Level Playing Field
Aside from the cost component, proponents of crate engines point to other factors that help local racers. Curley, for example, points to the parity that the ZZ4 engines have brought to ACT, where just four years ago he says "we had dominance by probably five teams." Of 30 events in the series last year, there were 22 total winners and seven first-time winners. "Especially in the lower-level classes I think you'll find that crate engines offer some real value to the racers," says GM Product Specialist Gary Penn. "If you're a back marker, for example, and you now have the opportunity to run the same engine as the frontrunners, I mean, what a great opportunity."

Jim Spaulding, recently retired parts manager for GM Racing, says crate engines can eliminate excuses for the under-powered and focus attention to other areas of the car. "I've never talked to a driver who wouldn't be faster if he just had more power," says Spaulding. "Particularly the younger guys starting out-they're running against guys who spend more money on their engines and probably do have more power. It tends to be an excuse for younger drivers: 'Well, I could do it, but he's just out-powering me.' The fact is, particularly in short-track racing, the horsepower isn't all that important. It's your ability to set the chassis up, to get the power to the ground, and the driver's ability to drive it.

"When you go to a crate engine program, you can be pretty assured that everyone is out there with the same power level. It takes one of the excuses away, and I think it encourages the team to work on the things that are really important, and that is chassis setup."

In addition to the ZZ4 and the LS1 used by ASA competitors, Penn says GM's 350 HO is another crate engine popular among racers around the country. "We, in fact, just released a circle track racing version of both the ZZ4 and the 350 HO crate engines," says Penn. "Those come essentially ready to race with an intake manifold, a pair of circle track racing valve covers with the proper breathers on the left side and no holes on the right cover, for example."

GM has also developed a program to seal engines at the factory-a plus for sanctioning bodies or individual tracks looking to implement a crate engine program. GM's updated version of the 350 HO-the 350 HP-comes sealed from the factory. The seal employs twist-off, hex-headed bolts located at various places on the engine-the intake manifold, heads, front cover and oil pan on the ZZ4 and 350 HP. The bolts, which have a special GM logo making them difficult to duplicate, are designed to break at a specified torque. Whenever one is drilled out, the replacement bolts will have been manufactured showing them as bolts made expressly for a particular track or sanctioning body, which theoretically will have an engine rebuild system in place. The ZZ4 using the seals are marketed by GM as a "Limited Late Model Circle Track Engine." Curley's ACT, meanwhile, is doing research and development on a Dodge engine that potentially could be marketed for circle track racing.

Custom engine builder Poe, while suggesting alternatives to reducing costs, is not against crate engines, pointing out it all boils down to enforcement. Says Poe, "If there's a class of racing developed by some sanctioning body that says, 'Yes, we're going to run a crate engine in this particular class,' and they educate the track officials on all of the components of that engine so they can police it and still keep a level playing field, it's got a lot of merit to it."

Curley says the concept is drawing interest from short tracks around the country.