By Vito Pugliese – It was revealed Saturday at Auto Club Speedway that NASCAR is actively pursuing efforts to reduce engine horsepower for the 2015 season for the Sprint Cup Series. The move is aimed at not only reducing the amount of power that engines are producing – which prior to this season’s addition of tapered spacers was in the 900hp range – but also extending the life of the engines as well. In an interview with Tom Jensen at FoxSports.com, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton detailed some of the changes that have been discussed with Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota.
How would this be accomplished and what would it mean for teams and the on-track product?
Chevrolet and Toyota are advocating a 5.0L mill, down from the current maximum size of 5.8L. This makes sense since the Ford FR9 is the newest and most advanced engine of the three, allowing the other two back on a level playing field as far as generation of engines are concerned. For Ford, this could be a boon for them as well, as their 5.0L Coyote engine will continue to be an engine offering in the new F-150 and Mustang GT set to be released later this year. Ford has suggested continued use of tapered spacers to help reduce engine output – and development cost.
A move to a newer engine configuration could also potentially help lure Chrysler back into the fray. Following their 2012 championship-winning season, Dodge disappeared from the sport after they were unable to find a new engine supplier after Team Penske elected to go with Ford for the foreseeable future. Dodge also has the Charger slated for a refreshing in 2015 with a nose similar to that of the current Camaro. No Dodge Gen6 cars exist at the moment, and there are a few hand-me-down ex-Penske Challengers sprinkled through the Nationwide Series. With Dodge abruptly pulling its Viper from competition at LeMans this week, might they be pondering a return to NASCAR – or is this another total abandonment from motorsports given parent company Fiat is now the sole owner of the Pentastar brand?
NASCAR has tinkered with reduction of engine power and aiding longevity before. It wasn’t too long ago that a 9.0:1 compression ratio was entertained, but the reduction of power was accompanied with a marked increase in exhaust temperatures which translated into driver discomfort. In 2002, teams were no longer permitted to run engines exclusively for qualifying, so they in turn needed to be more robust, with only valve train components allowed to be changed to freshen them prior to race day. Some teams benefited from this, particularly Roush Racing, who was a bit down on both power and balance the previous year, while others struggled a bit at first. With only a handful of engine suppliers in the Cup Series (Ford having just Roush Yates, and Toyota having TRD and Triad), a new engine format might help create some additional vendors than what currently exist.
The tapered spacer – which is by any other name, a restrictor plate – was originally floated for 2014, but was put on hold in favor of aerodynamic changes which increased drag. The tapered spacer has worked well in the Camping World Truck Series, but did not exactly promote competition in the Nationwide Series a few years back. While engine longevity is helpful for some of the lower-budgeted teams, it would really only be beneficial if teams are forced to run engines for multiple weeks before rebuilding or replacing them. If a new engine size is initiated, it would be years before any cost savings or economies of scale would come into play, as it would require new parts, pieces, and testing to make it a viable product.
And as with engines, if you make it smaller, the only way to make more power is to spin it faster. That means higher RPMs, lighter pieces and materials, and a new horsepower war that will see the smaller engines whizzing past 10,000rpm in a few years. If a smaller engine is used, expect the horsepower reduction to last about six months, until teams find ways to gain back whatever power was lost to begin with. If durability is what the mandate brings, heavier pieces are what will help dampen the output and maintain the integrity of the original goal.
While cost concessions are a concern, the main target here is on-track competition. With the number of intermediate tracks that dominate the circuit, the downforce monster that is the Gen6 car coupled with engines that are tickling 900 ponies have conspired to make huge speed – but at the expense of close competition. Cars sailing off into the corner at 215mph might have made sense in the superspeedway glory days of the late 1980s – but not at Texas or Atlanta. At Michigan International Speedway – NASCAR’s new fastest track – in 2012, a day of testing and practice saw cars approaching 220mph headed into Turn One.
What might look impressive and eyeball popping on a television telemetry readout or atop a scoring pylon, loses its luster if another car can’t get within 50 yards of it due to the aero wash it’s plowing into.
It is true that speed kills – competition – once they get going too fast. This aspect was exacerbated with the arrival of the Gen 5 COT, but addressed with the aero tweeks made to the Gen6 this past off-season. There is still a bit of work to do, as teams continue to build more power and get the cars to faster, they’ll soon outgrow the fixes that were put in place for this season. More aero adjustments are likely on the way as well, and coupled with a horsepower reduction, NASCAR may hit the perfect balance between power and grip that they had in the mid-late 90’s and early 2000’s.
At least until the teams catch up and gain it back once more…
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