‘em.” 25 years later, that all sounds so very naive and silly; a multi-billion dollar industry and two magazines were devoted to tweaking the 5.0L Mustang alone.
I think the same parallels can be drawn regarding the argument against a similar switch in NASCAR. I understand the concerns over costs and the fear of making it easier to police cheating, or having the ugly specter of traction control rear its ugly head again, as it did seven or eight years ago. There might be an added cost, but nowhere near as great as switching over to an entirely new car, or adding more dates to the schedule.
The benefits far outweigh the costs in this application, and these are just a few I have room here to list in detail. The big thing for me is, these are still called stockcars – and for the last 10 years or so, the only thing stock about them has been the vain attempt at maintaining brand identity through window shapes and appliqués of head lamps and tail lights. With the advent of the CoT, even that has been lost in the last couple of years. By reintroducing some semblance of street sourced significance or assembly line destined improvement brought about by racing, we can just maybe put the, “stock” back in stockcar, preserving and promoting the sport and its benefits beyond marketing, advertising, and self promotion.
Hey, at least we would finally get rid of those restrictor plates for Daytona and Talladega.