In what has to be considered at least a minor miracle, not only did NASCAR get Sunday’s Cup race in, it managed to sneak the entire event in at its scheduled length. That despite a weather forecast so dire that the animals at the Atlanta Zoo had begun lining up in pairs expecting the arrival of an ark. Despite a two-hour delay (or perhaps a one-hour delay, if you prefer, over the originally slated starting time that had been moved up an hour) and rains that returned to the area moments after the checkered flag flew fans who braved the elements got to see the entire race…..the entire race just not much of a race.
Kevin Harvick opened a can of whoop-ass on the field to an extent that’s rarely seen in modern day NASCAR racing. Despite a problem in the pits Harvick went ahead and led 181 laps. While the official margin of victory was 2.7 seconds towards the end of the race Harvick was just toying with the rest of the field driving just hard enough to preserve the win. At other points in the race he’d had close to a ten second lead over the second place driver. I don’t know if his Ford was so equipped but for much of the race it seemed that Harvick was on cruise control.
So how does one go about fixing such a dominant performance?
Put simply: you don’t. Every once in a great while, the stars will all align in such a matter that one driver and team are simply in a class of their own on a given weekend. As long as the winning car is found to be legal in post-race inspection, that’s fine. It doesn’t happen very often. Harvick had led the most laps at Atlanta for five straight years but before Sunday had failed to post a victory at the track since 2001. We all remember the circumstances that day. No need to get maudlin about it. Having had their collective butts kicked so convincingly will serve as a powerful incentive for the other teams and drivers sick of seeing Harvick’s tail light decals ahead of them on Sunday to step up their programs on the intermediate tracks that dominate the schedule. Harvick and his bunch can ill afford to get complacent with their own program because Sunday they went ahead and painted a target on their backsides. Beats getting a tattoo there, anyway.
On the other side of the garage, in the Camping World Truck Series, there was some bellyaching from one driver/team owner in particular about a new spec engine for the series NASCAR hopes will lower costs and increase competitiveness among the lower-tier teams. It seems that the new Ilmor NTI spec engine has an edge on the OEM engines, to whit, the Toyota TRD and Chevy SB2 power-plants. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but the sudden demand for those new engines has led to a shortage of those NT1s. Ilmor seems to be a victim of its own success. Early adopters are sitting pretty, but those late to the party are having trouble getting their hands on the hardware.
The Ilmor name should be familiar to long-term race fans, particularly in the American open-wheel series. Badged as a Mercedes Benz, the engine Ilmor designed for the 1994 Indy 500 used pushrods, rocker arms and two valves per cylinder rather than an OHC four-valve mill. That so-called “Stock block” engine put out 200 horsepower more than its contemporary rivals. Allegedly that all-conquering engine marked a myriad of design flaws in the Penske chassis of the time and in 1995, now fitted with a quad-cam engine like the others, all three Penske entries failed to even qualify for the Indy 500 in one of the greatest upsets in auto racing history. Ilmor went on to produce engines for the Olds Aurora IRL effort and later the Chevy V6 Indy-car engine that was the workhorse of the series. Ilmor America has gone on to develop power-plants for everything from boats to racing motorcycles. Suffice to say they know their way around the race track.
Ilmor first got involved in full-fender stock car racing with the 396 engine they developed for the ARCA series which to date has exceeded expectations as far as cost savings, power and durability.
The Ilmor NT1 spec engine was designed to offer competitive power while still being strong enough to survive 1500 race miles without a rebuild. With the Cup series having just completed two 500 mile races, that might not sound like a lot but keep in mind that CWTS races are typically shorter than in the Cup or XFINITY Series events. Teams that buy into the Ilmor engine program get engineering assistance as well and to date the smaller team owners claim those engineers treat all customers big or small the same which should help level the playing field while at the same time reducing costs. The teams that have the new NT1 engines feel that the torque advantage of the new mills will give them an even greater advantage at short track events. We shall see.
According to a source in the garage, the NT1 engine itself costs around $38,000. The computer (ECU more properly), the Holley designed fuel injection throttle body, modifications necessary to the fuel cell and various adapters to make all those parts communicate with each other adds about another $17,000. Having a trained tuner at the track for the weekend is said to cost $3-5 thousand. On the plus side, getting three full races (and potentially more) out of an engine without a rebuild will save a team somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 grand.
