The NASCAR 358: legendary 'small block' engine....but does the sport need 900 horsepower monsters?
By Mike Mulhern
Remember those Boss 429 Fords, 427 Porcupine Chevrolets, and 426 Hemis?
Legendary NASCAR engines. Hall of Fame creatures.
Big steam, as Mark Martin would say. Big, big steam.
However if you can even find one of those classics today, it'll cost you a pretty penny.
When the Go-Go 1960s turned into the Eco-Seventies, with the Arab Oil Embargo and gas prices jumping to 40 cents a gallon and all that, those monsters of the NASCAR midways were suddenly dinosaurs.
Museum pieces now.
Since the mid-1970s the standard NASCAR race engine has been set at 358....pumping out 650 horsepower back in the day -- but now, with all the modern tweaks, pumping out nearly 900 horsepower.
Hmmm, 900 horsepower? It's a wonder Goodyear can even keep tires on these stockers.....
Why rerun this history?
Because drivers were hitting 218 mph on the straights at Michigan International Speedway a few days ago.
That's what some drivers have asked.
But not too loudly, this being a macho sport. They tend to speak in code....like 'single-file.'
The two 400s at Michigan were really good races. Probably as much on adrenalin and surprise as anything.
Still, single-file racing, no matter what the speed, isn't what NASCAR racing is all about. Some of the best side-by-side action comes at much slower speeds. (And of course on those wild-and-crazy double-file restarts, for a few laps.)
And at slower speeds that dreaded 'aero-push' is not as pronounced.
With NASCAR's rear-end gear rules and the electronic fuel injection systems limiting RPM, maybe this 5-liter engine project is worth reviving.
The current NASCAR 358 is really a mechanical marvel, rivaling Formula One engines in many respects.
And to pump out 900 horsepower for three hours or more demands a hefty, solid piece of machinery.
On top of that, consider the reliability of these 358s.
If it ain't broke.....
Maybe these 358 c.i. engines are now dinosaurs too.
The street 350s were once pretty standard passenger car engines. But today how many fans' cars out in the lots behind these grandstands have 350s under the hood?
But some might ask does that even matter?
Is this much ado about nothing?
Or are the amazing speeds putting Michigan in danger of becoming another California Speedway, where so many years of high-speed single-file racing (208 mph into the corners) has taken a devastating toll on crowds?
Goodyear has done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasing demands of these speeds, these repaves.
However, NASCAR racing is not just some academic, technological exercise, but entertainment.
Side by side is good entertainment. Just ask anyone who watched Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart at Bristol a few days ago.
Slower speeds at some of these tracks would give Goodyear engineers more leeway to provide tires that 'give up' over a tire run, slowing down enough that crew chiefs and drivers can start playing games.
Of course asking engine men about retooling and ordering new parts for such a new engine doesn't usually meet with big smiles. One, asked about 305s, suggested instead that NASCAR cut speeds by ordering Goodyear to run much narrower tires, perhaps even grooved, like F1 used to try to curb speeds.
Nevertheless, speed and engine costs (as much as $100,000 a race for a team) are issues under discussion in the NASCAR garage right now.
So is it now time to rethink this 358 thing, and consider downsizing again, to maybe the 5-liter 305 c.i. range?
Yes, it's hardly the right economic moment to start changing engines; teams are still trying to digest this electronic fuel injection stuff.
However some in Detroit are saying it may well be time to start rethinking 358s and lay out a game plan for smaller engines.
Robert Yates, the famous engine builder whose son Doug now carries on the legacy, began talking in the early 1990s about the need to cut engine size even then and cut back on speeds (even before Ernie Irvan's first bad crash). But Yates' bid fell on deaf ears.
The issue of smaller race engines was revived in 2005, with thought and paperwork about a new NASCAR engine playbook -- when Toyota was just breaking into the sport and needed a new engine, and Chevrolet was getting a new engine, and Dodge was getting a redesigned engine.
That would have been a good opportunity to make a switch to smaller 305 c.i. engines. Maybe a missed opportunity, in retrospect.
Now, with such blazing straightaway speeds at Michigan, the time would seem to be ripe at least to consider again 'Does this sport really needs 900 horsepower engines?'
A key question here: Does such brute horsepower really put more butts in the stands?
Bruton Smith, who owns about half of this sport's biggest race tracks, says slower speeds would mean better racing, more side-by-side racing. And that, after all, is what this sport is all about anyway.
The dogged determination to hit higher and higher speeds sometimes seems almost ludicrous.
And slower speeds would allow Goodyear to make 'softer,' more raceable tires.
At least that's the logic.
And some in Detroit are suggesting it is time to get out that yellow legal pad and start thinking about it.
Or maybe not.
Three suggestions on how NASCAR could reduce horsepower very easily and at minimum expense:
-- Restrict the exhaust collectors to 2-1/2 inches, and cut the compression ratio to 9.5:1
-- To reduce the vehicle weight, mandate a maximum of 200 pounds of ballast. The cost of tungsten, which is used in lieu of lead, as ballast costs $$1876.88 for a 34-pound block. Some of the latest Cup cars have over 500 pounds of ballast, so the tungsten cost would be around $28,000.00 per car.
-- Tighter regulation of race car batteries. Expensive lithium batteries, which cost in the neighborhood of $2,500 each, are used to save weight . Each car uses two.
(Some interesting footnotes here: Dick Brooks ran a 305 in the 1971 Daytona 500....when NASCAR's first run of carburetor restrictor plates cut the 426 Hemis from 585 horsepower back to about 480. That ought to draw a laugh or two from today's engine men.)
NASCAR, with its 2013 project, is giving Detroit its head in adding significant 'design cues' to these stockers, to make them appear more relevant to what people drive on the street.
And under the hood?
Well, which way is Detroit going anyway these days?
Is there a coherent game plan among the nation's big car makers for how to play this NASCAR game?
Dodge, after all, just threw up its hands and decided to bail out.
(And some in the sports business still remember the V-6 NASCAR/Indy-car craze a few years back. Not quite sure just how that really played out in the end.)
Well, it looks like Godzilla Muscle Cars are back in vogue.
The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 LSA is a street-legal monster of an engine, 580 horsepower, 556 foot-pounds of torque.
The Ford Shelby GT500 even tops that: 662 horsepower, 631 foot-pounds of torque.
Either one would probably blow away any of those hybrids at a stoplight.
So maybe smaller NASCAR race engines runs counter to what Detroit wants?
Cutting 60 cubic inches out of the 358s would cut horsepower back to maybe 750.
But while that could change the dynamic, would it improve the racing?
Well, consider that Nationwide cars and Trucks are running with 200 horsepower less than the Sprint Cup cars.
Is Nationwide racing and Truck racing better racing than Cup offers? Is the Saturday action at these NASCAR tracks better than the Sunday action?
A good debate could be made.