Monday, March 24, 2014

New Cup Engine Rumors Much Ado About Nothing

Ford's EcoBoost twin turbo V6 is one of tomorrow's engines
NASCAR has been hinting for more than a year that it is working on new engine regulations for the Sprint Cup series, perhaps going into effect as early as the 2015 season.

Officials had been saying everything was being considered for its “Engine of Tomorrow,” including a move to a V6 and even the possibility of a V6 turbo, a change already made by IndyCar, sports car racing and Formula One.

Now NASCAR is beginning to leak some of the details about the new regulations and it appears they’re focused on trimming about 100 horsepower from the current engine’s 850 to 900 hp output.  That’s it.   The stories say NASCAR is working very closely with the manufacturers on how to make the horsepower cuts, with ideas ranging from reducing the size of the existing V8 engine slightly to the to use of tapered spacers.

Who cares.

If that’s the route NASCAR decides on, it has missed an opportunity to regain some relevancy and may doom itself forever to dinosaur status. 

The current engine configuration has been in use for more than 25 years.  The series made a huge concession to reality a few years back by adding electronic fuel injection and switching to ethanol fuel. 

Welcome to the 1990s.

Meanwhile, during the next 10 years the auto industry will go through enormous changes mandated by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that are set to nearly double by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon, from the current 29.7 mpg standard.  That’s easily the greatest increase in standards since they were first established in the early 1970s.

Currently only the Toyota Prius and similar hybrids, meet the 2025 standards.  The V6-powered Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Impala or Malibu will have to nearly double current fuel economy levels.  V8 engines such as the one in Chevy SS will disappear.  The manufacturers say they will make extensive use of 4- and 6-cylinder engines and turbocharging to meet the standards.  You may be able to find a V8 engine in a Corvette in 2025, but you’re gonna pay a huge premium for it. 

To meet the new standards, the industry will undertake a decade of development and innovation unmatched in its history.  One top Toyota executive says the auto industry will see more changes in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 100.

And NASCAR is apparently willing to watch the world pass it by.

A better answer to Engine of Tomorrow challenge is right under its nose, in the new Tudor United SportsCar Championship NASCAR controls.   Ford is currently competing in the series with a twin turbo V6 EcoBoost engine that it says takes 70 percent of its parts – including the block, cylinder heads, gaskets and valve train – from its normally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 production engine.  One of the race engines, built by Roush Yates Engines, powered a Chip Ganassi Racing entry to victory in the recent 12 Hours of Sebring.  Honda entered the series at Sebring with a race version of its V6 production engine.

And it’s not just sports car racing.  IndyCar also runs a twin-turbo 2.2-liter V6 engine configuration putting out about 650 horsepower, with engines supplied by both Chevrolet and Honda.  Although Toyota doesn’t currently have a V6 turbo production or race engine, the company says it is committed to bringing them to market in the near future.

NASCAR is certainly aware that virtually every other major racing series has moved to V6 turbo engines.  So why the not join the other series?

It’s all about money.  Of course it is.  Such a dramatic change would be an enormous engineering challenge and hugely expensive.  The manufacturers are already bankrolling the sport to tune of more than $100 million each and reluctant to add to that total 

That’s where NASCAR needs to dip into its $8.2 billion war chest of television dollars to help defray the costs for teams and manufacturers. 

The future relevancy of the NASCAR depends on it.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Roush Shows Up – In A Big Way

Edwards' Bristol win was a huge lift for Roush Fenway Racing
Last week I asked what was up with Roush Fenway Racing, wondering aloud if perhaps Jack Roush has lost some of his passion for the sport and as a result his team had lost a step.

Well I guess they showed me – and everyone else who questioned the team’s lackluster start this season.  Not only did Carl Edwards and teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., finish one-two in Roush Fords, the “B” team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose finished third and fifth driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. 

Roush seemed to acknowledge afterwards that the one-two finish is closer to what Ford is expecting from his team this year than the results of the first three races, when Roush cars lead just 10 of 779 laps.

“Ford has given us more resources,” he said.  “They've expanded their engineering involvement one more notch and given us some more.  Of course the thing that it comes down to, as it always has with people in stock car racing, is you can have talented people, but if you don't work on the right things, you won't get the results you're looking for from their effort.  We've had to think not only about the people and the programs we had going on, but whether we were missing something by not focusing on some of the other things.

Roush said his team had taken a hard look at itself during the off-season and made changes needed to compete at the highest level.

“Every winter we've got to look at the job that we've been doing technically and think about how we can do better and of course look around at our contemporaries and see how they're doing their programs, as well.  We decided we needed to add a couple more people to do some research and engineering things.  We decided to reassign and redefine the job descriptions of some of the people we had on staff.  We took an evaluation, took stock of who we had, the talent and the experience and all, and decided that we had people with the right stuff that were motivated and committed, so we stayed the course with the folks that we had even though we didn't win a championship last year.  We stayed the course, we augmented or added to the staffing level, and we were able to do some things that I wouldn't care to talk about that we weren't able to do last year based on the added resources that we've applied.”

