Toyota NASCAR Truck team forced to adopt spec engine after rules update
Hattori Racing Enterprises had gamed the system in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, but a series of technical regulations revealed after the playoffs started in August forced them to change their strategy for the final three races of the season.
Brett Moffitt and the No. 16 team have won four times in 21 starts. By itself, that is not wholly remarkable, but it is notable when considering that crew chief Scott Zipadelli had opted to run the Toyota house engine for the entire campaign up until Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
The 2018 Truck Series season is the first to feature the NT1 spec engine, a derivative of the Ilmor 396 used in the ARCA Racing Series. While several teams have experimented using their manufacturer’s engine for a race or two, Hattori had used a TRD motor built by Mark Cronquist for the entire campaign to great success.
However, following the playoff-opener at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, NASCAR released a gear ratio that Hattori Racing believes disadvantaged them in favor of those running the NT1.
NASCAR then performed a dyno test following the September race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, resulting in the sanctioning body providing the NT1 engines an increase of 8-10 horsepower for the championship-deciding events at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
Very hard to watch @NASCAR_Trucks race tonight. First truck race in years that we have NO engine in. Engines are not good enough any more because of rules.— Mark Cronquist (@MarkCronquist) November 3, 2018
Zipadelli believed the rules update disrupted the parity established throughout the season. After all, Johnny Sauter has won six times with the NT1 and Moffitt has won four times with the TRD.
He believed that any change, especially those made once the playoffs started in Canada back in August, only served to undo the work they’ve put in all season. Further, he believes that the rules should have been made clear and consistent before the playoffs started so that championship-eligible teams could prepare accordingly instead of having to react.
It’s a sentiment that Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson agreed with.
"With the latest adjustments that NASCAR made to the NT1, that effectively took any consideration off the table to run the OEM engine completely unfeasible," Wilson told Autoweek on Saturday. "With a Toyota driver in the Round of 6 and vying for a championship, we weren't going to let that team and driver suffer the consequence of running an uncompetitive engine, so we stepped in and got them an NT1...
"What we found objectionable was the timing of this change as much as anything else -- to do it after the playoffs had started. That wasn't ideal and took us by surprise."
For its part, NASCAR says it has been largely satisfied with the competitive balance between the engines this season, although Truck Series director Brad Moran conceded that it has been an evolving process throughout the year.
"We're very happy with the balance and the parity," Moran told Autoweek last week. "We met last year and into the fall with the OEMs to come up with a plan. These engines are different and have different outputs, so we targeted lap parity...
"We went back after each race ... broke the data down into superspeedway, short tracks and road courses. We went back after Daytona and adjusted Talladega. We gave the OEMs a bump for Talladega. We went to Atlanta and were comfortable. Short tracks, we were comfortable. We were at a good place with the balance."
And then the playoffs started.
NASCAR targets an RPM number of 8,200 for all Truck Series engines and saw the TRD power plant exceed that mark after Las Vegas, leading to the R&D team working towards re-establishing the balance.
Moran stated that the timing of such an announcement was forecast to teams during the offseason. Additionally, Moran says the NT1 has a locked development path since it is a spec engine, while the TRD motor can still be developed throughout the season, providing a need to regulate.
"We knew the OEMs would gain because they always do," Moran said. "It's an open engine and NT1 has a locked development path. We toned that engine back to match the OEMs because they were (initially) based on 2017 numbers, because that's all we had going into the season
"So, when we saw the data (from Vegas) and saw the gain, we had to make an adjustment to ECU, which is something we told them that we would do at the start of the season. When we met with all the manufacturers last year, we told them the OEM engines were revving higher than what we intended and we working to get them down."
Wilson didn’t totally disagree on that point, suggesting that the entire ordeal was a pitfall of the "balance of performance" atmosphere that is most prevalent in sports car racing but certainly applicable to the various Truck Series engines this season.
"He's right in the sense that the NT1 is a spec engine by definition." Wilson said. "It's an engine that is not developed. The OEM engines are open for development. I happen to know, because Mark Cronquist is a partner of ours, that the amount of development put into the OEM engine is quite limited.
"A BOP-type process is inherently difficult when you have ongoing development in place. If you could come up with the perfect balance of performance and lock down any development then, in theory, you might have a successful balance of performance. But there was certainly some development in the OEM engine."
But the main point of contention, once again, is that both Hattori and Toyota felt like such a decision should not have been made once the playoffs began. Wilson said they were never truly satisfied with the dialogue on that front.
"I don't think we got a clear reason on the timing," Wilson said. "The rationale is that they tested the engines after Vegas. But why they waited to implement it the week of Martinsville, I honestly don't know."
It’s also worth noting that Toyota was the most vocal holdout against the Truck Series' moving to a spec engine platform for the 2019 season. Wilson didn't mince words when it came to his conviction that manufacturers should have OEM engines under the hood.
Having Hattori run a TRD motor, even if it were mostly due to budgetary reasons, was a point of pride for Wilson and Toyota. The manufacturer provided the funding for Hattori to purchase the NT1 spec engine it used at Texas.
"We're grateful for how they've operated this year," Wilson said. "They hung in there with our OEM engine and we're going to continue to support them, respective of whichever engine they run the remainder of the season. We would like nothing more for Brett to be standing in victory lane at Homestead.
"Candidly, I don't think there is a lot of respect forwarded to that race team. They are a single-car team that historically has not been at the front of the grid. We know what Brett can do and we've worked with Scott... and we're going to continue to support them."