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.
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."