-it seems that those three little letters strike fear into many a promoter, track owner, or sanction head whenever they hear it. ECU stands for Engine Control Unit. Also called an ECM (Engine Control Module), these little black boxes control all of an electronically fuel injected engine's functions and are found in 100 percent of the street cars coming out of the OEM factories today. So why are we writing about it?
Recently, we ran across Keith Iaia. Midget racers will know that name because Keith Iaia was the man behind the Ford Focus Midget engine. His company S.C.R.E.A.M. built that program from the ground up for USAC. Well, Keith is back with an all new motor based on the GM Ecotec engine and it's electronically controlled and he has a major sanction backing him up.
We caught up with Keith to get an inside look at this motor and find out just exactly why Midget racers the country, and dare we say the world, over will find this new little jewel just the ticket to bring more youngsters into Midget racing and put more people in the grandstands.
"I was a Midget racer in my younger years and one of those who quite frankly got priced out of the sport," explains Iaia. "When it was time to go to the next level I couldn't afford to buy an Ed Pink Ford which was the thing to have at that time. So being a tool maker as a trade, and in the marine engine business at the time, I started looking for alternatives."
Espousing a "do no harm mentality," Iaia is quick to point out that he isn't here to replace any engine or any engine builder. He's merely trying to create another alternative for racers, a cost-effective alternative specifically to the high-end Midget engine technology. He wants to provide an avenue for younger racers to step into a Midget without having to shoulder a big financial burden.
Revolution Racing Engine's new Ecotec-based Midget motor is moving oval track racing into
"We've got millions of kids out there running Karts and Micros and Quarter Midgets and all that stuff," says Iaia. "The natural place for them to go is into a Midget and most of them don't. Why? Because at the national competition level, a). the complexity (of the engine) is enough to scare most dads way far away. It's a very complex, very difficult engine to keep running. And b). most dads don't have the better part of $100,000 a year to put into the engine maintenance aspect of their racing program. And it scares them off. At least this (motor) provides them a place to get them from a kart into a Midget."
It's the classic stepping stone and just what Iaia's other projects-the lesser-known Honda Midget motor and the wildly popular Ford Focus program-were also designed to accomplish.
But the Ecotec program has taken the concept of affordable Midget racing to the next level, both in design and reality.
The Drawing Board
Working with GM engineers, Iaia started with a stock 2.4-liter Ecotec engine which is the standard powerplant in the Chevy Malibu and HHR as well as the Saturn Sky, Aura, and Vue. In its stock configuration it produces between 164 and 176 hp and features chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder. It was an excellent foundation on which Keith would work his magic. But when he got the green light from GM to use the proverbial clean sheet of paper on the design, his initial thought was somewhat traditional.
"I'm old school," he explained. "So, right away I looked toward mechanical fuel injection to see what it would look like on this thing-the guys at GM were patient with me but before I got finished they tapped me on the shoulder and said 'hey, let's take a look at doing it this other way here.'"
The stock 2.4-liter Ecotec engine is the standard powerplant in the Chevy Malibu and HHR.
That other way was an electronic fuel injection unit. Iaia did take a look and he liked what he saw. "It instantly became evident to me that, based on what my goals were for the motor, I could make more power with greater reliability, more features, and for far less money by going with the modern technology than I could with this relatively ancient technology that everybody keeps pushing in Midgets and Sprint Cars."
And with that the die was cast.
Iaia started by designing his own cast aluminum intake manifold, stainless steel velocity stacks, all of the hardware, fuel rail, injectors, sensors, and fuel regulator under the banner of his aptly named company Revolution Racing Engines.
The ultimate goal is to employ new technology to lower the cost and increase reliability of a racing engine while providing more features for the buck to the typical Saturday night racer who has a family to feed or a business to run. But that was easier said than done.
There were many challenges in building the engine, everything from funding to the fact that it was Iaia's first experience building an electronic motor. But one of the biggest had to be getting fuel to the motor.
The stock engine's lubrication system received an extensive overhaul courtesy of Iaia. Thi
"Most EFI engines operate off of an electronic fuel pump since they want to see a steady fuel pressure at the fuel rail for the nozzles to fire correctly. Being an old school Midget guy and a safety conscious Midget guy, I was naturally opposed to an electric fuel pump. I've seen bad things happen when things go wrong in one of these cars. The idea that there could be a crash or mishap where the fuel line could be breached and the fuel pump could be left on, pumping fuel out to the atmosphere was something I wasn't comfortable with."
