With the start of the 2012 NASCAR season at Daytona, Sprint Cup cars are using electronic fuel injection for the first time since NASCAR was founded in 1948. It's the most revolutionary -- and overdue -- engine upgrade in stock-car history. Given NASCAR's stodgy record, you'd expect to see people lining up on the barricades to fight the change. Instead, most of the major players are leading the charge.
"When people talk about NASCAR engines, they talk about carburetors and pushrods, and this masks the fact that we've got technology that surpasses some of the greatest in the world," says Doug Yates, CEO of Roush Yates Engines, which will supply Ford motors to more than a quarter of the Cup field. "Moving to fuel injection is a great first step to get us the recognition that we deserve and also to attract other technical partners to come into the sport."
Fuel injection was proven in other forms of racing decades ago, and it's been on all production cars since the early 1990s. But through last season, NASCAR stuck with the same basic four-barrel Holley carburetors it's used since the '60s because they were cheap, well understood, and produced great racing.
So what changed? NASCAR, for starters. Humbled in recent years by dwindling attendance and TV ratings, and with sponsors harder to attract in a down economy, NASCAR has reinvented itself as a kinder and gentler organization eager to work with carmakers rather than dictating to them. By moving to fuel injection, NASCAR hopes to recapture the win-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday spirit that brought automakers to stock-car racing in the first place.
"We've gotten a clear message over the past few years from our OEM partners that they would like to see some more relevancy in the race cars in our series," says Mike Fisher, managing director of NASCAR research and development. "We started with the introduction of the new Nationwide car by bringing back a more individual identity and stock appearance. The response was so favorable that we decided to do something with engines in the Cup series."
The biggest concern about making the move to electronic fuel injection, Fisher says, was cost. As a result, NASCAR decided on a simple multiport approach that essentially replaces the carburetor with a throttle body feeding a common plenum manifold. Although this system isn't nearly as efficient as direct injection, it requires no major changes to the engine south of the intake manifold. All of the fuel-injection hardware -- electronic control unit, throttle body, injectors, wiring harness, coils, and sensors -- should cost less than $25,000 per engine.
The second major fear was that the software controlling the ECU could be hacked. NASCAR will be using ECUs from McLaren and Freescale Semiconductor, which have supplied sealed spec ECUs to Formula 1 since 2008 and to IndyCar since 2007. McLaren Electronics' managing director Peter van Manen says none of these ECUs has been cracked so far, and he dismisses claims that the NASCAR units will be susceptible to cheating. "If someone introduces a code version that isn't recognized by the unit, it just won't start up," he says.
The ECUs come with preprogrammed fuel and ignition maps that can be modified to optimize engine performance for different tracks and for driver preference. Wide-open-throttle performance will be unchanged, with power remaining capped at about 850 hp. But higher efficiency at part and closed throttle should translate into better fuel mileage and fewer emissions. Also, fuel injection theoretically offers advantages in drivability, but that has proved difficult to achieve.
The steep learning curve prompted Cup driver Brad Keselowski to call the move "a disaster," reportedly earning him a "secret" NASCAR fine. But Nationwide driver Aric Almirola, who has put thousands of test miles on fuel-injected Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, says problems with partial-throttle drivability have been licked. "The first test was far from perfect, to say the least," he says. "But now, you can't hardly tell the difference between carburetor and EFI."
That's good news for engine builders. "There are a lot of knobs to turn," Yates says. "But it's still fuel and spark. It's just delivered in a different way."