by Fred Staab
GM Wooing the SEMA Crowd by Gary Witzenburg (11/4/2002)
The look and sound of drag racing is changing. Once it was territory dominated strictly by Mountain Motor V-8s stuffed into domestic sheetmetal. But the latest dragsters sport compacts, migrating from the street to the strip thanks to the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) Summit Sport Compact Race Series.
With plentiful performance parts available, Honda has become the dominant player in front-wheel drive quarter-mile action, with Acura, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Toyota also making inroads. Power adders like high-pressure turbochargers and massive inoculations of nitrous oxide have allowed some diminutive four- and six-cylinder import cars to run the quarter-mile in the high six-second territory at just over 200 miles an hour — performances normally turned in by 500-cubic-inch V-8 pro stock cars.
Until this season, domestic manufacturers (with the exception of a few privateers) have been noticeably absent in the sport compact staging lanes. That changed this year when General Motors decided to field a two-car factory backed team at all 10 NHRA sport compact events.
The GM racing sport compact team features a Chevrolet Cavalier driven by Nelson Hoyos and a Pontiac Sunfire shoed by Marty Ladwig. Powered by the newly developed Ecotec 2.0 liter factory race engine, both cars seem to violate two time-honored cardinal rules of drag racing; there is no replacement for displacement and no substitute for cubic inches.
Remember that the Ecotec in its stock form puts out 140 horsepower, respectable but not earth-shattering performance for the 2003 Cavalier, Sunfire, ION and VUE in the U.S. What it lacks in displacement it makes up in structural integrity and lightweight design, tipping the scales at around 350 pounds for a complete stock engine. That’s a good starting point for someone looking to build power, according to Fred Simmonds, GM's drag racing marketing manager. "It’s got all the things a hot rodder would like — from size, weight, and the strength to build power with reliability."
Quest for firepower
But how did GM find more than 1000 ponies with just four cylinders?
The main component of the GM Ecotech race engine is the same aluminum block that can be found living in stock ‘03 J-bodies and Saturn’s ION and VUE. Manufactured with a lost-foam casting process that results in increased strength and decreased weight, the Ecotec in stock form uses aluminum cylinder sleeves.
Race preparation basically involves just two modifications — switching to stainless steel cylinder liners and the use of aftermarket main and head studs. So far the blocks have exceeded GM's technical director for drag racing Russ O’Blenes expectations. “We have blocks with probably 150 to 200 passes on them,” he says. “We have had no structural failures to date.”
All components in the engine are designed to live in the hostile 9700-rpm racing environment. That means this Ecotec turns 4000 more revs than the stock version. That astronomic engine speed called for a slight reduction in displacement from 2.2 to 2.0 liters, to limit piston speed to manageable velocities. In addition, stock balance shafts that spin at twice engine speed are honed from 4130 steel to survive 20,000-rpm racing launches.
In order to create the 1000-plus horsepower, GM called on two high-performance principles: mass quantities of fuel and air. A lightly tweaked stock head casting with aftermarket stainless valves mounted gulps the atmosphere through a custom fabricated aluminum intake manifold. Eight fuel injectors spray a methanol fuel fog back to the cylinders. “At 1000 horsepower, we run about 1200 POUNDS an hour of fuel through the motor, so four nozzles were just not enough,” says O'Blenes. GM dug into its parts bin for the throttle body selecting a stock unit from a 5.3-liter V-8 GM truck. Ignition is handled by an off-the-shelf aftermarket MSD 7 system designed for a small-block Chevy.
But the biggest power adder of them all comes in the form of a quick spool up eight-inch diameter T4 Turbo charger provided by Innovative Turbo Systems. Pressurizing this 2.0-liter engine, the Turbo, with inlet air chilled by an ice-water-filled intercooler, squeezes 40 pounds of boost into the cylinders. The result is big-block race V-8 power without the displacement or speed-robbing weight.
Selling the package
Far from a one-off factory piece, the Chevrolet Ecotec 2.0-liter race engine was designed to be recreated by ambitious sport compact racers, according to GM’s O’Blenes.
“What is really exciting is we have put a part number on every piece GM developed for the race program. You can buy a completely race prepared block, a fully CNC ported cylinder head, crank rods, intake manifold,” he says. “We try to make sure anything we learned, we make available to the public.”
If a 1000-horsepower motor sounds a bit too extreme, GM Performance offers streetable sport compact performance at lower levels. In past years, a lack of go-fast parts availability has eliminated GM vehicles from the minds of the sport-compact crowd. Dan Garrison, Late Model Product Specialist for GM Performance parts, knows the General has to play catch up in the sport compact area. “I do not feel the youth market of today looks to GM as the natural choice,” he says. “The car buyers don’t feel that GM cares about them and this is our intent to say ‘Yeah, we do.’”
Garrison often can be found racing a Quad 4-powered Cavalier mounted with a
GM Performance Parts supercharger kit. The blower takes the 2.4-liter Quad 4 to 190 horsepower.
At SEMA, GM Performance Parts intends to fatten up the number of pages and part numbers to its Performance Parts sport compact section. Look for the addition of several power-adding kits for the stock Ecotec with turbo, supercharger and naturally aspirated options all in play, plus a little something to bring the Pontiac Vibe into the street performance category.
For Simmonds, the sport compact program can be boiled down to an old chestnut: race on Sunday, sell on Monday. “We need to sell small cars; we haven’t done a very good job of that historically. This gives us the opportunity to showcase the Ecotec engine, and also let these import guys know we are in this very seriously to win in the marketplace.”
O’Blenes, who oversaw the development of the racing Ecotec, sees a little bit of history repeating itself. “Since 1955, the small-block Chevy has proven its versatility, durability and performance potential. The Ecotec engine has all the basic mechanical components to repeat that feat.”