There were three crate motor options available for the series' first season in 2004. The first is what Lester calls the "Fastrak Crate Motor." It is a sealed crate motor Lester commissioned from an engine builder. The other two options come straight from General Motors. The "little motor," as the racers have taken to calling it, is GM's 350ci, 355hp motor. The part number is 88958602-although most people simply call it the 602 motor-and sells for around $3,100. The third option is GM's high-horsepower option, the 400hp 604 engine (PN 88958604). Both GM options are versions of the company's street-use crate motors with the addition of eight-quart circle track oil pans, valve cover kits with breathers, and in the case of the 602, a high-rise dual-plane intake. Because it comes up short by about 50 hp, compared to either the Fastrak Crate Engine or the 604, drivers racing the 602 engine are given a 100-pound weight break (2,300 pounds versus 2,400 pounds. Any car running the 430hp Fastrak Engine must weigh 2,450 pounds.). Lester says that 90 percent of the cars ran one of the two GM offerings, and many chose the less powerful 602 engine in order to get the weight break.
"I liked the fact that everybody would be running the same engines, so you couldn't go out and simply buy more power than the next guy," Higdon explains. "Plus, Stan made the rules so that Late Model racers could keep almost all of their equipment. I was able to run the very same car; all I did was pull my dry-sump system off, pull the engine out, and set my new motor right in its place.
"I chose the little engine, the 602, because it gave me a 100-pound weight break. I found that the 602 is just an excellent engine. I'm surprised GM has been able to build an engine that is that affordable but also makes that much power and is so durable. I ran the thing for 18 races, and out of 18 races I was able to finish in the top three seven times. I never finished worse than 10th. I'm going to keep running it this season (2005), but the motor already paid for itself a long time ago."
Lester has instituted other rules designed to keep costs contained, but the sealed crate motors are definitely the most important when it comes to helping racers keep their racing affordable. Plus, he has shown he's serious about keeping the "sealed" part of the equation legit. To keep the series from becoming a joke where the top competitors all run "sealed" motors that actually have significant upgrades, Lester has mandated a stiff set of penalties for anyone caught tampering with their powerplant. The offender is levied a $1,000 fine, loses all points, and is banned from the series for the rest of the season.
The PayoffLester says he runs an open tech area where anyone is welcome to watch every car go through inspection, and he allows no leniency when it comes to the engine rules. He does, however, encourage ingenuity in other areas of the car. "I want our racers to use their heads to find ways to go faster," he says. "If a guy can come up with a way of doing something that gives him an advantage, then good for him. The only thing I don't want to see is people going out and spending tons of money on parts. Then it becomes more of an arms race."
The feeling is that with the severe penalties for cheating, more racers will be confident that the rest of the competition isn't cheating and won't be tempted to do it themselves. So far, it has worked and the car counts have grown. The Fastrak Champions Series' first race in 2005 (a non-point paying warm-up event) drew 89 cars. Most events last season drew 18 to 22 cars, a good number by any count, but most estimate there will be significantly more cars at just about every track the series goes to in 2005.
"Racing in a touring series has expenses that you cannot avoid, such as fuel for your tow vehicle, but the less expensive motors makes it a lot easier," Higdon says. "If my motor cost is $3,000 versus the $30,000 that the Late Model guys are investing in their all-aluminum motors, then my income per race can be significantly lower. Whether it is from sponsors or just winnings, it doesn't matter."
"Plus, it has put the fun back in racing for me. Let's just say you did run your crate motor for 20 races and it blew up. For 3,000 bucks, if you've run 20 races, you probably made five or six thousand in purse money. You've made money on that engine, so you can get out of the car when it blows up and laugh about it. You don't have to sit down beside it or be sick to your stomach because you are out $28,000. Now you can get out and say, 'Dang! That was a good one!'"
Another by-product of the crate engine program is that the racing is very close. Fastrak Champions Series races are usually 50 laps, and Higdon says it isn't unusual to see two- and three-wide racing on just about every lap. "You tend to tear up more sheetmetal that way," he says with a laugh, "but the crowd in the stands loves it. And if you can get more people in the stands, then that makes your series that much more healthy.
"For the first time in my personal history of racing," he continues, "my car is actually paying for itself. And I've also been able to get my first sponsor. A lot of that comes from the fact that I was able to win the championship in 2004. But it was wide open when the season started because nobody could go out and outspend everyone and essentially buy a championship. Everywhere I raced before I was just another driver with just another car because I couldn't afford to spend the kind of money required to allow me to run up front. And until I could run up front, I couldn't attract the sponsors that would bring the money I needed. By taking out the huge up-front costs involved with buying and maintaining a top-flight motor, this series has allowed me to race competitively without having to mortgage the farm to pay for it. By giving everybody the same horsepower, it has allowed the drivers and mechanics to step forward and made the racing a lot more fun."