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Richard Childress Racing Building NASCAR Winners
What does it take to win a NASCAR championship?
By Doug Kaufman
What does it take to win a NASCAR championship? A good driver is important, naturally. Top sponsorships certainly help out. An understanding owner? No question.
But of course, in the pages of this magazine, it’s obvious what makes NASCAR champions – the 750 horsepower engine that propels these elite drivers to Victory Lane. And behind each of these engines is an engine builder or team dedicated to getting the most power NASCAR will permit.
Danny Lawrence of Richard Childress Racing Enterprises Inc. in Welcome, NC, is one of the most recognized engine experts building motors for NASCAR Winston Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division, teams. Formerly the head engine builder for Dale Earnhardt’s #3 GM Goodwrench Monte Carlo, Lawrence is now assistant engine department manager and director of race track engine operations for all of the Richard Childress Racing teams.
He is also the reigning Clevite Engine Parts Engine Builders Showdown champion and, due to his blistering final round build time of 20 minutes, 26 seconds in the Showdown you could almost excuse a bit of self-important bragging. After all, he built the Intimidator’s engines, for crying out loud.
Despite these lofty credentials, Lawrence refuses to take credit for the success of RCR’s engine program. "I’m just one person – the entire Richard Childress Racing program is a team effort," he says. "I’m just part of it."
Lawrence points out a key myth of modern NASCAR racing that wasn’t made clear in movies like "Days of Thunder," and is still believed by much of the public: at the upper levels of racing, a small shop with a skeleton crew just can’t compete. "We’ve gotten so big that one person can’t do it all alone anymore," Lawrence says.
The RCR Story
Richard Childress drove his own NASCAR Winston Cup car from 1969 to 1981, recording six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes. When he retired as a driver in 1981, he named young Dale Earnhardt to finish the season in his car. Since that time, RCR has recorded 74 NASCAR Winston Cup Series victories, six Winston Cup championships, 13 NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division wins, one Busch Series championship, and 20 wins in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with a championship season. Childress is the first owner to capture championships in all three of NASCAR’s top series.
The RCR engine program builds motors for the three NASCAR Winston Cup Series cars (the #29, #30 and #31 cars) for up to six NASCAR Busch Series Cars (#09, #2, # 3, #21, #29 and #59 cars). Additionally, motors are built on a contract basis for other teams. "We will be building the restrictor plate race engines for the #32 PPI Motorsports Tide Pontiac in 2003, and we build the restrictor plate motors for Dave Marcis’s #71 car as an experimental challenge," says Lawrence. "We’re always looking for ways to make our main focus – the Cup and Busch cars – more successful."
The restrictor plate engine deals that RCR makes with other teams provide valuable research for the "home" teams. "The engines we build for Marcis usually come out of our R&D department, not the regular RCR Engine department," Lawrence explains. "Dave understands that. It allows us the chance to test parts and procedures that might find their way to our other engines. But the deal with PPI is different. That team is running for a championship, so they’ll get the same engines we use."
Lawrence explains that each RCR team has an engine builder who assembles motors just for that team and a track tuner who works exclusively on that car. "When we go to a restrictor plate track (Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway), the #32 will have the same staff – they’ll be an extension of our engine department."
PPI is developing its own open motor program and Lawrence says the relationship between the two camps will be good for both teams. The program will help them because they’re just starting out, while we’ll gain additional development information."
If you’re guessing that the competitive nature of NASCAR competition will surely mean PPI won’t get the best engines possible, think again, says Lawrence. "We have a one percent rule in our shop: if the motor we build isn’t within one percent of the standard of all the other motors in its class, it doesn’t get used. On an 800 horsepower standard, that means each engine has to be within 8 horsepower. A restrictor plate motor produces 450 horsepower, so our rules state that they’ll all be within 4.5 horsepower of each other. We’ll pretty much give them an open book on our engine program – but only for restrictor plate races."
But how can RCR, which races Chevy Monte Carlos, build for PPI, which will be racing a Pontiac Grand Prix in 2003? "All GM cars use the same basic 350 cubic inch small block engine block and cylinder head configuration. The headers, air cleaners and carburetors are all the same between the Chevy and the Pontiac. It’s the chassis and body configurations that are different.
Lawrence says his job used to be hands-on, focused on building an engine, he now has a managerial position. "I oversee all of the Winston Cup cars on the chassis dyno to see that they meet within reasonable power levels – we want to be sure that all of the cars are on the same page. Plus, I serve as the liaison between all of our teams. If we have a problem with one car I’ll let other guys know about it. I’ll also oversee the tuning requirements of each car. And I take care of all the odds and ends."
