LEXINGTON, KY — Most people shun old cars with high digits on their odometers, but those vehicles are real finds for Valvoline Co. motor oil chemists and technicians.

“We like to go to junkyards looking for high-mileage vehicles,” says Frances Lockwood, senior vice president-technology and product development. “By studying oils in vehicles as they age, we're able to see and address problems.”

Those old-age ailments include increased oil consumption from engine wear and tear and leakage from brittle, worn rings and valves.

As vehicles age, mechanical performance decreases, taking a greater toll on engine oil viscosity. An older engine breaks down the oil more quickly. Leakage accelerates oxidation.

It didn't come from a junkyard, but one of the aging vehicular guinea pigs was a '90 Acura Integra owned by Samuel J. Mitchell, president and CEO of Valvoline, a division of Ashland Inc.

Experiments on the old cars led Valvoline to develop MaxLife, a first-of-its-kind oil that helps slow the engine aging process and extends performance with anti-wear additives, seal conditioners, extra cleaning agents and friction modifiers.

“We certainly didn't only develop MaxLife to take care of the president's car, but it generated some interest,” says Thomas R. Smith, Valvoline's technical director at a product laboratory here.

Junkyard vehicles aren't the only sources of research for the oil company. Race cars are too.

Valvoline researchers say they learn something new from just about every NASCAR race. Valvoline owns a NASCAR team and sponsors Evernham Motorsports, headed by Ray Evernham.

“In the last five years, technology in NASCAR has exploded,” says Evernham.

He notes that parts are getting lighter and temperatures higher with engine speeds hitting 10,000 rpm and horsepower reaching 850. It creates a need for oils with greater heat-dispersing capability.

There's also a need for advanced lubricants because “an unbelievable amount of horsepower is lost in friction, not just with the engine but with the transmission and wheel bearings” that can reach temperatures of 300∞ F (135∞ C), says Evernham, who also is sponsored by Dodge dealers.

“Valvoline is trying to take what it learns in racing and apply it to regular oil use,” he says. “I can look at my Dodge dealers and say that some things going on in racing help in everyday driving.”

Reseachers say the future of vehicle fluids both on and off the racetrack includes nano-technology, involving particles as small as 1-billionth of a meter (1/75,000th of a human hair); super-coolants to maximize heat exchange; and reduced viscosity but with no compromise to durability.