Vital Statistics The CarsChassis: Tubular frame; all center sections are produced by one manufacturer to ensure safety.
Body: One-piece fiberglass bodies. Available styles are Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Taurus, and Pontiac Grand Prix, but all fit a common template. No aero modifications are allowed. Price: $3,300.
Transmission: Three- or four-speed manual.
Engine: Fuel-injected, Chevrolet V-8. Price: $12,000.
Tires: BFGoodrich. Price: $700 a set.
The MoneyAverage Winning Purse: $16,500Championship Purse: $200,000ASA Race Team Budget: $325,000 to $500,000
Few technological changes in motorsports can define an era of racing. During the 20th century, the switch from front- to rear-engine cars for Indy-style racing and the addition of restrictor plates in NASCAR were two changes that helped mold the way we know motorsports today. Now the next wave of technology is helping define a new era in circle track racing.
This year the American Speed Association (ASA) is racing with a new engine/tire/car combination at the leading edge of technological wizardry. All cars, whether a Chevy, Ford, or Pontiac, fit a common template (which NASCAR is hoping to achieve with a program called "aero-matching"). The ASA has also switched tire manufacturers, from Goodyear to BFGoodrich, but this is more than just a name change. After a 27-year stint with bias-ply tires, this year's cars are competing with radials. It also marks the first foray into Stock Car oval track racing for BFGoodrich.
The most significant change is under the hood of these 3,000-pound beasts. After nearly a decade of utilizing the V-6 engine, the ASA has switched gears and opted to run a V-8. But this is not your ordinary carbureted powerplant; it is an electronically controlled, fuel-injected engine-a first for use in a Stock Car oval track series.
"We were about to run out of engines and components for our V-6s," comments Brian Robbins, executive vice president of the ASA. "We could have used the traditional 9-to-1 compression V-8, but that's not a great deal because of the expense. So that's when we decided to use this production engine. It's fuel injected, and it electronically controls the rpm (a rev-limiter is set to cut off fuel pressure at 6,500 rpm), which in turn will save the engine from breakdowns and save the teams money. We had 49 cars at our opener in Lakeland, Florida, compared to 26 at DeSoto, Florida, last year. Now we have other problems to worry about, like where to put all the rigs at these short tracks."
Revolutionary Engine ProgramGeneral Motors calls the powerplant its Vortec ASA 5700 series. It's the same engine that comes out of a showroom Corvette with a few Modifications from Lingenfelter Performance Engineering of Decatur, Indiana.
"More than 80 percent of the engine is stock," says GM Project Manager Dan Engel. "We changed the camshaft and used a stiffer valvespring and a smaller-diameter crank pulley. The only thing we added was a dry-sump oil pan and scavenge pump because in racing, you need it. The changes were merely for reliability in race conditions.
"This is the way the pendulum is starting to swing. This is the way it used to be. In the '50s and '60s people used to buy a car and go race on the beach in Daytona. Then we got into the '70s, and you had the oil embargo. There were emission and cost concerns, and GM got away from the high-performance issues. Now everything is better. Emissions are under control, and we're back into producing high-performance engines. And this is the way we think Stock Car series are headed."
Let's not kid ourselves, though. It also gives GM a huge promotional tool. They can state, without bending the truth, that this engine is a production-line engine. Neither NASCAR, nor CART, nor even your local short-track series can say that.
You Can't Touch That!To top it off, this is a spec engine for the ASA this year. You can't touch it, can't tune it-it's sealed, and that's the bottom line. A single computer (the computer housing is mounted inside the cockpit of the car) controls the engine with hundreds of electronic sensors feeding it information.
Engel adds, "Most everything is sealed-the oil pan, the timing-chain cover, the valve covers, and the throttle body. We inspect the air filter and the housing production piece. You can't even change the filter element. A couple of teams showed up at Lakeland with thinner elements to enhance performance, and the ASA made them change it. There is no way to gain any advantage."