Despite the strong Bristol finishes, however, the questions will remain for the time being about Roush Fenway Racing.  As I noted last week, Bristol is a good track for both Edwards and Stenhouse and they produced.  A key pit call kept their cars on the track when most everyone else came in for tires and gave them a lead they never relinquished.  Afterwards it seemed as if Edwards was as surprised as anyone by the outcome.    

"I can't believe we turned this around," Edwards said. "We were terrible on Saturday. We'd been struggling lately, so for us to come out here and run so well with the number of Fords out of our shop, that was big.”

The next test will be to see if they can keep it going.

The Bristol finish wasn’t the only big news for Roush and Ford over the weekend.   It was Roush Yates Ford EcoBoost engine in a car owned by Chip Ganassi that won the 12 Hours of Sebring, giving the new V6 twin turbo its first endurance race victory.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What’s up with Roush Fenway Racing?

Questions about Roush Racing should start at the top
As a kid growing up in Livonia, Mich., I’d ride my bike past the Jack Roush Racing shops to look at the cars and, if I was lucky, hear an engine start up.  Roush was mostly into drag racing back then, which was a long, long time ago. 

Over the years Roush moved into sports cars and his team eventually dominated the TransAm for Ford.  From there they moved into NASCAR, once again rising to the top.

But again, that was a long, long time ago.  It's been awhile since Roush won regularly and the team's slow start this year has people wondering if maybe the best years of Roush Racing are in the past.

Of the 779 Sprint Cup laps run so far this year, Roush Fords have led 10.  Ten.  None of the Roush cars even threatened the Top 10 this past weekend at Las Vegas until Carl Edwards rolled the dice on gas mileage, eventually finishing 5th. 

It’s even worse on the Nationwide side of things, were Roush drivers haven’t led a single lap.  None.  Zero. Nada.

This is coming off a 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season Roush would like to forget.  Although Edwards won two races and Greg Biffle one as both drivers qualified for The Chase, neither contended for the title.  In fact, a Roush driver hasn’t won a Cup title in 10 years.  And while Chevrolet won 16 races on its way to an 11th straight manufacturer championship last year and Toyota was winning 14 events, Ford cars, managed just six wins and fell to third in the manufacturer standings. 

Roush defenders will argue that the 2014 season is only three races old.  But they’ve been on three different types of race tracks – one superspeedway, one flat track and 1.5-mile intermediate layout – and only one thing has been consistent, the Roush Fords have been nowhere to be seen.  A year ago you might have chalked it up to being a bad year for Ford.  But not this year. 

The Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been consistently out front.  Keselowski nearly won at Daytona and the Penske Fords swept the front row in qualifying at Phoenix and Las Vegas, with Keselowski winning this past weekend.   And the Penske cars have been just as strong in the Nationwide series.

So what’s wrong with Roush Fenway is a legitimate question.  And it needs to start at the top. 

What’s up with Jack Roush?

Stubborn and opinionated, Roush, who turns 72 next month, has been the very visible, hands-on leader of the NASCAR team for more than 25 years.  “Fists on” leadership Edwards once said. 

While he insists he hasn’t lost his passion for the sport, he also talks about stepping back from day-to-day oversight and even – gasp – not going to every race.

We’ve seen it happen often before in NASCAR and auto racing in general.  The success of a team, even a well-funded team, depends heavily on the commitment and drive of the team owner.  In business, a CEO’s legacy is often judged in part on the leadership he leaves behind, but that hasn’t been in the case in racing. Once a race team’s ownership begins to lose the passion or whatever you want to call it, the team begins to drift.  It happened at the biggest and best teams; at Holman-Moody, the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises.  It was happening at Richard Childress Racing until a couple of grandsons revitalized Childress. 

The Great Recession hit all of auto racing hard, Roush included.  In 2007 he was forced to sell a 50 percent interest in the team to John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports.  The team went from four cars to three for the 2012 season and the next year let Matt Kenseth go over to the “dark side,” as Roush termed the driver’s move to Toyota’s Joe Gibbs team.  Rather than replace Kenseth with another proven Cup star, Roush promoted Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., from the Nationwide series.  Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide champ, was ready for the promotion by most accounts, but has failed to produce in Cup competition.

So where does Roush Fenway Racing go from here?  It’s bound to be a hot topic in the weeks ahead and for as long as it takes Roush cars to start running up front again – if they ever do.  It starts this week at Bristol.  Edwards, and especially Biffle, usually performs well at the track.

