Modified Teams Look To SPEC Motor To Compete, Save Costs
Ed Partridge may have kicked the proverbial hornet's nest when he showed up at New Hampshire Motor Speedway earlier this month, but that wasn't the championship car owner's intention.
His purpose, said the owner for 2011 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Ron Silk, was only to do what was best for his race team.
“We're frustrated, too, just like a lot of other teams are at this time of year. We're not running as well as we need to be,” Partridge said. “Every owner, every crew chief on this Tour does the same thing – they try and get the best for their car and work with it. That's what we're doing. That's all we're trying to do.”
What Partridge did was use the NASCAR-approved SPEC engine for the first time this season at New Hampshire – setting fast time in qualifying and then finishing second to Mike Stefanik by .003-seconds, the second-closest margin of victory in track history. But well before the Town Fair Tire 100 ever took the green flag on July 14, there was a rumbling in the Whelen Modified Tour garage.
That groundswell of concern centered mostly on the SPEC engine as a means to an end for the Tour. Chief among competitors' beefs with the engine was that it is not as durable as traditional “built” or “open” motors, that cars that opted to use the NASCAR-approved engine would be given performance breaks, and – perhaps at the top of the list – that NASCAR would make built motors obsolete by quickly mandating the spec engine's use.
According to NASCAR Competition Administrator Jerry Cook, that couldn't be further from the truth.
“We will NOT mandate the SPEC engine,” said Cook, a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and founding father of the Whelen Modified Tour as it is currently constructed.
“Teams could still build their own engine, that's never been an issue. The SPEC engine is an option, but they don't have to do it. They don't have to do this – and that's the big thing here. No one's telling them they have to do this.”
K&N SUCCESS STORY
Simply put, the NASCAR-approved SPEC engine is designed to do two things. It is designed to produce a competitive power plant in a race car at an affordable price, while also offering smaller teams that might not be able to foot the bill on built motors the opportunity to have a fighting chance at survival in a sport that is constantly evolving. The spec engine kit is offered by Robert Yates Racing Engines, and they can be assembled, refreshed and rebuilt by any engine builder the team chooses. Each engine is encrypted to ensure that they are not altered in their construction.
The poster child for the spec engine is the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, where the majority of the competitors utilize the SPEC engine – from superpower organizations like Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott to smaller, non-Sprint Cup Series affiliated teams.
“The whole premise of the SPEC engine is to equal the playing field,” said Rollie Lachance, Grimm Racing crew chief for K&N Pro Series veteran Eddie MacDonald. “You can go anywhere from $10,000 for a bottom-of-the-barrel used built motor to $50, $60, even $70 grand for a brand new high-end with all the latest and greatest stuff as far as engines go.
“I can't say enough that I'm in favor of the SPEC engines. Even with the given problems, I'm still more competitive with the spec engine than if we were just an open-motor deal. I wouldn't be able to spend the kind of money to keep up with the open engines.”
The problems that Lachance encountered came during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, when the SPEC engine program was in its infancy. Then, there were issues with parts such as fuel pumps and oil pans – with repair costs often handled by the teams themselves.
Four years later, Grimm Racing and other teams run the NASCAR-approved SPEC engines exclusively without having encountered any such durability issues in years.
“I think the Modified guys have lucked out with the fact that the R&D portion of the SPEC engine (being introduced) was really paid for by the old Busch North Series teams,” Lachance said. “When they put one in a Modified, sure, they may have unique problems they have to overcome. We were popping those things at the beginning pretty regularly, but over time NASCAR addressed a number of problems – both with popping them and with durability in individual components.
“The Modifieds are going to reap the benefits of that work.”
CLEAN BILL OF HEALTH
That's what Cook and others at NASCAR are hoping. Cook takes exception to any notion that the sanctioning body cares little about the Whelen Modified Tour or its tradition. He doesn't view the introduction of the SPEC engine – which originally debuted with L.W. Miller at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2008 – as anything other than a chance to improve the series' overall health.
Cook sees car counts not what they were even a few years ago and wonders how many teams might have stayed in the series had they not been priced out by both technology and the economy.
“Like everything these days, it's about cost – what it costs you to race,” Cook said. “What it cost when I raced to what it's come to today, it's become very expensive. It's like any other form of racing. It's not cheap. Anything we can do at NASCAR to keep it affordable for people and keep it alive – to hold on to what we have – that's what we're going to do so people's equipment doesn't become obsolete.”
He went on to add that the Tour is healthy, despite recent accusations in the media that NASCAR is turning a blind eye to existing problems.
