How much do you spend every year on motor oil? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s probably less than $1 million, which is what NASCAR’s Joe Gibbs Racing spends every year trying to perfect the oil it puts in its cars. With the oil experimentation going on for a decade, that’s about $10 million spent on something you and I spend $19.99 for every four months at Jiffy Lube.
So why all the cash on such a seemingly minor detail? Well, NASCAR essentially requires all cars to be equal, even going as far as limiting innovation so as not to give one team an advantage over another. But one area where teams are free to do whatever they want is oil. And if you thought getting KFC’s secret recipe was tough, don’t you dare try and figure out what’s lubing up Gibbs’ engines.
The WALL STREET JOURNAL explains just how intensely competitive — and secretive — motor oil is in NASCAR:
Shell was so worried about protecting its motor-oil formula that it recently refused to allow used race oil to be sold as a souvenir to Nascar fans. The concern, a spokesman said, is that someone could “reverse engineer” the used oil to see what its properties are. Joe Gibbs Racing, one of Nascar’s richest and most-successful teams, won’t say which company assembles its synthetic oil and will only identify the scientists who work on its formula as “William the chemist,” who’s in charge of formulating the oil, and “Douglas,” who used to work for NASA and is in charge of analyzing the team’s worn engine parts under a microscope.
Gibbs Racing says that its oil program has resulted in its engines getting an extra 10 horsepower, about a 2% increase. That’s what $10 million gets you, but in NASCAR that could be the difference between finishing first or fifth in a given race, since they are usually decided by just a couple of seconds.
The big oil companies compete against each other for business by trying to engineer the perfect oil. They send special formulas to NASCAR teams throughout the year. Gibbs’ “oil guy,” Lake Speed Jr., is the one who gets the new shipments:
A couple of times a year, Mr. Speed gets a new shipment of experimental oil in nondescript black pails marked with code numbers. Mr. Speed tests it for 500 to 600 miles in actual Nascar racing engines powered by $2 million computerized simulators called dynamometers. Mr. Speed sends the used oil back to William and Douglas at the lab in clear plastic vials, along with some of the worn engine parts. Then the process starts over again until a new, improved formula is found.
Gibbs markets a version of its oil to amateur racers, but not the exact one they use in NASCAR. And if you’re thinking about getting some for yourself, you can’t. In fact, the oil would destroy your car’s engine if you put it in there.
I was going to talk about how all of this is such an unnecessary excess in spending, until I realized that the money Gibbs spent for 10 years of oil research wouldn’t even pay half of Manny Ramirez’s 2009 salary.