Dodge races against the clock
By Dave Rodman
SPARTA, Ky. (Dec. 4, 2000) Dodge and its armada of NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams are fighting the clock when it comes to developing an engine package in an obscenely short time frame. If that means running a Ford or GM engine in a Dodge chassis, they'll do it. In fact, make that "done it."
In six months Dodge's reborn NASCAR Winston Cup engine program has literally and figuratively covered a lot of miles. In the face of what may be the most daunting stretch -- the final 75 days leading up to the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 -- the manufacturer and its teams have encountered their share of problems, but they remain optimistic despite being somewhat sleep-deprived.
"Everyone would like to slow the clock down, but we know that's not going to happen," said Ted Flack, the engineer who heads Dodge's NWCS engine operation. "It seems like there's a lot of people working until about seven or eight, getting some dinner and coming back 'til midnight.
"Someone had said of Winston Cup racing, 'It's not a job, it's a lifestyle.' I can see what they were talking about. The hours are incredible -- but that's not uncommon."
Five teams plan to run Dodge Intrepid R/Ts in 2001. They include two cars from Ray Evernham Motorsports, two and in some events three from Bill Davis Racing, three from Petty Enterprises, two from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and one from Melling Racing. The sheer numbers involved is what is causing Flack's mind-boggling juggling match.
"Preparation work and assembly is not as much of an issue as parts preparation," Flack said of the program that is running wide open manufacturing race engines. He said by Speedweeks 2001 in February at Daytona International Speedway the manufacturer needs to have no less than 250 engines built, "15 open engines and six-eight restrictor plate engines per team.
"We have several machine shops running 24 hours a day, which is typical. They can do three to four cylinder heads a day on the CNC machines, which they simply set up and run. All they have to do is take the heads off the machine when they are finished."
The expected problems in the development of a completely new engine have been enough of a test. Just when it seems there's a speck of light at the end of what started as a 500-day tunnel, another bend obscures it.
Three Dodge teams spent some part of three chilly days last week testing at Kentucky Speedway. What had been designated primarily as an "engine durability test" ended up to be just that.
Davis' team performed an interesting back-to-back test as driver Ward Burton used a Dodge engine in his car while teammate Dave Blaney used a familiar GM SB2 engine in his Intrepid. While BDR chief engine builder Terry Elledge said the team acquired a good bit of car knowledge, the engine log suffered a bit when Burton's car's engine failed after about 350 miles.
"It was a good test for us," Elledge said. "We got in a lot of car testing we needed to, but we couldn't complete the same with the engine testing."
Elledge said the team went to the test with only one Dodge engine, which already had some mileage on it from a test at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and it had a water leak that the team was still trying to trace on Monday. Elledge said the engine overheated after losing water and warped the head.
"Performance wise I think we'll be OK," Elledge said of the Dodge engine. "We've done several back-to-back tests with the SB2 and the guys have said 'If we didn't see you change it we wouldn't know which one it was.' That's a huge deficit we don't have to overcome so that's a positive feature."
Among others, Melling Racing has also tested with Ford engines in its Dodge chassis, to acquire the same type of comparative data, not unlike a task undertaken by Ford teams when GM introduced the SB2.
"We're still working on the reliability and we have some small issues, which we expected to have a few crop up on the new engine design," Elledge said. "We are running the GM test engines so we can compare apples to apples," Elledge said. "We have a lot of data with those engines and we don't want to go somewhere with something that looks good back at the shop without having a chance to compare it to something so we know it's good.
"With the race season coming so hard, we're working on large batches of stuff at a time, to be ready for next year. We're a month or six weeks behind where I'd really like to be, but that's obviously one of those things that happens in a situation like this.
"The GM motor or Ford motors have a long evolution. I was involved in the development of the SB2 engine and we worked with it for two or three years before it was ever approved, from 1993 until it was approved in what, 1997?
"What's happened here is we're starting with something right now and going to the race track with it. We have to throw it out there and you'd like to have more time but right now we're still optimistic."
Keith Almond, head of Petty Enterprises' engine research and development department, said contrary to rumors, the engine in Buckshot Jones' Intrepid at the 1.5-mile Kentucky oval actually exceeded its target mileage by 75 before it failed. Almond said the piece was the only in-house Dodge engine the team had with it.
While the "failure" word might cause some to shrivel, even that fits with Dodge's current mode of operation. The manufacturer has been trying to find weak links in the program and systematically fix them. It has led them from the initial Talladega test in October when "We had four cars testing in Talladega and they all had motor problems," according to Ganassi Racing driver Sterling Marlin, to completing a larger number of laps.
"I know that they've been trying to break things just so they can figure out what might break," said two-time Daytona 500 winner Marlin, who has done the bulk of Dodge testing for Ganassi's team. "That's what's impressed me about Dodge. They say just run it till you break it and we'll make something else, fix it and try to make it better."
"Casey (Atwood) has been to Kentucky and they've run like 1,400 miles on a motor turning 9,200 rpms and they broke a rocker arm," Marlin said with a shrug describing an effort by Evernham's second driver.
