You know folks, coming out of Dover this past weekend, the hot topic was once again fuel-mileage races.
It’s just fascinating to me. Quite honestly, every lap of every race is a fuel-mileage race. The smart guys, the ones that figure it out, they start calculating fuel mileage long before they get to the end of the race – at least they should. If you can stretch your fuel a little further every pit stop, it puts you that much closer to making it to the end of the race with a little more fuel than the other guy has.
Fuel mileage is on your mind from the time a race starts – it always was on ours. Back in the day I won a number of races on gas mileage, so Bill France came up to me one time and he said, “You gotta tell me something, how can you go that much further on a tank of gas than everybody else?” And I whispered in his ear, “Bill, I got more than everybody else.”
That was the whole trick back in the day, you had a 22-gallon cell and just like today they measured it and as long as that box fit in their dimensions then you were good to go.
The dimensions they had told them that if all those measurements were right, then the fuel cell should hold 22 gallons. But it was what’s inside the can that made the difference. We started using thinner bladders for the fuel cells. They were not unsafe, we didn’t do anything dangerous. I’m the biggest chicken in the world when it comes to a car catching on fire, that was the greatest fear I ever had and I think most drivers would tell you that. But we would use a thinner bladder in the fuel cell. The foam that we put in the cell to keep its shape, we would trim that down as much as possible. The valve that goes down in the fuel cell, the check valve, we would thin everything down and make everything in there take up as little space as possible. We’d still be safe, but we’d make it as thin and as small as you could possibly get away with.
From there, we just started working on everything imaginable. We used as much fuel line as we possibly could. We had enough fuel line it didn’t just go up through the car, it could go all the way around the car. All these things were legal at the time. And certainly NASCAR, when they’d find out what you were doing, they’d say, "the fuel line can only be so long from front to rear and it has to be a certain size."
All the things that we could possibly get that thing to hold a little, wee bit more fuel, we took advantage of. We weren’t breaking the rules. It was just that there were certain things that we could work on back then that, quite frankly, they probably can’t work on now.
But the point is, those are the details, those are the little things that give you that extra gallon of gas. Think about this. Most of these motors get four-and-a-half miles to the gallon, 4.2-4.5, and that’s pretty much running them on full keel, making as much power as you can make.
If that’s the case, and you had one gallon of gas more than everybody else, think about Dover. It’s a 1-mile racetrack. If you get four-and-a-half miles to the gallon, you had a little bit more fuel than everybody else; you’d be able to go four-and-a-half more laps than anybody else. So that’s all the little things you’d do to the car to help hold that little bit of extra gas and go a little bit further in the race.
Let’s fast-forward a little bit. Today you’ve got electronic fuel injection, and you have the electronic control unit. Today, the way these engines are managed, you have four fuel settings. You go “full rich,” you’re going to make full power. You go “full power,” you’re going to go from 4.5 miles to a gallon down to about 4, 4.1 maybe. And that’s if you make max power. You back it up to where you’re on lean, you run the engine pretty lean, you’re not going to make quite as much power, but you’re going to get your gas mileage up to four and a half or maybe just above.
Again those tenths of miles to the gallon are what makes a difference in making it to the end or not making it to the end.
And those are things that are determined before the race ever starts. You go to a driver, the driver’s always going to say, “I want all the power I can get.” And they have the ability to do that with the ECU, they can give it all the fuel, they can give it all the timing, and they can make max power.
If the engine makes 850 horsepower at max, that’s what you’ve got. They can go the conservative route, lean it down, back the timing out and maybe get four-and-a-half miles to the gallon, but you’re going to knock some horsepower out of the thing.
I think that’s where Brad Keselowski and his Penske Racing team really are smart. If you notice that No. 2 car in the race, Brad doesn’t always start off that fast. He’ll be in the top 10 or 12 for a long time, but as the race wears on and the track gets a little slicker, here’s another advantage to a little less power. You don’t get the wheel spin. The car is easier to control because it’s a little softer when you jump in the throttle, although you don’t jump in the throttle when you’re trying to save fuel, but when you have max power, the car’s harder to drive than when you back some of that torque and power out of the engine.
