Depending on your perspective, crate engines are either a boon to short-track racing or a blight upon a sport founded on the ingenuity of talented engine builders. Count Tom Curley among the proponents of crate engines, which essentially become spec engines after being bought directly from manufacturers or through supply houses and then modified to meet requirements specified by a particular series or track. In 1999, Curley, president of the American Canadian Tour (ACT), was searching for ways to reduce the costs for competitors running his Late Model circuit. He began exploring crate engines as an alternative to the special-built, or designer engines, then common in ACT.

Rising Engine Costs
When Curley began looking at less expensive alternatives, engines in the Monte Carlos and Tauruses used in ACT cost in the $15,000 range, nearly three times what they had cost seven or eight years before. "This is basically going to run you all out of business before we're done," Curley told ACT competitors. So Curley purchased a crate engine in late '99, asked one of his racers to test it for a couple of events, and studied the results.

By the time the 2000 season began, Curley had developed a five-year plan to phase in crate engines, specifically the 355hp ZZ4 produced by General Motors. Competitors were given the option of wrapping any type of sheet metal they wanted around the engine-Ford, Dodge, or Chevrolet.

Eight teams bought ZZ4s for that season while Curley bought two himself. Curley told the racers that he would do whatever necessary to ensure that the crate engines were not at a disadvantage. Plus, the two engines he bought would be available to teams as loaners if the engines they purchased developed durability problems that forced competitors out of action. "There were only four racers who ended up having enough nerve to run them," Curley recalls.

That changed once teams realized how durable the engines were and how well they performed. By the summer of 2000, ACT competitors bought another dozen ZZ4s and the series entered the 2001 season with 70 in circulation. Early this year that number approached 100. Curley estimates that 75 percent of his races are now won by crate engines. He admits, however, that roadblocks exist when asking racers to buy into a crate engine program.

Racer Support Critical
"No promoter in the country can make this program work unless he gets the support of his racers," says Curley. "He's got to have the racers buy the philosophy that we're trying to save them money; that their racing, quite frankly, is going to improve with this. But to try to get that mentality into a racer's head is next to impossible. Once everybody gets that mentality, then they start to understand that as long as it's durable, the fact is that our crate motors are competitive with our $20,000 motors; basically everybody now has given up on ($20,000 engines) because of the cost, and everybody will buy a couple of crate engines so that they have a spare. Most of our big teams now have three crate motors in their shops. Then they still pay less than they would for one of their other ones."

The key to making the program cost-effective is to seal the engines so teams can't tune them for more horsepower or rebuild them more often than necessary in an attempt to gain an edge. The GM ZZ4 engines have been especially durable in Curley's ACT series. "Our guys go two years, two full years, before they have to do anything if they take care of their oil changes," says Curley. Then, for $2,200-or an average of $1,100 per season-teams can have the engines rebuilt.