Say the words Grand National Division to any longtime NASCAR fan and it conjures up images of Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, and Tommy Houston. Known as the Busch Grand National Division for many years, it was the stepping stone to the big time for many drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart, all of whom cut their NASCAR teeth in this division, the middle rung on the NASCAR ladder.
Several years ago, NASCAR began to restructure its regional touring series. During that time the "Grand National Division" was dropped from the name of that middle rung division and it became known simply as the Busch Series. Concurrently, the Busch Grand National North Series and its western counterpart were unified under the newly realigned Grand National Division banner. A few years later, the two divisions, now named Busch East Series and Auto Zone West Series to reflect their expanding territories, began using an identical rules package. This was a key component in laying the groundwork for a bigger restructuring of the two divisions.
"We're making a big push in restructuring," says George Silberman, NASCAR's managing director of racing operations. "There needs to be a clear path to the top [Nextel Cup] and the Grand National Division already had the right elements. It could easily become a developmental series for up-and-coming drivers."
In order for the Grand National Division to offer developmental opportunities while continuing to remain a viable home for regional racers, NASCAR needed to make sure it had three things: affordability, a level playing field, and great racing. Writing that down on a piece of paper is one thing, but turning it into reality is another. Tackling the affordability issue would become NASCAR's number-one priority.
Ideas on how to do that began to take shape in 2004. A team at NASCAR's Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, honed in on two areas of the race car that are fertile ground for runaway spending: the motor and the body.
Richard Buck, NASCAR's director of touring series, said the motor's development took two years from concept to track. The philosophy was to create a powerplant that could compete with the best built engines in the series while delivering consistent horsepower and superior durability at a reasonable cost. So NASCAR took the 2005 Busch East championship-winning engine, which belonged to Grizco Racing/Andy Santerre Motorsports, headed to the dyno, and developed baseline numbers.
Oddly enough, they developed the engine backward. "We started with the horsepower and torque numbers that we wanted to hit [about 610-615 hp], then we built a robust motor to those numbers," says Buck, a five-time Indy 500 winning crew chief. "Our goal was to get the same horsepower as a championship-caliber 'built' motor in a much more economical package that is affordable for anybody in the Grand National Division."
Walk through the Busch East garage area and you would be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn't like the new spec motor. Other than the cost factor, another big reason for this is the fact that nobody is forcing it down the competitors' throats. NASCAR decided to make the use of the motor optional. "There is a lot of inventory out there, inventory that we don't want to obsolete," explains Buck. In essence, as more racers run through that inventory and discover the spec motor, the competitors themselves will make it mandatory. That philosophy is a departure from the typical rule-mandated world of Nextel Cup.
Buck is pleased with the results of the spec engine. "We didn't overshoot it with too much horsepower, and we didn't undershoot it. There is no clear advantage [to using the spec motor] other than cost."
He's not the only one either. "We're really happy with what we saw," says three-time AutoZone West Series Champion team owner Bill McAnally. "As a team owner, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a huge [competitive] advantage to having one of the spec engines. I didn't see an advantage. I see it being very close [to the regular engine]. I think they did a great job making this motor comparable to our existing engine." Comparable yes, heavier no. In fact, because of the components used, a spec motor is 80 pounds lighter than the traditional motor.
"I've purchased two [spec] engines and one composite body. They should save a lot of money," says 2006 AutoZone West Series Champion Eric Holmes, who adds that he's anxious to see how long the motor will last.
Buck says that one of the hallmarks of the spec engine is its durability. He likes to call it a robust motor. In a traditional engine teams have to rebuild the top end every three races or so. The new spec engine is showing no weaknesses, even after 2 to 3 times the amount of races run by traditional engines.
Tim Andrews, son of Winston Cup Championship-winning crew chief Paul Andrews, ran two Busch East races in 2006. He won at Dover with a built motor under the hood, but to do it he had to outrun cars with the spec motor.
"The spec motors got gobs and gobs of horsepower," says Andrews. "I was racing Matt Kobyluck [who ran a spec], and he would catch me on the straights while I could beat him bad in the corners. You could see the difference when we got back on the gas."
Andrews' experience shows that the spec motor is doing exactly what NASCAR intended: providing equal performance.
Taking the spec engine one step further, NASCAR will be using a revolutionary system to keep the creative engineering at bay. The motor has encryption marks on it that can only be read by a special handheld scanner. This allows NASCAR to verify the legality of the parts. So the new spec motor is still subject to the same scrutiny as an open engine. However, because the motor can be scanned, the inspection time at the track is cut down significantly, which saves time and money.