In 2012, NASCAR moved from carburetors to Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI). This made people like me happy because my friends who denigrated NASCAR as hopelessly outdated and behind the times have one less argument to use against me. There were many purposes for the switch to EFI: one was precisely as I note above: to be more like current on-the-road cars.
But another goal was to increase the efficiency and durability of the engines. Although switching technologies always costs money, the idea is that it will pay off in the long run in fewer blown engines and thus lower ongoing engine costs.
Wait… 2012? And You’re Just Now Getting Around to It?
And there’s a very good reason. People tend to think change happens overnight.
Not with government, not with business, not with education and certainly not with sports. Bear with me: I will show you that I was right to wait.
CAVEATS: Scientific for “The Big BUTs”
- I got my info from two places: the wonderful, always reliable racing-reference.info and the equally wonderful and reliable team/driver pages at jayski.com. Many thanks to the folks who maintain these pages for a great source of information.
- I defined an engine failure as being when a car left the race early and the official reason was ‘engine’. I realize that this might miss some things like overheating, but I figure the numbers are small there.
- I looked at data from 2008-2016. I went back to 2008 because Toyota entered in 2007. Going back further would’ve complicated everything and I gave Toyota that first year to make a few mistakes. I couldn’t get around Dodge leaving, but you’ll see how that plays out.
- There are a couple cases where it wasn’t clear whose engine a car was running because of shenanigans. (It took me four tries to spell that word correctly!) For example, one year, they ran 10 races for Danica Patrick in the 10 car, which used a Hendrick motor and the rest of the time, they ran ECR. I tried to delineate these cases, but there were a few I couldn’t tease out.
IMPORTANT: Don’t use this post to suggest that some engine manufacturers are less reliable than others. I haven’t factored in here the number of cars each manufacturer supplied engines for.
Let’s say one company had 20 engine failures and one had 4. You’d think the first company had really crappy engines.
But if I tell you that the first company supplied engines for 10 teams and second only supplied two teams… They have the same percentage failure. All I’m looking at here is the effect of EFI on the sport as a whole.
Although I spent so dang-nabbed much time putting in the data that you can bet you’re gonna see more on this.
Let’s Go to the Data
Up, Down or No Change?
Let’s start with the obvious: Did the number of engine failures go up, down or remain the same after EFI was introduced in 2012?
Aha! Hopefully you now see why I waited to do this analysis. Interestingly, there was a pretty substantial increase in engine failures in 2012 and 2013, the first two years of EFI. If I’d run this analysis then, I would tell you that the effort has failed and engines have actually become less reliable and are costing teams more money.
But by 2014, it looked like teams were figuring this EFI thing out. The numbers of engine failures not only decreased but is now well below where they were in 2008-2011.
So the answer is: Yes, but!
EFI did make engines more reliable, but it took a few years to do it. Teams blew more motors in those two years, but these guys are pretty darn smart, so they’ve got it under control.
So We’re Done, Right?
When you get something that obviously pretty and pleasing, a scientist’s first inclination is to wonder what she did wrong.
We’re professional pessimists. It’s part of the essential nature of science: question everything until you’ve questioned it so much you can’t help but believe it’s true.
Remember: It is impossible to prove anything is true. It is only possible to prove the alternatives false.
So I dove a little deeper.
What if Failures were Mostly Due to Specific Suppliers?
I have a lot of conversation with myself. What if, I asked myself, some engine suppliers didn’t experience any increase in failures, and others had a lot?
So I re-ran the data and looked at the major engine suppliers. We’re talking: Penske/Penske-Jasper; Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines (ECR), Hendrick, Roush-Yates (and Yates/Roush). Here’s the comparison:
You’ll notice that the overall trend is about the same: Increases in 2012-13 and then decreases. I looked at the percentages and the major suppliers make up anywhere from 40-60% of failures. The minor suppliers make up 40%-60% of failures. (Since there are more engines running that are from major suppliers, this does say that that major suppliers tend to be more reliable. That’s a qualitative assessment, not a numerical one at the moment.)
What About Teams?
Major Teams tend to use major suppliers — but what if some of the lower-level teams were skewing the results because they were having a lot of failures, even with good engines?
Full-Time vs. All Teams
I did the analysis again and excluded any team that didn’t run full-time for two reasons
- Perhaps part-time teams had a disproportionate share of engine failures.
- Part-time teams tend to use the second-tier engine suppliers. Perhaps the second-tier engine suppliers have a higher failure rate.
