A few years ago, NASCAR touted its new vehicle design as the Car of Tomorrow. Now that car is finally being updated with technology that is, oh, about three decades old.
The big technological change in NASCAR this year is the switch from carburetors, which have been around since the earliest days of the sport, to electronic fuel injection (EFI), which became commonplace on street vehicles in the 1980s. NASCAR officials have loudly trumpeted this change as a momentous occasion for the sport.
In January, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said that "EFI excites the manufacturers and technology companies." Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, proclaimed that the switch "is a major initiative to us in our sport." NASCAR is so determined to make this a big, positive story that they reportedly fined Brad Keselowski $25,000 late last year after he publicly criticized the move to EFI during an appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
So what should the fans expect from this major move? How much will EFI change the racing on the track? Will NASCAR ever be the same again? For answers we turned to Robbie Reiser, a former crew chief and current general manager at Roush Fenway Racing.
"For the race fan, what they're going to see that's different ... " Reiser began, before pausing. "I can't really tell you what that is, other than we're running fuel injection instead of carburetors."
And there you have it. For the fans, the biggest difference between fuel injection and carburetors is that the cars will have fuel injection instead of carburetors. Other than that, fans, apparently, won't even notice the change.
Basically what's taking place is the fuel-delivery system for the cars is going from being largely a mechanical issue -- with a physical carburetor that mixes the air and fuel -- to being more computerized through eight electronic fuel injectors controlled by an onboard computer. So instead of having a group of crew members huddled underneath a car's hood, they'll now be gathered around a laptop. Wrenches and screwdrivers are being replaced by keystrokes.
"The things you used to physically do to the carburetor, you'll do that through the computer now," Reiser said. "That's about it. The sound, the acceleration, everything that makes the car go around the racetrack, fans won't notice a difference."
So why all the fuss about something that seems to be relatively innocuous? Well, it is changing the way certain things have been done in the sport for more than a half-century, and that's always a bit of a big deal. And for the crews that work on the cars, a significant amount of time and money have been spent testing the EFI system in an attempt to have it perfected by the beginning of the 2012 season. Because, as with anything in the sport, the teams that have done a better job adjusting to EFI might initially have a small advantage on the track.
"We've had 50-something years to fine-tune things with the carburetor. We've only had a few months of on-track testing with fuel injection," said crew chief Darian Grubb, who was with Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart last year and is now working with Denny Hamlin. "But it shouldn't be a big headache for anybody. It's all going to be about who understands how to apply it and has the least amount of problems in what they're doing to implement it. We all have to develop our own fuel-pump systems and things like that. You put all those packages together, and whoever does that the best is going to have the least amount of problems right off the bat."
Of course, every team will be trying to find ways to get an edge with EFI, and Grubb said the type of advantage could vary from team to team and track to track. Some might focus on fuel mileage at certain tracks while others might prefer to go for all-out power.
"I think there definitely will be that opportunity [to gain an advantage]," Grubb said. "Anytime you have new technology come into the sport, everybody is going to do it a little bit different way. Some guys will not have the power and the speed, but they can run farther on their fuel than anybody else can. There's always been that decision out there. Now it just makes it easier for each crew chief to individually tune his cars to do what he wants.
"It will take four or five years before everybody settles into one way of doing things. The performance on the track will determine that. Until then, there will be a lot of tweaking and learning. It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."
But for the most part, the change to EFI will barely cause a ripple, even for the drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he has noticed the car idles better at low speed because the fuel delivery "is controlled by a computer, instead of sloshing around the fuel walls and sputtering." When the biggest change a driver notices is how a car idles, it's probably not something worth getting angry about.
One of the few people within the sport who has been openly critical of the move to EFI is Brad Keselowski. During a one-on-one conversation last October, Keselowski ripped the decision, calling it "essentially a publicity stunt to appease people who don't get it."
"We have a lot of talent in the garage, and we've been able to run carburetors for as long as we have because of the talent that exists in the garage," Keselowski told SI.com. "We're switching over to fuel injection to appease those who don't get that, people who think NASCAR is behind technology-wise. [Street cars] switched to fuel injection because it made them easier to start up. We already have that. They're called engine tuners.
"There was no need to switch over. Basically I'm not a fan. We're going to spend all this money to appease a bunch of people who don't understand and don't get it. It's a gigantic waste of money in a very tough time."
While Keselowski might have some legitimate points -- points that he is unlikely to ever make again after being chastised by NASCAR -- the reality is that this is a minor change when compared to some of the technological advances the sport has made over the years. It will not be noticed at all by the fans, will barely be noticed by the drivers and will create only a few small issues in the garage area for the short term. And it will bring the sport fully into the 1980s.
"It's probably something they should have done a long time ago, because the production cars went there a long time ago," Reiser said. "I think some of the manufacturers laugh at this, because it's a lot of build up for something they've been doing for many years."