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Inside NASCAR: FR9 engine earns credit for resurgence of Ford teams

April 27, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

FR9 engine beginning to earn its fair share of credit for resurgence of Ford teams

The last time Ford Racing put out a new engine prior to its current FR9 package, Greg Biffle likely was being pushed around in a stroller and David Ragan was more than a decade away from being born.

Thirty-plus years is a long time to go between racing engine changes for a manufacturer. Yet that's how long it was for Ford Racing, which is only now in the midst of its first full NASCAR season of running its new FR9. And while the FR9 isn't getting all the credit for a resurgence of the Ford teams at Roush Fenway Racing, it's rightly beginning to claim its fair share.

"We got a lot of criticism because we were the last guys out with our engine. But it seems being the last guys out, we combined all the best technology into one."

--DOUG YATES

The early returns are promising, with the possibility of greater gains seen in the future. Carl Edwards currently leads the 2011 Sprint Cup point standings. Matt Kenseth is eighth. All in all, the four RFR drivers are in the top 20 and seem to be positioned to move forward, while Ford partners from Richard Petty Motorsports, which also use the FR9 for drivers A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, have likewise flashed speed and promise. And don't forget that driver Trevor Bayne, essentially on loan from Roush Fenway to Wood Brothers Racing, had the FR9 engine in his winning No. 21 Ford for the season-opening Daytona 500.

"The FR9 engine has definitely helped us," said Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway that currently sits 16th in the point standings. "But what's really helped us, too, is we got our cars a lot better. We got our cars handling; we got our cars sticking to the race track. That's helped us a tremendous amount. And simultaneously, we got the new engine.

"So it was kind of a double whammy. We've gotten a lot better with the engine. It performs a little bit better; we have a little bit better of a cooling package. There are a lot of small things -- a little lower center of gravity on the engine. A lot of it was catching up to the competition. We hadn't had an engine change since the '70s -- on the clean piece of paper. Some of our competitors had had two in that time, so really this is leveling the playing field for us versus actually gaining an advantage. We were due."

Dave Simon, a Ford Racing engine engineer who helped design and test the FR9 along with long-time engine builder Doug Yates of Roush-Yates Engines, would be the first to admit to all of that. But even after all parties committed to making the new engine a reality in the summer of 2007, he said all remained in steadfast agreement that they weren't going to rush the final product into the fiercely competitive fires of the Sprint Cup race tracks.

"It was a long process and a big undertaking," Simon said. "There was a lot of development time, a lot of testing time. Who knows how long we'll have to run this engine? It could be a couple years; it could be another 10 or 15 years. So we knew that we wanted to get it right, at least for us, and not rush introducing it. We were thinking big picture. We would rather have the best engine we could have for 10 or 15 years as opposed to rushing it out six months earlier and taking some unnecessary chances."

Yates added: "We got a lot of criticism because we were the last guys out with our engine. But it seems being the last guys out, we combined all the best technology into one."

The FR9 engine is the first purpose-built NASCAR racing engine ever built by Ford.

Backing it up

To understand the conservative thought process toward an engine that team owner Jack Roush first introduced amid great media fanfare on a press tour prior to the 2009 season, first one must harken back to the 2008 season.

Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford for Roush Fenway, finished the '08 season on a tear with the old Ford racing engine powering him to a series-high nine victories. That made Roush and his team of engineers and engine builders reluctant to simply toss the old engine into a dumpster out back and commit to the FR9.

"At the end of '08, obviously Carl was having a real good season and winning races with the old engine. A lot of our guys were running really strong," Simon said. "In one way, that alleviated a little pressure on us -- in that we didn't feel the need to rush the new engine out, because we were still very competitive with the old engine.

"In fact, even into '09, I think they took a bunch of engines after the Michigan race in August -- and other manufacturers with maybe the exception of one had their new engines out. They put them all, including our old engines, on the dyno to make sure there was decent parity among them. We actually did very well in that comparison. With the old engine, we actually had one of the more powerful engines that they tested."

It also was, as Simon came to discover over time, a bit of a double-edged sword.

"So that alleviated the pressure, because we didn't need to rush - or at least we didn't feel the need to rush. But at the same time, it also gave us a fairly high bar to go and hit," Simon said. "So we also told ourselves, 'We're not going to bring it out until we're sure it's better than what we have. We're not going to bring it out and put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage, relative to the old engine.'

A then-Roush Racing employee took an up-close look at the engine in the spring of 2007. (Getty Images)

A closer look


Engineers often have their work cut out for them when it comes to motors and say building an engine is a long, arduous journey.

"It's nice if you can fire the new one up and you've got 20 [extra] horsepower sitting there. But that happens a lot less than the opposite happens. So when we first got the engines finalized, we still had some work to do before we could make sure it was actually going to give our guys an advantage on the track."

