Few know the behind-the-scenes role FAST™ played in helping NASCAR advance to the age of fuel injection
There are all kinds of cool but little-known facts buried in the history of big league stock car racing. For instance, did you know that driver Tim Flock drove with an actual monkey as co-driver during the 1953 season? It’s true: The Rhesus monkey was named “Jocko Flocko,” and when Tim won a (then Grand National) race in Hickory, NC, Jocko Flocko became the only monkey ever to win a NASCAR race.
Or did you know that the first foreign car to win a NASCAR Cup Series race wasn’t when Kyle Busch drove a Toyota Camry to victory lane in Atlanta in 2008? Nope. The honor of the first non-American made car to win a top-level NASCAR race goes to Jaguar all the way back in 1954 when driver Al Keller took a lightweight XK120 to the front of the Linden (NJ) Airport road course.
Of course, all that stuff is old news. These days NASCAR gets so much publicity it’s hard to imagine anything could go unnoticed. But it does still happen occasionally, and one such cool nugget of information that has largely flown under the radar is the fact that FAST™–which has never been on a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car in competition–played a significant role in helping develop the new fuel injected race engine now currently in use by every team in the series.
As most racing fans are aware, the start of the 2012 race season was the first time in NASCAR history that fuel injection has been a regular part of the competitive package. But the process of pulling a carburetor off of a highly engineered 900-plus horsepower race engine and plugging in fuel injection isn’t as simple as it might sound at first blush. NASCAR had, in fact, first officially announced plans to eventually move to fuel injection all the way back in 2009.
The problem was, the sanctioning body had no concrete plan in place for how, exactly, fuel injection should be accomplished. Many race teams and engine builders decided to sit back and wait until NASCAR could provide more concrete guidelines, but a few proactive engine builders decided to push ahead with their own research and development.
One of the engine builders taking the proactive approach was Roush Yates Engines, which provides the power plants for all the Ford race teams in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, and also builds engines for many other types of racing. Instead of sitting back and waiting, Roush Yates Engines decided to be ahead of the curve by beginning development of its own electronically controlled, fuel injected race engine in order to find out exactly what would–and would not–work.
Of course, reinventing the wheel is quite costly in terms of both time and money. And while it may not seem like it from the outside looking in, even top level NASCAR racing organizations have to work under a budget. So Roush Yates’ engineers began looking for resources to help speed up the process.
Although it had never partnered with FAST™ before, Roush Yates already had a longstanding working relationship with COMP Cams and other companies within the COMP Performance Group™. The working relationship is so strong between the two groups that Roush Yates Engines owner Doug Yates says highly sensitive information is often traded that helps both organizations maintain their competitive advantage.
“Our relationship with the guys at COMP and that whole group is very important to us,” Yates says. “Scooter Brothers (President of COMP Cams) has been really good to our company through the years, and Billy Godbold and the others have helped us with some great cam designs. We regularly work back and forth on cams and springs as well as other engine components and have for many years. That relationship where we are able to work together so closely has really been beneficial to us on the race track.
“When it came time to start working on EFI with our engines, we knew that we’d be able to depend on those guys. It was the natural next step. I hope that we’ve been able to be helpful to them because I know the relationship we have with COMP Cams has been a good one for Roush Yates Engines.”
Yates also freely admits that while the Sprint Cup engineering staff at Roush Yates has a tremendous amount of experience and success in building race engines, their experience with fuel injection is quite a bit more limited. “NASCAR has been running carburetors for their entire existence,” he explains, “so racing with carburetors has been our focus. Fuel injection was new to us, too.”
Besides its Cup engine building program, Roush Yates also builds fuel injected Ford engines for Grand Am and Daytona Prototype racing. So Charles Vogel, an engineer from that program was called in to assist with the development of the new Cup EFI engine.
“The guys from FAST™ had already offered us their assistance, so one of the first things we did was send them an engine to work with,” Vogel says. “It was a Nationwide Series engine because at the time the new FR9 Cup engines were still pretty scarce. Without the tapered spacer that NASCAR requires the Nationwide engine made a reliable 800 horsepower with the carburetor, so it was a known quantity too.”
Vogel says that the test engine was sent to the COMP Performance Group™ facilities, and then he followed it there himself a few days later. “By the time I got there, they already had the engine set up with a complete EFI system and had the engine up on a dyno,” he says. “Except for one issue where we had to relocate the oxygen sensors–they were too close to the tailpipe and exposed to fresh air– we hit the starter button and had the engine running that same day.
“I remember being impressed with how quickly and problem-free they were able to make it,” he adds. “After a little tuning the engine was making 800 horsepower like it was before without any issues or problems.”
Incredibly, the FAST™ engineers were able to accomplish the first EFI NASCAR engine with off-the-shelf components. Chris Brown, COMP Cams Vice President of Operations says that by intelligently choosing the right parts for the application, FAST™ engineers were able to put together a working EFI system for a brand-new application without having to design new parts or hack the existing code in the software.
“One of the real strengths of the FAST™ controller is its adaptability,” he says. “We may have never had an EFI system on a NASCAR race engine before, but we’ve built EFI systems on other high-horsepower, high-performance engines with great success. It wasn’t hard to match the right injectors and other hardware to the application, and then the ECU is programmed to fall on the safe side until it gets the tune dialed in. In other words, the ECU helps prevent the engine from running lean or detonating so you don’t damage anything while you are getting the tune to match the engine’s needs.”
Yates says that initial test in the COMP and FAST™ facilities was so successful that the engine was brought back to Roush Yates’ shops in Mooresville, NC, for additional testing. Those tests, in turn, were so impressive that NASCAR was invited to take a look for themselves.
While developing the rules for the new EFI engine package the sanctioning body was open to working with teams because they, after all, would have to be the ones actually building and racing the engines. But NASCAR also had its own unique concerns. It wanted to be sure the final EFI package was fair to Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge equally, was at least relatively cost efficient and easy to police for cheating. And the system FAST™ devised must have met those criteria quite well. Although FAST™ isn’t a part of the final product NASCAR is racing today, that initial setup almost perfectly mirrors the final parts package now being raced. The one major difference is that FAST™ engineers, in an effort to maintain as many original parts as possible, kept the traditional distributor and coil system for providing power to the spark plugs. NASCAR later decided to move away from that with a setup utilizing a crank trigger and individual coils.
Besides the obvious physical similarities between the initial FAST™ system and the EFI being run today, that partnership between FAST™ and Roush Yates Racing also helped the Ford engine builder find results on the race track. While other teams may have still been working out the bugs on the new EFI system, the Fords came out of the gate strong for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season when they claimed both the pole and outside pole positions for the Daytona 500. Then they proved that was no fluke when Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth claimed the victory for the 500, NASCAR’s biggest race. Since then there have been plenty more victories in big races as the trophies pile up in the Roush Yates engine shops.
With all that early success, the obvious question is why didn’t FAST™ become a part of the new NASCAR EFI engine package after all? “We thought about it really hard,” Brown admits. “But the truth of the matter is that NASCAR teams demand a lot of support. And to give the level of attention that they would need would have meant us devoting practically our entire staff to that project. We have a lot of other customers and projects that we support, and we just weren’t willing to give that up to go racing in NASCAR. So we allowed that to go to someone else and we’ll continue supporting our current customers.”
So the next time you and your buddies start swapping stories during a bench racing session, you’ll at least have one cool story up your sleeve to show you’ve got the NASCAR inside scoop.