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Detonation: Go Racing

John Lehenbauer
Oct 20, 2016
Photographers: John Lehenbauer
I have to say, I am pretty lucky. I get to cover different competitive diesel events, such as drag races and sled pulls all over the country. There is nothing better than the smell of fuel and the sound of pure torque. For me, it doesn’t matter whether I’m watching or directly involved, the thrill that comes from competing is amazing. One thing I have learned over many years is that competition is driven by the prospect of winning.
At its core, competition is also about figuring out how to outdo the opponent. Sure, the difference between winning and losing can be as simple as reacting faster or shifting sooner. However, for most racers, being competitive requires having the drive to push the limits in order to create advantages over other competitors. In racing, any advantage (higher speed, better handling, weight savings, and such) can be huge.
Drag racing has experienced many key advancements, as the competition level has pushed technology to the point where an engine like the 12-valve 5.9L Cummins (introduced in the late ’80s with 160 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque) can produce five times the horsepower and torque it originally had and still be reliable.
The use of diesel power to propel different types of racing vehicles is nothing new. It has been used in countless forms of racing around the world since diesel was invented. But oil-burners have only really been dominant (at least here in the U.S.) in a few forms of competition, like sled pulling and semi-truck racing. This might be due in part to there being very limited technological advancements for small- and medium-sized diesel engines until the late 20th century, when such engines as Ford’s 7.3L Power Stroke and the 5.9L Cummins came to market, and manufacturers as well as the aftermarket began to see their potential.
Photo 2/2   |   This car was entered in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 but failed to finish. It is powered by a 401ci Cummins diesel truck engine with a Roots-type supercharger. Later that year, the car broke six International Diesel speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of diesel engines competing in forms of racing traditionally dominated by gas engines. In 2006, Audi entered its diesel-powered race car, the R10 TDI, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and won. This proved to naysayers that, with enough money invested, diesels are capable of being competitive powerplants in one of the top forms of racing in the world. Audi still continues to race diesel-powered cars at Le Mans.
Not everyone has the same type of “deep pockets” a company like Audi does. But despite the inequity, more and more competitors in the U.S. are acknowledging and understanding the benefits of the modern diesel engine. Diesels can provide large amounts of horsepower and torque, good fuel economy, and reliability without heavy modification. In September 2016, while competing as a crewmember in the Best in the Desert off-road endurance race between Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, I noticed a purpose-built race truck that was running a small diesel powerplant. It was good to see someone being progressive, stepping away from the norm (gas engines) of desert racing and taking advantage of the aforementioned benefits of an oil-burner.
One of the things that may be keeping the popular U.S.-made diesels like the Duramax, Power Stroke, and Cummins from crossing over into more types of motorsports is the weight of the engines. A completely stock Duramax weighs in excess of 800 pounds, and it is the lightest of the three. To trim an engine like that down to fighting weight (500- to 600-pound range of a gas small-block V-8), more aluminum must be employed. Although aluminum engine blocks are not unheard of, they can be very costly to produce. But, as the saying goes, “If there is a will, there is a way,” and it might only be a matter of time before someone figures out how to make aluminum work while keeping it affordable enough for the average racer.
Maybe there is a diesel engine that hasn’t been used in competition before, which could be the key to diesel power being accepted more. A small V-8, V-6, or I-4 engine might be the ticket. Since 2013, there have been two smaller-displacement engines (the 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6 in the ’13-to-present Ram 1500, and a 2.8L Duramax I-4 that powers the ’16 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon) that have entered the market, and they may have attributes that will make them stand out. It just takes someone with initiative to start developing pieces that can make it happen. A factory-backed racing program could certainly get it done. How about a Cummins-powered Nissan desert race truck?
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