That included solving the age-old reliability issue. Whenever any new part is introduced into a competitive race team, there are bound to be bugs to be worked out on some level. When you're racing for big stakes every single week, it's not easy to know when to make the leap of faith to something as radically different as a manufacturer's first attempt at a new racing engine in more than three decades.

"It just took so much time because it was brand new. It took so much time to develop all the parts and pieces," Biffle said. "Think about how long we had to develop the old one. Well, we had 36 or 37 years to work on the old one, you know?

"So it takes time to develop. Where is your durability issue? Is the rod going to break, or a piston? Or maybe you need to re-design your block or your head or something just a little bit. It took some time to get all that implemented."

Biffle and others didn't find it hard to do some simple math that they found staggering.

"On top of everything else, you're having to produce eight [new pistons per engine] a week -- a spare and a primary for just the Roush Fenway cars, let alone all the way across the board [for additional paying Ford customers such as Richard Petty Motorsports and Wood Brothers Racing]," Biffle said. "You think about how many parts that is. That's eight pistons to an engine. So if you're developing pistons, well, you need 64 just for Roush Fenway cars. You need 64 pistons a week. That's a lot of parts, and rings and gaskets. So it just took them a long time to get it right. Plus you've got to keep building the old one at that transition point, so it was hard for 'em."

The Roush Fenway operation paid a short-term price. After Edwards' big season in 2008, when he finished second in points to champion Jimmie Johnson, as a group they fell on hard times. Biffle's seventh-place effort was the best any RFR driver could muster in the final 2009 standings. And Biffle failed to win a single race for the first and only time in his career as a full-time Sprint Cup driver -- a career that began in 2003. Edwards was the only other RFR driver to make the 12-driver cutoff for the 2009 Chase to the Sprint Cup, and he finished 11th -- also winless for only the second time in his full-time Cup career, which began in 2005.

The only drivers from the company to win races that season were Matt Kenseth, who won the rain-shortened Daytona 500 to begin the year and also at California the next week before falling to the wayside and struggling to a 14th-place points finish; and Jamie McMurray, who already was on his way out the door to drive for another organization beginning in 2010.

Still, Simon and Yates and Roush resisted fully committing to the FR9. Although Kenseth and David Ragan and others began testing it toward the end of 2009, it wasn't until the middle of the 2010 season that they finally felt it was ready to start powering the RFR stable on a full-time basis. And that was after a long dry spell during which Roush Fenway teams were noticeably absent from Victory Lane.

"That's why it took so long -- because the old engine was reliable and it had good power," Ragan said. "We were behind some of the other manufacturers on our engine development.

"We didn't do it just for more horsepower. There are a lot of neat things with FR9 where we can grow that engine into something bigger and better. Those guys at the engine shop -- Doug Yates and the guys at Jack's Roush Fenway shop -- have done a great job and we're happy to have them in our cars week in and week out now."

It shows on the track, too. Points leader Edwards won the final two races of 2010 with the FR9 in his car, has won once already in 2011 and his six top-10 finishes in the first eight starts are more than any other driver in the sport. Roush Fenway drivers also have grabbed half of the qualifying poles this season, with Edwards capturing two and Kenseth and Ragan one each.

David Ragan and Greg Biffle recorded top-10 finishes at Texas in April. Ragan said he was most able to feel the difference in power between the old and new engine not at the bigger tracks, but at the smaller ones.

Keeping it real

Ragan added that he is in full agreement with Biffle on the fact that there is much more to RFR's resurgence than simply adding the FR9 to the equation. However important, it is only one component. But it also positions the Ford camp for bigger, quicker gains in the future, he said.

"The Roush cars from a year ago, our actual race cars and our engines are better. It's a group thing," Ragan said. "You can't have a big, super motor and your car doesn't handle. If you do, you'll still be a 15th or 20th-place car. It's definitely a package deal, and we feel like we're a little closer to having the right package now. And in the foreseeable future, with fuel injection and things changing, this motor will be a lot easier to change with the times than the old one would have."

Biffle explained it in greater detail.

"A lot of people don't realize it, but 10 or 15 or even 20 horsepower on most of the tracks that we go to -- not in restrictor-plate racing at Daytona or Talladega, but at all of the other tracks that we go to -- is not going to win a race for you. It's just not going to. Because the car has got to handle. The car has to have downforce; it has to have the right setup; you have to have all the things go right for you," he said. "Rarely does 10 to 15 horsepower, well, I won't say it won't make much of a difference -- but it won't win the race for you. You give me 50 extra horsepower and it won't make a difference if it's not handling right. If it's not handling right, it's not handling right."

"Bristol was where I noticed it most. On one of the first few laps there with the new engine, I was like, 'Man, this thing really pulls you all the way down the straightaway.'"

