To Turbocharge, Or Not To Turbocharge, That Is The Question

Jimmie Johnson, 2nd quick in Brickyard 400 practice. [Father Dale Grubba photo]

Jimmie Johnson at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Father Dale Grubba photo]

Turk’s Tracks
A Few Loose Lug Nuts from Pit Row

By Gene Turk

The other day, I was reading a few articles in a recent Car and Driver Magazine. I came across an interview piece with A.J. Foyt. Now some of you may be a fan of A.J., some maybe not so much. But however you feel, the man has earned our respect for all of his racing accomplishments in many types of race cars. He was won on dirt, the Indy 500, road courses, and in Europe. I had the pleasure to watch A.J. race on the famous Milwaukee Mile in both a roadster and his rear engine Indy car. He was a hard charger that took no prisoners. One question that he was recently asked caught my attention. He was asked, “How has racing changed since the era that you raced in.” A.J. answered that in his era, you built the race car that you wanted. You were the engineer. You strived to always make improvements on the car through innovation. Now he said, you come up with a new idea, and the series quickly writes a rule to make it illegal. That got me thinking.

As long as I have been watching NASCAR, I’ve only known one power plant- an overhead valve, push rod, V8 with a four barrel carb. The only real change was just recently when fuel injection was added. BIG WHOOP! We have only had electronic fuel injection on our passenger cars for 30 years. Added is the fact that only a few select shops build the engines. They build X number of engines for the racing season, then sell those X number of engines to multiple teams. Now NASCAR will tell you that their rule package is meant to have a level playing field for the teams. To this, I give them an A+ for meeting that goal. The downside of this is now two race car drivers can stand next to their car and say “Look, my car is just like yours.”

By now you are thinking, what does this have to do with this article’s title? While I was watching the Rolex 24, the TV commentator make mention of a strange and unique sound coming from the Ford GT when the driver backed off of the throttle while entering a turn. He went on to say that sound was the electronics keeping the turbo spooled up at high RPM to prevent the dreaded “turbo lag” when the driver got back on the throttle. My mind flashed back to A.J. Foyt’s comments. Here was a prime example of how an engineering innovation solved an old problem without a rule saying, “You can’t do that.”

I got to thinking about how far turbocharging has come since the day my brother drove in with his 1963 Corvair Monza Spyder with its turbocharged flat six engine. Fun car! Looking back, I think that car gave an all new meaning to turbo lag. I took it out for a test drive after I did a full tune up on it. I pressed down on the gas, and then waited for something to happen, then waited some more. Then suddenly it was like the hand of God reached down, grabbed the back end of the car and gave me one heck of a push. Ah, good times!

I also realized that turbocharging is not just for race cars anymore. We are seeing more and more options for turbocharged engine in our passenger cars, SUVs and pickup trucks. Presently, two of my three vehicles are turbocharged and I’m a believer in turbocharging. I really enjoy the increase in the low end torque .that the turbo gives. As far as turbo lag goes, it’s almost non-existent. John Q. Public must be starting to feel the same. Ford said that they are dropping the V6 from the Mustang this year. That leaves the turbo four and the V8. Ford also reported that 60% of Mustangs sold in California are now with the turbo engine.

We now come to the part of my article that I call “WHAT IF.” How exciting do you think NASCAR would become if they threw away the engine rule book and started over with a clean sheet of paper? Bear with me for a minute while brain cells shift into overdrive. What if we agreed that 650 horse power is enough to provide good racing. Then we chose some displacement of a V8 push rod engine to get to 650 HP. Now we take a smaller V6, add a single overhead cam and a turbocharger to meet the 650 HP number. Very much like today’s Indy engine. Finally, an inline four, double overhead cam with a big turbocharger to make 650 HP. Just like an Offy engine from the 70’s. The teams could choose what power plant they wanted. Here’s where the fun begins. All three engines make 650 HP, but all three horsepower and torque curves are different. In theory, we now have different engines that have a slightly different performance on NASCAR’S wide range of tracks. Won’t this bring the excitement meter up a few notches? But everybody is now up in arms because NASCAR says you must have a level playing field. Again, just stay with me for another minute.

In the late 60’s into the mid 70’s, my wife and I lived only 10 minutes from the Hales Corners Racetrack in Franklin, Wisconsin. All through the summer, we would attend the Badger Midget Club night races at the speedway. During this period, you would see four different engines in the midgets. There was the tried and true inline four Offy, the flat four VW/Porsche, Fords little 260 V8 that was destroked to 221 and the Olds/ Buick 215 aluminum V8.

On any night, in any race, any one of these engines found their way into the winners circle. The track conditions was the great equalizer. Dry, slick tracks favored the high revving Offy or VW. A wet, sticky track favored the good low end torque of the V8. My point is that a level playing field does have to mean everything has to be the same in racing.

Well, it’s time to wrap this up and climb down from my soap box. My two remaining active brain cells are about to be on thermal overload.

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