Motor Head #9: Does Racing Really Improve The Breed?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Marc Cook's ears are still buzzing from a long weekend at the Reno Air Races, where all sorts of internal-combustion mayhem takes place. Some of it may actually trickle down to average GA Joes.

Motor Head

Stand on the spectator line at the Reno Air Races and the sense of "calm before the storm" permeates the atmosphere. A few minutes before, we spectators watched the Sport-class aircraft line up, start engines, taxi way down to the east end and then take off to the west, making beautiful airplane noise and flying low to gain airspeed. A few minutes later, if you know where to look, you can see the gaggle of eight airplanes -- nine counting the safety ship (a Lancair IV-P owned by the kit company's boss Joe Bartels) -- swoop down the chute toward the first pylon. The sense of speed is palpable even from this vantage point a couple of miles away. The sleek specks sort themselves out and seek the racing altitude that, on the instrument, must just say, "On the deck."

So far, so ho-hum. But then as they round the last pylon before the show-line straight, the sensation of velocity has just an eyeblink to settle in before the noise arrives. It's a combination of deep, gutteral warbling -- one that definitely comes from the same family as your average Bonanza but with much more authority -- and a brutal whine of the prop tips slashing the air. The next airplane in line might be the V-12-powered Thunder Mustang, which sounds like a hyperactive NASCAR stocker. The airplanes round the last pylon banked at 70 degrees or so and shoot off into the distance.

Those of us with an ounce of sympathy for things mechanical may actually wince at what those engines are doing.

But it's racing, where second place is really only the first loser.

Sport Class Marketing

And for the last couple of years, engine developments in the Sport class -- a category open to series-built airplane kits that can be, at least theoretically, purchased, built and licensed as Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft -- have blossomed. Why? Because someone has decided it's good for business.

It's an argument so often used by marketing and hyper-enthusiastic product-development types attempting to put one over on the accountants that I wonder if it still works. It goes something like this: We here at Big Engine Company need to invest in a racing team, provide them with free engines, offer one-on-one technical support, fly company people (or valuable and thus highly paid contractors) all over the globe to make sure these free engines are doing their best. Said free engines are going to be pushed very, very hard, often right to the point of breaking. When our sponsored racing team wins, glory will descend upon us. Pilots everywhere will want our engines, and use that desire to influence purchase decisions ranging from which ball cap to wear at Oshkosh all the way to which new airplane to buy based on the color and parentage of the engine under the cowling. Yes, it will be costly, but we'll really make a name for ourselves.

Of course, the harsh reality is often that such a hard-driven engine may well blow up in a most spectacular (and public) way, suggesting that the Big Engine Company's engineers (never the consultants) are perhaps less able to ask multiples of horsepower from their powerplant than they thought was possible. Worst of all is that the public perception of success is often put down to the pilot, Mr. Big Attachments, performing heroically in the heat of battle. Should there be failure, it's because the Big Engine Company engine just isn't cutting it.

No risk, no glory, eh?

In fact, where this whole race Sunday/sell Monday theory begins to gather itself up again is if the Big Engine Company can actually pursue development of its product through racing. That is, does the R&D put into making these short-fused engines produce race-winning power actually improve the breed overall? Can lessons learned at the track -- be it around the pylons or on some asphalt course, as for cars -- really make a difference in the everyday product?

The answer that applies to so many things also applies here: It depends.

Lycoming and Nemesis

Lycoming is making a big, big deal about applying race-fettled technology to production engines, and by that I don't necessarily mean the roller lifters that have become standard in the larger engines. (This technology is much more for durability than performance, as the mushroom-style lifters were hardly taxed -- dynamically speaking -- by the low revs and mild cam-profiles of the off-the-shelf engines.)

No, Lycoming's promotes its involvement in racing as marketing-driven: "We need to be in front of our customers," says Lycoming general manager Ian Walsh, "and we need to be close to them to obtain their feedback. But we also need them to know that we're pushing ahead with new technology."

Just what sort of new technology? Let's use Jon Sharp's Nemesis team as an example. Lycoming is heavily involved in this project, supplying engines, technology and support to Sharp's pursuit of a Reno Sport-class win. It's a linkup that, should Nemesis turn its great potential into class wins, will pay back for Lycoming. So far, it hasn't amounted to a lot. (The short version of the story is that Sharp and crew have been fighting airframe niggles on Nemesis. A mysterious vibration caused Sharp to abort runs at Reno. The evidence of the problem didn't arrive until the last race on Sunday, when a photographer caught the right-hand gear doors open; and not just a little bit as Sharp and crew believed, but some six inches. "We're lucky we didn't lose the doors," Sharp says.)

FADEC Ideas

In any case, Sharp has at the beaky end of Nemesis a pantload of power. When I went to visit the shop early this summer, the airplane had a "very special" TIO-540 that benefited not just from massive turbos but also from a fully electronic engine-control scheme. (I was asked not to talk about it and wondered if I should have kept quiet at Reno after I found out that the team had reverted to a "mechanical" version of the engine for the races. Only then did I see the electronic "big" engine in the Lycoming booth for all to see.) Neither Lycoming nor Sharp will say what's inside the top-form engine, but admit that minor tweaking -- likely to be larger valves, reformed ports and a different cam -- gets the middle engine to 500 horsepower without too much effort. This is on around 45 inches of boost at 2900 rpm; this engine speed is what most of the top-line racers are using because it's at the limit of what the prop will absorb efficiently.