The (optional) use of a spec engine in the Truck Series might be crucial in a series that increasingly seems to be on life-support. But one might guess that if the concept works in the truck series, NASCAR might be floating a trial balloon to see how much ground fire it draws from the fans and teams alike. To date, all three manufacturers in the series; Toyota, Ford and Chevy, haven’t kicked up much of a fuss over the concept despite the shopworn concept in NASCAR of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” An engine under the hood doesn’t know what manufacturers headlight decals are on the front of the truck it’s powering. In any business, I guess there are worse fates for a new product than to have demand outstrip supply, so by the end of the season the NT1 might be the defacto power plant of the series.
In Sunday’s race (and perhaps in one of Saturday’s as well) the new spec air impact guns the teams are using did show a few chinks in their armor with failures even this early in the season. The problem was not widespread given the amount of the new Paoli guns in use, but it is troubling. We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see if the problem is actually with the air guns or the way they are being used. Interestingly after 16-second-plus stops were the norm at Daytona last week this week a couple teams were already posting pit stops in the low 14-second bracket. My guess is those times will continue to tumble as the weeks goes by. It already seems the fuel man is charged with a new responsibility of using his foot to push the left rear tire back towards the pit wall. The way the rule was written the fuel man was only allowed to kick a runaway tire to help the team. I suppose the refs will have to define “runaway”,
Meanwhile over in the NXS, we’re in year two of the new spec body experiment. Last year the teams were allowed to run the bodies at three events; Richmond, Dover and Phoenix. This year the composite bodies can be run at all the tracks other than Daytona and Talladega. Starting in 2019, the new bodies will be mandatory at all NXS races.
These new bodies are made of a proprietary mix of composites (Kevlar, carbon-fiber and fiberglass) by Five Star Bodies in Wisconsin. There are 13 individual pieces to the NXS bodies that are bolted rather than welded together making repairs simpler and less costly. Because of the composite makeup of the body there’s a distinct weave pattern to the bodies that is visible even when the body is painted or wrapped. Thus any attempted alterations to the body (now illegal) will be visible even to the naked eye. In theory that will eliminate the need for teams to book hideously expensive wind tunnel time to massage their speedway cars.
Not only are the new bodies about 130 pounds lighter than the sheetmetal ones they replace, they were designed to have an aerodynamic advantage over the old bodies. This was done to encourage teams to adopt the new bodies quickly without obsoleting their current fleet of cars overnight. And barring some unforeseen development the new bodies become mandatory at all tracks in 2019.
Again, if the program is successful and accepted by team owners and fans without too much of a fuss, the same designs could one day make their way into the Cup series.
My guess is that the team owners and drivers are going to be a lot more accepting of the potential spec engine and body than the longtime fans. For over a decade now what I hear most fans telling me is that it’s high time that NASCAR put some “stock” back in stock car racing. They accuse the Cup series already of having become too much like the IROC series of old. You can slap all the headlight and tail light decals you want on them but a true gearhead is going to know those cars running around Darlington don’t look anything like the ones for sale at the new car agencies in his home town.
Even with the rules as they are there’s no room left in NASCAR for fellows cut from the same bolt of cloth as Smokey Yunick, Junior Johnson and Dale Inman. While often labeled as rules-breakers in a lot of instances NASCAR had to add new rules to ban the concepts wrenches like those three came up with. Sometimes it’s what’s not written in the rulebook that’s more important than what is.
Certainly, a valid argument can be made that NASCAR and the teams have to find some ways to reduce the cost of competing in the Cup series. A spec body, a spec engine (coupled with spec tires of course) could potentially lower those costs perhaps even dramatically. But the reason Cup teams need to cut costs has to do with fewer fans in the grandstands, fewer fans watching NASCAR races on TV, and with those numbers down less money from sponsors looking to appeal to the remaining fans. (For the first time in 40 years no cars in the Daytona 500 had primary sponsorship from a beer company. The “Beer Wagons” at one point dominated the sport.)
But if a spec series drives away even more fans the sport could go into a tailspin from which it can’t recover.
Occasionally one driver is going to dominate a race. That driver just has a track figured out, and his team assembled a car that handled well and had some oats down the straights. No, it’s not much fun to watch (unless it’s your favorite driver that’s dominating) but I find it preferable to micro-regulating the sport to try to achieve parity between all 36 teams. The Stepford Wives racing series just doesn’t have a good ring to it.