Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
(Re) Building a Path to Victory
Dan Wheldon can't feel it, but every time he goes to a different event, he's likely firing up a Honda Indy V-8 engine that's just been taken apart and put back together again.
Rebuilding engines is a critical step in keeping Honda competitive - and winning races - in the IRL IndyCar Series. After almost every race, engines are shipped to Honda Performance Development, Inc. headquarters in California and carefully taken apart, their parts measured and inspected, and then re-assembled with fresh parts. When they get back to the track, they're as good as new.
"To be honest, these Honda engines are so good, I can't really tell the difference," said Wheldon, who has finished fourth in the last two IRL races in the Andretti Green Racing No. 26 Honda/Dallara. "From the start of a run to the end, the engines don't lose much if any performance or horsepower, so when I get one back that's just been rebuilt, I really can't feel any difference from the one before."
On average, the experts at HPD take apart and rebuild each IRL engine every 325 to 350 miles. Why so often?
At extreme conditions, like constant running at 10,000 rpm during a race, contact points in the engines begin to show signs of wear. If those contact points - piston rings, camshafts, bearings, valve guides and valve seats - aren't replaced frequently, the engine's performance will decline.
"Each time we rebuild an engine, it increases the power slightly," said Glenn Williams, HPD's engine shop supervisor. "Basically, we take the engines out of service, disassemble them and make sure none of the components have failed. Usually what we see is minor wear and tear. As a racing engine gets more miles, it will degrade."
The life expectancy of an engine is about 500 miles, but most are rebuilt before they reach that figure. As technicians take apart an engine, key parts are measured and crack-checked. Anything that shows sign of damage or excessive wear is taken out of service and replaced with a new component. The previously used parts are remachined to specifications, and the rebuilt engine is then tested on a dynomometer. If it meets HPD's guidelines, it is shipped back to the team.
"You could keep running the engine with worn parts," said Robert Clarke, general manager of HPD. "But you will see a marked decline in performance. Between zero and 600 miles, you'll see a fairly flat decline. You might lose two or three horsepower. But after that, you'll see a more sharp decline in performance, and eventually, the engine would fail."
The engines for the three Andretti Green Racing entries in the IRL IndyCar Series - Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta - are routinely shipped to HPD headquarters in California. The rebuilding process involves about 100 hours of labor for each engine. It isn't work as glamorous as that of a trackside engineer, but it is essential to Honda's success on the racetrack.
"We try to keep this job as much 9-to-5 as possible," Williams said. "It's true we work more behind the scenes, and we don't really get as much recognition as those who work at the track, but our guys are very much a part of Honda's race team.
"We all work as a team … it's the only way to win." Each team has about seven engines per driver. On a normal race weekend, each driver has three or four engines at the track - a qualifying engine, a race engine, a spare and another for the backup car. While the race is on, the other engines in each teams' rotation are back at HPD being rebuilt.
"It really is a critical part of the process," Wheldon said. "I feel like we have the best engines available, and part of the reason why is that so much attention is paid to detail back at the shop."
As the IRL season approaches the season finale Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway - and Tony Kanaan is positioned to win the IRL championship for Honda - the technicians and engineers at HPD are working overtime to keep Honda Indy V-8s fresh and winning.
"We only have a certain amount of engines in the pool of engines we use," Clarke said. "It's very important to know how those engines will be used over the course of the season. You have to fill the pipeline. You have to maintain them on a certain schedule in order to meet the needs of the engine shop, yet meet the demands of the race teams."
And meet the demands of winning.