"We have put in about 4,000 race miles," Flack said last week on the eve of the Kentucky Speedway test. "Two weeks ago one of the engines did 600 miles at Lowe's Motor Speedway, went back to the shop for a normal Winston Cup rebuild and it's at Kentucky."
That was the engine used by Jones.
"The test went good for us -- we went to gain some information and we did," Almond said. "I would have to guess 30 people have called me up to say they heard that engine didn't run 500 miles. But it was never intended to. We wanted to run 200 miles and anything over that was extra. As far as what we were looking to learn we accomplished everything we wanted.
"Two weeks before we had put 600 miles on that piece at Charlotte, which was a 500-mile race engine. We took the same block and cylinder heads to Kentucky merely as a test on some valve train components for a qualifying type deal. It was definitely not intended for a 500-mile race."
Flack said one of the latest generation engines had 1,500 miles on it and the program had also successfully completed a 500-mile test at Talladega. Flack said the development curve was typical in that there were also numerous failures.
"We did have some durability issues," Flack said last week. "We had a head gasket problem that we sorted through. Typically we have to do several iterations of head gaskets. In this case we had one gasket that actually failed and two or three that were seeping.
"Then we had a casting problem with the first batch of production blocks, in which a section of the water manifold was too thin."
Flack compared the problem with the blocks to a "crack in a hose," which was not a structural failure but resulted in water leaks. The problem graphically pointed out how the manufacturer would be able to respond to similar design flaws.
"Our biggest concern was why this had happened," Flack said, "because one of the previous designs had gone 1,500 trouble free miles. We brought people in -- we put an army on it -- at Evernham's shop.
"We are lucky in that we have a pattern shop, foundry and machine shop all devoted to this project. They modified the tooling, cast a new piece, machined it and delivered it within six days of finding the problem; and it was running four days later.
"From the time we found the problem, which was at the Talladega test right after the (Oct. 15) Winston 500 to having the new block up and running was two-and-a-half weeks."
"Our typical goal is to complete two-and-a-half times a race length with 100 percent reliability," Flack said of the arduous test process. Last week he reported "current generation" blocks had been delivered to all the Dodge teams, Dodge's informational pipeline was flowing and a warehouse in Charlotte, N.C., handling various parts and pieces was handling a constant stream of inventory.
While Elledge said he felt the program was about a month behind where he would be comfortable heading towards Speedweeks, Almond said he felt his operation was "85 percent to where we need to be to start the season."
"And 10 percent of that shortage is getting parts accumulated and that by no means indicates a shortage of parts from Dodge," Almond said. "A lot of it is getting pieces like pistons and rods, which was an in-house decision we had to make. If we were still racing Chevrolets (SB2 engines) we'd be at the same point.
"It's no secret to anybody that this engine is new -- basically six months old as far as live engine development -- and that means there are tons of things we need to be doing. I don't know if you are ever more than 95 percent of the way to where you want to be."
"We're really focused on durability," Flack said. "From May until now, we've been making sure everything runs and that all the bolt-on parts are OK -- if an alternator or fuel pump falls off you still don't finish…"
That is one problem experienced in testing that was easily solved. An alternator bracket was vibrating to the point that the alternator failed when a post broke off.
"We are going through the same type of process as takes place in the development of a production car," Flack said. "It's just that our time frame is quite a bit narrower."
Flack said in terms of power output, at this point the engine's horsepower ratings are "acceptable -- nobody is complaining."
"A few teams are making an awful lot of horsepower and we have a ways to go to get there," Flack said. "But performance development is a process that never stops."
Flack has stressed from the beginning that Dodge has enjoyed a very comfortable relationship with NASCAR through each step of the submission process for the approval of what he called a "basic Winston Cup engine."
"The submission process was very interesting but Dodge and NASCAR were completely open with each other every step of the way," Flack said. "We had meetings before we ever started to design this engine and we went through all the specifics."
"We reviewed a lot of dimensions with Gary Nelson," Flack said of the NASCAR Winston Cup director. "He knew what he wanted, which was a basic Winston Cup engine, and that is what it is. It is eight cylinders, with production bore spacing and crank and cam specifications and NASCAR-specified valve angles.
"We were given a window in which to create this engine package, not specific dimensions, and that was a nice scenario to work in."
While rumblings throughout the automobile industry have sparked rumors of cutbacks, Flack said that has not been an issue for Dodge and its NASCAR Winston Cup Series program.
"We're committed to this program and any talk of cutbacks has not been an issue here in engineering," he said. "This is a major event for Dodge."
And with that comes the accompanying pressure.
"We're looking at Daytona as being critical in terms of being all but ready," Flack said of the upcoming test schedule, which includes a possible short track test at Lakeland, Fla., in December along with definite dates at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Jan. 6-7 and Daytona Jan. 16-17. "I'm not sure exactly what words to use to describe it but it's huge -- everything has got to be perfect.
"A normal Daytona 500 has a lot of pressure contained within it, but for anyone involved with the Dodge program that pressure factor is right off the scale.
"For me, as an engine guy if they were all running at the end and the day was pretty much trouble free and everything works as it's planned I would consider that to be a success; but management wants to win." -nascar.com-