The garages at Iowa Speedway were filled with the cars of NASCAR's big names: Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, and Dale Earnhardt Inc.

It looked like any weekend of any Nextel Cup or Busch series race at any oval in America.

But it wasn't.

This was a face-off between the East and West series of NASCAR's new Grand National Division, two series that have suddenly emerged as the training ground for racing's stars of tomorrow, becoming what the Busch Series used to be.

The twin series are the logical next step for drivers moving up from a short track program in hopes of heading to a career in racing. Success in a touring series is part of the criteria most big-name teams look at when shopping for new drivers.

Gibbs fielded a car for Marc Davis and teen sensation Joey Logano. DEI had Jeffrey Earnhardt in a Chevrolet. Jasper Engines had a car for Scott Lynch. The Childress organization fielded talent through its longtime association with Bill McAnally Racing. Ginn Racing had Jesus Hernandez in one of its cars.

They were on the fast end of a grid of 53 cars that showed up for back-to-back races, first at Elko, Minnesota, then at the new Iowa Speedway. The list of entrants went from series regulars to guys who were running a Late Model at their home track just the season before.

"The big teams coming into the series is the biggest challenge for us little guys," says Mike Gallegos. "You can't compete with the resources Joe Gibbs has to play with. The downside is that it's tough to race against them, but the upside is that when you do well, there's a good chance someone's going to notice.

"Of course, when you have a bad day, you hope they don't even know you are here."

The fact some cars had to go home after qualifying is a turnaround for the series. Consider that just two years ago, all of NASCAR's touring series were on the verge of extinction. Fields in the Northwest and Southwest Elite tours were shrinking and things were even worse in the former Winston West, where the heavy cost of competition and travel made it difficult for all but the best-funded teams to make every race.

NASCAR had to do something radical or its regional racing program would die.

It killed off the four Elite divisions and radically changed the rules for the Grand National cars, instituting a lower-cost spec engine and allowing composite bodies to replace the more expensive sheetmetal pieces that traditionally clothed the cars. It even called for replacing the 110-inch wheelbase used on the former Cup cars with the 105-inch chassis used in the Busch Series.

Some drivers applauded the decision, while others howled at the cost of converting their cars to the new specifications. The change made the tour cars in the four Elite divisions instantly obsolete. A few of those car owners bought or built new cars for the Grand National grid, and some sought other places to race their equipment.

Drivers complained to NASCAR about the cost of converting to the new bodies and scrapping their old engines and long-wheelbase chassis.

Richard Buck, director of NASCAR's touring series, says the decision makers at Daytona Beach never meant to require a wholesale conversion of cars.

As a result, the grid at Iowa had old engines in composite-bodied cars, spec engines behind sheetmetal, new engines under new bodies, and old engines under steel bodies. All that, plus a mix of long- and short-wheelbase cars.

"Ultimately, NASCAR figured no one combination had an advantage that couldn't be mitigated with the rule book," says Kevin Green, spokesman for the West Series.

The rules equalize the potential of the long- and short-wheelbase cars by allowing the 110-wheelbase, former Nextel Cup cars, to be 50 pounds lighter than the shorter chassis.

"The shorter-wheelbase cars may have a slight advantage on short tracks," Buck says, "but the longer-wheelbase cars offer drivers a more stable aerodynamic platform."

The compromise "allowed a lot more drivers to get into the series without having to spend a lot of money," Green says.

One of them is Peyton Sellers, national champion of the 2005 Dodge Weekly Racing Series.

"I couldn't be here without the new rules," he says. "Two years ago this series was just too expensive."

Sellers started with a used Busch chassis from PPI Motorsports.

"It cost $10,000, but it was really not much more than a bunch of tubes and boxes full of parts," he says. "We decided to go with the sheetmetal body but opted for the spec engine."

The spec engines come from Provident Auto Supply, a North Carolina distributor owned by Gary Nelson, former NASCAR champion crew chief, Nextel Cup competition director, and retired head of its research and development center.

Price is $25,000 out the door, ready to drop into an engine bay and fire up.

"Some teams opt to buy the parts and build their own," says Mark Johnson, who works for Provident. "It saves them $2,500 and they have control over how they go together."

The spec engine begins life as a General Motors LS2 block, normally found in a Corvette. It uses GM heads and other off-the-shelf components. Buck says every manufacturer was approached about providing the spec engine platform, but only General Motors offered to sign a contract.

The script on the valve covers changes based on what chassis the engine is bolted to.

"There's not a lot of fancy stuff that goes into them," Johnson says. "But they put out good power and last a long time."

Buck says dyno numbers are almost identical for the spec engine and the traditional 18-degree built engine.

"Any variation is about what an engine builder would normally expect with motors coming out of his shop," Buck adds. "Generally, they are within about 1 percent of one another."

As the 2007 season opened, the spec engine was in about half the cars fielded in both the East and West Series.

It appears to be a big success in both areas. Matt Kobyluck relied on a spec engine to power his Mohegan Sun Resort Chevrolet to his biggest career victory, winning the prestigious NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown last October.

Sellers says the spec engine has cut his powerplant cost by 75 percent.

"They cost half as much as a built engine and they last twice as long . . . maybe more," he says. "They are good for about 1,200 miles, where the built motors need to come out after about half that."

"It's a good program," says McAnally, who fields more cars in the West Series than any other owner. "There were a lot of guys who couldn't afford to run this series until NASCAR changed the rules."

His BMR cars are a mix of steel and composite bodies

We don't simply take a steel body off a car," he says, "but if the body gets busted up enough that it needs major repair, we'll replace it with the composite body."

He says the body cost is about half of the price to shape and hang sheetmetal on a chassis.

A few teams cling to the steel bodies, saying they can put more rake into the car and generate more downforce with metal versus fiberglass.

McAnally also has switched over entirely to the new spec engine.

"They are competitive with built motors on everything but price, and then they are way ahead," he says.

He predicts more teams will be coming into the series in the next few years as the price of used Nextel Cup chassis goes down.

"With NASCAR switching entirely to the Car of Tomorrow next year, teams will be dumping their old cars just to make space in the shop," McAnally says. "They are going to go really cheap."

That's good news to guys like Sellers, who has only a single car.

"I'd like to have a second one," he says. "But it's not in the budget right now."

McAnally understands. It wasn't too many years ago he was a driver/owner of a one-car team.

"This is an expensive sport," he says. "But the changes NASCAR made have really helped keep the cost down. I know not everyone was happy with what they did, but the series is a lot better for the decisions they made."

Buck says one of NASCAR's goals is to maintain a stable set of rules.

"The feedback from everyone involved, from the one-car driver to the big teams, is not to mess with things," he says. "For the little guy, it is a case of keeping the sport economical. For the teams like Gibbs, they are so focused on the Chase for the Championship they can't afford to devote a lot of time and resources to a development series."

Buck says that by keeping a tight lid on the rules and controlling the costs, success won't necessarily always go to the team with the most money.

"The idea is to give drivers and crew chiefs and mechanics a place to learn and grow and develop their talent and skills, not to spend outrageous amounts of time and money," he says. Jfboone@aol.com

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