This was interesting. There were far fewer blown engines in the part-time teams than I expected. There are a couple possible reasons for this:
- There are fewer part-time teams and each one runs fewer races, so there will be fewer overall failures just by percentage.
- Budgets for these teams tend to be low. Even though they may use second-tier suppliers, they are also WAY more careful than full-time teams competing for wins and championships. They get more races out of each engine and they just can’t afford to push it to the edge the way the Hendricks and Gibbs teams can.
Major vs. Minor Teams
Let’s look at only full-time teams, but let’s now exclude those teams that aren’t realistically in the running for a championship. I’m taking a few liberties here in including Gibbs, Roush, Childress, Hendrick, Petty, Penske, Woods Bros, Stewart Haas, Penske, MWR. You can argue that MWR, since it doesn’t even exist anymore, shouldn’t be included. But they were competitive at one point, so I included them. I didn’t include Red Bull, which we can argue about, but that only changes numbers by 2-3.
The overall trend continues to hold here, but it’s not as pronounced. Clearly, the major teams (who are or get their engines from major suppliers) didn’t suffer as much when the changeover to EFI happened.
Look at the shift from 2011-2012:
- Major Teams: 22 to 30 (136% increase)
- All Full-Time Teams: 36 to 53 (147% increase)
- Minor Full-Time Teams: 14 to 28 (200% increase)
A Corollary: How NASCAR Has Changed
A corollary is a sort of side road that is related to the main road. In science, the corollaries are often more interesting.
The results I showed you above sent me down a side road. I wondered: If the smaller engine suppliers were hit harder by EFI, did it make an impact on them in terms of their business?
Here’s the table of engine failures by manufacturer per year. Again, do NOT use this to say that Chevy engines are less reliable. There are more overall Chevies in the field.
- It’s a messy chart. Tell me. I had to try making sense of it.
- The red is Chevy, the blue is Ford, the green is Dodge and the Yellow Toyota.
- There are a number of smaller suppliers that have provided different brands of engines in small quantities to teams throughout the years.
- Note specifically Ernie Elliott (Chase’s uncle!) who was Dodge supplier and had to switch when Dodge withdrew.
- It’s a messy chart. So let’s try looking at the data a different way. Let’s break it out by major teams and remove some of the noise. See if things get any clearer.
What we see from this is a little more illuminating.
- Dodge’s withdrawal is evident here – to the benefit of Roush-Yates
- They went from two suppliers (GEM/RPM and Penske) to one when GEM (aka Evernham Motorsports) folded
- Penske switched to Ford when Dodge pulled out and now they use Roush-Yates engines like all Ford teams.
- Chevy has their own internal rivalry – the only manufacturer to have two major engine suppliers.
- Toyota has gone from three suppliers to one.
- Gibbs used to make their own engines, then merged their efforts with TRD in 2012.
- Triad started getting into Cup engines shortly after Toyota got into NASCAR, but they no longer supply engines at the Cup level, focusing now primarily on Truck engines
What Does It All Mean?
To put it bluntly, engine development has become too expensive for the little guys. I was listening to Kenny Wallace yesterday talk about how innovation was killing some areas of smaller levels of racing because you’re asking a guy who makes $40k a year to spend $20k making his own engine. People think crate motors are somehow low level, but Wallace argued they are the possible salvation because then the guy with the most money doesn’t always win.
He ended by saying that innovation belonged in NASCAR, not the short-track.
So what I found was doubly ironic: engine development in NASCAR has gotten so expensive that we’re down to a handful (well, four) engine suppliers, plus a few people who provide an engine here or there to a team that can’t afford to go with one of the big timers.
If you look at the smaller companies, like Triad, Ernie Elliott, Joey Arrington (which is now Race Engines Plus), Pro Motor Engines (which may or may not be the same thing as Pro Engine Motors?), they are doing well in lower-level series from ARCA and Trucks to other types of racing like NHRA.
But they aren’t supplying in Cup anymore.
The Economics of Engine Supply and Demand Have Changed
If you’re going to plow all the money into research and development, testing, and developing crew members to work with teams using your engines, you have to have enough volume to justify the money. No longer can a team build its own engines and be competitive. (Heck, even Gibbs gave up and the other teams spun off entire companies just for engines.)
The other side of this is that if you can’t afford one of the major suppliers, you probably haven’t much of a chance to win. This isn’t just due to EFI (or technology in general). It’s an overall economic issue that NASCAR has recognized by introducing the Charter system.
It’s just the way things are these days. (But a reminder as you’re doing your holiday shopping: Support the people who support NASCAR!)
Also published on Medium.