There’s been a lot of chatter in motorsports circles wondering when NASCAR would move into the 21st century and adopt fuel injection as part of its program.
Now, it appears that fuel injection could be right around the corner.
When Ron Dennis, executive chairman of McLaren Automotive, made his first visit to a NASCAR race last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was on a mission — to provide the sanctioning body with a proposal for a fuel injection system. Dennis expects fuel injection could be introduced as early as 2011.
“We’re hoping the commitment to quality and excellence is something that will allow us to become selected by NASCAR … for some of the fuel injection and some of the other safety benefits and ecological benefits that we can bring with some of the technology that we have,” Dennis said.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France was just one of many that Dennis engaged. Prior to Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Brickyard 400, France weighed in on choosing an Engine Control Unit (ECU) supplier.
“We’re on a steady march to more technology in the cars, which is historically unlike us in some respects, provided that it doesn’t burden the teams with additional costs that don’t translate to our fan base, and obviously that we can enforce whatever new technologies,” France said. “The final thing is to make sure that it makes racing better. No question about it, fuel injection is something we’re going to evolve to here in the short run.
“It’s our slow, steady march. Fits into the green economy. Fits into where the manufacturers are obviously going. So (there’s) any number of things you’re going to be able to look at. But they’ll just have to fit our criteria that I’ve laid out. That’s where we’ll end up.”
Eight companies originally submitted bids for ECUs. According to an industry insider, the group has been narrowed to three — McLaren, Bosch and Marelli.
Team owner Roger Penske, who is familiar with fuel injection through his IndyCar teams, supports the initiative.
“I think fuel injection — it’s a cost initially, but I think overall, it will take away some of the money we spend on carburetors and it will have consistency,” Penske said. “I think that will be the way to go — all the engines today have that as a major source of fuel.”
Doug Yates, president of Roush Yates Engines, agrees with Penske that “any change will not be cheap” when it comes to making the transition. Yates, who describes the ECU as “the brains of the system” believes in the long run the process will give off less engine emissions from the cars and offer better fuel economy. As NASCAR moves forward with the project, Yates listed three components that are key in the fuel injection conversion.
“First, you have to pick the right manufacturer,” Yates said. “Second, whichever manufacturer is chosen, the ECU has to provide parity with all the existing engines. And finally, you have to consider costs and the changes the will follow.”
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton says the sanctioning body has been working on the fuel injection process for well over a year. He says NASCAR wants to pick the right partner for the process and stresses “it’s better to get it right, than it is to get it going early.”
“This is part of every initiative that we’ve taken over the past few years,” Pemberton said. “We’re trying to make this a greener sport — which is tough to do. But we know that fuel injection is more relevant out there on all the passenger cars.
“To be more current, to be more of what people drive on the race track, week in and week out even though it is race cars, electronic fuel injection makes sense. Now we feel like there are enough good companies that we can do things properly and do what is best for the garage area.”
Pemberton is convinced that NASCAR can find a supplier that can provide teams with a fuel injection system that can not be compromised to offer teams an unfair advantage.
“Our job is to keep a level playing field,” Pemberton said. “All of the vendors and potential partners have stressed that the systems of check and balances and what we need to marshall the garage area is there in their system.”
So just what is fuel injection? Doug Yates, son of revered engine builder Robert Yates and currently president of Roush Yates engines offers an explanation.
Q: Can you give us a basic understanding of the function of fuel injection?
A: First, we’ve been running carburetors since the beginning of this sport and its pretty basic stuff that you’ve seen on 1960 model cars. Moving to fuel injection allows us to actually fuel each cylinder how we want to with an injector. Basically, place an injector in the manifold runner and that will control the fuel to that cylinder specifically. Today, with the carburetor we have four boosters that control the fuel flow and then it opens up into a plenum in the manifold and then just goes, we try to direct it, but basically it has the cylinders pull the fuel. This will be a lot more control. The distribution can be controlled a lot better so we can tune each cylinder a little easier and then one of the big advantages to fuel injection is when you guys see the cars on TV in the corners the puff black smoke out. That’s raw fuel. So now with the fuel injection we can actually cut that fuel off in the corners so it won’t have as much pollutant off throttle. The value of fuel injection, really to us, is you can tune each cylinder better, get the proper air-fuel mixture per cylinder and then we can also control the fuel off throttle. There’s some exciting advantages to it; it’s on every street car in the world now. I think for NASCAR to be thinking about moving to fuel injection is just the future of the sport.
Q: How would ethanol play into the fuel injection?
A: You know, for the longest time we ran leaded fuel in NASCAR and we got real used to the components of working with leaded fuel. Leaded fuel for the valves and valve seats and other parts is almost like a lubricant. So when we went to unleaded, that was a big change for us. It was bigger than maybe it was made, but we had to go back and re-do coatings on the valves and valve seats and different parts of the engine. I think that was the first major step for us, which sounds kind of strange because just switching from leaded to unleaded was a big move for us, but as engine builders and people that have to power these cars around the track, that was a big change. To move to ethanol or some different type of fuel, I think we have a lot better understanding now and with fuel injection, you should be able to manage that mixture a lot better. If NASCAR chooses to go in that direction, I think we will be ready and can move faster than we did to unleaded.
Q: Would it be easier to do it all at once rather than separately?
A: Yes and no. One way to look at it is that if we just went to fuel injection, we already know the fuel so we just add the system and then we can work on it from there. If you make two steps at once, it may be more complicated. I do think the biggest step was made when we switched from leaded to unleaded and I don’t think, talking to some of the guys that I know in F1 and the IRL, when they switched it wasn’t as big of a deal as they made it. It really just depends on the percentage of the fuel and the mix. We’ll just have to see. I think the engine technology here in NASCAR is advanced. I think the top engine suppliers all have equipment to measure combustion in cylinder and they can tell what they need to do to adjust the engine and we can also run endurance runs on the dynos that we have so we can look at the components and make sure that before we get to the track that the best we can tell, we don’t have problems.
Q: How will this affect other systems in the cars. Can NASCAR keep teams from manipulating the outcome?
A: I think the most important step in this entire process is selecting the right partner. The supplier of the injection system and the supplier of the ECUs is maybe the most important selection of anything we do. Once that’s nailed down, I think we can work with the teams and work with NASCAR on how to police it. I think there’s really good companies out there. As everybody knows, Ron Dennis from McLaren was here (Saturday) and one of his big topics was controlling the system and making sure that if it was tampered with, his system — he says or his selling point is that he can see that. It leaves a trace so you can go back and check that. That is important to all of us as competitors, as stewards of the sport. We don’t want the ability to bend the rules. We want a fair playing field. We also want to feel like if you work harder than the next guy, you can get an advantage. There’s a couple sides, but the bending and playing around with the ECUs, that I don’t think anybody in this sport would look upon favorably. The supplier of the system is very, very, very important.