Road To Racing
Although Lawrence won the Clevite Engine Builder Showdown in record time, assembling a competitive NASCAR race motor takes considerably more patience. Each race engine takes almost a full week to prepare and involves multiple high-tech steps.
"We send each block to our Okuma Technology Center where it’s carefully measured. The cylinder bores are checked, the cam tunnel centers, the main tunnel centers, the lifter bore locations, everything is measured to be sure it’s in the right location. Then after it is sonically tested to make sure there aren’t any thin parts, we’ll cull out the bad cores," Lawrence says.
"Then, we start cutting. We do a lot of lightening of the block both inside and outside. Cutting the decks, making sure everything lines up, tapping all the holes, putting new dowel pins in, we pretty much turn it into a special RCR block that fits our heads, oil pans and water pumps. We look at what we need to run and turn it into the animal we want it to be," Lawrence explains.
After the block goes through the Okuma CNC machines it is delivered to the team engine builder. It is bored, honed and deburred and prepped for assembly. The bearings, pistons, rods and crank are all prepared, measured and documented. Piston rings, connecting rods and main bearings are then assembled by hand and installed. Everything is measured and balanced and checked several times for accuracy. After assembly, the motor is run on a dyno or in an on-track test to break it in.
"After seasoning it, we pull it all apart again to check for problems with the block," says Lawrence. "We look for passages that may have hairline cracks and other things. We analyze it and rehone it, because all of the parts move around a little bit following their heat cycles. If any one of our checks and procedures doesn’t pan out like it should, the motor will not go to the track."
Heat cycles are very important measures in NASCAR racing say experts, and are a much more reliable measure of an engine’s life. "We’ll run a block for about 3,500 to 4,000 miles," Lawrence explains, "but they’re not necessarily track miles. In fact, they may not be miles at all. We use a Spintron machine that turns an engine’s crankshaft at any rpm we desire. It doesn’t actually run, but we can simulate any race we want. The engine won’t have any real miles on it, but it will have a lot of cycles"
The CNC machining operation means that each RCR engine is virtually identical. Still, each engine builder has his favorites. Even if a motor makes the same power on the dyno, Lawrence says his builders develop an affection for particular engines.
"It may have won a race or it has been a particularly successful motor – the fact is, when it’s time to take some of these engines out of the system, it can be kind of sad. The engine guys feel like these are their children," Lawrence says.
Through talent and testing, Lawrence says RCR teams are confident their engines are capable of producing the necessary on-track performance each week. "When it goes into the car, we’re really confident that will be the engine that runs the race. We’re able to tell pretty closely where we are before we leave for the track."
Thanks to NASCAR’s "one-engine" rule that took place after the first race of this season, teams no longer qualify with one high horsepower engine and switch to a more durable engine for the race. Lawrence says extensive off-season development has paid off, and engine failures – while not eliminated – have been fewer than expected.
"At the beginning of the season, everybody babied their motors because we weren’t sure what they’d do. We’ve found out how good the transition to the new motor program has been and teams are abusing their motors just like the old days!"
Following each race, motors are torn down and examined for excessive wear. Blocks are reused until, as Lawrence points out, they’ve reached the 3,500-4,000 mile mark. Crankshafts will be reused. Cylinder heads will be used in up to four races. The connecting rods, pistons, rings, camshafts, lifters, valves, alternators and starters are all new going into each race.
As stated earlier, the difference between restrictor plate and open engines is horsepower. The NASCAR restrictor plate chokes nearly 300 horsepower in these engines, so the parts used are different than in an open motor. But surprisingly, the motors used at all the other tracks are very similar.
"In most of our engines, the pistons, rods and cranks are the same," says Lawrence. "The big difference you’ll see in an engine for, say, Bristol (a half-mile high-banked oval) and Atlanta (a 1.5 mile intermediate track) are in rpm ranges. At Bristol, the rpms may fall down around 6,300 and run up to 9,100. We need a lot of torque in that range. In Atlanta, we’ll likely never see that 6,300 rpm – the cars are pretty much run flat-out. So we’ll move the power band up to the higher rpm range."
Tuning the engine for a particular track, says Lawrence, involves changing camshaft, springs, intake manifolds, carburetors and headers. "The key is finding the combination that will pull really hard when we need it to."