“I'd say it's healthy just because it's still in business, and there's a lot of others that have come and gone along the way – from the Hooters ProCup Series to our own Dash and All-Pro Series – while the Modifieds are still there. It's 27 years and counting. Yes, car counts are down from what they were, but the quality of the cars is the best its ever been.
“If this (SPEC) engine would help somebody go racing – if one car was able to put this motor in and go racing after being on the shelf – I would bend over backwards to make that happen.”
In order to do that, Cook knows, he will have to find a balance between being competitive and affordable. It's not enough to make a cheaper engine that can't compete for a Top-10 finish just to give teams a chance to make a starting field; likewise, it's not fair to teams with traditional engines to make the SPEC engine superior at the risk of cutting off teams with significant investments in built engines.
Since Miller debuted the engine, mid-pack performers like Johnny Bush or one-off teams like Partridge's back-up car have utilized it in Whelen Modified Tour events. Having a championship-capable team and driver like Silk use the NASCAR-approved spec engine regularly will help gauge where it needs help and where it needs to be reined in.
Partridge plans to use the SPEC engine exclusively following this weekend's Whelen Modified Tour race at Riverhead, N.Y. He has already seen NASCAR step in when it felt the spec engine might have been superior to traditional engines.
Following a test session prior to the Town Fair Tire 100 at New Hampshire, teams running the spec engine were given restrictor plates with smaller openings to limit some of their horsepower.
“When we go to Loudon, we've run pretty good there for whatever reason,” said Partridge, whose No. 6 won a race at NHMS last season with Silk in the car. “We always try to run by ourselves (in practice) to see what the best we can do is, and we've almost always run a 29.5 (second lap) by ourselves. When we went to the test there this year, we ran 29.6, and then we came in and bolted on new tires and went out and ran a 29.39. Right then, people were saying, 'This is it . It's over.' But that's not the case if you saw the race.”
Cook looks at Partridge's team as the final – and perhaps most appropriate – barometer for where the SPEC engine program is at.
“Working with somebody with a No. 1 car and a No. 1 first-rate driver, it gives us an honest look at how competitive the engine is. It's got be competitive for it to be a viable option – and I think we proved that at New Hampshire,” Cook said. “The engine's got to be competitive, otherwise it's no good at all. We'll be watching very closely to see what adjustments we might have to make with it (with the Modifieds).
“You can do all kinds of preparation and R&D, but the only way find out stuff like that is when you drop the green flag and the checkered flag.”
Partridge is happy to give the engine its due. At a cost of $21,000 for the spec engine kit – less than half what he was otherwise paying for brand new built engines – it's viable in an era of expensive technology. Routine scheduled maintenance of the SPEC engine, both refreshing and rebuilding, also come at a fraction of what it costs for traditional engines.
Both SPEC and traditional engines are heading back to local engine builders for scheduled maintenance somewhere between every 700-1,000 miles. Once the kit is purchased, any engine builder can assemble and maintain the SPEC engines. Lachance said he uses the same engine builder he used before for his SPEC engine work.
That is not to say that questions don't still exist. For Partridge, he was nervous at New Hampshire – “I prayed to God every time that thing went down the straightaway in front of us” – in part because he's still haunted by the blown engine Doug Coby had while running with the leaders in a race at the track in 2009. That car had a SPEC engine in it.
“I'm hoping it's going to be good, for sure. But we've got to run it to learn more about it – like who's running them and making sure they're not blowing up anymore,” said Partridge, who also noted that having Robert Yates Engines involved has eased his anxiety somewhat. “The motor is what it is. It's not a built motor – but its a good motor. The way they've designed it, it seems to be working out. Look at these guys that are running it – Chase Elliott was leading the (K&N Pro Series East) points for most of the year.
“It's just a good motor, a good affordable option to have good power.”
Robert Yates Racing SPEC Engine Built Engine Average**
INITIAL COST* $25,000 $40,000
ENGINE KIT COST $21,000
SUGGESTED TIME FRAME FOR REFRESH 700-800 miles 6 races
AVE. COST FOR REFRESH $2,000-$2,5000 $8,000
SUGGESTED TIME FRAME FOR REBUILD AFTER REFRESH 700-800 miles 9-10 races
AVERAGE COST FOR REBUILD $6,000-$8,000 $13,000
* Dynoed; Complete engine, minus clutch assembly, starter, bell housing, headers
**Compiled from survey of Whelen Modified Tour engine builders
***SPEC engine can be purchased as kit with encrypted parts and assembled by any engine builder
Sources: Travis Barrett, Special To NASCARHomeTracks.com