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.

An alternative is to sell the used engines for, say, $3,000, avoiding the $2,200 rebuild expenditure, then taking the money saved on rebuild, adding a $1,000 or so to it, and purchasing a new crate engine. Racers looking to get into the series benefit from buying the used engines, investing in a rebuild, and having $1,000 less invested than they would in a new engine. "They've got a comparable engine to the bigshots and they're buying their used cars," says Curley. "We've swelled from always having good car counts to now my biggest problem is we've got too many cars because I'm seeing a lot of guys who can't qualify."

Lost Soul?
Still, crate engines have their detractors, most notably among engine builders who provide custom-built engines to various racers around the country. Crate engines could potentially take money from their pockets, particularly if they're not approved by particular sanctioning bodies to do rebuilds on the engines-rebuilds that could be few and far between.

Cars competing in American Speed Association (ASA) events have been running spec engines since the 2000 season. ASA employs a version of the LS1 engine produced by General Motors, modified and sealed by ASA and sold to member teams.

Joe Balash, technical director for ASA, likes the cost advantages offered with spec engines. Where ASA teams were once spending in excess of $100,000 annually on engine programs, they're now getting the LS1s for $14,000 each, and the engines are lasting as long as 30 races-a full season and a half on the ASA circuit.

The argument that crate engines rob the sport of a significant part of its heart and soul is common, nonetheless. "We're working with the ASA member tracks to bring this technology to the local level, and you hear some of that," says Balash. "But at the end of the day, the key is to make sure that short track racing is viable in the future, and we need to do things to bring cost savings to all levels of racing. That's one of the things that we look at.

"There are a number of Late Models and Super Late Model teams that are spending anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 for an engine, and then running multiple engines. As the prices continue to escalate on those, there are fewer and fewer Super Late Models and Late Models in competition. By bringing some of those cost savings, we feel that it will be very good for the health of the sport."

There are other ways to contain those costs, however, according to Darrel Poe, whose business, DP Performance, is a major supplier of Late Model Stock engines in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series. "Yes, the costs of the components that go into building an engine have drastically changed-not only for the engine but for the entire race car," says Poe. "The steps of constructing a race car really haven't changed that much, but the components and the ingenuity and the design have changed drastically. That's where your increases have gone, and if the sanctioning body-be it NASCAR, CASCAR or whatever series-would write a little more language in certain areas of the rule book for the construction of the race car or construction of the engine, the costs could be brought down and still have a quote 'race' engine.

"If the sanctioning body sits down and takes a look at the rules they have in black and white, they're in total control of what they put down. We don't have to run a billet connecting rod. We don't have to run a high-dollar crankshaft. We don't have to run a custom piston. But we can still build a racing engine. That's the point."

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.

"From all the interest I get from promoters around the U.S., I would guess I get anywhere from two to three calls a month," says Curley. "The only problem is it's scary to take that first step, because you've got all your racers in place, they've got all their inventory, and they're sure as hell not anxious to go out and spend money on something they're not sure of. If you've got two $20,000 motors in your shop, the last thing you want to do is have somebody beat you with a $6,000 motor. So it's a very difficult play. What happens is once you convince them that it's the only way they're going to survive at the short track level, then I think they start to buy into it."

What's Next For Crate Engines
General Motors appears to have the market cornered on providing crate engines for oval track racing. At least one major touring series and a start-up series are each using GM crate engines.

The American Speed Association uses a modified version of GM's LS1, while the Team Racing Auto Circuit, scheduled to begin competition in April of 2003, will use a 7.0L bored-out version of the 5.7L LS1 in its Vipers, Corvettes and Mustangs.

Ford and Dodge offer crate engines but none are marketed specifically for oval track racing the way GM markets its 350 HO, 350 HP, or ZZ4 engines. "We probably have five (crate engines) that could be comparable to circle track applications," said Ford's Angelo Giampetroni, national sales manager. "We don't specifically have a circle track engine per se."

Dodge, meanwhile, is studying its options in the crate engine market, according to Ted Flack, manager of NASCAR engine programs for the company. "We're digging in and looking to see what to do next," says Flack. "There are so many things to do in motorsports that you just can't do them all. But we're looking and trying to figure out what to do (regarding crate engines)."

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