A Winning Combination at the Highest Levels of Racing
NASCAR racing has become big business as companies ranging from Procter & Gamble to the Cartoon Network continue to pour sponsorship dollars into the sport. In fact, one might say the cars resemble rolling billboards more than high-performance race machines. But beneath the hood it’s all business, and through it all has been the continuous battle between automotive manufacturers that long ago adopted the slogan "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday."
Ford Motor Company’s decision to run the Taurus rather than the dated Thunderbird and General Motor’s (GM) development of the new SB2 engine has created this year’s manufacturer battleground.
In the early decades of stock car racing, automotive manufacturers quickly realized their opportunity to drive sales through racing victories. One way to ensure victory is to boost engine horsepower, and the automobile manufacturers have never been shy when it comes to producing unique, high-performance parts specifically for use in NASCAR.
J.G. Kern and Ford
The powerplant is the life-blood of the competition, so many may find it surprising that Ford entrusts a little known organization out of Sterling Heights, MI, with the machining of its high-performance racing parts. J.G. Kern Enterprises supplies the Ford Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) unit with powertrain components, including blocks and heads for high-performance racing and NASCAR.
Ford SVO is the operational arm of Ford Motorsports worldwide. They provide the motorsport business management, team interface, aftermarket parts supply and sanctioning body liaison for Ford. Kern produces a wide variety of Ford SVO powertrain parts.
Joe Kern founded J.G. Kern in 1967 as a job shop servicing the machine tool industry.In the 1980s, as the organization progressed, Kern got more involved with Ford. They began by doing odd jobs for Ford, then progressed into service work for powertrain parts. With a proven track record in reliability, accuracy and on-time delivery, Kern gradually obtained much of the powertrain work for Ford SVO. Now Mark Martin and company fly around the Brickyard and the Monster Mile at Dover with parts machined by Kern.
So how did such an evolution occur? "The difference was getting into the horizontal machining center field, and five axis simultaneous machining," says Brian Kern, Kern operations supervisor. "We bought a Makino MC98 horizontal machining center (HMC), then a couple of A55 HMCs, and we went from making machine tool components to high-performance powertrain components. We still make machine tool parts-spindles, gears, a wide variety of stuff, but now we also manufacture probably three or four hundred different parts for Ford."
In all, 24 teams are campaigning the Ford Taurus in 1998, defending Ford’s 1997 NASCAR Manufacturer’s Championship, which featured 19 wins. Among the stars who carry the Ford nameplate on their 3,400-pound stock cars, in addition to Martin, are Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Bill Elliot, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton and Geoff Bodine.
Some of the sport’s top team owners and engine builders are also aligned with Ford, including Robert Yates, Jack Roush and Roger Penske. Three drivers-Rudd, Elliot and Bodine-own their own teams. The manufacturers that support winning race teams are those that have found ways to extract additional performance from a component or system that’s been around for years.
For example, the cylinder head is the key to airflow in an engine. And airflow is what determines the performance output of an engine. It generates a lot of the much-needed horsepower. Ford works closely with race teams to develop high-performance heads. Hence, there’s the "Yates" head, which was designed by owner Robert Yates, and currently produced by Kern for Ford. Input from racing teams not only goes toward the development of racing heads, but also to gain insight that can be applied to production cylinder heads.
NASCAR mandates that the cylinder bores be the same spacing as in a stock production piece and also that the head bolts remain in the same locations. These mandates limit what can be done with a head but there is some leeway that the manufacturers and race teams can work within to increase the airflow potential of an engine. No matter what Kern or the teams do as far as ports, port shapes and configurations, the cylinder head still has to remain, by NASCAR specification, to a stock bore center distance.
Ironically, Kern got its first shot at production of a NASCAR part with this hunk of aluminum that race teams attach so much importance to. Even after Kern delivers cylinder heads to a race team, another 70 to 80 hours can be spent by the engine builder in the preparation of a pair of heads.
Kern and NASCAR
"We started out with an experimental part a few years ago-a cylinder head for NASCAR that we produced for Ford SVO," says Kern. "We only ran like 30 units. We gave them an excellent price and banged out the parts in no time. We won the contract after several race teams tested the heads and gave SVO positive feedback. At first, Ford was concerned we wouldn’t be able to manufacture such a part, but they were impressed with our high-speed Makino machining centers.
All together, Kern has 15 Makino machines. The blocks and heads for SVO are machined on the MC98, MC86 and A77 HMCs. Other parts such as manifolds, connecting rods, U-joints flanges and water pump housings are machined on Kern’s A55s. Kern has a long history with Makino machines, dating back to 1980 when they purchased three FNC 106 vertical machining centers. As Kern has progressed, so has their relationship with Makino.