Just an aside on the potential of the Nemesis NXT airframe. With a totally stock TIO-540 out of a Malibu Mirage, Kevin Eldridge in his NXT called Relentless, took third in the final Gold race at 343 mph, remarkably close to John Parker's V-12-powered Thunder Mustang (357 mph) and the perennial Sport-class winner Darryl Greenamyer's Lancair Legacy at 365 mph. Pitlane rumors have the top two airplanes' engines at well over 550 horsepower. Horsepower in racing is just about everything.

Back to Nemesis. Lycoming is taking the stance that developing such leading-edge technologies as electronic engine control and new-think combustion-chamber design for a highly tuned, no-doubt finicky engine like the Nemesis' "big boy" represents the worst-case scenario. If it works here, it should work where the power loads are lower. Similarly, they may try new-design heads and reworked dynamic parts -- almost certainly lighter, stronger pistons and a beefier crank, but also likely to include such racing-catalog bits as titanium valves and connecting rods. I would not be surprised to see NASCAR-inspired valvetrain components on Sharp's big engine. (The roundy-round guys race extremely high-tech anachronisms: 360-cube V-8s with carburetors and pushrods. They spin them to ungodly high revs and expect them to last 500 miles.)

The electronic ignition and injection system I saw on Sharp's airplane earlier in the year seems promising. It uses the latest auto technology with small individual coils and compact electronic injectors. It has the capability to read knock sensors but was running in a programmed open-loop mode when I saw it. It's not a pure FADEC in that the prop control is still in the pilot's hands and the throttle is a conventional butterfly valve. Individual cylinders can be trimmed for ignition timing and fuel delivery, though they are generally run as one when the aim is maximum power. What really struck me was the tidiness of the installation: It was truly neat and clean.

Lycoming isn't saying when this semi-FADEC will show up customer-ready, but you can bet the engineers aren't working on it just for practice. With fuel prices what they are, the impetus is greater now than just a few months ago to get this system off the ground and into the fleet. The other bit of useful trickledown from the racing program will be -- and this is just my speculation -- the new combustion-chamber design used in Sharp's "big" engine. A better head flows with less restriction and makes better use of the fuel/air combination than an older-technology combustion chamber. Even if the desire was maximum power, it's likely that this head can make "regular" amounts of power with less fuel. It's widely believed that the large Continental engines are more fuel-efficient than the Lycomings; this could be Lycoming's chance to redress the issue. Finally, it's likely that Sharp's engine also uses techniques for reducing internal friction. At 2900 rpm in engines this big, friction is a big user of horsepower. If those low-friction techniques can be put to use in regular engines, efficiency will rise. All good things for you and me.

Lancair with Continental (via Ron Munson)

Jon Sharp and the Nemesis crew failed to unseat perennial Sport-class winner Darryl Greenamyer in his Continental TSIO-550-powered Lancair Legacy. "When people ask me what kind of engine it is," he says, "I almost hate to tell them it's a Continental. In truth, it's a Ron Munson [Performance Engines] engine."

From the outside, it seems to be just your usual cross-flow big Continental with massive turbos, sizable intercoolers and a tight, efficient plenum cooling system. In fact, virtually every part inside has been modified to be stronger, lighter and more efficient. Greenamyer admits to having as much as 65 inches of boost (at 2900 rpm) for use on race day but had to throttle up to only 52 inches to win the Sport class this year. Various pitlane rumors have the engine between 550 and 600 horsepower, but Greenamyer responds by saying, "That might be a bit understated." He's never had it on the dyno, but the performance of the Legacy sure suggests a pile of ponies.

How does he get this engine to live through a race? For one, it's tightly and properly cowled; the carbon-fiber plenum fits the engine like a Saturday night skirt. (Or so my wife tells me.) Look closer and you'll see a few rows of tiny nozzles pointed into the plenum. Walk around to the cockpit and you'll see a huge carbon tank where a passenger should be. It's a two-in-one tank with distilled water and alcohol-infused water; the distilled water is sprayed over the cylinder heads and oil cooler to improve heat transfer, while the alcohol is part of the ADI (anti-detonation injection) system that Greenamyer runs to keep the heads on the engine at 65 inches.

Another new twist is onboard telemetry. A data-acquisition system collects all the important engine parameters and radios them down to the crew. They can watch the monitors, see what's happening ahead of the firewall, and advise Greenamyer to make small adjustments in the power controls to keep the engine happy. (Actually, "happy" is not a good term here; maybe "less angry.") No only is this extra peace of mind that the engine is performing well, but it's extra mental bandwidth for Greenamyer, who has a full-time job just keeping the Lancair on the deck at 300-plus. "This telemetry system is totally, 100-percent great," he says.

Despite Greenamyer's success in the class, there's been no backup from Continental. "It's kind of frustrating," says Greenamyer. "We've done very well in this class and I get no help at all out of Continental. In fact, last year I couldn't even buy an engine from them." What's left unsaid is that all the development of this engine is down to Munson and Greenamyer (as well as crew chief Andy Chiavetti), so the only possible conduit for anything groundbreaking is through Performance Engines.

So, from this point of view -- without direct support and a formalized method of placing racing experience back into the product line -- racing is just about going fast and spending money. And, truth be known, that's all it is even for a lot of programs that claim to feed racing experience back into the product line. I would hope that all engine manufacturers would watch what the racers are doing and be open minded enough to see that "not invented here" might actually be a good thing.


Got motors on your mind? Check out the rest of Marc's columns.