TOLEDO, Ohio (April 13, 2016) - Year one for the ARCA Ilmor 396 was a success story like none other. 2015 saw the first-year engine win 15 pole positions, and 20 races, with relatively few mechanical problems. As the season progressed, more and more teams purchased the power plant, and with it winning results.
But before we go look at what’s in the future for year two, let’s take a quick review as to how the engine was born.
”We had a series of 1-on-1 meetings with team owners and principals at the October Kansas race in 2013 and one of the biggest line-item costs the teams were concerned with was engine cost, and more specifically the cost to lease an engine to be competitive,” said ARCA President Ron Drager. “We established a set of criteria and presented it to various engine building companies we felt comfortable could provide the service, and based on that process we chose Ilmor. The qualities Ilmor brought included familiarity with the ARCA Series and our teams since they had participated in the series as an engine building company, Ilmor’s rich history and tradition of performance and success at every level including Formula 1 and IndyCar, and the sincerity of Paul Ray and his team in dedicating the company’s resources to the ARCA Racing Series and our teams.
“We announced the ARCA Ilmor 396 program at Pocono Aug. 1 of 2014 and the engine made its debut at the Daytona test that December and in the Daytona race in February of 2015.”
Enter Dave Dixon and Ilmor Engineering.
“We had originally discussed a lease program for our teams, but when that proved not to be viable, we headed towards a team ownership program,” said Mark Gundrum, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for ARCA. “Dave Dixon was able to see the vision, and start working on how we can make this happen.”
Enter Holley Performance Products and their family of performance parts, as well as companies such as Diamond Pistons, Cometic Gaskets, ATI Dampers, Quarter Master Clutches, and Valvoline.
“The goal was to develop an engine using available, aftermarket parts. This was going to be a challenge,” added Gundrum.
“We had to start from scratch,” said Grayling Call, Director of Competition and Race Technology for ARCA. “We first had to have an engine that started. Then we needed an engine that idled properly. We then needed an engine that was able to get on and off pit road properly, and finally we had to start mapping the Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) for different tracks.”
“We had to have a reliable spec engine oil source (Valvoline) that was easily available to all competitors. The engine was going to have to perform on our Superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega), the intermediate tracks, the short tracks, and finally the road courses.”
“And finally, we had to make sure we were getting full pick up of fuel under low fuel and caution periods, so we did not have any stack ups on restarts.”
“The challenge was to get the fuel to the front in an economical manner. NASCAR had a solution in Sprint Cup, but the economics of the cost of that system relative to the overall investment in the ARCA Ilmor 396 didn’t make sense.”
Again, enter Holley Corporation. The Company had an economical solution for getting the fuel to the front of the engine.
“Holley went to work with their fuel pump and fuel pickup system, and it worked. We now had a complete engine that the competitor could buy, and manage using easily available parts.”
So now Dave Dixon and the Ilmor crew went to work in utilizing their expertise in reliability while using readily available parts. Ilmor met the challenge, and exceeded all expectations.
“We purchased an Ilmor last year for Cole (Custer) to compete in ARCA,” said Joe Custer, Executive Vice President of Stewart Haas Racing and Chief Operating Officer of the Haas Formula One team. “We bought one engine, and really did not know what to expect. We’ve been extremely happy with the performance of our engine. We ran our first race with the Ilmor on the road course at New Jersey Motor Sports Park, then tested and raced at Pocono, where Cole won.
“This year we tested and raced at Daytona, where we won the pole—all on the same engine. We plan to race one or two more events before we rebuild it; this engine has exceeded all of our expectations,” added Custer.
So going forward into year two, what can competitors expect for the future of the ARCA Ilmor 396?
First off, Dave Dixon has retired, and his vision has been handed off to Victor Garcia at Ilmor.
Next is better competition—field sizes increased by 7% in 2015, and 14% more cars finished on the lead lap. The number of Ilmor engines built is quickly approaching 90, with more engines starting to trickle down into all levels of competitors in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. This will translate to even closer competition for 2016.
“We had a vision for a three year plan, and a five year plan, as to where we saw the amount of engines in the series. We saw 33 Ilmor engines start Daytona out of 40 cars. We’re about a little over a year ahead of schedule,” said Call. “And our smaller teams are putting the engines to work, which is equalizing the level of competition from front to back.”
This is all great news for the competitors, but is the participation by the companies and over-the-counter parts suppliers working for their products?
“Yes,” said Graham Fordyce, Circle Track Performance Manager for Holley. “Competitors who are looking for an EFI solution for their vehicles are seeing that the parts available for the ARCA Ilmor 396 are available for their street, dragstrip, or whatever racing application they want to use. “
This season, the NHRA went to a similar engine package for the Pro Stock class.
“We use the same throttle body, ECU, ignition systems, coils, wiring harnesses, etc., that we use in the ARCA Ilmor 396. You can buy these parts for your street application if you want to. Everything we have is race proven, and available for the street. We’re in a good spot; other racing series are trying to adapt this platform,” added Fordyce.
With the participation of over-the-counter suppliers comes the opportunity for all of the suppliers to participate in contingency awards programs that put dollars back into the competitor’s pocket. Holly EFI, Diamond Pistons, Cometic Gaskets, Valvoline, ATI Performance Products, Quarter Master Clutches, ACCEL Ignitions, Hooker Headers, and Earl’s Plumbing all participate in ARCA Racing Series contingency programs.
“There are an awful lot of high-performance, aftermarket manufacturers who have sponsored racing for years and years,” said Gundrum. “Many of those companies have supported ARCA for decades, and to even think about introducing an engine package that did not take their support into consideration would be unheard of. The ability to compensate Holley, Quartermaster, ATI and the others by allowing them to participate in this project was one of the many rewarding developments of the ARCA Ilmor 396 venture.”
For 2016, the series is allowing the competitors to download information from their own ECUs, allowing teams to better maintain their own engines, without incurring the cost of an engine tuner at each race.
Ilmor and ARCA are providing continuing education classes for competitors to learn how to download data to their laptops, and maintain the engines. An added benefit to this training is the use of throttle tracings and overlays to help crew chiefs adjust their cars, and drivers, to pick up their lap times.
Venturini Motorsports Crew Chief Jeff McClure agrees.
“The engine overlays are a valuable tool for our team,” said McClure. “By overlaying the RPMs, throttle tracings, and other comparable information, we can help our drivers go faster, and tune on our chassis.”
“The engines are all equal now, so it falls back on the driver and the crew to make these cars competitive. It’s no secret that I originally was not for the ARCA Ilmor 396, because we felt we had a competitive advantage with our existing engine program. But as we’ve gone forward, this program has grown on me. We’ve developed a great relationship with Ilmor engine group, and appreciate their professional attitude—they are very hands on as to how they interact with all of our teams.”
McClure sums up the future of the engine going forward.
“The ARCA Ilmor engine makes our series look like it’s up to date, both to our sponsors and fans. This, combined with the composite body, makes for a better future for our series, and a better future for all of our race teams.”