Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Light Engines Nothing New

This is an excerpt from my book, "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed." It seemed timely, given the Matt Kenseth drama today. — Tom

When the Winston Cup circuit arrived in Sonoma, California, for the Save Mart/Kragen 350 in June 2000, Rusty Wallace put his Penske Racing South Ford on the pole, with a lap that was half a second faster than anyone else in the field. It was Wallace's sixth pole in just 16 races. In a sport where qualifying spots are usually separated by a few thousandths or maybe one or two hundredths of a second, for one car to be half a second faster than everyone else is unusual, even on a road course.

Wallace was also the teammate to Jeremy Mayfield, which meant other teams were probably quietly lobbying NASCAR to give Walllace’s car a little extra attention in inspection.

After Wallace won the pole at Sonoma, rumors immediately began about the car's legality. General Motors racing executives in attendance began whispering off the record to reporters that Wallace's car was using pistons, connecting rods, and a crankshaft made of a space-age lightweight alloy that supposedly was 68 percent beryllium and 32 percent aluminum. If that were true, the lighter engine components, in theory, would allow the engine to spin faster internally and produce more power.

According to the GM people the high-tech alloy was developed in England at a Penske subsidiary, Ilmor Engineering, which builds engines for the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team in Europe and had built engines for Chevrolet and Mercedes in the CART FedEx Championship Series here in the United States. Of course, given the politics and innuendo and gossip-mongering that goes on in the modern Winston Cup garage, all of this could have been completely true, or it could just as easily have been a total fabrication dreamed up over a couple of martinis on the flight from Detroit to San Francisco for the race. But either way, everyone was talking about it.

And then the unthinkable happened. To the utter horror of Wallace and his crew, the team’s pole-winning engine was completely dismantled out in the open in the pits. While inspections are open in Winston Cup generally, this one was a shocking exception: For the first time in anyone's memory, NASCAR didn't simply measure engine displacement and cubic inches. Instead they totally stripped the engine of its guts, removing the highly secretive and proprietary internal components, including the custom-designed pistons, rods, crankshaft, and camshaft. Then the inspectors set the parts down on their workbench, naked in front of the entire garage area and the race teams.

Some teams photographed the inspection and the engine parts as they were put on the workbench; others sent team members in plain clothes to “watch” what was happening and scribble down notes. The inspection understandably enraged the Penske organization.

“It’s the most obscene and unprofessional thing I’ve seen done in a long time,” said a furious Wallace. “When a team works real, real hard to be the best and to work as hard as they do for an engine combination, that's totally unacceptable, to take every piece of the engine and lay it out for God and everybody to see. This is not something that's been done in the past.”

While Wallace acknowledged that engine teardowns are part of the process, he added, “They [NASCAR] don't usually tear them down on an asphalt parking lot where every team member, every media person, every fan can take pictures and see. It was such a bad scene that it was almost nasty.”

“I was disappointed in the way it was handled, that everybody got to write down whatever they saw,” added Robin Pemberton, Wallace's crew chief. “I'm speechless. I'm really hurt by the whole thing. Never have they stripped [the engine] right down to the bare block. We're prepared to build engines in the shop and only take certain things off them at the racetrack. So we didn’t have some of the special tools that it took. It was borderline barbaric”

As for NASCAR's response, Helton said, “All of our inspection processes are open to the rest of the competitors. Always have been.” Helton did, however, acknowledge that the inspections of the engines were a little bit more rigorous this time out for the cars of Wallace and Wally Dallenbach, the fastest second-round qualifier at Sears Point. “We did go a little bit further because of conversations in the garage area about exotic metals and different things,” Helton said. “We took the pistons and the cranks out of them, which took maybe a little bit more time than we had in the past, but it's the same process we've always had.”

Yes, it is. Win too much, run too fast, and teardowns and inspections will be living hells, even if you're legal—maybe especially if you're legal—just as they were for Jeff Gordon in 1998 or Bill Elliott in 1985 or even Karl Kiekhaefer way back in 1955.