There isn't much that separates Todd Higdon from racers all over the country. He started out in go-karts and moved up a step at a time until he got to the V-8 cars. He works a full-time job, considers racing a hobby, and has raced all his life out of his own pocket. Sounds familiar, right? It is until you add this fact: Last year, Todd Higdon's racing program paid for itself.
The difference was a pretty dramatic change in Higdon's philosophy on racing, but it was one that paid off handsomely. Like many racers, the driver from Danielsville, in northern Georgia, had always tried to move up to the next class as soon as his finances and abilities allowed. It was fun and always a challenge racing against better competition, but Higdon realized it also kept him a small fish in a big pond. It wasn't until he decided to take what many would consider to be a step "down" that he began having the all-around success that he'd been after for years.
In The Beginning"My buddy and I started out racing go-karts for about 10 years before we started car racing," Higdon says. "When more tracks started popping up around the North Georgia area, my buddy and I went in together and built our first four-cylinder car."
Higdon raced Mini-Stocks on dirt for a few years before deciding to move again. In 2001, he made the jump to asphalt and began racing a touring Super Late Model series. But Higdon wasn't having as much fun as he had hoped, and his wallet was taking a beating.
"I know plenty of people love racing on asphalt, but it wasn't as much fun for me, personally, as racing on dirt," he says. "Plus, it really opened my eyes that at this level, racing really became a money game. You always had to be on brand new tires when you unloaded or else you would be slow. For the cost of just the tires combined with the typical purses, if you weren't running Second every week, you really couldn't foot the bill for the night."
Higdon went back to dirt again for 2002, this time racing Late Models in the Southern All Stars touring series. Again, money put a big crimp in the racing plans. "When I decided to go back to dirt, I was fortunate to find some used cars that were very reasonable," Higdon says. "The car came with a motor, and I also had a new one built. I thought I was all set to race with the big boys, but I realized pretty quickly that with no funding, other than my own money, I wasn't going to be able to compete against the bigger guys with sponsors.
"The biggest problem was I had a bit of bad luck, and I just didn't have the money to recover from it," he continues. "We blew three motors that year, which hit the pocketbook pretty hard. The all-aluminum motors for that series cost between $20,000 and $30,000, and I had a new motor that gave up on me after 18 laps in one race. That is something that's just part of the game when you are racing at a high level, but losing a new hand-built motor that quickly was still pretty hard to stomach. Because I was always trying to scrape up money to get the motors rebuilt, I managed to only race 10 times that season. It wasn't exactly what I got into racing for."
Opportunity KnocksOf course, Higdon's struggles to finance his racing obsession were hardly unique. It is the racers, however, who are often their own worst enemy. Rule makers and the sanctioning bodies have for years been searching for ways to lower the cost of racing, but racers have historically found interesting-and even more expensive-ways around the rules. If the rules limit what you can do in one area, racers will often pour their money into another.
The one change that has had some success in cutting costs, however, is the recent phenomenon of sealed crate engines. The sealed engine-meaning teams can't work on or adjust anything in the engine-first saw acceptance in a top-level racing series in the ASA in the late '90s when the series instituted a version of Chevrolet's LS1 powerplant. Since then, many local tracks have taken advantage of GM's line of sealed crate motors built specifically for racing. There are a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the debate when it comes to crate motors, but one thing is certain: Few can compete with the General when it comes to cheap horsepower.
Stan Lester was a longtime racer who had also grown tired of the escalating costs required to be competitive. Lester had also watched the growing acceptance of sealed crate motor programs and thought the idea would work well in a touring series for Dirt Late Models.
"I had raced for nearly 40 years and watched the costs involved just increase year after year," Lester says. "Before I got out, I owned a Late Model team in an asphalt touring series. I owned a car, two motors, and two rear ends outright. We won over 90 percent of our races and still lost money. It was crazy, and I knew that a lot of tracks weren't making any money either. In a lot of cases, the dropping car counts meant fewer people in the stands."
The solution, Lester decided, was to sell his race team and start his own racing series. Using his own racing experience, he built his parameters around what he felt would provide the best racing at the least cost. First, he would race dirt tracks, because it is what he describes as his first love. Racing on dirt also has the advantage that new tires aren't normally as critical for speed. Dirt racers can often get by racing two or more events on just about everything except the right rear, which wears quicker. Another critical cost-saving measure Lester decided on early was to require sealed crate engines. Thus was born the Fastrak Champions Series, one of the first touring Dirt Late Model racing series anywhere to depend solely on crate engines.
Making The SwitchLester felt he had the right formula for a successful racing series, but he also knew he needed racers to fill the field. Lester knew Higdon-knew him as a hard-nosed racer who had struggled, not from a lack of desire or determination, but from a lack of cold, hard cash. After struggling in his first season racing the Southern All Stars Series, Higdon had spent 2003 racing at a local track and wasn't necessarily looking to join a touring series again. Still, the unique aspects of Lester's new series were enough to pique his interest.
"Stan Lester approached me late in 2003," Higdon explains. "He told me he was starting a new Late Model series that would be racing GM crate engines and asked if I might be interested in racing in it. I said I was willing to look at anything that could save me a little money and still allow me to race."
Lester's aim with the Fastrak Champions Series was to create a place to race for either Late Model racers who found they simply couldn't afford to race competitively at that level, or racers looking for more seat time in a Late Model chassis before moving up to the full-blown Late Models with all-aluminum engines producing upwards of 700 hp.