Although there have been a lot of advancements in the relays that control electric fuel pumps, Iaia opted to stick with a mechanical one for now, leaving the door open to move to electric in the future. "When the motor is not turning, the pump is not turning, and I like that," he says.
An individual-runner intake, engine adaptor, and oval-track oil pan (pictured) are among t
Using a mechanical fuel pump on an electronic engine in itself was a challenge. A mechanical fuel pump is linear in nature, wherein the more the engine turns, the more fuel the pump moves to the injectors. The problem is that electronically controlled injectors don't like that-they demand a steady and consistent flow. Iaia, the engineers at GM, and Dan Korrect at KRC got real creative with the fuel regulators to stabilize the fuel pressure at the rails as much as possible.
In the world of EFI, a fuel-pressure regulator is an adjustable diaphragm-style regulator. As an example, if you set it at 60 pounds it allows full flow of fuel through it all the way up to 60 pounds, anything beyond 60 pounds it begins to bypass.
"Our initial efforts involved simply employing one regulator of that type back to the vacuum side of the manifold. That's when we found a problem. When we set the regulator at 60 psi, when the engine hit 3,000 rpm, it worked fine. But at 7,000 rpm the regulator wasn't capable of bypassing all the fuel that the pump was putting out, so the pressures at the rails went up anyway," explained Iaia.
Their solution to the problem was to put that regulator on the fuel-rail circuit and then add a Kinsler-style poppet mechanical bypass on the bypass circuit and set it at 60 pounds. Theoretically what would happen is at idle or low rpm the poppet-style bypass would be shut because it wouldn't see 60 pounds and all the fuel would be flowing through the fuel-rail circuit. That regulator would maintain 60 pounds, or as close to 60 pounds as possible, at idle speed.
Extensive dyno testing has taken place both in Michigan and California. This picture is fr
Once the motor hits 3,000 rpm, the two regulators work in concert to ensure 60 psi on the rails. Once the engine passes 3,000 rpm and approaches the redline, the bypass circuit will see in excess of 60 pounds and the poppet would open, thereby getting rid of the excess fuel pressure so the system doesn't overpressurize. In essence, Iaia is letting the system regulate itself based on pressure signals.
"I haven't completely abandoned the idea of going to an electric pump," says Iaia. "But the fact is we've run this setup many times quite successfully. Is it perfect yet? No, but it's pretty darn close."
Revolution's Ecotec Midget engine uses the MEFI5 Electronic Control Unit from GM which is its current version marine-based engine controller. Iaia says it has been a little more challenging than expected because the MEFI5 is a production unit that doesn't have some of the features the more exotic aftermarket controllers have, but it's extremely cost effective. It's also extremely robust which isn't surprising when you consider that it's made for the harsh marine environment. It may not have all the trick features of the aftermarket controllers but Iaia likes what it does have.
"We have variable camshaft timing with these things. We can sweep the cam 50 degrees under real time conditions to extract maximum torque. And that's really where that stuff comes in. In my experience on the dyno, it really doesn't do much for peak power numbers but what it does do is brings that torque on early and then holds it on much longer."
In this engine you don't really have the bell shaped torque curve that you're used to seeing with a mechanical engine. It's more of a ramp up, then a line, then a ramp down. It's much flatter, which speaks to a fuel economy issue that we'll get into shortly.
Here you can see the electronic brain of RRE's Midget Engine. The ECU is mounted on the fi
"We're making within 80 percent of peak torque from 3,000 rpm all the way to 6,300 rpm," Iaia says proudly. That translates into getting off the corner really strong. "It's definitely pushing you back in the seat all the way down the straightaway. Again, we don't have a gear to grab going down the straight-were stuck with one speed. So that's a very telling thing when the engine is pushing you all the way back in the seat 'til you can't stand it any more and you have to lift going into the corner. That's what we're after."
Start looking for belts and pulleys on this motor and you'll be looking for a long time. It doesn't have any, everything is driven by a power take off the engine. The motor features an ingenious combination power steering/fuel pump that is driven mechanically off the backside of the water pump. It's literally internally chain driven off the crankshaft so there are no external pulleys on the engine which on a Midget is a good thing. There has been more than one Midget driver to suffer the bad luck of having a chunk of mud or a rock knock a belt off.
