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Engine experimentation ends as 600 nears

May 24, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Engine experimentation ends as 600 nears
CONCORD, N.C. -- Blown engines in All-Star Race are lingering lessons one week later

Doug Yates opens a laptop inside the No. 16 hauler and points to a red line on the screen that climbs and crests over and over, in a profile resembling big waves crashing down on a beach.

The graph represents the revolutions per minute inside one of Yates' engines, which power Sprint Cup title contenders at Roush Fenway Racing. The RPM build to a peak of about 9,500 entering Turn 1 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, before dropping off and beginning their relentless ascent once again.

"If you're not trying those things, you don't get better. ... They told us before [the All-Star Race] that, 'hey, we're doing something different. It might work and if it does, it'll be great. But if it doesn't, sorry.' And it obviously didn't. "

--CARL EDWARDS

The red line is a visual representation of the punishment engines will endure during Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, the longest event of the NASCAR season, and a race that can take a severe toll on the power plants inside the Cup cars.

The temperatures on race day promise to be hot. The RPM will be sustained at a very high level. And then there are all those miles -- 100 more than engine builders typically prepare for.

"You sustain pretty high RPM for a long time. So, that, along with the length of the race, really puts the engine builders on edge," said Yates, chairman of Roush Yates Engines, which supplies Ford teams on NASCAR's top series. "We do everything we can to prepare for a longer race, and we ask the teams to take care of the temperatures and the mileage. And then when it's over ... we look for the end of this one, let's put it this way."

With good reason.

Last season, three drivers dropped out of the event early with engine trouble -- most notably five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. The potential is always there, which is why this weekend Yates is asking the teams he works with to limit the amount of miles they put on their engines in practice. The Roush driver who turned the most laps in opening practice Thursday was Matt Kenseth, who made only 15 during the course of the 90-minute session.

The intention is to save the engines for race day. "When you go 600 miles, you look at the percentage between 500 and 600, and that's quite a bit longer of a race," said Roush driver Greg Biffle, who leads the Cup standings by two points over teammate Kenseth. "And definitely these parts -- the longevity of the part -- [have] to continue to operate at its maximum temperature and its maximum power for that much longer."

All of which can leave engine builders like Yates, son of former championship car owner Robert Yates, wringing his hands for the better part of five hours on Sunday. On their in-house dynamometer, Roush Yates engines endure test runs longer than anything they'll experience at the race track. Yates consults with crew chiefs to try to keep practice miles to a minimum. But still, things can go wrong. That was the case in spectacular fashion during last weekend's Sprint All-Star Race, where the brightest fireworks weren't in the sky after the event, but around the Roush cars after the engines of Biffle and Carl Edwards blew up.

*Video: Edwards ends under fire | Biffle blows engine

Edwards' engine expired after only 25 laps, sparking a brief fire. Biffle's went out after 67 laps, throwing off a massive plume of smoke, and forcing the driver to scramble out of a cockpit that was quickly engulfed in fumes. But neither of those engines were protected by the lap-limit safeguards in place this week. In fact, they were pushed to the limit for a reason -- in the hopes of finding a package that the Roush cars could use later this season in the Chase for the championship.

The Roush Yates team tried the same thing last year, and it worked -- Edwards not only won the non-points event, but also went on to nearly claim the Sprint Cup, losing in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart after the final race of the season. This time, though, the engines were pushed too hard.

"You never want to break an engine," Yates said. "A year ago at the All-Star Race, we really had an aggressive package, and we went on to win the race. And, later in the year, we started racing that package based on the results. This year, we came out with a new package again in the All-Star Race, but we found the limits. We were just pushing it too hard.

"The good news is, you can take that data and make smarter decisions down the road about your package. And, it didn't cost us any points. A little bit of pride, but no points."

Yates said Biffle and Edwards both suffered the same failure last weekend, which made the problem less difficult to diagnose. Biffle said the issue was in the "bottom end" -- which typically refers to parts below the cylinder head, such as a pistons and rods -- and that the oil pressure in his No. 16 car was low. Although the exhibition race paid $1 million to win, the points leader understood the intent.

"I kind of applaud the engine shop for the effort they put in, and to take advantage of a non-points race to implement what you would obviously call experimental parts or something to that effect," Biffle said. "They had the guts to bring a piece to the race track that was on the edge and made a lot of power, and they found out that it didn't have the durability.

"So, I think that's what the All-Star is about -- going 100 percent. Whether it's the driver or the engine builder or the guys putting the cars together -- it's all about winning. That's what they went for, and that has no impact on our regular engines for the season. That was experimental stuff, things they were trying, and obviously it's back to the drawing board. They don't get a lot of opportunity to do that."

Edwards -- who is 10th in points -- said Yates approached him before Thursday's opening practice session, explaining the problem from the previous week and trying to put the driver's mind at ease.

"I understand. If you're not trying those things, you don't get better," Edwards said. "They made tons of power, they just didn't last very long. I'm not sure, but that's the first engine failure we've had with our team in a long time, maybe since Pocono last year or something.

"I'm happy with the engines. I think Doug does a great job, and I don't think he's covering his tracks like he made a mistake. They told us before that race that, 'hey, we're doing something different. It might work and if it does, it'll be great. But if it doesn't, sorry.' And it obviously didn't. I think they wanted to try whatever they were doing for a long time, and they just have few opportunities to do it in a race situation where you could live with an engine failure. We don't have that many opportunities anymore to do that."

Yates believes his team can still benefit from the experience.

"We'll back up, and take the good things out of it, and apply those," he said, "and learn from the things that didn't work very well."

Sunday, there will be no experimentation -- just hanging on over the course of 600 miles. For an engine builder, it's among the more nervous days of the season. There's a reason the Coca-Cola 600 bills itself as the ultimate test of man and machine. Both have to make it to the end.

"I think this race is a good race to be 600 miles," Biffle said. "We have to have that one race a year that is technically a durability and stamina test, and that's what this race is."