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Are Potential Evils Of EFI Creeping Into NASCAR?

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 12 2012

Tony Stewart leads Jimmie Johnson during Sunday's Cup race in Las Vegas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

It wasn’t simple stubbornness or adherence to tradition that prompted NASCAR officials, for decade after decade, to resist a move to electronic fuel injection. It certainly wasn’t stupidity.

It was fear. And not irrational fear.

And Sunday afternoon, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, on the third race weekend of the season in which EFI debuted, one can suspect that we all got a first, very tiny look at the basis of that fear.

Back in the days when NASCAR was not the most popular form of American auto racing, those of us who grew up around sports cars and open-wheel racing wondered why the Southeastern-based stock car bunch insisted on racing with carburetors.

It was out-dated technology. Even back in 1980s, almost all cars were running fuel injection. In racing, geez, pioneer Stuart Hilborn was experimenting with – and producing – a form of EFI for engines back in the 1950s. Hot rodders have been using the sytems for over a half century.

So why not NASCAR in the 2000s?

That question was posed to Jim Hunter, then-NASCAR vice president, during some down time on a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the late 1990s.

Sitting in a quiet corner of the media center, Hunter talked about NASCAR’s philosophy of keeping the the

Crew chief Steve Addington and driver Tony Stewart at Las Vegas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

machinery low tech. V-8s, pushrods, carbs – all, he said, were viewed as part of the NASCAR heritage. All of that, he said, was one reason.

Any other reasons?

Yes, he said with a chilly glare.

Those reasons are?

Chilly glare.

Oh.

A couple years later, Gary Nelson, then NASCAR’s head of competition got quite a bit more expansive in his explanation. It was at Dover, several months after Nelson had returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe – a purpose of the trip being to look into Formula 1 technology, which was keeping pace with that of NASA.

When the conversation turned to the subject of fuel injection, Nelson turned extra serious. Very scary, he said. Not because of physical danger, but because of competitive danger, and competitive danger was on the minds of a lot of people in NASCAR in those days.

While carburetors function as a result of mechanical pieces and gravity, fuel injectors function as a result of an electronic control unit, or ECU. That is, a small but relatively powerful computer. The ECU’s job vis a vis EFI is to send electronic instructions to the engines about things like fuel flow to the pistons and spark plug firing order, stuff like that.

But they can – and do on modern passenger cars – also send other instructions and regulate other engine functions. Some which might involved undesirable racing things like driver aids. A big, huge undesirable driver aid back then was traction control.

So what? So, by the early 1990s, F1 cars, as Nelson saw, could drive themselves as a result of computer

A carburetor – now a relic in NASCAR – viewed from above.

programs. Literally.

The biggest problem with cracking down on such technology is that it is very easy to disguise forbidden programing. The programs are etherial. They have no physical form. They are not like, say, an illegal “C” post which can be touched and quantified.

For a while, F1 gave up on trying to police the things.

That’s what scared Nelson: Computers which greatly decrease – or potentially, remove – the drivers’ role in the competitive equation. In a sport in which the stars have become, well, the stars, that could be fatal to the sport.

In moving to EFI this year, NASCAR has worked closely with McLaren Electronic Systems. Yes, that McLaren, the one with the long, successful history of innovation in F1.

According to NASCAR, the current ECUs from McLaren are tamper-proof and that only approved software may ever be run during a race weekend. Additionally, NASCAR has special electronic tools at its disposal during every event to ensure the legality of the ECUs.

The units do allow for greater data gathering on non-race days, but will not be of aid during the races themselves. Theoretically, at least.

So, the season began win confidence in the new system high.

But after Sunday’s race in Las Vegas, the first tinge of EFI-related controversy may have seeped into the dialogue.

The end of the race featured several important restarts. In each of those, race-winner Tony Stewart was able to impressively blow out to substantial leads. In his wake on the final couple of restarts was five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

In in his post-race media interview, it sounded from here like Johnson touched on the topic which Nelson and Hunter had raised over a decade ago.

“Well,” Johnson said when asked about the restarts, “we have a new element this year. I’ve usually been real good at that stuff. But the fuel injection is different, and the (computer) mapping that we develop for that is quite a bit different than years past.

“The first (restart) I know that I just jumped on the gas too hard and spun (the tires). That was my fault. The second restart, I didn’t spin ‘em. I felt really good. He was still running away from me.”

Johnson, whose Hendrick Motorsports team supplies Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet engines and lends technical supports, said he would like to see Stewart’s mapping data.

Steve Addington, Stewart’s crew chief, was asked if he would allow that.

Stewart, sitting near Addington, cut in.

“I’ll handle this,” the defending series champion said. “No.”

When the laughter died away, Stewart expanded by saying, “It wasn’t that we were just tromping the throttle. I was pedaling it to get to the start/finish line. The new tire that they brought, it was easy to get a lot of buildup on the tires on the cautions.

“That’s why you saw everybody, you were seeing guys working hard to keep the tires cleaned off. We found a sequence to do that that helped out a lot and I could do it consistently. I knew when it was time to go, that I could go when I needed to, knew exactly what to expect. I think that was a pretty big factor in it.

But I can promise you, our teammates with Hendrick will know what’s going on. If the roles were reversed, they would make sure we had that information. We will make sure they have that information.”

The guess here is that more and more talk like that will surface as the year – years – go on. On-board computers and EFI is complex stuff.

But NASCAR teams, these days, are packed with engineers. Smart, educated engineers who thoroughly understand the subject. Engineers with F1 backgrounds and experience. As teams become more and more versant in electronic technology and its capabilities, more and more engineers will move to North Carolina.

The capabilities of this technology is scary. While a lot of folks were laughing at news that Brad Keselowski was carrying a smart phone with him during a race, and using it to Tweet messages to fans, others took a deep breath.

Those others know just how powerful smart phones are. They know that wireless technologies like Blue Tooth are already sending electronic messages other computers in the car.

NASCAR is determined to keep a tight reign on the ECUs. But that will be a lot tougher than simply dropping a template down onto the units.

Nobody is suggesting that Stewart and his team cheated, that they have found a way to beat NASCAR’s enforcement system.

More likely, they are ahead of the curve in exploiting its legal advantages. And that is what racing is all about.

But NASCAR has long been considered to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the battle against real cheating. That they are forced to react rather than act in that battle.

Just sayin’; it simply seems that EFI will not make that battle any easier to win.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 12 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Steve Paulson says:

    I happen to beware of your observations since i also understand the electronic applications,and,thier mysteriuos hidden paths.The,”F1″,teams have since found out how much these electronic items have to offer,and,the eventual results.Sanctioning bodies, must get prepared to investigate throughly any possibility of cheating.With specific,and,advanced written rules of the electronic landscape in auto racing!

    I also was watching Tony Stewart when attempting re-starts at Las vegas,and,noticed that he seemed to be approaching the flag in a intentional manner.Therefore believe his explaination,about,new compound in this case.And as he pointed out much of the same technology is being used in the 48,88,24,5,teams as are in his 14,and,39cars.Tony also was able to keep his car under him going in,and,coming up off.Showing a advantage found in suspension set-up!Jimmy just blew his re-starts!

    The,”electronic can of worms”,has been opened,but,if all else fails to have competition run between the lines,NASCAR can return to the carburator until they get a good grip on the subject!