The 2013 Dodge, unveiled officially Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But who will drive it, who will run the teams, and who will build the engines? No answers yet from Dodge execs. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Tony Stewart, Joey Logano and Mark Martin are all big name drivers who have had major issues with the new EFI systems during the opening weeks of the Sprint Cup season.
But some are worried about the bigger picture here – that NASCAR executives are leaving it up to teams themselves to deal with McLaren engineers over EFI problems.
Usually NASCAR itself wields a heavy hand with this sport's suppliers, making them toe the line.
However it appears to some here that NASCAR simply doesn't the expertise or engineers savvy enough to get a hand on EFI.
Another point: NASCAR, when introducing new technology (like the sealed gas refueling systems), usually brings it in at a lower level, on the Truck tour or Nationwide tour, to work out the bugs before bringing it into the Sprint Cup realm.
Toyota's Lee White (R), with Kyle Busch (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)
However, Toyota's Lee White points out that EFI is not only good for the sport, in the marketing sense, but that the new system has the capability of almost repairing a damaged engine….or at least protect a damaged engine from blowing up.
"Look at Denny Hamlin in the Shootout at Daytona," White says. "He was involved in that second-lap incident, and it banged up his car, and the water temp from there on was up to 310-312….and the engine didn't blow up. If that had been a carburetor-engine, it would have blown up big-time. But the EFI mapping can be set to take into account various possibilities and adapt the engine to them, like putting more fuel on the piston."
EFI: NASCAR's new electronic fuel injection system (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
White, who worked with EFI engines in sports cars during his years with Jack Roush, says that as good as McLaren engineers are, they simply aren't familiar with the physical demands on an EFI unit in a NASCAR stocker – all the banging that these drivers dish out, for four or five hours.
There is, White says, a lot for everyone to learn with this EFI. Like at Martinsville a few weeks back, during an EFI test, on a cold day, the engines simply wouldn't crank, because it was too cold. All the dyno room work on EFI systems hadn't taken into account the weather, because there is no weather in a dyno room.
"I'm not the expert," White says, "but apparently when you take power away from the 'box,' and then come back with power, it might screw up the cam sensor, which kills the timing of everything.
"And it has to re-sync.
"And in the process of doing that, there is a situation – which everyone at the moment is working around – that when you kill the engine and then try to jump start it with the clutch, the engine is cranking much faster than when it cranks when you just push the (start) button.
"So it doesn't recognize that, and it doesn't go into start mode, and it just doesn't start.
"You're better off, then, pushing the button.
"But at the same time, when the driver does that, he's not turning off all the electrical accessories, like the blowers, and that runs the battery down.
"And believe me, with the fuel pressure required with these things now (75 psi), you have got to have good battery. That is critical.
"There is so much battery requirement in these cars now; everyone has upped their alternators, to 100 amps, and even cooling their alternators.
"But we've seen guys here this weekend where in practice they'll come in the garage and their batteries are down to under 10 volts. And once you get under 10 volts with this system, you can't make the 75 psi fuel pressure to make 'em run."
A top view of a NASCAR engine with the new fuel injection system (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So where's the blame in all this?
After all, snafus like Stewart, Logano and Martin have encountered could wind up costing someone a spot in the playoffs….or a shot at the championship, if the issues aren't worked out.
White insists "You certainly can't blame McLaren; they're just one part of this. And you can't blame Freescale; it's just making the chip in the ecu.
"The issues we've seen so far have nothing to do with the ecu (electronic control unit). They have to do with hundreds of feet of wires, dozen of connectors, sensors.
"This relay box, the issue with the relays popping – that's a whole different manufacturer. That was what was biting people at Daytona. But we didn't see that issue raising its head last week at Phoenix, so everybody got on it pretty darned quick. At least a bandaid on it.
"In my opinion, it will probably till May or June before we get all these little issues sorted out.
"There's no way in heaven you could uncover all these issues in just testing…because you're not running 500 miles with all the beating and banging, and the heat coming from the exhausts. I'm telling you, a car cranking 850 horsepower, just six inches off your door, it'll rattle your cage."
And a front view of the engine with EFI (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
No one has ever tried EFI in an environment like NASCAR.
And the people dealing with EFI are in a new world too.
"The real challenge here is the installation in this environment," White says. "McLaren has a lot of really smart guys….but with software. Not one of them has ever leaned over a hot motor to check a connector or relay box. That's up to the teams."
And White concedes that during all this on-track development, some teams and drivers will just have to suffer: "There is a period of time where it's going to have an effect. I'm sorry – it's new.
"But EFI makes these cars more relevant to the people in the stands, and that means it's good for you and good for me and good for business. Tell NASCAR they're doing a heck of a job."
Another beautiful day in the NASCAR neighborhood....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Dodge unveiled its new 2013 NASCAR stocker Sunday….but the big Dodge story isn't the new sheet metal, but rather who's going to run the 2013s for Dodge, and who's going to own Dodge NASCAR teams in 2013, and who's going to build Dodge engines in 2013.
And the most important question of those three is the engine question.
The Dodge unveiling itself here was rather untimely, considering Roger Penske's recent announcement of moving to Ford in 2013. Penske men have been handling the development of the 2013 Dodge.
There are a number of issues here:
First, with Penske, after 10 years, leaving Dodge at the end of this season and moving to Ford, Dodge would have only Joey Arrington as a veteran Dodge engine builder.
The engine situation with Dodge points up a major issue in this sport, one that NASCAR CEO Brian France has recognized but has so far been unable to reconcile - that building NASCAR engines has become such a highly technical, and highly expensive and specialized job that only a handful of NASCAR engine shops even exist anymore.
In years past, as many as 25 engine builders around the country could build NASCAR-worthy engines.
Today the only men with top NASCAR engine building operations are Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs/Toyota and Penske. (Even Gibbs has been forced to merge his once independent engine operation with Toyota's Los Angeles-based TRD.)
Every other team on the tour is thus now dependent on making an engine deal with one of those Big Five NASCAR engine operations.
For example, Chip Ganassi's team has to buy engines from Childress, and Tony Stewart's team has to buy engines from Hendrick.
And there is speculation that Penske could be shutting down his own engine program at the end of the season and getting his engines from Roush-Yates.
The Dodge dilemma, which broke just a week ago when Penske made his surprise announcement, has thrown the Sprint Cup garage into a tizzy.
Yes, Dodge might be able to make a deal with the Richard Petty/Andrew Murstein/Douglas Bergeron team for 2013….but there is no engine operation there; Petty's two teams get engines from Ford's Jack Roush and Doug Yates.
Arrington could help fill the void, but Arrington's operation isn't nearly the size of the Hendrick, Childress or Roush engine operations.
Soooo…..little wonder that speculation has become intense over Dodge's future in this sport.
Will Dodge hang in there in NASCAR? Or might it simply abandon this brand of motorsports?
Dodge was on the NASCAR sidelines for more than 20 years until returning in 2001.
Dodge boss Ralph Gilles insists he's not worried about 2013, and he dismisses any talk that Dodge might fold its tent and go home.
Still….Gilles did not attend the Daytona 500…while, for example, Toyota boss Akio Toyoda flew to Daytona from Toyko and even took laps himself in Toyota's new 2013.
And it's unclear if Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne has ever been to a NASCAR race. But he does have a NASCAR 'hard card.'
In the Dodge speculation is the possibility that the parent company might simply sell its NASCAR equipment to another car maker, like Nissan.
Certainly if a Nissan, or Honda, were interested in getting into NASCAR, this might be a good opening.
Without Roger Penske, questions surround Dodge for 2013 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)