"The Makino machines-they’re workhorses," adds Kent Potvin, Kern quality control manager. "We run them 24 hours a day, six days a week. As far as I’m concerned they’re the leader in machining center technology, durability and support."
The precision craftsmanship that goes into building an engine is often what separates the winners from the also-rans at NASCAR’s highest levels. The V8 engines that power NASCAR Winston Cup Series cars are limited to 358 cubic inches displacement, with a 14:1 compression ratio limit, yet they generate well over 700 horsepower.
A Ford Winston Cup V8 starts with a block and cylinder head supplied to Ford by Kern. These engines are capable of sustained operation at speeds up to 9,000 rpm and 200-plus mph-phenomenal for a pushrod design-with oil temperatures approaching 300 F.
Thanks to a strict body of rules designed to keep costs in line and competition close, NASCAR doesn’t allow the latest cutting-edge technology, instead they provoke painstaking development and refinement of existing technology. So while Winston Cup racing doesn’t represent a dazzling technology showcase, it’s no less technology intensive. The technology is in the details and the level of refinement is extraordinary.
Makino, Kern, Ford and NASCAR
The evolution of refinement begins with Kern. "Ford came in and analyzed our processes," says Potvin. "They were impressed with the accuracy and reliability of our Makino machines. When we won the contract from SVO to produce the 351 V8s being used in NASCAR, the competition had been doing these blocks in six operations. With the Makino machines we were able to consolidate that into three operations on a single horizontal machining center.
"We probably run about 1,000 Ford SVO blocks a year for NASCAR and 2,000 cylinder heads. The big dragster blocks-the 460 and 600 CID-we probably produce 300 of those. But our biggest hold up in producing these parts, and countless other SVO parts, is the foundries. As soon as a block hits the floor we have it scheduled and on our machines."
One reason Kern won SVO’s 351 V8 block contract was their track record in producing a 302 V8 that is used for other forms of high-performance racing. At the same time Kern was producing the 302s in high volume with excellent quality, SVO was having trouble getting the NASCAR 351s from another manufacturer. Consequently, one of the Ford Winston Cup team owners asked SVO, ’why don’t you have the same guys that produce 302s do the 351s?’
"That was where we got our first opportunity to bid on the G351 block (full-jacketed cylinders)," continues Potvin. "Once we got the contract we ran the G351s for approximately seven or eight months on the Makino’s and got a few hundred back logged for SVO. Then we won the contract for the R351s and started the development of the siamese bores." The R351s are in their second season of NASCAR competition and are currently used by the majority of the Ford teams.
Siamese ports are solid between the cylinders, which allows larger boring of the cylinders- another area that can calculate into the horsepower equation. Water-jacketed blocks run water around the bores; they run cooler but have machining limitations due to the water jets surrounding the cylinders. On the flip side, GM’s new SB2 engine has gone away from the siamese ports to a symmetrical port that, according to GM, generates more horsepower.
Although the SB2 has gotten a lot of the attention surrounding engines, this race season Kern knows the Ford engines are solid as well. "The Taurus 8000 template has been scrutinized by the Chevy teams, but we know the engines are cranking out the horsepower," says Kern. Four out of the top five teams in the Winston Cup point standings at mid-season are powered by Ford’s, the lone exception being Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet.
Duplication and Agility Fuels High-Performance
Kern produces a variety of blocks and heads that fall within the NASCAR guidelines. Each race team will request which model they want to run or have in stock. NASCAR puts stringent mandates on the characteristics each powertrain part may have, but teams are able to take liberties in some areas in an attempt to increase performance.
While similar models of blocks and heads may look the same to the untrained eye, they differ slightly from race team to race team, depending upon the preferences of the team. "If we deliver an engine to a builder, we’ve got to be dead-on accurate," states Kern. "Most teams will do finishing work with their own equipment. If we supply 25 or 30 blocks of the same model, they will check all of them. If they’re not identical, we’ll hear about it."
Kern’s ability to efficiently produce parts accurately and quickly has become their niche in the industry. "The adaptability of the Makino’s allows us to make spontaneous changes in production in accordance with new demands and priorities," says Kern.
"The flexibility and agility of our machines gives us the ability to program each part to each teams model preference on the fly, and hold the highest level of tolerances in doing so," adds Potvin. "We’ll do groups of different models for different teams one after another with very little set up or down time. The Makino machines are able to produce the NASCAR parts to the highest degree of accuracy and precision, giving us the repeatability to consistently deliver identical parts."
Nowadays, it is commonplace for the race teams to take Kern’s delivered part and do additional CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) machining. As a result, Kern’s ability to duplicate a part within exact specifications becomes even more important to race teams.
