Ask any racer what the biggest problem facing short track racing in this country is, and the unanimous response is cost, big-time cost! Most of those dollars are donated to the engine compartment, and having a top-gun powerplant is many times the difference between the haves and the have-nots.
One solution that has been tried in various circles is the use of a sealed spec engine. Spec engines, to some degree, keep the costs down and equalize the competition on the track (leaving drivers to depend on their talent and pure luck to win races). The open-wheel Indy Lights Series has used this concept with considerable success for a number of years. But no such application has been considered for short track stock car racing-that is, until now!
The Indiana-based, AC Delco-sponsored, American Speed Association (ASA), with its AC Delco Challenge Series, has taken a huge step in that direction. In 1998, a joint research and development project between ASA and General Motors Motorsports announced the possibility of mating a factory production engine to a purebred stock car racing chassis. What evolved was the selection of a virtually stock LS1 V-8 powerplant, which was standard with the Pontiac Firebird and Chevy Corvette and Camaro. Herb Fishel, Executive Director of GM Motorsports, explained the thinking behind this monumental effort.
"Over the years, most stock components were replaced by specialized racing parts, produced by aftermarket suppliers, leaving stock cars anything but stock. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate that one of our modern, high-performance engines can reliably power a stock car without exotic aftermarket racing components."
A Chevy engine in a Ford vehicle is quite normal in street rods, but a single brand engine for an entire racing series? Sounds like a great way to level the playing field, but there is one situation here to address. The ASA is not a single brand series. With Pontiac Grand Prixs and Ford Tauruses also on the track, the idea of using this Bow-Tie engine in non-Chevy engine bays was met with some consternation. But ASA officials made it clear that that's the way it's going to be for the 2000 racing season. Then again, what difference does it make? After all, the teams aren't going to be able to dig into their engines like they have in the past. No matter what angle you look at this situation from, things are going to be a lot different along pit row.
With engine performance being a constant with these nearly identical LS1 engines, there will have to be greater emphasis on other performance-increasing enhancements. Areas such as tire selection and pressures, suspension tweaking with shock and spring selection, and finally the performance of the driver, which should be the determining factor in winning races.
Since the announcement, there has been considerable testing accomplished with an LS1 test car. Tweaking was done by renowned engine builder John Lingenfelter to ensure the engines would withstand the grueling punishment of racing. With the engine now referred to as the LASAR V-8, the testing showed that the new car/engine combination was capable of speeds that were very compatible with pole speeds accomplished a year earlier in competition.
One of the largest differences with the 346-inch LS1 powerplant is its induction system. Up until now, an antique device called a carburetor has fed nearly all oval track race engines. Even the top gun Winston Cup cars are still using carbs. But, as you know, the LS1 and all modern engines are fuel injected, and that induction system will remain in place for the LS1's race experience. You can believe that there will be a significant learning curve for the race teams in learning to work with the fuel-injected engines. But then again, there's not all that much they can do with them and stay legal.
The initial testers of the LS1 in race trim were impressed with the feel of the new fuel-injected engine. One test driver indicated that a carbureted engine "just can't put down the power with electronic fuel injection." He also indicated that the factory engine had the smoothest power curve of anything he had ever driven with about 50 pounds of additional torque.
Not only is the change to a factory V-8 a big one, it's also the change from the aftermarket-fortified V-6 mills that have been standard in ASA for several years. Even so, there will be basically no changes made to the stock car chassis. Dyno analysis shows that the LASAR engine has approximately the same 450 hp rating as the pure race V-6 engines they've replaced. That's considerably higher than the Chevy quoted horsepower for the LS1. GM and ASA have explained that the LS1 race engine, right off the bat, will also cost considerably less than its previous pure race engine. Where such an engine runs in the area of 30 grand or more, the LS1 engine could fall in at half that figure. And get this! The engines will go directly from the factory to the teams-sealed. And much to the chagrin of the crew chiefs and mechanics, there will be no tuning of the engines allowed. Furthermore, each team will have possession of its engine electronic control box only at the track, where it too will be sealed. All other times, the racing organization will retain possession. NASCAR follows a similar procedure with its carburetor restrictor plates, which are provided at the track. But that's only a small, non-mechanical part of the engine; here we are talking about a complete engine.
Granted, the corporate end of this story (i.e. General Motors) will undoubtedly benefit from the thousands of test miles at high revs run on its LS1 engines. But there is another former corporate connection, namely the many aftermarket engine manufacturers that look upon this experiment with some fear. Recall, please, that current racing engines are practically all aftermarket in nature, with a stock part being a rare item indeed. So what happens to this vast core of manufacturers should this factory-sealed engine trend continue?
With extreme costs limiting the number of talented drivers who can afford to race, many saw spec engines coming. The cost of race engines has been skyrocketing for a number of years, putting many teams on the sidelines. Of course, whether the engine will be able to run full bore for 500 laps remains to be seen. But from all testing done to date, the LASER LS1 looks up to the task. Pretty heavy stuff for a street engine, wouldn't you agree?
Early Race Results
It was a huge undertaking-and the LS1 engine was only one part of the equation. Many in the world of stock car racing wondered if this latest rule change for ASA would not paint them into a corner. There's a built-in back up system in big time stock car racing that works like this: NASCAR Winston Cup cars are the exact same as ARCA Bondo Mar-Hyde Super Cars. NASCAR Busch Grand National cars are the same as Hooters Cup cars. ASA cars are the same as...well, there is nothing else like an ASA car. They can't be found anywhere else in the U.S. oval track racing scene-and the new LS1 engine makes them even more unique. So all that uniqueness not withstanding, how are they doing?
The word from the track is great...and that may even be an understatement. With three or four races complete as we go to press, there have been no major problems with the LS1 project. The racing itself is close and often very, very competitive. And if speeds are down, no one has noticed. When was the last time you heard anyone say that about any racing series?
The first race at Lakeland, Florida, where they have long straights on their 5/8-mile track, caused a small rash of overheating. By the time they hit the second and third race, there were no major snafus with overheating. In fact, drivers were quick to praise the system, and it's gotten to be that if a hood is up, it's more likely to adjust a front sway bar or change a coilover spring than because of engine woes. It's rare indeed to see a hood open and someone actually working on the engine. That gives the crew more time to dial in that chassis. Chassis dynamics have changed with the new motor, and the chassis setup is even more critical. With less engine backpressure, the cars require more brakes when the driver lifts off the gas. That means the brakes had better be balanced or the chassis setup goes South. Dialing in the brakes means more attention to the front-to-back and side-to-side balance or it will affect the chassis. And with the tremendous amount of competition these guys (and gals) put down on the track, one bad call on the chassis (they've got all that time to tune the chassis, remember?) could be the difference between making a nationally televised race (TNN) or going home early.
They've already shipped well over 100 of the LS1 engines to teams, and if the average car count of around 50 per race is any indication, there will be no shortage of racing in ASA this year. But, you know, it still takes some getting used to seeing that throttle body instead of a carb and air cleaner sitting on top of the engines.