Wild Ride

The short and brutal life of a Nascar engine

Late last fall, about 50 miles east of Birmingham, more than 100,000 people gathered in the immense grandstands of Talladega Superspeedway. In the infield idled 43 glittering race cars lined up single file—each with an engine that generates more than 450 horsepower, costs roughly $60,000, and, these days, is obsolete almost from the moment it’s made.

Starting the Talladega race in sixth place, the No. 2 Miller Lite car, driven by Kurt Busch, was powered by an engine called D95R, built by Penske Racing. The D stands for Dodge, Penske’s engine sponsor. R refers to restrictor plate, an engine type used only at the largest tracks. The 95 indicates that this motor is the 95th, and last, in its series of engines. With a new generation already in limited use, D95R was about to become one more victim of NASCAR’s unrelenting arms race. Its short, brutal career—a mere 18 months, ending at Talladega—demonstrates how cutthroat, globalized, and technologically advanced this purportedly down-home sport has become.

By rule, all NASCAR teams use the same basic engine block, a specialized version of the iconic V-8 on which the sport, and car culture itself, was founded. D95R’s block (the eight chambers where the gas and air are compressed and ignited) was forged at the elite Grainger & Worrall engine works in Shropshire, England, then shipped to Penske’s shop in the Charlotte suburb of Concord. There, in a spotless room, the shop manager, Scott Corriher, led a team of nine engineers and about 45 production mechanics in the rigorous assembly-and-testing process.

D95R’s cylinder heads were pressurized with air and submerged in water to check for leakage. The team installed piston heads, connecting rods, rocker arms, springs, manifolds, and the hundreds of other parts that make any engine move. Then the newly assembled motor spent its first three hours of life running on a dynamometer, a device for measuring power output. Many of its parts had been manufactured on site, while some came from as far away as Germany and Japan. All were produced with the help of computers and robots, and all had to meet astonishingly tight specifications: any part off by even a few thousandths of an inch was discarded.

NASCAR engines weren’t always so complicated, or so expensive. In the 1940s, drivers in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing raced actual stock cars. Fans could watch a car win a race on Sunday and buy virtually the same model at a dealership on Monday. As the automobile’s popularity boomed in the 1950s and ’60s, engine innovation boomed with it. Soon, even shade-tree mechanics could build motors that blew away production models. NASCAR, meeting the public demand for more and more speed, started allowing teams more leeway in customizing motors. By the 1970s, racing engines were so heavily modified that only the bodies could legitimately be called stock.

Today, although referred to as Toyotas, Chevys, or Fords for marketing’s sake, practically the only thing NASCAR engines share with their showroom counterparts is a nameplate. Every one of the 3,000 or so parts that go into a race car is custom-designed and -built, mostly in the ultra-high-tech race shops clustered around Charlotte. Increasingly, in a sport where the margin of victory can be thousandths of a second, these shops are where races are won and lost.

Proved worthy, D95R was put in a Miller Lite Dodge chassis configured to create maximum downforce—the combination of air pressure and centrifugal force that would keep the car stuck to the pavement on the high-banked turns of Talladega’s track. Finally, the fully assembled car was loaded onto an 18-wheeler and hauled 350 miles to central Alabama.

Early in the race, Busch surged ahead, taking the lead on Lap 2. He stayed near the front until Lap 41, when another car bumped him, denting a right-rear quarter panel and causing a tire rub that inevitably led to a blowout a few laps later. The car spun counterclockwise, slid down the track, and careened wildly across the infield grass, bringing out a caution flag that froze the field. Busch was able to keep the engine fired and rumble to his pit. His crew performed some quick bodywork, put on a fresh set of tires, and had the car on the track again just one lap down when the race restarted. It took 100 laps for Busch and D95R, but they fought to the front again, reaching ninth on the final lap before being hit from behind and triggering an ugly 13-car wreck. They finished 30th.

Afterward, the Penske team hauled the mangled car back to North Carolina. D95R, badly damaged, needed a new oil pump and crankshaft. Even so, the engine would have been able to race again, save for the onward march of NASCAR’s technical progress. Long before Talladega, Penske had a new engine type in the works: the R6 series, 15 pounds lighter and with a more advanced cooling system. When NASCAR’s next season began in February with the Daytona 500, an R6 powered the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. And D95R, like any old athlete, was mercilessly cast aside.