Even Ford admits Doug Yates is nervous. As the leading Ford engine builder and boss man at Roush Yates, NASCAR’s new Knockout Qualifying will increase the laps run for qualifying as well as running much harder laps.
The new format is similar to F-1 qualifying where numerous cars take to the track and run laps almost identical to racing. Depending on the track, there will be multiple sessions of Knockout Qualifying, turning a lot more than the usual two/three laps for single car qualifying. The new rule goes into effect this weekend at the second race of the year at Phoenix. The first race, Daytona used their usual ‘Daytona 500’ qualifying, with timed laps and two qualifying races to set the field.
But back to Doug, who, like other engine builders, doesn’t know what to expect from the new format. It’s not like he hasn’t done his homework, though. Yates worked extensively in the off-season with his and other Ford teams to be as prepared as possible. Yates believes the format will definitely impact engines but still, there is that aspect of the unknown, “I would say the engine guys are more nervous than anybody,” says Yates.
“This is a huge change for us,” he explains. “Usually, you cool the water down and you heat the oil up. You want the oil to be as hot as you can get it and as thin as possible to run a couple laps. We don’t know how these engines react to this scenario. This is all new. How many runs are you going to make? How hot will the oil get (which drives the water temperature), and how do you get it cooled back down? ”
There are a lot of factors here, Yates explains. “What we want to do, and obviously everyone is here watching and we will learn a lot after today’s session, but as racers, we want to make sure we do the best job we can for qualifying (Phoenix). We are a little nervous and want to make sure we understand the scenarios and we don’t want to damage the engine. This is our race engine with NASCAR’s one engine rule. We will be paying a lot of attention.”
When asked just what has been done to prepare, he says, “There has been a lot of testing on the part of the teams to understand temperature management mainly. That information has been transferred back to the engine shops and we run tests at the shop to try to simulate those scenarios and try to make good decisions for the best power and reliability of the engine for this weekend and then, when we go to Las Vegas, it will be a whole other scenario. It will be a mile-and-a-half race track and the engine will get hotter over that period of time. The only thing constant in NASCAR right now is change. And the people that react to it the fastest have the advantage and, hopefully, because we have done our homework, we are part of that group.”
Along with supplying motors for the top Ford teams, Yates works with other teams as well. What has he told them to do? Showing the extent of the unknown factor, he says that is really a team decision, each team has to make the best call for their situation.
“The thing that we can relay is the information we have today, and a lot of that is what happened with Nationwide qualifying in Daytona. We were watching that very closely and our guys struggled with that. They struggled with making decisions on when to go out and what groups to get with. There was a big learning curve there. This is a totally different scenario but that is really a team decision. I think the fact that the cars are nosed in when the qualifying session starts there will be some interest and excitement about if you want to be first on the track and how many laps it takes to get your fast lap here at Phoenix. You can run more than a couple laps here it seems until the tires come in. Those are really team decisions though, and the engine guys are just sitting back reminding them to not overheat the engines and don’t turn it too many RPM and make sure you live within the limits of the engine. That is really our job.”
So, just what did Doug and his team learn at Daytona?
“I think we learned there that strategy is very important and you have to have a fast race car,” says Yates. “You have to be very strategic about when you go out, who you go out with, especially at Daytona and Talladega. It is going to be exciting. I applaud NASCAR for continuing to push the limits of change in our sport. The interest of the fans is as good as we have seen it. We wanted to win Daytona and had really fast cars down there. I congratulate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports for doing a nice job. We were close and we want to continue that momentum into Phoenix.”
What a lot of folks don’t know is that Doug is well versed in areas other than motors on his race cars. When asked about the new aero package for 2014, he said, “I think that there is a big learning curve. These cars have a lot more downforce and will carry a lot more speed. That is going to change the life cycle of the engine, the duty cycle of the engine and what that see’s. These first few weeks, there will be a lot of work going on to make sure we are reacting to the changes. The shops are busy right now and everyone is paying a lot of attention. The car guys have done a lot of nice work and we are really looking forward to this weekend to see where we are at.”
UPDATE: Judging by the qualifying and race results in Las Vegas, Doug Yates must be resting a little easier. The Fords of Brad Kesolowski and Joey Logano qualified on the front row, and Kesolowski capitalized on a fuel strategy call by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew at Hendrick Motorsports to take the first win of the season for Ford power.