Ah, but maybe there is! Screaming Eagle Motorsports, which fields cars for third-year ASA driver Greg Stewart, put the 430-horsepower V-8 engine on the dyno. "We found 11 hp just by tweaking little things," says crew chief Alan Masengil. "They allow you to play with the air ducting inside the airbox. We used deflectors and stuff to corral the air into the air filter, which helped performance. Different oil additives also aided it, and those are the same things the general public can do. We used a lighter weight oil and an oil additive like X1R."
But lighter weight oil would raise reliability concerns, right? "Not necessarily," says Massengil. "With an additive like the one we used, I think you could use zero-weight oil and it would be OK. And I'm not messin' with ya."
Fuel options to raise performance were thrown out the window just a week before the season opener when Elf Fuel became the "Official Fuel of the ASA." Unleaded gas is called for with this production-style engine, but before the Elf deal was announced, a couple teams experimented with leaded racing fuel and saw an advantage.
"They told us the engine wouldn't like it," comments Massengil, "but our dyno testing proved different. The engine would run cooler and produce more horsepower. Essentially, it would run cleaner. They told us the leaded fuel would cause buildup on the injectors, but I guess we'll never find out."
The Almighty DollarThe bottom line is, the new engine program should save teams money. This year's V-8 cost $12,000 each, while last year's V-6 was $30,000. You needed at least three engines to complete the schedule in 1999; this year you only need two. That's a savings of $36,000- but it doesn't stop there.
"You have to remember, we'd have three motors in rotation last year. After every three-and sometimes just two-races, they needed to be freshened up," says the season-opener victor Gary St. Amant. "This year we'll run two motors all season and not freshen them up. That will be about a third of the cost."
Maybe even more than that, if you consider that each freshen would cost about $7,500. The total savings based on St. Amant's engine program last year would be more than $40,000.
This change comes with a price, though. After all, what happens to all those V-6 engines of years past?
"Right now, for an established team like ours, we don't view it as a savings because we have a bunch of old V-6s sitting around the shop," elaborates St. Amant. "We spent $30,000 to buy the engine new, and in years past, you could sell them for about $18,000-$20,000. Now we can only get about $5,000 for them because they are not in demand. So, we don't see the economical side of it yet, but down the line we will, I'm sure."
Most start-up teams, and even fairly new teams such as Screaming Eagle Motorsports, are already enjoying a cost savings under the new engine program. "We were considering a change in racing series until this was announced," says the crew chief for '99 Most Improved Driver, Greg Stewart. "At the final race, we were down to our last motor because we had so many problems last year. So, this move was perfect because we needed to start from scratch anyway, and if you do it that way, it's a big savings in the engine department."
The Heat Is OnGrowing pains are to be expected with any big change in a particular series, and there will be a few to iron out as the ASA season progresses. The most significant concern with the Vortec V-8 seems to be the heat, and that was evident at the season opener at USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Florida. Several teams experienced setbacks during the race that were associated with the engine.
First, spark plug wires were melting-a problem that could have been avoided.
"In testing the engine last year," says GM's Dan Engel, "we found that too much heat was placed on the wires because of how close they were to the header pipes. So, we gave up on that method and ran the wires from the coils to the back of the cylinder head, under the header pipes, and to the plugs. But a bunch of people didn't think that made sense, so 20 teams showed up with a better way to run the wires, and 19 of them had trouble throughout the weekend.
"We learned a lot from the testing we did with the engine. We found out how to keep the engine as cool as possible, and that's key. We passed the information along because we knew the heat could be a factor. You need to use metal clamps to hold the plug wires in place, and use a heat sleeve for the wires themselves."
Veteran ASA competitor Scott Hansen had problems with melting plug wires at Lakeland, but he did not have the heat sleeve and used plastic wire ties to hold them in place.
A bigger question mark can be placed on ASA driver Mike Miller's problems. "I don't know what happened. The engine just shut off four times during the race," elaborated Miller after the race.
The Lakeland race technical notes, provided by GM, showed Miller's car had many problems with the way parts were installed on the engine. It even showed issues with the shipment of the engine (the report stated that packing foam was found in or around the engine).