I think that’s part of the secret to Keselowski's team.
And then Brad and crew chief Paul Wolfe, they really trust each other. Brad’s figured out a way to run at 90 percent and still be pretty competitive while everybody else is running at 100. Just think about Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. All the sudden, with about 25-30 laps to go, Chad started hollering, “80 percent, 80 percent,” which meant he wanted him to run the engine at 80 percent power, which meant he had to back off the throttle at probably the start/finish line at Dover and coast off in the corner.
Well, Keselowski had probably been running at 90 percent the whole time, so he had fuel left and went on to take the lead and win the race.
So his strategy paid off. He was conservative all the way through the run to where he had enough fuel left to run pretty hard at the end of the run.
So it’s all strategy. It doesn’t just happen. And quite honestly, it’s intriguing. When you think about how these guys figure fuel mileage, how they figure how much fuel they’ve got, how far they can go and how the driver has to manage all that and how the team has to manage all that - it’s a big headache, but it’s very interesting, very intriguing, how everybody can have the same amount of fuel supposedly, but the management of the engine, the way you tune it, the way you program it and the way the driver mashes that pedal down makes the difference. They always said I was really good at not mashing the gas wide open all at once, you drove like you had an egg under your foot. That’s how you tried to drive.
Think about it. When you’ve got the throttle wide open, you’re burning fuel. When your foot is off the throttle, you’re not burning fuel. That’s things that the driver mentally has to focus on, concentrate on and then be able to get off the gas but maintain a fairly competitive speed and get max power.
At Kansas last year, Keselowski won the race on fuel mileage and he was kicking the clutch in, going down into the corner in Turns 1 and Turns 3, he was actually kicking the clutch in and free-wheeling off the corner, which meant the engine wasn’t doing anything. It was idling, so it was burning hardly any fuel.
Those are just little tricks. Every driver has tricks, every crew chief has tricks, the guys that build the cars and that make the fuel cells, that put all that stuff together, they’ve got little tricks.
And let me tell you, these tricks aren’t for kids. They really, really pay off and you saw what happened Sunday. Brad was able to go further than anybody else and he’s done it time and time again. That in and of itself tells you they know something that nobody else knows.
I’m sure everybody’s probably scratching their head right now, wondering what it is. Is it something that Paul Wolfe does? Is it something that Brad does? Is it something they know about managing? What is it?
I’m sure there’s a lot of guys right now trying to find the answer to that question.
Whatever it was, the one thing that stuck out to me that was the most obvious was a bunch of crew chiefs made bad decisions at the end of that race. Everybody had an opportunity to come in and top up. They would have been like Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin – they’d have had enough fuel that they could have run the wheels off that thing and not had to worry about running out of fuel. But they elected to stay on the track and it bit them.
So, fuel mileage – it comes up every now and then. It doesn’t come up every week, but when it does, it’s one of those things that you have to be prepared for and take advantage of and if you’re a smart crew chief like Paul Wolfe has proven to be, you’ll figure out a way to get a little more mileage, go a little bit further.
It’s miles per gallon, not miles per hour.
Now we’re headed down to Talladega Superspeedway for this week’s race. It should be an interesting weekend. It’s a race where everybody says this is a make-or-break weekend. This could be the game changer. It’s a wild card.
We all know what happens – we always have the Big One. You don’t want to be in it. There are two strategies: run up front and hopefully stay out of trouble or run way back where you can miss the trouble. Those are the two strategies we’ll see played out Sunday.
This could be a great weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He loves Talladega, he‘s had a lot of success there. So did his dad. They always said about his dad that he could see the air. Not sure I agree with that, I think he maybe could feel the air, but whatever it was, Dale Junior is the heir apparent and this weekend he needs to take advantage of the Earnhardt Factor.
If he can see the air, if he can feel the air, he needs to do it this weekend because he needs a victory if he’s going to stay in contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.