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TRD tweaking engines to put reliability first

June 05, 2013, David Caraviello,

With several blown engines striking some of NASCAR's top Toyota drivers, TRD looks to make some adjustments

In the wake of three engine failures over the last two Sprint Cup Series events, Toyota Racing Development will go to Pocono Raceway this weekend with power plants designed to emphasize reliability -- even at the potential expense of performance.

Toyota drivers Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. each suffered terminal engine failures this past Sunday at Dover, the victims of valve spring problems similar to the one that knocked Kyle Busch out of the event at Charlotte a week earlier. TRD, which builds the engines used by Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit, has now suffered six total in-race failures -- four of them stemming from valve spring breakdowns.

As a reaction, TRD is tweaking its engines heading into races at Pocono and Michigan, big tracks capable of stressing motors to the limit. But in trying to squeeze out more durability, the company may have to give up some of the performance that’s produced five race victories as well as more laps led than any other manufacturer.

“There likely will be some sort of a performance penalty that we’ll have to pay,” said David Wilson, TRD’s senior vice president. “Just realistically, with the time that we have to work with, we’re going to need to be a little conservative here. The good news is that I think our record of performance the first 13 races would qualify that we have some room to pull back if we need to. And so that’s kind of what we’re looking at the next two weekends.”

"There likely will be some sort of a performance penalty that we’ll have to pay."

-- David Wilson, TRD senior vice president

It’s been a turbulent season for TRD, which saw Kenseth (bottom-end problem) and Busch (valve spring) knocked out of the Daytona 500 with engine issues, and Clint Bowyer (connecting rod failure) break down a month later in Fontana. The list of in-race failures doesn’t take into account those which occurred earlier in the race weekend, like the valve spring failure suffered by Denny Hamlin in practice at Phoenix, or non-terminal issues like those that hampered the vehicles of Truex and Waltrip in Daytona.

It was also a TRD engine -- although a vendor-supplied part -- at the center of a penalty stemming from a lighter-than-allowed connecting rod officials discovered in Kenseth’s car after he won at Kansas, a violation that ultimately cost the driver 12 points. And it was announced Tuesday that TRD’s longtime president and general manager, Lee White, would retire at the end of this season, although he would vacate his roles immediately.

And now, a pair of big, engine-eating tracks back-to-back. Given the tight time frame, Wilson said TRD is performing tests on engines at its Southern California headquarters, and would be able to implement any potential findings in engines already loaded into race cars and headed for Pocono.

“You can’t pick your timing or change the schedule. It would be nice to go to Bristol right about now. But it is what it is,” Wilson said. “What we’re doing right now is, we’re testing some new configurations so we can make running changes to the engines that are in race cars right now. … We’re doing some parallel testing on engine dynos here in Costa Mesa with these new configurations, and that will give us a large part of the peace of mind that we need, and our teams need, going to Pocono.”

One immediate adjustment will be to alter the engines’ tuning parameters to put more of an emphasis on reliability, and perhaps reduce the strain on some parts -- particularly the valve springs, which are always a source of worry to engine builders, and have been a particular headache to those this year at TRD.

“With the architecture of this engine in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the valve spring is probably one of the most heavily stressed parts,” Wilson said. “And most engine builders would tell you, that’s our Achilles’ heel. On the best of days, that’s in most cases the weakest link. While we’re thrilled with our performance and our go-fast quotient, we’re less than thrilled with our overall record of durability. So we need to look at how we might be able to mitigate some of the loads and make sure that we have cars that can finish races.”

Durability is the only question mark on Toyota engines that have clearly set the bar in terms of pure speed. Toyota drivers won poles in eight of the 11 qualifying sessions held this season (two were canceled by weather), and Busch and Kenseth dominate the field in laps led. The issue has been getting to the last lap -- something Busch and Kenseth in particular have often struggled with, despite cars that have proven strong enough to win.

 “Junior Johnson always told me an engine is like a chain. When something breaks, you fix that part and hope nothing else breaks. That’s what Toyota has done,” said three-time NASCAR champion and FOX television analyst Darrell Waltrip, who once owned a Camping World Truck Series team that fielded Toyotas.

“Look at the qualifying efforts this year. At Dover, Toyota took four of the top five qualifying spots. They’ve been leading a lot of laps. They’ve been pushing the envelope. You can’t fault anybody when they’re making max power and achieving those kinds of results. But when things break, fix them and continue on. Regardless of who’s in charge, as a driver or owner, I don’t want an engine program that’s not cutting edge. Toyota, under Lee White, has been cutting edge, and has been getting great results. However, they’ve had failures to go along with those results. That’s the downside to what they’ve been doing.”

TRD cited family health care needs as the reason for White’s retirement. As of Wednesday, no successor to the outgoing president had been named. Despite the on- and off-track issues faced by the company, Wilson said TRD remains fully capable of achieving its ultimate goal of a first Sprint Cup championship.

“The state of TRD is strong,” he said. “Certainly, we have some real challenges with regards to some durability issues. But Lee’s announcement of his retirement, all we can do is wish him well. And we certainly admire him for making the right decision. We have a strong team that Lee built, and our intention is to keep driving forward and improving our organization, and ultimately at the end of the year be sitting at the champion’s table along with Lee. That’s what we’re shooting for.”


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