News & Media

Art of saving fuel as much talent as it is luck

September 24, 2011, David Caraviello,

LOUDON, N.H. -- It usually begins with a simple demand on the radio, a request from the crew chief to begin saving fuel. What happens next, though, is far from uniform, as drivers begin a series of actions all with the intention of conserving as much gasoline as possible, while at the same time going as fast as they can.

Some leave the throttle wide open, and then shut their engine down to coast at every opportunity. Others feather the accelerator pedal, running half-open, never getting to top speed. Some gauge how aggressive or conservative to be based on the relative speeds of other drivers around them, and how much they have to lose or gain. Some lean heavier on the clutch, some lean heavier on the brakes. All of them are just trying to hang on, doing whatever it takes to get to the end of the kind of fuel-mileage events that could very well determine who wins this Sprint Cup championship.

Close to the vest

Drivers were asked at New Hampshire about fuel-saving strategies and not too many were open about their methods.

Whether it's because of the smaller fuel cell cars in NASCAR's top series have been carrying since 2007, more dependable Goodyear tires, or the whimsical nature of cautions, fuel-mileage racing has become such a presence that the Chase itself could swing on who has enough gas left in the tank on a given Sunday afternoon. It did last year, when Jimmie Johnson's stretch-it-to-the-end fuel strategy in the season's penultimate event at Phoenix put him within striking distance of Denny Hamlin heading into the finale, and helped keep his championship streak alive. It did Monday, when conservation in the rain-delayed Chase opener at Chicagoland helped Kevin Harvick take the points lead and Tony Stewart win the race.

And it did last year here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when Stewart ran dry in the final laps, opening the door for Clint Bowyer's victory. Like them or not, fuel-mileage races are becoming more of a factor, and teams are doing what they can to improve their chances of winning them.

"I think it's going to be a bigger part of the sport," Carl Edwards said. "Until a guy can pull in, get tires on and go past 15 cars, until we get back to that type of racing, I think the guy that can stay out, keep the track position and stretch fuel mileage is going to have an advantage. It's probably a byproduct of the parity among cars, the difficulty of passing -- that's where I think it comes from -- and it will be a bigger and bigger part."

The mechanics of actually doing it, though, remain something of a mystery to those who don't strap on a helmet and slide behind a steering wheel every weekend. Much like driver salaries and team budgets, exact fuel-saving strategies can be closely-held secrets, something competitors are hesitant to divulge for fear of giving up an edge to the competition. Some drivers will speak in generalities, referring to broad approaches like pedal management and carburetor setup. Some drivers prefer to not say anything at all.

"Ask me that again in December," Harvick said.

And yet, amid all that circumspection, a consensus seems to be emerging -- that winning on fuel mileage isn't necessarily the fluke so many in the grandstands believe it to be. Successfully managing fuel, and winning races with only fumes remaining in the tank, seems to be as much a skill set as rolling a car into the corner or drafting on a restrictor-plate track. Whether because of practice, trial and error, or just natural ability, some drivers are simply better at it than others, and disparity can be glaring at the conclusion of a Sprint Cup event determined by who can keep the car under power to the finish.

"It's just an evolution of the sport," said Brad Keselowski, who won a fuel-mileage event earlier this season at Kansas, a circuit the field revisits in two weeks. "The sport is always evolving, and that's part of what makes it so interesting. And the thing that I will say about fuel-mileage races is, that as a whole and in general, they do take talent. The driver that is able to save it very well, there is some talent involved in that. So I have a level of respect for those races accordingly."

Ryan Newman, who has a degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue University, would agree. "There is a true challenge, a true talent in doing it," he said. "Therefore, sometimes it's fun -- but when you have the fuel mileage and the race car to capitalize on it."

A driver's deft touch on the pedals can made a difference, Kurt Busch believes. "One driver really can be better than another," the 2004 series champion said. "It's just backing the corner up and being nice to the pedal."

Of course, it's not completely in the driver's hands. Part of the challenge is getting all the fuel in the car, a task that can be easier said than done given the troubles some teams have had packing fuel cells full with the self-ventilating fuel cans being employed for the first time this season. Fuel windows are finite, and can be thrown off by cautions or pit strategy. Harvick believes the amount of fuel that can make a difference in a race is so small -- "you're talking just pints of gas, tenths of a gallon, you're talking just very little," he said -- that the crew chief and the guys back at the shop who work on fuel cells and carburetors bear just as much responsibility as the driver.

Ultimately, though, it's the driver who feels his fingers tighten around the wheel when the call comes from the crew chief to save fuel, whose stomach drops when that fuel pressure gauge -- NASCAR vehicles do not have fuel gauges -- plummets to zero, who has to deliver the dreaded "I'm out!" to the number-crunchers up on the pit box. Johnson, who despite his championship credentials has come out on the wrong end of many fuel-mileage races, was one of several drivers who found themselves in that situation Monday at Chicagoland. "There is nothing worse than thinking you're in the good, and I come off of [Turn] 4 and it's running out," he said. "And I'm like, you've got to be kidding me!"

No wonder Jeff Gordon, who also ran out Monday, said his team experiments with some fuel-saving approaches each time they go test. No wonder many drivers are reticent to go into detail about how they actually save fuel. No wonder fuel mileage looms large as a factor that could determine who wins this Chase. And no wonder some see the murky art of fuel conservation as a challenge capable of elevating them above the rest.

"I think that's always been a part of racing, at least professional racing, having the discipline to know when to go and when not to. It's the Tin Cup moment," Keselowski said, referring to the Kevin Costner film. "You're ahead by five strokes and you're on the last hole -- you know, lay up. That's a part of the sport, and that's part of what makes it what it is, is having a driver or player in whatever sport it is know what is to be gained and what's to be lost. That's the intelligent quota of a driver or of any athlete in any sport. So yes, it is hard to do, absolutely, but it's part of what makes this sport what it is. And I think it's cool."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.