The versatility of the ECU on RRE's Midget engine allows it to have two different performance levels out of one engine. The "Sportsman" setting delivers about 200 hp and is equivalent to the established Super Focus motors that race in many of the Focus divisions across the country. A simple programming switch and you can be running what Iaia calls the ASCS setting, which puts out about 250 hp and is comparable with most national Midget sanctions/rules
Finally the RRE Ecotec is a sealed motor which means no tapering with the guts of engine.
Electronic or mechanical is irrelevant. The bottom line is performance on the track, right? Dillon Silverman was one of the very first racers to get behind the wheel of an Ecotec-powered Midget. A former Outlaw Kart racer, the 18 year old made the jump to Midgets and is also currently testing Sprint Cars.
"I like it a lot better than the Focus. I can break the wheels loose with it a lot easier," says Silverman. "It's a lot of fun to drive. The torque curve makes the engine real racey."
Iaia debuted his Ecotec Midget at the 2009 PRI show although it would be another 6 months
In the motor's debut race at Placerville (CA) Speedway in June 2009, Silverman drove his No. 98 Stealth/RRE Ecotec to a Second place heat race finish behind David Pricket in a traditional full Midget. During the main event, Silverman improved from his 15th starting position to 8th before an incident with another car at two laps to go put him out of the race.
"It's very competitive even with full Midgets," says Silverman. One reason is the flatness of the torque curve mentioned earlier. It allows him additional power coming out of the turns and on restarts. "You can beat other cars out of the corner with this motor all day long," he says.
But that's not the only advantage to the Ecotec according to the 18-year-old racer. "With the Focus you had to really keep your momentum up constantly or you'd find yourself in the dust and it would take you two laps to get back up to speed. This engine is the opposite, if you have to get out of the gas for any reason you still have plenty of motor to catch right back up."
It's that flat torque curve again. The ability to pull hard off the corner is exactly what enables Silverman and the other Ecotec-equipped drivers to hang in the Top 10 with full Midgets, which have substantially more horsepower.
Racers will no doubt have something to smile about with the new Ecotec; performance, reliability, and versatility all in a single engine package for under $10,000.
Beyond those three items, perhaps the most significant feature of this engine is the fact that it could be called a green engine. "What," you say? An environmentally friendly race engine-how does that work? It all comes back to fuel economy.
"At that Placerville race we ran the entire evening-practice, qualifying, heat race, 30-lap main event and we did well and we burned right at 2 gallons of fuel for the whole night," says Iaia. Remember that's methanol which you have to burn up to 2.5 times more volume than gas to produce the same BTU. By comparison Iaia says a typical full Midget probably went through 12-15 gallons that night.
"Most of that has to do with the fact that with a mechanical fuel injector you're just constantly pouring fuel at the thing and hoping it lights. It's one of the reasons that mechanical fuel injection works OK with methanol and doesn't work so well with gasoline. It's a more forgiving fuel."
Since the Revolution engine features electronically controlled sequential port fuel injection Iaia is giving the motor exactly the amount of fuel it wants and needs to make the power and no more. The truth of the matter is that when you compare the fuel consumption figures on the Revolution engine to a traditional Midget engine and factor in $4 per gallon for methanol, the savings on fuel alone could pay the average guy's tire bill.
According to Iaia, the marketplace acceptance for his new engine has been surprisingly positive. "When I first brought the Focus Midget to the playing field I got a lot of guff from the old school Midget guys because here was this modern technology, twin-cam, four-valve engine and I got a lot of grief from a lot of people saying things like, 'That's not going to work. You can't run methanol through an engine like that,' and more. Fortunately for me it did work and it brought a lot of new people into Midget racing. If it did nothing else it restocked the ranks of Midget racing across the country with new drivers."
Iaia's track record with the Focus has played into the rapidly growing interest in the Revolution engine. But the additional credibility wasn't the only thing that has helped the Revolution Ecotec. Time is a big factor also. "The last time I saw a side-breather pushrod engine outside a Midget was in a forklift," quips Iaia. But he's right. Two-valve push-rod four-cylinder motors are a thing of the past when it comes to OEM technology.
"We started ASCS in 1992 on the simple concept of affordable Sprint Car racing," says Emmett Hahn, founder of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based sanction ASCS (American Sprint Car Series). "When I saw what Keith and GM were doing with the Ecotec I thought it's the same concept; plain and simple, affordable Midget racing. And I liked it."
