The Little Engine That Could

As NASCAR looks towards the future and the so called "car of the future" a long overdue look at the engines that will power future Cup cars is underway. The small block Chevy engines that power Bow Tie Cup cars date back to the 1955 265 V8. The Ford Cup engine is of the Windsor design and has been around since the early 60s in displacements varying from 260 to 351 cubic inches under the hood of everything from Mustangs to milk trucks. Because they came onto the scene late in the game Dodge runs an engine only loosely based on their evergreen small block wedge engine that also dates back to the 60s. The engine that powers the Toyota Craftsman truck entries is a clean sheet design unlike anything that has ever powered a Toyota passenger car. (The V8 found in the larger Toyota trucks is an overhead cam design completely different than the pushrod engine Toyota uses in the truck series.) And therein lies the rub. Engineers from the big three say NASCAR gave Toyota the keys to the candy store when they signed off on the Toyota truck engine. Because that engine could be designed without worries about durability and packaging in a street driven car Toyota could take liberties with the design that no car manufacturer could afford to release to the public.

There is some concern among insiders that the "engine of the future" will amount to a spec type engine that will be used in all Cup cars regardless of what brand decals they run on the front end. That can't be allowed to happen. A Ford engine must remain a Ford, a Chevy engine a Chevy, etc. Having all Cup entries run the same engine with different valve covers would be another nail in the coffin of the sport when mechanical innovation had always been a cornerstone of success. Fans aren't thrilled about Cup cars that all look too much alike as it is and they won't warm up to a common engine package either.

Instead NASCAR should look at putting some "stock" back into stock cars. While the Chevy 350 (old style) and small block Ford remain the powerplants of choice in the hot rod community with few exceptions manufacturers have gone with smaller displacement engines in their passenger cars. Even Ford's evergreen Mustang makes do with a 4.6 liter V8 as does the ponderous pachyderm of the interstate the Crown Victoria, even in police car trim. Want a 351 powered Ford? Pony up for the $150,000 GT40. The Taurus that is the supposed basis of the Ford powered Cup entries no longer even offers a V8 option. The new variants of the Chevy Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix will make do with a 5.3 (327) LS4 small block motor. Dodge bucks the trend offering a 5.7 liter V8 (and optional 6.1 liter engine in the SRT series) in the Dodge Magnum and Charger and the Chrysler 300.

While Ford has thrown their hat in the overhead cam ring, after extensive testing of OHC cam engines against pushrod V8s of similar displacement GM found that the old pushrod engine design actually offered better torque at the lower RPM ranges where most sane Americans spend most of their time. While there might be an overhead cam engine design in NASCAR's future, to limit the cost of changing over to the new engines this generation of Cup cars should probably stick with the tried and true pushrod V8 engine though in a much smaller displacement.

I'd recommend a 4.6 liter engine which equates to about 260 cubic inches, down from the 350 cubic inch engines that currently power Cup cars. An old hot rod axiom states "there's no replacement for displacement" which is to say all things being equal a bigger engine will make more power. But the horsepower output of Cup cars has reached an insane level. Cup engines are currently flirting with 900 horsepower from 350 cubic inch engines. That's too much power for a race car like the stock cars which weigh a lot more and have a lot less tire width and grip than open wheel race cars. A reduction in horsepower would allow for better racing and more side by side action particularly through the corners. A reduction in engine displacement would be a good first step to getting horsepower numbers back under control.

Even more mind-boggling to me as a backyard mechanic is the fact some Cup teams can get their pushrod V8 engines to reach almost 10,000 RPM without reducing themselves to a pile of smoking, greasy shrapnel during the course of a race. For those who don't have more money invested in their toolkits than their home entertainment systems that trick is roughly equivalent to teaching and elephant to ride a unicycle around an icy motocross track while playing "Dazed and Confused" on the kazoo. To get a pushrod engine to survive at such high RPMs requires insanely expensive R and D work, exotic lightweight valvetrain component and crankshafts presumably made of materials that can only be mined from the caverns of Mars. To limit horsepower levels and the cost of a competitive engine several ideas come to mind. NASCAR could mandate cast crankshafts in place of forged steel cranks, put mandatory minimum weights on all valvetrain components or restrict exhaust header and carb size. But racing mechanics being racing mechanics they'd probably quickly find a way to spin their engines to 12,000 RPM while still meeting the new rules. A possible solution would be a chip in the ignition system limiting top RPM to 8000 but that would bring along some rules enforcement headaches as well. However it is accomplished there needs to be some rules package that limits engines to a maximum speed of 7500 to 8000 RPM to lower the costs of racing and the speeds attained on the faster oval tracks.

Requiring a stock engine block out of a passenger car made by the same manufacturer would be a good first step and would also put some more "stock" back into stock cars.

Another idea worthy of consideration is fuel injection. The last carburated engine rolled off the Detroit production lines nearly 20 years ago. Yet Cup cars still run big old Holley 4 barrel carbs like the ones that came into popularity with the hot rod set during the 60s. Fuel injection only seems hopelessly complicated to those not willing to study how it works. Sure the teams would need to add a couple computer geeks to tweak their fuel management programs and such but adding such personnel would be no more expensive than adding a skilled machinist who can also change front tires in record time. And again, the introduction of fuel injection into the series would put a little more "stock" back into stock cars. It's been a long time since the old axiom of the 60s, "racing improves the breed" had any real relevance to production cars and NASCAR racing but as hot rodders embrace the next generation of Ford, Chevy and Dodge small blocks and fuel injection a manufacturers' that bought more durable and higher powered products into the pipeline could only be a good thing.

As NASCAR decides on the engine of the future they face a bellwether moment. They can decide to make stock cars more "stock." They can reign in the runaway horsepower race which combined with less aerodynamic cars would make for more exciting and competitive racing. They can make a serious stride in lowering the cost of NASCAR racing which is also out of control. Or they could adopt a common "McEngine" for all three manufacturers and further alienate their hard core fans who know the difference between a camshaft and a meatloaf. Recent history doesn't give us much reason to be hopeful but maybe the folks at NASCAR will surprise us this time and do the right thing.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005

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