Ford Racing invited Los Jalops on a NASCAR immersion trip this past Friday. At first we were skeptical, considering the big oval hasn't traditionally been our beat, but we've never been ones to shy away from bringing you the gift of knowledge, particularly when the odor of burning Sunoco 260 is involved. Since Wert's mouth was deemed "too purdy," yours truly popped a pinch 'twixt cheek and gum and headed over to Michigan International Speedway during practice laps for the LifeLock 400 to see what the fuss was all about. Five surprising revelations after the jump.
Pushrod engines can do insane things. Despite all the changes that have made "stock cars" kind of a tongue-in-cheek joke, the iron block/aluminum head powerplants hail straight from the Eisenhower era. At 358 cubic inches, these 12:1 compression V8s still suck mixture from a Holley 830 and spin at just under 10,000 RPM. Doug Yates explained to us that NASCAR engines actually see higher piston speeds than F1 engines due to their longer stroke. He also noted that pushrod deflection actually helps fling the valvetrain open; we figure the valves can use all the help they can get, considering they have an inch of lift. All this brings us to our next point.
You shouldn't break your motor. Remember that pushrod engine that's doing all that insane stuff? Yeah, well, you gotta wring it within an inch of its life during qualifying but you can't break it: You only get one engine per weekend. That says a lot about the engineers, but it says a lot about the guys who screw these things together too.
They let KIDS drive these things. We met with Colin Braun (pronounced "Brown," but still ironic since he's got a few years before facial hair will appear), the current rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck series. This 19-year-old is better mannered than the combined Jalopnik staff, and he explained how his Roush-Fenway race truck completely changes character during the course of a race due to tire wear, brake wear, suspension loosening, and fuel usage, requiring the driver to constantly adapt to a different-feeling vehicle.
"Scrap tire" means different things to different people. Seeing a stack of grooved tires outside the Wood Brothers' trailer, we asked if they were rain tires. Len Wood explained to us that the technical term was "scrap tire." Teams are only allowed a certain number of sets of tires per weekend (it varies by track), and those tires have to be turned-in to officials at the end of the event. To keep a few sets around for shows, testing and such, teams are allowed to groove the tires, thus making them unsuitable for high-speed runs. The result is a scrap tire, not to be confused with the mosquito nursery you have behind your garage.
Two tenths on a big oval is a huge improvement. NASCAR regulations combined with 50 years of development work on the same basic designs have conspired to make competitive breakthroughs nonexistent. What that means is that a change resulting in a repeatable one- to two-tenths per-lap gain is considered huge. Vehicle engineers are seeking microscopic improvements now, literally shaving hundredths in the search for a winning edge.
We assumed that there was more to stock car racing than we gave it credit for. So were we surprised by the level of precision and engineering that goes in to one of these pushrod, live-axle beasts, whether it's a Craftsman-series truck, Busch car, or Cup car? Yes. Are we gonna be hootin' and a hollerin' at race time every Sunday? Not so much.
(Photo Credit: funnyhub.com)