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Like It Or Not, NASCAR Is About To Power Down

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 10 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says smaller engines are coming and there is no use fighting it. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. says a reduction in Sprint Cup Series engine horsepower is coming “whether you like it or not,” but hardly a sign of a stock car Apocalypse.

“I choose as an individual to get on the side of being productive in that discussion instead of saying we don’t need to do it and trying to fight it,” Junior said during a news conference at Texas Motor Speedway prior to last weekend’s Duck Commander 500. “Let’s try to make sure when it does happen we do it the right way and give ourselves something to grow into and something to engineer and something that’s productive for many years to come.

“It’s coming either way, whether we like it or not. You can have both sides arguing against and for, for however long you want. But it’s going to happen, so we might as well start thinking about how we want it to happen and trying to have those discussions on making sure we make the best choice we can make for the sport.”

The HP reduction issue was revived late last month by Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development, during an interview on FOXSports.com at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Pemberton acknowledged that changes designed to extend the life of Cup engines via a reduction in horsepower are among options being considered for the 2015 season. Such a new rules package likely would include aerodynamic and tire changes in NASCAR’s premier series, despite the fact the second season of the Gen-6 car platform has produced seven different winners in as many races.

Pemberton reportedly has met four times with manufacturer representatives from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota and some racing teams about options for 2015. The HP issue also was addressed during a recent national teleconference featuring Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports for General Motors; Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing and David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development USA.

NASCAR’s Cup cars are powered by cast iron 358 cubic-inch V8s with aluminum cylinder heads that crank out an estimated 850 HP at 9,000 RPM, good for 200-plus MPH. Pemberton did not put a specific number on the HP reduction the sanctioning body is considering, but several reports have pegged it as from 75 to 100 horses.

“I don’t think they’re (NASCAR) trying to make it more competitive,” said Junior, winner of the season-opening Daytona 500. “No matter how the horsepower is I think we’ll have competitive racing. I think the racing is competitive any way you slice it. I can enjoy a race where a guy laps the field just as much as I can enjoy one where they’re side-by-side across the finish line. There’s something to be appreciated about both ways of winning and how a race plays-out.”

NASCAR officials opted against mandating a tapered spacer to limit air flow into Cup engines when technical regulations for 2014 were announced in December. NASCAR Vice President Gene Stefanyshyn said after a test on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway in December that the tapered spacer utilized in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series would be considered in Cup for 2015.

Rather than limit HP, Junior said he would welcome a reduction in engine size. “I like the idea of going to a smaller motor and allowing us to engineer through that package instead of choking down what we currently have with a plate,” said Junior, driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. “I think choking the motor down with a plate is the easiest way to go _ and the laziest way to go.

“When you can go to a smaller engine you preserve some throttle response. You preserve some reaction in the gas pedal and give the driver a few more tools to be able to use out on the racetrack when he’s driving his race car. When you take and put a plate on those cars you take tons of throttle response out of the car and setting up a pass, particularly on a track that’s worn out like this is a little more challenging with a plate rather than an open engine that’s smaller.”

GM’s Campbell and Toyota’s Wilson reiterated that any decision on engines for 2015 would remain collaborative with NASCAR, as has been the case throughout development of the current Gen-6 package. “Depending on where that ends up, it will impact how much work happens at the manufacturer versus the teams,” Campbell said. “The key is we keep the racing exciting and then we make every resource we apply to the engines and the engine builds go as far as possible. That’s really the key.”

Wilson termed that process “correct” and “healthy” for all the stakeholders. “We’re still talking along with NASCAR,” Wilson said. “We’re talking between ourselves about the various options and it’s still in the consideration phase. I really don’t think we have much to say beyond that. “

Joey Logano, winner of Monday’s rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval, admitted he wasn’t particularly enthused by the idea of reducing the ponies at his disposal.

“I’m all for more power. I think that’s like any guy, right?” said Logano, driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil/Hertz Ford Fusion fielded by Penske Racing. “They just want more power, so anytime you hear someone talk about taking away power you’re not excited about it. I think something that’s cool about Sprint Cup racing is we’ve got 850-900 horsepower in these things. That’s pretty bad-ass, so I obviously want to make sure we have that.

“But either way, we’ve just got to make sure we put on a great race for the fans, whether we have three horsepower or 900 horsepower – make sure it’s a great race. If that’s the direction we have to go to put on a better race, then so be it. At the same time, I’m not sure if that will be the answer or not, but we have to look at every option we have and figure out what we’ve got to do to make it the best.”

In his position as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Junior knows his opinion will draw considerable attention from the sanctioning body.

“I hope they’ll go the way I want to go,” Junior said with a laugh. “Whatever way they end up going, whatever decision they end up making, there’s not a wrong decision – there’s an OK one and a better one, in my opinion. They’re going to do it. It’s kind of like the (number) 3 coming back. A lot of people didn’t want it to come back. A lot of people were upset that it came back, but it’s coming back. I think the reduction in power is coming, whether you like it or not.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 10 2014
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Bill H says:

    This is long overdue.

    The cost of fielding a NASCAR “stock car” race team can be tied to many things, and this includes the way that the sanctioning body has allowed teams and manufacturers to operate in an environment where either cost is no object, or those with the best funding always prevail. There’s very little “stock” about it.