--DAVID RAGAN

It is more important, Biffle said, to have the car behaving in such a way that you're the first car to get smoothly through the corners and mash the gas pedal as you're coming off. Then and only then can the power of a new engine really roar.

"I'll give you an example: that guy in front of you puts the gas down one second or a half a second or whatever before you. He has 800 horsepower and you have zero, because you haven't pushed the gas down," Biffle said. "If you're fine-tuning your engine to get 10 more horsepower than that guy, it doesn't make a difference when that guy's car sticks to the track better and he goes around the corner better and he's able to push the gas down before you. There is no amount of power that will equal those cars out on that straightaway. It just won't happen. According to the laws of physics, it just isn't going to happen.

"So a lot of people say, 'Wow, that guy's got a lot more power.' But he put the gas down before the other guy did and he's driving away from him down that entire straightaway. A lot of time that's a misperception that you see on TV when you see a car just lurch off the corner. He got good forward-drive and he put the gas down early, that's all."

Having clarified all that, Ragan said he still has felt a difference of power in the FR9 from the driver's seat. Oddly, he said he has felt it most not at the bigger tracks, but at the smaller ones.

"It is a noticeable difference when we go to a place like Texas, where we ran the old engine last year and ran the new one this year. You can definitely feel a power difference at places like that," Ragan said. "But I think some of the biggest gains we've made have been in our short-track program, where there's just more fine-tuning capability in this new FR9 engine than there was in the old engine.

"Bristol was where I noticed it most. On one of the first few laps there with the new engine, I was like, 'Man, this thing really pulls you all the way down the straightaway.' So I think the capability and the potential that we have in our motors is what makes it so exciting. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of what we might be able to do with it."

Getting to the finish line

Simon admitted that he and Yates and all the many behind-the-scenes folks who had so much to do with the development and testing of the FR9 are taking great pride in its performance thus far. And as Ragan pointed out, they are confident it will continue to serve them well into the future.

Looking back, Simon said it was a great accomplishment and he is glad no one involved pushed to rush it out before it was ready.

Manufacturer Standings

(Through Talladega)
RankMakePts.BehindWins
2.Ford50-53
3.Toyota44-111
4.Dodge27-280

"It's a huge project to undertake. When we started on the FR9, we literally started with a clean sheet of paper," Simon said. "We used NASCAR's rules as a framework. But in our case, not having done a new engine for many years ...we had NASCAR draw up all the framework and we had a long list of questions that we needed to have answered. We made a conscious decision at the beginning of the program that if we didn't know something, we would go find the answer. ... We weren't going to compromise the end result for the sake of getting it done quickly."

So they took it slowly before transitioning to the engine full-time midway through last season.

"There was a little bit of nervousness [last summer]," Simon said. "But we really ran the engine for the first time as a plate engine at Talladega in '09. It was in [Matt] Kenseth's car and David Ragan's car for that race. We started to roll it in gradually. But more or less by running it at the end of '09 and the beginning of the 2010, that was the validation process for the engine. We ran a relatively conservative package at that time -- because a DNF is the worst thing you can have as an engine supplier. And at the same time, for validating the engine, having failures for pushing the engine too far would have set back our timeline for introducing the engine full-time.

"So we ran conservative packages at first. By the second half of 2010, when we began to run the engine full-time, we were nervous but had fairly good confidence that the package we were going to roll out across the board was pretty durable. We were cautiously confident, if you want to put it that way."

"... we'll certainly have another engine in the future. We won't go another 30 years before we do another one."

--DAVE SIMON

Now they are more brazenly so, if you want to put it that way. Simon admitted that he grins every time he hears one of the Ford drivers gush about the FR9.

"It makes you feel good, no doubt," Simon said. "We put a lot of time and effort into this. There are a lot of people behind the scenes who put in a lot of hours, a lot of effort and pride into those engines. So when your customer -- in this case, the drivers -- are really happy, that makes you feel good.

"On the race track, our cars are going faster. Nothing makes the engine guys feel better than to watch your guy pull somebody else down the straightaway."

That doesn't mean Ford Racing thinks they are set with an engine that will last them another three decades or more in the NASCAR arena.

"If I had a gut feeling, I would definitely say we will not be running this engine for 30 years," Simon said. "I have a feeling with the rapidly changing environment not only in the production vehicle world but I think just globally, I think there is going to be some kind of engine formula change, that the rules will change for engines in NASCAR. It's pure speculation, but my guess would be that would occur sometime within the next 10 years.

"This engine architecture in its basic form has really existed since even the big-block days in the 1950s and 1960s and the early '70s when we switched to the small-block structure. It's been the same architecture the whole time. I think you'll see some changes to that in the next decade or so. But even if there isn't an overall change to the engine architecture, we'll certainly have another engine in the future. We won't go another 30 years before we do another one."