Over the years, I have met some very smart people in the racing world and it is time we started to exploit these smart folks and develop an improved engine package. The open engine’ time, I fear, has passed. Even Formula 1 has engine rules. How much horsepower (HP) is required? I know this is a silly question, as any racer, will always want more power but the fact of the matter is the majority of the cars (in the higher divisions) on the track today can spin their tires at will.
It may be that we have reached a tipping point of available grip versus power available at any given time. Many are saying that crate engines are the salvation of the support classes that prop up the highest levels of dirt racing. It has been said that crate engines should be used across the board. While this is interesting thinking; the racers still want to tinker with the engines and that is part of the allure of racing.
It is common to hear of anywhere from $40,000-$60,000 or more being spent on some sprint car or late model engines. Plus, we need to factor the cost of refreshing these engines on a regular interval. Why do engines cost that much? That could be a long and convoluted conversation and I am sure that the engine builders could validate the costs and I would be on their side of the argument. There is a good deal of work and expensive hardware that goes into building a top line racing engine. We are very lucky, as a sport, that there are a good number of very clever engine builders out there delivering some major HP to their customers. The problem is not the value for the money but the cost of that value. We need to remember that high HP engines are not just expensive from an engine perspective; there is the cost of accelerated tire wear (no pun intended) and drive train wear that adds even more cost to maintaining a racing program.
We’re looking for a long term solution and I do not believe most racers are interested in electric race cars so I will not even entertain that conversation. I do believe that electric race cars will effectively kill racing as we now know it but this is a discussion for another time and place.
What if we could develop an engine formula that would allow the same set of rules to govern both the late model and sprint car worlds? A singular engine formula for both divisions it is not as outlandish as it may sound. A common formula could be more cost effective, give the racers a reasonable amount of power, durability and lower the cost per lap for engines to the racer. Racing may even be closer and promote a more entertaining show for the fans.
What would we need accomplish to develop the idea of a common engine? First, we must develop a standard size for the engine, i.e., cubic inches. While on the surface this sounds like an easy pen stroke decision, it will be a bit more complex than that. Next, would be the elimination of carburetors and continuous flow fuel injection and a change to electronic fuel injection. Before you start warming the tar and gathering the feathers, hear me out. Electronic fuel injection has some very positive advantages. One of the biggest positives is the ability to control PRM. RPM is the killer of all things mechanical in the engine. If we could lower RPM, the cost to run the engine would decrease as the RPM related issues would be highly diminished. It is just a hard fact -RPM kills parts. We, as a corporate group need to step out of the 1930s and enter modern times, we need to face the fact that we are working with fueling systems that are in comparison to electronic fuel injection, sticks and stones from a technological perspective, and by some thoughts a controlled leak, granted a very well controlled leak but a leak just the same. There is a better option.
There are those who say that just let the racer do what they want and the costs will settle out. How is that working for you? The problem, there is or will be one or two racers/team owners that have deeper pockets than the rest of the racers/team owners and money is not really an obstacle when it comes to their racing program. Therein lays the rub. This type of owner or racer will spend whatever it takes to get to the front. Is it fair, no? But life is not fair either. We cannot legislate “fair” into any endeavor in life. The solution is to develop a methodology that does not reward you to try spending your way to the front. The reality is that eventually the guys with the money will figure out a way to spend the money, whether it helps or not. So, let’s think about the whole package.
The current thinking is that if we let the racers loose with their imaginations/creativity and let them run rampant, we can appeal to those who want to tinker with engines and just see what they can get. What that gets you is ultra-light weight rotating and static components, ultra-high lift cams, exotic (read very expensive) materials where steel and aluminum were the norm, roller or ball bearings where plain bearing used to be, 5 axis machined ports, a basic redesign of the blocks to withstand elevated HP outputs. The list goes on and on. The engines develop a higher level of power so the cars are faster but is the racing any better? Plus, we are not saving the racer any dollars. Ultra-high HP engines have short fuses, especially if the rules allow methods to increase mechanical grip, which would include wings and or special bodies that have been tweaked in wind tunnels. Call around and see how much wind tunnel time costs or what it costs to have an aerodynamicist as a fulltime part of your team or just what it costs to rent one for a week or two.
Are crate engines a viable option? Yes and no. There are issues. Given time and money, ways will be and have been found to cheat or improve performance beyond the original design. The problem with crate engines, they are just asking to be tampered with and ways found to get past the special seals and hardware sealing the engines. Again, false economy. Simply stated, get more air into the engine and you can push more fuel into the engine and you can make HP. It is an oversimplification but the basic premise is sound. If we can limit the air into the engine, we can limit power. I am not suggesting that we all start just running restrictor plates and think we have saved money. What I am suggesting is that we approach this from a systemic perspective.
I am not suggesting that we outlaw all of the current engines but develop a framework that would even out the playing field. What could we do to minimize the racers need or desire to attempt to adjust the engine and spend more money and also be easily inspected post-race? This engine would utilize electronic fuel injection, we lose the carburetor and the mechanical fuel injection and as an added bonus and we enter the modern age of computerized fuel and ignition management. The electronic fuel injection is fairly easy to inspect with the correct tools. Develop a reasonable +/- specification on the throttle body size. Develop a set of go/no-go inspection tools. This helps control just how much air gets into the engine. That gives us a brute force way to control air flow. What about cams? The cam should be open, just define the max lift at the valve. Let’s give the tuners some place to play and limit the lift at the valve to 0.600. I do not care about lobe centers or duration or lift rates. Just deal with lift at the valve. Give the cam manufacturers and racers a place to play. This will allow the racers to tinker with the cam and related valve train. But the lift would be the constant, no more than 0.600 lift intake or exhaust.
The heads should be controlled to a point; no titanium components anywhere on or in the engine.
The exhaust system is some place we should allow the racers to play. As we are trying to control air flow on the intake side, we also need work to control airflow on the exhaust side. The headers should be sized to compliment the intention to limit airflow. The header tube size or the collector size should be tuned for this package. If there was a common specification for the headers, it should lower the cost of manufacture on the headers as the manufacturers could stabilize the design of the headers. As we control the intake and exhaust flow, the need to spend big money on special manifolds and head porting becomes a moot point. I am sure we could spend some big dollars on developing special heads that would complement the totality of the engine package that too could be controlled by not allowing special manifolds and porting.
This would give the racer some room to adjust and still make the post-race inspection process very simple. The process would be to check the inlet at the throttle body, check valve lift at the valve, and check the header diameters and collectors. The computer will control the RPM, fuel curves and record the Max RPM attained on the last time the engine was run. We could even move computers between cars to make sure that there is no funny business going on with the computers. By the way, there are some very simple checks that can be accomplished to see if the computer has been tampered with or hacked. This is accomplished with the Trophy Trucks (as seen in the Baja events) and it takes very little time. It checks for the stock fuel curve, ignition, and it even records the highest RPM the engine was turning.
Given time as the racers develop more knowledge about the engine, the power levels would escalate but we should still be able to keep the costs reasonable with some good enforceable rules. It really is just that simple.