"They must know that each part is identical so they can track their own machining records to get a better understanding for test data and performance results," says Kern. "If the dynamometer indicates an engine is generating more horsepower, then they want to be able to clone that engine. Knowing our product was delivered identical is crucial to the development of a solid engine program."
Level of Refinement Intense
Refinement at the NASCAR level is so intense that many engines never even make it to the track. Some are purely for testing purposes; others are solely for qualifying. To win a race, you must first qualify, and in Winston Cup, two-and-a-half-tenths of a second can make the difference between starting first and not making the race. Typically, only 2 or 3 miles per hour separate the first and last starting positions. As a result, teams are constantly looking for that last bit of horsepower and torque.
Many exhausting hours go into building a solid engine program. Race teams will spend up to 400 man-hours on a new-built engine start to finish. Most Winston Cup teams will take four or five engines to every race, and nearly all of them will completely rebuild an engine after it is used in a race. A rebuild process can take up to 100 man-hours. A single car team will have approximately 15 different engines in its program.
"The dimensions we hold with our Makino’s, and the speeds and feeds that we run, have impressed the people at Ford SVO," claims Potvin. "We don’t have dedicated equipment like a large engine plant where all they run is engine blocks. We can run an engine block today, a cylinder head tomorrow, a front cover the next day and U-joints the day after that-all coming off with the same accuracy and precision and going on to race cars."
Kern produces about 15 different engines for Ford SVO. Of those, NASCAR can select from about four or five different blocks. Currently, they can chose from the water-jacket engine or the siamese bores, even though most are running the siamese right now.
The NASCAR teams can mix and match between blocks and heads but are still required to fall within NASCAR’s maximum cubic inch displacement of 358. Each team will use a different powertrain setup for each race depending on a lot of variables, including track size and team priorities-horse power or fuel efficiency.
Optimal Cylinder Wall Thickness
In order to take a 700-plus horsepower load at 9,000 rpms, the stock V8 engine is beefed up for NASCAR to prevent splitting and cracking. The bulk head in the main bearing is thickened, four bolt main bearings are added and extra cylinder wall thickness is cast in to take the extra load. Through these and other reinforcements, approximately 40 pounds of beef is added to the engine.
Kern has developed a solid reputation with the Ford teams based on their ability to consistently machine the optimal amount of cylinder wall thickness. "Everything has got to hold together well," states Potvin. "It’s critical that the cylinder wall thickness remain equal and the cores be concentric and spaced properly."
When the block cools at the foundry, the cylinder cores have a tendency to shrink and shift relevant to each other. When dealing with cylinder core variation, a manufacturer cannot depend on cast locators, which are on the outside of the block. The cylinders must be central to the inside center of the block for race teams.
At Kern, the Makino’s are equipped with a probing system that automatically touches off and adjusts the machine according to the center line distance between the cores. This triggers a machining pattern based on internal locators that produces consistent cylinder wall thickness and balancing for better compression ratios.
Delivery Performance, Accuracy and Frozen Prices Essential to Ford
"Ford likes our delivery performance, which ties in with the speed and capability of the Makino machines," states Kern. "It’s also a great selling point when SVO can come here and see the CMM (Coordinate Measuring Machine) printouts, which show the continuous repeatability of the part dimensions and just how exact and accurate these things are. That’s probably our best selling point."
In today’s market, supplying the automotive industry, whether it’s production or high-performance racing, can be very demanding. Automotive manufacturers have realized that they just can’t increase prices anymore. Neither the race teams nor the consumer will tolerate increases. These types of market pressures quickly trickle down to the Kern’s of the industry.
"Costs keep increasing but our agreement with Ford forces us to maintain price levels," states Kern. "In order to maintain profitability we’ve had to find different ways to improve our processes through machine tool technology."
"We’ve had to improve productivity and efficiency," says Potvin. "With Makino we’ve seen gains of 100 to 120 percent in cycle times. In order to stay in this business and remain competitive, we have to stick with the latest in technology, and the Makino machines are always right on the cutting edge."
Even the crew chiefs from NASCAR, who will tour the Kern facility from time to time, have been impressed. "They come through here and are very impressed with our operation," says Kern. "They know who we are and that we have the ability to produce accurate parts that perform well. But, quite frankly, the less I hear from them the better, because that means they’re focused on racing and not on the quality of their parts."
SVO relies on Kern to produce their high-performance parts for NASCAR. And Kern relies on Makino technology to provide the flexibility and repeatability necessary to deliver those parts that on race day will generate the horsepower, torque and fuel efficiency to put Ford in the winner’s circle. After all, "Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday."