NASCAR Remains a Conundrum for Fans Who Love Racing Technology

By John Oreovicz

For many racing fans who appreciate technology and innovation, NASCAR remains an infuriating conundrum.

On the one hand, American stock car racing persists with old-school solutions like steel tube frames instead of carbon composite safety cells; solid rear axles instead of independent suspension; and of course, carburetors as opposed to fuel injection.

In the last 15 years, many NASCAR teams have embraced a level of engineering and development that arguably rivals Formula 1. Yet the rules dictate that all the computer number crunching in the world must still be applied to what other forms of racing consider ancient technology.

Now, some sixty years after fuel injection was put into widespread use in Indy car and F1 racing, NASCAR is finally embracing fuel injection for 2012 and beyond. Sprint Cup Series cars will utilize standardized Electronic Control Units (ECUs) produced by England’s McLaren Electronic Systems, in conjunction with Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor, Inc. Fuel injectors and other hardware will be supplied by Bosch.

“For decades, most of the parts and equipment on NASCAR race cars have been highly customized for racing, but at the same time relevant in standard automobiles,” stated a NASCAR press release. “This move to fuel injection brings back an important synergy between these two vehicle types.”

NASCAR fans are unlikely to notice anything different about the way stock cars look or perform. Drivers are likely to observe improved drivability, or throttle response, and the cars will probably achieve slightly better fuel mileage.

“NASCAR race cars go through many different operating conditions at every race, and fuel injectors give the engine builders greater flexibility in setting up their engines for each track,” remarked Wolfgang Hustedt, Motorsports Manager for Bosch in North America.

“This change will give NASCAR drivers greater control over their vehicle performance, as well as control of fuel consumption.”

Five fuel injected cars, including representation from all four manufacturers competing in the Sprint Cup Series (Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota), recently participated in a NASCAR open test at Kentucky Speedway. Although the injected cars lapped 1-2 mph slower than their carbureted counterparts, no major problems were reported.

“Most of the issues that I think we we’re going to have we’ve sorted through either on the dyno, or in private testing, and we were able to make way so far,” observed Toyota Racing Development President Lee White. “It’s been a matter of logging laps and some minor changes to adjust the drivability issues around the garage area more than anything. There’s nothing that we’ve seen in terms of performance on the racetrack that worries us at all

“We’re really just logging laps,” White added. “We’re in an environment here we can’t duplicate on the dyno - which is heat and vibration associated with coming into the garage area, idling around, parking, shutting it down, letting it heat soak, firing it back up, and all the things that are really impossible to do on a dyno. Frankly, I think we’re still trying to catch up for the carburetors. The carburetors are so highly evolved and do certain things so well, so at this point I think we’re still a few horsepower behind where the carburetors are.”

Andrew Randolph, Engine Technical Director for ECR Engines, which supplies powerplants for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing, addressed concerns about additional costs the switch to fuel injection might bring.

“We are actually quite happy with the system because it has considerable room for invention or for science,” Randolph stated. “Certainly there is room for people to do it better than other people. You can look at costs in two ways. You can look at the dollars that it costs to implement the technology. But then you also have to look at the benefits that you derive from it and make a value judgment on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to do.

“We are certainly in full support of it being a good thing,” he noted. “It adds technical relevance to these engines compared to what is in production on the street now. Every small block engine that is on the street is fuel injected and these are going to be fuel injected small blocks as well.”

“We knew there would be some added cost to this,” added NASCAR Vice-President of Competition Robin Pemberton. “Anytime you have a rule change, there are added upfront costs. But it’s something we need to do for our sport, for our competition, and to be relevant out there. We knew this moving forward when we decided to take this on. Everybody knew the challenges. That’s why the timeline (more than two years) was as long as it has been.”

A Roush-Fenway Racing Ford driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle turned the fastest lap of the Kentucky test.

“We had a test plan coming in, and we were able to move through the test plan without any issues,” said Ford Racing engineer Dave Simon. “We did a lot of testing on the dyno so we pretty much knew what to expect. It’s been a positive day and there haven't been any unexpected issues due to fuel injection.

“I think from a racing standpoint the competition is going to be the same,” he continued. “There will be big changes for us on how we tune at the track and how you prepare for each race. There are more knobs you have to turn and more work you have to do as far as calibration is concerned. Behind the scenes, it’s big. But on the track, you really won't notice a difference.”

The big question for NASCAR is: After not embracing fuel injection technology for more than half a century, why now?

“This is our first year in competition that we’ve had all four manufacturers competing with the engine architecture that was prescribed five years ago,” responded NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition director John Darby. “You build the foundation of the house first, right?

“Now we’ve finally gotten to the point where the engine architecture is where we want it. It’s much easier to advance to the next level of engine now.”

- John Oreovicz is a veteran writer and historian who writes for a variety of motorsport publications.