"That's the most puzzling thing of the whole weekend (Miller's problems)," says Engel. "We looked at the engine after the race, the critical sensors were fine, and after a quick inspection there were no apparent problems."
Gearing Up!Teams are faced with another challenge this year: How do you get the power to the track? Chassiswise, the setups are similar, but gearing is altogether different. "Basically, it's eight points different (shorter ratio) when it comes to gearing," explains St. Amant. "Last year the V-6s turned 8,200 rpm, and this year the rev-limiter is set to 6,500. That 1,700 rpm makes a big difference in gear selection.
"Driving the car is different, too. Last year we went from 8,200 rpm in the corners to 5,800, and that slowed the car down. This year the rev-limiter doesn't slow the car down as much. That means a lot more abuse on the brakes. So, we've run as much air straight to the brake lines as possible. We also put a recirculating system in, like you would see on passenger cars, to help cool the brakes."
Manufacturers War?General Motors is currently the only manufacturer to be involved with the ASA. There are Ford-bodied cars, but they are competing with GM engines. Will any other make step up to the table and join the fray?
"We welcome it," says Robbins. "There's nothing restricting Dodge, Honda, or even Ford. They would go through the same validation program as GM did. Right now, Ford says its interests are in Winston Cup and CART.
"Dodge, however, is a different story. I think you'll see an Intrepid by next year or even by the end of this season. They have a different approach. Dodge has no problem running the Vortec engine. It cares about the body styles, and I think other manufacturers will eventually wake up."
Wake up indeed, because the ASA could be onto something here. After all, which engine is in your car: carbureted or fuel-injected?
BFG + the Vortec V-8 = A New StyleFor ASA Executive Vice President Brian Robbins, abandoning Goodyear was simple. "There was a ton of problems with Goodyear tires ever since they moved their production out of the country to Chile. The quality was horrendous; one set would grow and another would shrink, and that had the teams guessing. Goodyear is based on NASCAR-the company has said that's its focus. It was not promoting the ASA, and we needed someone interested in helping the ASA grow."
Enter BFGoodrich. The tire manufacturer comes into the Stock Car oval-track world as a rookie, but the effort put forth by the company may help remove its yellow stripe rather quickly.
"Goodyear had one engineer for four or five ASA races, while BFG brings seven engineers to every race," adds Robbins. "Teams are ecstatic. They (BFG engineers) are handing them setups wherever they go, and that brings the little guys up with the big guys. At Lakeland, we had 40 guys within a second in qualifying."
A tire manufacturer handing out setup sheets? That's a unique approach to this new program-and it's working. At each venue, BFG distributes to every team packets that contain psi recommendations, spring rates, and shock suggestions.
"It's a good baseline to work from," says '98 driver Gary St. Amant. "It's incredible what they've done. Whenever you need information, an engineer from BFG is always there."
Adds ASA crew chief Alan Masengil, "The last couple of years has been a flop as far as tire information. This year is unbelievable. I've had the engineers in my pits during the race, analyzing my tires and making suggestions along the way."
During the 200-lap season opener at Lakeland, many teams changed two tires and went the entire distance without a hitch. "I put 186 laps on the right side tires in practice, and they looked fine," touted Mike Eddy's crew chief, Doug Smokestad.
Vic Getzloff is known around the ASA pits as a "tire god." He was the crew chief for Dick Trickle in two of his ASA championships and was a tire specialist with '99 champ Tim Sauter.
"The stagger stays consistent from set to set, and that is impressive," says Getzloff, who is working this year with Ted Musgrave's two ASA teams. "I was a Goodyear guy and a little unwilling to change, but now I know it was for the best. This is not a full-blown radial like Goodyear makes-BFG uses fiberglass in its tires, and they are closer to the bias-ply we've run for years."
BFG tires cost $175 each as opposed to Goodyear's $110 for the bias-ply rubber. Teams used 18 tires per race last year; this year they expect that number to dwindle to 10. The cost differential is nearly a wash, but the information teams are receiving this year, compared to the past, may be invaluable.