Put the pedal to the metal and count on the lab

Racing teams want horsepower and Dan Dotson leads the team that delivers it

Auto racing is a grueling, grinding, demanding sport where the margin of victory can be measured in thousandths of a second.

Every driver and every team is looking for an edge. In the blast-furnace environment under the hood, how we formulate Valvoline™ racing oil can make the difference between winning, losing ... and even finishing. Dan Dotson, director for strategic development for Valvoline, knows all about this.

"What's important to them is horsepower, horsepower, horsepower. Two ways to get improved horsepower is to lower the viscosity of the oil or to enhance it with some sort of chemistry, such as a friction modifier," he says.

Neither is a simple process, nor are the results. Lowering the viscosity of the oil allows a racing team to push the limit on the engine. The harder an engine works, the hotter it gets and that extra horsepower can sometimes lead to disaster. If parts fail from too much stress or overheating, the car could shut down and another driver takes the checkered flag.

"When you're sacrificing on the film thickness, then we have to make a design change," Dotson says. That means expertly understanding the chemistry of the oil and its additives, as well as the metallurgy of the engine. Dotson, who has been on the job for 33 years, and his team at Valvoline’s New Product Development Laboratory in Lexington, Ky., are recognized leaders in the field.

“Racing oil doesn’t need the same chemistry that consumers use in their vehicles, where they’re trying to go 3,000 miles,” he says. “In racing, the appetite of the engine is different because of the metallurgy and the design. We focus on strength points, where they need more horsepower, as well as endurance so they can finish the race.”

After each race, an engine is torn down and parts inspected for wear – and ways to improve.

“Dan is constantly talking to racing teams about what they’re seeing or what we can do better,” says Rob Clendening, senior brand manager, Valvoline. “They’ll send him parts; he’ll go there and look at parts. Based on his expertise, he’ll suggest they look at this or that to solve the issue."

Trying something new
Millions of dollars in expenses, prize money and sponsorships are at stake, so race teams have stringent validation processes before changes are made. In 2011, Valvoline NextGen™ recycled motor oil was introduced. The public accepted the environmentally friendly product, but racers were skeptical about trying it. It was time for more innovation.

“Dan and his team took on the challenge of proving it,” Clendening says. “They took our tried-and-true racing oil formula and actually made it better with NextGen technology. The race teams said they were actually able to tune their engines more aggressively because the endurance was better. That’s the result of all of that back-and-forth collaboration.”

Race cars run at about 250 to 260 degrees Fahrenheit. Your car runs at about 200.

The proof is at the finish line: Since mid-2011, NASCAR and NHRA drivers have won 74 races and five championships with NextGen motor oil in their engines.

There was plenty of precedent for such innovation. A decade earlier, Ashland had introduced Valvoline MaxLife™ motor oil for higher-mileage vehicles.

Understanding the issue
“MaxLife oil was very interesting because we wanted to understand how to help keep an older car conditioned to run like it did when it was newer,” Dotson recalls. “We had to tear the engine down and understand what was affecting it, such as seals.”

The easy answer is to force the seals to swell.

Research on racing and stock engines is done at our mechanical test lab in Russell, Ky.

Anybody can swell a seal,” he says. “But to condition a seal to make it come back to life, to get a car to where it’s not having oil leakage into the combustion chamber,  going through the exhaust, that’s a real challenge. We were the first to do it.”

Groundbreaking products and formulations are an area in which Dotson has excelled, over and over again.

“Dan is a mentor for our entire formulating team,” says Dr. Fran Lockwood, senior vice president of technology, Valvoline. “Not only is he innovative, but he’s the go-to guy.”

People go to him for a lot of things, too. “Dan has been leading a lot of work on fuel economy,” Lockwood says. “This is important not just for our industry, but for our environment long term. He’s very passionate about it. I think the industry will see a lot more from us on fuel economy going forward.”

The work, Dotson says, is both tough and enjoyable.

“There is a lot of research we have to do to understand the issues. Then we start to develop the product in the laboratory, looking at the physical testing and the chemical aspects. Once we understand that, we go to engine testing,” he says. “It’s challenging, but we try to have fun while we’re doing it. That’s the way you become successful.”

Meet Dan Dotson

Dan Dotson grew up in Williamson, W. Va., a mountain town about 90 minutes from Ashland, Ky., where our company was founded. His father was a coal miner and his mother worked at JC Penney. He grew up with two brothers and two sisters, playing basketball, football and track, and finding time to join relatives and friends as a trumpet player in a rhythm-and-blues band. He still finds time to occasionally sing.

Dotson holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science and chemistry, and a master’s in occupational science and safety, both from Marshall University. “My father went to college and so did my mother. We knew we were going to college,” he says. He started in pre-med after receiving numerous scholarships, including one specifically for health-career students. His first job was in a hospital, analyzing samples in a lab.

An avid reader, he also enjoys watching movies at home with his wife, Sarah, a retired federal government employee, then discussing what the director was trying to accomplish.

Dotson’s first several years at Ashland focused on coatings and fluids used in metalworking for product finishes and cooling manufacturing equipment.

Dotson receives his V Award from Sam Mitchell, President, Valvoline

Dotson receives his V Award from Sam Mitchell, President, Valvoline

Honors and Awards

  • Kappa Delta Pi Award for academic achievement
  • Emerald Award for Professional Achievement
  • Black Achiever's Award for academic achievement
  • 2012 Valvoline "V" Award

Professional Affiliations

  • Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, Certified Lubrication Specialist
  • Automotive Oil Advisory Panel (formerly International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee)
  • American Petroleum Institute Lubricants Group
  • NACE International

Patents and Publications (Examples)

  • Shock absorber fluid composition containing nanostructures, with George Zhang, Gefei Wu and Fran Lockwood, US Patent 7,470,650, Dec. 30, 2008.
  • “Measurements of elasticity in multigrade motor oil at elevated pressure,” with Scott Bair, Fran Lockwood, William Anderson and George Zhang, Tribology Transactions, Issue 3, March 25, 2008.
  • Novel, biodegradable, water-thinned asphalt release agent, with Fran Lockwood, Michael Dituro and Jiafu Fang, US Patent 6,486,249, Nov. 26, 2002.
  • Removable waterborne coating for vehicles in transit, with Roger Hayner, International Patent WO 9001051, A1, Feb. 8, 1990.
  • Anticorrosive water-reducible soft coating compositions for ferrous alloys, with Stephen See, International Patent WO 8904856, A1, June 1, 1989