Only one thing will stop the questions about Roush Fenway Racing.  In the words of former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, as passionate an owner as there ever has been; “Just win baby.  Just win.”

Final thought: Is there a role for Mark Martin at Roush?  Seems like there should be.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Busch Facing Greater Challenges Than “The Double”

Andretti and Busch at last year's Indy car test session
Much of the reaction to Kurt Busch’s announcement this week that he will attempt “The Double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and Charlotte 600 on the same day, has focused on the physical and logistical challenges of racing 1,100 miles at tracks several hours apart. 

In reality, the challenge Busch faces is far greater than that.

Busch likes to think of himself as a throwback to the drivers of the ‘60s and ‘70s who often jumped from Indy cars, to stock cars to sports cars.  And to a limited extent he is.  He’s tried his hand at drag racing and tested the Indy car and V8 Supercar.  That’s a long way from racing them.  And back then it was easier to run both Charlotte and Indy because the races were held on different weekends.    But you’ve to admire him for giving it a shot.

“This is really to challenge myself within motorsports,” Busch said. “Perhaps I am a bit of an old-school racer. I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series. It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.”

He becomes the fourth driver to attempt a “true Double” – running both races on the same day – and the first in 10 years. The previous attempts, however, were made by former Indy car drivers Tony Stewart and John Andretti, along with Robby Gordon, who had plenty of Indy car experience prior to his first 500.

Busch will be a rookie at Indy.  He’s tested at the Speedway and passed a rookie orientation there last year.  But he’s never driven in an Indy car race. He’ll be fast in practice.  Running in the Indy 500 will be a whole ‘nother ballgame.  It’s doubtful he’ll experience anything in practice like the turbulence created by 33 race cars traveling at more than 210 mph.   He’ll get a feel for it on “Carb Day,” the final practice session prior to the 500 when qualifiers have a final chance to tune their cars.  Even then there won’t be the tightly bunched pack of cars you’ll see at the start and restarts of the 500.

Busch says he’ll seek advice from Stewart and Sam Hornish, a former teammate and Indy 500 winner.   He’d be well-served to also talk with AJ Allmendinger, who drove Indy cars for several years before moving to NASCAR, returning last year to run his first Indy 500.  He qualified fifth for the race, but was so unnerved by the turbulence at the start he was on the radio saying something must be wrong with the car.

"I was a sissy on the start," said Allmendinger, who would eventually lead the race for 23 laps. "That might have been the worst Indy 500 start ever. I went from like fifth to 20th in one lap. It took me about 40 laps to settle down."

Several Indy car drivers have won NASCAR races. A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 and Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford and Jim Hurtubise, among others, also have victories.  No NASCAR driver has ever won an in Indy car event, let alone the Indy 500.

Busch won’t be the first to try Indy without any previous experience. Fireball Roberts tested a car at the Speedway before deciding open wheels and the track weren’t for him. Curtis Turner twice tried to qualify for the 500 and nearly killed himself in one of Smokey Yunick’s racers before giving up.  Bobby Johns crashed Yunick’s controversial sidecar while trying to qualify for the ’64 race.  He came back as a Lotus teammate to eventual race winner Jimmy Clark in ’65 and finished seventh, beaten out for rookie honors by a kid named Mario Andretti.  Johns was back again in ’69 and finished 10th driving for J. C. Agajanian.  Cale Yarborough drove in ’66, being caught up in the first lap wreck, and he was joined by LeeRoy Yarbourgh in ’67.  The Alabama Gang of Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Neil Bonnett all took a crack at Indy at one point.

Donnie Allison is the most successful of all NASCAR invaders, finishing fourth and earning Rookie of the Year honors while driving for A. J. Foyt in 1970, a week after winning the Charlotte race.  In ’71 they ran the two races back-to-back and Allison finished sixth at Indy on Saturday and second at Charlotte the next day.  Not too shabby.

There have been NASCAR winners at Indy, although it’s been awhile.  The Wood Brothers were imported to the handle the pit stop chores for Clark in ‘65 and were one of the keys to his victory.  And Yunick was the crew chief on the winning car of Jim Rathman in 1960 (although he doesn’t always get the credit).

There are other obstacles ahead for Busch than just starting his first Indy car race.  He’ll be in a fifth car from Andretti Autosport, which fields cars for four series regulars, including Marco Andretti. The team is already facing a unique challenge of running a race on Indy’s road course the first weekend in May and then preparing for the 500.  Busch can be hard on his crew under the best of situations.  It will be interesting to see how he reacts when the team is pushed to the limit and he’s low man on the totem pole.  It will require a new level maturity we haven’t seen in the past.

I hope he is able to hold it together and does well in the 500.  I’m not normally a Kurt Busch fan, but on May 25 I’ll be pulling for him.  And I suspect a lot of other NASCAR fans will be too.