    If we look at history for perspective, the Cup series grew to the point of having 7-liter (427 CI) engines in the 60’s & 70’s. The horsepower at it’s peak was in the 600 range with these engines, and RPM was in the 7000-7500 range at best. Engine rules were changed to favor a small-block approach–while reliability was an issue initially, HP and RPM have climbed relentlessly since the change to 358 CI, and reliability is quite good today. The difference is that the cost of “keeping up with the Jones’s” of the circuit has risen dramatically–even obscenely. The “stock” cars are now dictated by NASCAR and a wind-tunnel test to be equal, rather than by what each participating manufacturer brings as it’s weapon of choice to do battle. Taking away 100 HP is like peeing in the ocean for the top teams–they’ll work out solutions quickly and continue their success, while the smaller teams will struggle just to survive.

    I’ve stated elasewhere before–take a look at the V8 Supercar formula as a way to bring some sanity back into the sport. Imagine all those dinosaur Dodge Chargers, Superbirds, Torinos, Cyclones, and Monte Carlos with a 5-liter, 650HP engine, with a maximum RPM of 7500….about what they had back in the day, albeit using 7 liters. The small-block engines that run 9000 RPM have to be pulled after each event and rebuilt–most teams’ engine shops have run-time limits on virtually all of the internal components because they’ve learned that the stress of operating a pushrod engine at those speeds has a downside. Today, an engine built to run 7500 RPM is pretty bulletproof, and could run several events before needing the same “recycling” that current Cup engines require–in fact, make it mandatory. The cost of the process CAN be controlled, if NASCAR would set engine speed limits that are lower than they are today. Once that is proven effective, the next step would be to limit the total number of engines a team can use per year–effectively forcing engines to be used for multiple events, with only minor maintenance, if at all–maybe new valve springs, pushrods and rocker arms, but nothing internal beyond that. This will begin to control engine cost as a part of the solution to address the current out-of-control big-bucks approach.

    Maximum track speeds can be controlled by defining gear choice for each track, combined with a properly-enforced/managed engine speed control system. It can even become part of post-race inspection to determine whether a maximum engine speed was exceeded to establish a rules & penalty system that would be imposed in the event of a violation–not as a matter of taking away a win unless there’s a repeat offense situation.

    At this point, many reading this think I’m just nuts. Let’s take the example of Indianapolis, where NASCAR races each year. Before the rear-engine car revolution, the roadsters ran about 155 MPH average at their fastest & most advanced form, in the mid-60’s, as the transition to rear engines and wider, low-profile tires was taking place. It was possible for the Indy 500’s 3-abreast start to actually reach the first turn with room for everyone to race and not wreck. Fast forward 50 years, and it’s not possible–even the stock cars at Indy, after 20 years, reach speeds at the end of the straights that makes it very difficult to actually race–instead it’s largely a single-file exercise through the turns. Back in the roadster days, the speed and race pace was something that allowed more fan involvement, since the speeds provided more “contact time” between the cars & spectators–not to mention being able to see the drivers in their open cockpit cars. Not to advocate a return to those days–considered too dangerous–but watching Jim Clark in his Lotus-Ford win in 1965 with a speed that is much lower than what the cars of today typically run was like a slap upside of the head to the traditionalists.

    Technology and television has “forced” the racing series to go faster, simply to make the action faster, get events in, from start to finish, in a more compressed time, and to make room for ever more advertising in lieu of actual event broadcast–the ratio of racing to not racing seems to continue to drop, in favor of advertising, ie. revenue.

    My position may not be viable. If NASCAR does slow down Cup, what is it going to do to also slow down their other series? It would not do to have the qualifying or race speeds for NNS or NCWS end up higher than NSCS. I’m sure everyone involved is cognizant of that fact.

    Bottom line for me – slowing down the cars would have MANY benefits. Lower cost, safety factor for drivers, spectators, crews, restoration of actual racing (side-by-side), better reliability, tires last longer, and other things I’ve not even thought of. The long-term viability of the sport is going to hinge in part on continued acceptance by a changing population that is looking for something beyond the noise and big crashes–new technology, fuel economy, pollution impact, and other considerations will force an evolution that “old-school” fans mostly may not like, but the survival of the sport will require changes like this and others we can’t imagine at this point.

    • Bill H says:

      More to think about….even on a “worn-out” Darlington track (repaved in 2008), the speed of the Gen 6 Cup car is to the point of being ridiculous–the tires wear quickly on the abrasive surface, tires fail, wrecks or debris cautions occur more frequently–mainly due to the excess power of the Cup engines that generate speeds that literally blow the tires off in short order.

      An analysis of Darlington stats gives some insight on qualifying speeds vs event average speeds….my point being that going FAST is a relative thing–higher & higher speeds do not necessarily deliver good racing. Get back to 650 HP or thereabouts, and see what results….the improved vehicle dynamics of the current car and reduced power will still provide very good racing at much higher speeds than 40-50 years ago, without much of the downside of the 850 HP & 9000 RPM engine package in use now.

      Notice too how close Cup & Nationwide/BGN speeds have tracked over the years, with variations due to changes in rules for the 2 series–and notice the qualifying speed spikes in 1995 & 2008 following repaving.

      http://www.racing-reference.info/tracks/Darlington_Raceway

      http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2014/4/8/stats-advance-sprint-cup-series-darlington-raceway-bojangles-southern-500.html

  • Chris says:

    love that autocorrect should be earnhardt aand Dalebut it was funny

  • Chris says:

    I can’t believe I agree with an iron heart but at least Deo has a good point smaller cubic inches and let them build the engines