Ilmor, NASCAR taking preventive steps after Las Vegas engine issues

The field for the Gander Trucks event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Jonathan Ferrey
Getty Images

Officials with NASCAR and Ilmor Engineering released preliminary findings Thursday from their investigation into an unusual spate of engine failures in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series’ Sept. 13 event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, saying that measures were being taken to improve reliability and prevent a recurrence.

“Ilmor Engineering is committed to our partnership with NASCAR and to the long-term development of the NT1 engine,” the company said in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “To that end, following the issues experienced by a number of different teams and competitors during the Sept. 13 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, engines were returned to the NASCAR R&D Center for technical inspection and data review. The combination of the high engine load condition combined with the extreme weather conditions in Las Vegas resulted in some engines suffering severe detonation. Ilmor is taking new measures in engine calibration to ensure to this situation is corrected for all future races.”

Four failures of Ilmor’s NT1 engine thinned the field in the World of Westgate 200, sidelining three playoff-eligible ThorSport Racing trucks and the No. 02 Young’s Motorsports entry of Tyler Dippel. The early exits eliminated ThorSport teammates Johnny Sauter (No. 13 Ford) and Grant Enfinger (No. 98), the regular-season champion, from the playoffs while Matt Crafton (No. 88) was able to survive based on his cushion in the series’ points standings.

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Brad Moran, managing director for the Gander Trucks Series, said the multiple engine failures set a rapid response in motion. NASCAR competition officials were at ThorSport’s Sandusky, Ohio race shop to collect the four damaged engines four days after the race and began teardowns in the days that followed. After seeing signs of damage in a fourth ThorSport entry — the No. 99 Ford of Ben Rhodes — that engine was also collected.

“Obviously, the warning signs went off,” Moran told “It was very disappointing to see that happen to ThorSport and Ford. They’re a great team and did everything right. Unfortunately, the circumstances put them in a real bad spot. As that was happening, we were already putting plans together on what the next steps were. If we’d seen that with any organization or any number of teams in one race, we would’ve done the same thing. Measures were being taken the moment that happened.”

Further indicators of damage, including trouble with the GMS Racing No. 24 driven to seventh place by Brett Moffitt, prompted Ilmor to recall all 32 engines used in the Las Vegas event for disassembly and inspection.

NASCAR and Ilmor introduced the NT1 engine ahead of the 2018 season as a more cost-effective alternative to engines developed in-house by teams and manufacturers. Gear rules and rev limiters were later placed on the latter in an effort to provide a better competitive balance. In the nearly two years since the NT1’s debut, Moran said that failures had been relatively scarce.

Andrew Richards, a motorsports development engineer with Ilmor, said that no single part or area of the engine stood out as a solitary culprit at Las Vegas’ 1.5-mile track. He added that teams had no hand in the failures through their tuning or setups, but that failsafes for the NT1’s performance and operating condition “proved to be insufficient at Las Vegas,” Richards said.

Richards and Moran pointed to the extreme heat of the race weekend as a contributing variable. The high temperature on race day was recorded at 97 degrees, a figure observed just 90 minutes before the race’s 6 p.m. PT start time.

“That was definitely a factor, and it definitely promoted the failures,” Richards said. “Everybody took a look at the parts and came to an understanding of what happened and so it was widespread, all over the course of last week and it continues on this week. We’re replicating the conditions that were run at Las Vegas so that we can implement a fix moving forward.”

What followed was an exercise in transparency. NASCAR competition officials and representatives for teams, manufacturers and Ilmor were all present for the engine teardowns in the sanctioning body’s Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C.

That included assistance from ThorSport, which was hit the hardest by the engine issues in the final race of the postseason-opening Round of 8. In the heat of the Las Vegas garage that Friday night, the organization’s drivers reacted with varying degrees of frustration as three ThorSport trucks retired before the race’s halfway point.

In the days that followed, Moran said, the team had turned its attention to helping the troubleshooting efforts.

“They’re totally professional,” Moran said. “They’re a great organization and they come to win, so obviously it was more than disappointing for them, the way it went. The timing of it probably couldn’t have been worse. Again, they really went above and beyond on their side in letting us come into their shops and look at all the issues and take everything away. They wanted to know what the problem was, too. We feel badly how it went down, but mechanical issues and system issues, systems do fail. The timing was not good and very unfortunate on their side, but we’re pretty confident this will never happen again.”

Said Richards: “ThorSport was very cooperative and very cordial through it despite the difficult situation, to say the least. They’ve tried to understand what was going on and more than anything just trying to understand that it won’t happen again.”

Moran said that little consideration was given to somehow altering the playoff picture to restore championship eligibility to ThorSport’s Enfinger and Sauter. Parts from numerous suppliers are installed on every truck, he said, and that breakages occur in multiple areas, including those that appear to be engine-related that are not. Those occurrences, he said, are unfortunately part of the sport.

“We don’t have that opportunity of a re-do,” Moran said. “The playoffs are points earned throughout the season starting at Daytona, stage wins, race wins — that’s what gets you into the Round of 8. After that, it’s a three-race series, so it’s not just the one race. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that ability to pull a re-do on something like this without affecting the rest of the garage or players that are in there. So it wasn’t a one-race deal. It’s just a real unfortunate incident, but a mechanical issue that took out two of their trucks.”

Moran said that NASCAR officials applauded Ilmor’s efforts to examine the issues that it experienced at Las Vegas, saying that they still had full support of the engine program and its efforts to redouble its durability.

“The dependability has been there. It’s been a great savings to the teams. The competition has probably never been better and the teams have never been stronger,” Moran said. “… All of this wouldn’t be possible without the program, so we believe 100 percent in the program. We’re definitely disappointed in what happened at Las Vegas. I believe that NASCAR and Ilmor Engineering have done all the steps to make sure this’ll never happen again in this way. Still disappointed in what happened, but very confident from this point going into the end of the season and as well next year.”