Hahn says because the Chevy motor will make even horsepower from car to car he'll be able to produce better races with closer competition. Plus, his racers will be able to race for a year or two before ever having to touch the engine. But what about tech? We mentioned before that this engine is a sealed motor and with the electronics many people think that it would be easy to cheat up, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
"I'm a guy who is old enough that I don't even know how to turn a computer on, but I will sit here and tell you that the Ecotec will be the easiest tech deal that I've ever been involved in," Hahn says confidently. "Because it's electronic all we have to do is plug our computer into the module on the car and we can tell if you're legal or not."
Hahn and his ASCS group have big plans for the Ecotec Midget. He already has 24 races in the works for 2010 throughout the Oklahoma/Texas region where he will bring in the Ecotec Midgets as filler classes for his regular Sprint Car shows. They will race under the new ASCS2 Midget Series banner. In addition, under his ASCS2 600 Mini-Sprint Division, Hahn wants to have the Ecotec Midgets as the headline division at certain tracks.
Eighteen-year-old Dillon Silverman (98) runs wheel to wheel in his RRE Ecotec against Lonn
But the event he lights up about when you bring up the Ecotec is the Tulsa Shootout. Taking place two week's before his famed Chili Bowl, the Tulsa Shootout is an annual gathering of hundreds of Karts, Quads, Micros, and now Midgets. His plan is to hold an additional race where Ecotec, SuperFocus, and Focus-powered Midgets will race against each other. Hahn hopes to have 25 to 30 Ecotec-powered cars this year to give people a look at the engine and its on-track performance. What's more is the winner of this new Midget event will get an invite to compete in the Chili Bowl.
"In a few years, my goal is to have the Tulsa Shootout be the Granddaddy race for these cars," says Hahn.
Ultimately, Hahn likes the Ecotec concept because, "it's a good starter class where you can buy a used roller, spend $10,000 on the motor, and go racing for several years." He also says that the Ecotec provides a bridge for 600 Mini-Sprint drivers to move up to Midget racing because the cost is not much more. At the same time, full Midget racers who are getting squeezed out because of budget now have a lower cost division that they can move to.
In addition to ASCS, at least three or four other sanctions are taking a hard look at Revolution's Ecotec. But as the motor's popularity grows it can all be traced back to a small group from California known as the Capital City Midgets, a northern California sanction that will merge with the Bay Cities Racing Assocation or BCRA-the 70-year-old Midget group-in 2010 and run under the ASCS2 banner.
"Keith and I built a little bit of a rapport with what he was doing and what I was doing because our goal was the same . . . create affordable Midget racing in this area," explained Rick Young, President of the Capital City Midgets.
Like Hahn, Young likes the fact that the electronic motors are easy to tech. "The use of the EFI and the ECU made all the sense in the world to me because when I was racing offshore powerboats everything was kept level with EFI/ECU so from an Ecotech perspective it made sense to me."
He also likes the affordability factor. "In looking at historical Midget racing versus other successful forms of motorsports, let's examine the SCCA. The most successful class in SCCA by far is the Spec Miata class. It's inexpensive and they never have to mess with the engines. They get in them, they race them, they go home. In our environment today, people have more on their plate than they ever have had. Racing has to change to accomadate that if we are going to grow as a sport."
"For the products I provide for my customer, I don't see myself ever doing another mechanical engine, honestly," explains Iaia. "I can't do it. My task is to provide a certain level of bang for buck and I can't get there with mechanical fuel injection."
Matt Land (91) does battle in his full-powered "ASCS" Revolution Ecotec against one of the
But the impact goes well beyond the oval track market place. "Now that we've finally crossed the threshold into EFI, I'm getting calls from boat racers, road racers, hot rod guys, everybody you can imagine. And you know what? We can calibrate this engine to run on ethanol or gasoline just as easily as we run it on methanol. We can calibrate to a particular customer's need. This product has a great amount of crossover potential to other types of racing, not just Midget racing or oval-track racing so that's something that we're very excited about," exclaimed Iaia.
While writing this story Emmett Hahn said, "Mama's only going to let you take so much out of your paycheck each week for your hobby." Racing being the hobby that it is, if we can save money on the engine, engine maintenance and fuel consumption that means there is more money left in the budget for chassis components, safety gear, or even additional races.
Revolution's Ecotec Midget engine is indeed revolutionary for the oval-track racing market place. And its not a question of if the motor will transition to other forms of circle track racing but more a question of how quickly. The electronic revolution has begun. Remember you saw it here first.