While the World of Outlaws, the All-Stars and USAC are the most well-known of the sprint car racing organizations in this country, and USAC is probably the best known of the midget racing organizations, there have been many new groups surfacing in the past several years.
According to Allan Brown, publisher of The National Sprint Car Annual, there are more than 50 organizations that now sanction sprint car racing. In addition, many of those organizations sanction several different divisions of sprint car racing. And that number doesn’t take into account the racetracks throughout the country that have their own division of sprint cars.
Brown also publishes The National Speedway Directory. This directory comes out each year, and would be a great source of information for any shop that provides, or intends to provide, performance engines for any motorsport market. It lists pretty much every racetrack in the United States and Canada; along with all the sanctioning bodies for all types of racing in the United States and Canada.
While the number of sprint car organizations is somewhat large, the engine combinations are somewhat limited. Some organizations such as USAC will be very specific in the rulebook, while others may only specify a cubic inch limitation.
In the sprint car ranks, you’ll find engine combinations of mostly V8s, from 305 cid to 410 cid. The most common will be 360 and 410 cubic inches. While you will find a few Fords, most will be Chevrolet. Several years ago, Mopar jumped into the sprint car wars and you will also see a number of them on the track, depending on the series. They were very popular a few years ago, but the venerable Chevy small block has caught back up. There are also a few V6 engines used in sprint cars.
Remember; each organization is different, but an organization that races 410 cubic inch motors will probably have similar rules as another group that races with a 410 cubic inch limit. However, keep in mind that each organization has its own rules. Some may allow any modification as long as you stay under the cubic inch limit, while others may specify parts used, such as heads, injectors, or whether you can use an aluminum or cast iron block.
So, that being said, if you want to get into the sprint car engine business, the first thing you need is a rulebook for each organization or track that you will be building engines for. Keep in mind that in most cases sprint car racing is a much higher level of racing than the street stocks, bombers, or even modifieds that you find at many tracks, and, if it is one of the 50-plus traveling organizations, they will all be top notch teams.
At the top levels of sprint car racing, many of the drivers are full time professionals, something that can also be said for midget racers. While we all are experiencing some tough economic times the past year or so, it hasn’t seemed to affect motorsports, at least not yet.
According to Doug Auld, publisher of Sprint Car & Midget magazine, the car counts at many races so far this year have actually been way up. At the Annual Chili Bowl Indoor Midget Race in Tulsa, OK, they had nearly 300 entries. The American Sprint Car Series (ASCS), a National Sprint Car Association recently raced at Devils Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, TX, and had 65 cars entered.
As a journalist covering all types of motorsports, I talk to shop owners, engine builders, and manufacturers almost daily, and most say they have been swamped with work since last season ended. One Michigan engine builder I spoke with has built or freshened more than fifty engines already this year. While other parts of your business may be feeling the pinch of a slow economy, if you do high performance work, this may be the niche that keeps you going.
The National Speedway Directory lists around 20 sanctioning organizations for full-size midget racing. So, while the number of organizations for midget racing is smaller than for sprints, the engine variety is much greater. In midget racing, it isn’t uncommon to see five or six different engines at one event, possibly even more. As you travel around the country, the rules for each organization are a little different – it would be much tougher to travel the country with a midget than it is traveling with a sprint car.
At the Chili Bowl, there were many engine brands represented, including an Offy! If we use the numbers just from this event, Ford and Chevy power are overwhelming favorites in the midget ranks, with more than half the entries powered by one or the other. The rest of the field was powered by almost anything else, including Honda, Toyota, Pontiac, Buick and Mopar. This variety makes it even more imperative that you keep up with the rules for any organization you will be building engines for.
Building sprint or midget engines is much different than it was 10-20 years ago when anyone could build an engine and expect it to perform fairly well. The engines in use today are very specialized and, as often as not, the top builders have put in a lot of R&D time to make their engines successful.
If you’ve never built a sprint car engine, expect to have a “learning curve” as you spend your own R&D time looking for just the right combination. While the Sprint motors seem to be just your basic “small block Chevy V8,” to compete at the top and consistently put your customer in the winner’s circle, you need to give them an edge. Yes, you can go out and simply buy a rotating assembly and build a motor for a sprint car, but so can everyone else. Who has the edge then?
The winners on the track are those who have something different (read better) than the other competitors. To have racers beating a path to your door, you need to give them an edge, which means spending time and money on R&D. If you build an engine that consistently beats the competition, not only will most of those competitors become your customers, you will also have as much work as you can handle.
Although not true in every case, for the most part, nearly all sprint car competitors have very good equipment. One reason for this is that the engine rules have stayed pretty consistent for the past 20 years or more. That allows a trickle down affect from the full-time “professionals,” to the one or two night-a-week racer. The top guns in many of the organizations build new each year and a weekly hobby racer could easily run their hand-me-downs for several years without any trouble. But they will need a good shop to freshen those motors and keep them in top condition, which could easily be you.
That theory doesn’t quite work in the midget ranks because the engine rules have not been as stable as the sprint engine rules have been. Now some may want to argue with me over that point but understand this: the sprint car racers and engine builders have had basically three engines to choose from for about fifty years; Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler.
However, you can now add Toyota to that list as it came out with a V8 engine several years ago and adapted it to sprint car racing. That engine is just a 360 cid design that wouldn’t be used in 410 racing, the most popular of the sprint car engines. So far, it hasn’t really caught on.
While the basic design of the small block Chevy hasn’t changed much in, well, about forever, the engines used in the midget ranks are more like hybrids. It wasn’t that long ago that the old Chevy II was the preferred power source for midgets. Then along came the Volkswagen engines and the Chevy IIs could no longer keep up. It seems as if every few years, another engine comes along and takes over. You will still see VWs and Chevy IIs powering midgets, but you won’t see them at the top echelon.
While the cubic inch limits have not changed a lot for the midget organizations, the engine brands and configurations have continuously evolved. So, while they may be based on an OEM design, virtually every piece that goes into them is an aftermarket piece, and for the top builders, most of those pieces are proprietary to their engines. You can buy a rod for your Chevrolet-based sprint car motor from a host of suppliers, but chances are that if you need a set of rods for your Esslinger Ford you’ll need to get it from Esslinger.
Okay, so you’ve never built a sprint or midget motor and you want to know, “Where do I start?” Earlier I said the first place to start is with a rulebook. That’s a good place to start, but it’s not the finish. You also need to head to the racetrack, find out what the racers need or what’s working for them.
Let’s look at how the top builders approach engine building, keeping in mind that they all had to start somewhere too, just like you. Like we talked about earlier, the top shops reached the top because they built a product that produced results, just like any other successful business.
The top builders all have at least one dyno cell, and many have more than one. The dyno is used mainly for R&D, but also for quality control. Most top builders run every engine they build on the dyno, before the engine leaves the shop.
The nice thing about having it is that if you dyno each engine, and if you build and maintain a file of the dyno charts, you can compare engine to engine (if you’re just building one or two types). Some NASCAR teams with an engine program have what they call the “1 percent rule” where every engine must dyno to within 1 percent of the standard for that engine. On an 800 horsepower engine, that would be just 8 horsepower.
You won’t need to be quite that perfect, but you will get a feel for where an engine should be. If you dyno an engine after building and it’s outside your standards, you’ll know you have a problem. And you sure wouldn’t want that engine going to a customer when it’s less than your best.
The R&D capabilities at the upper level of racing has made for huge gains in horsepower. Twenty years ago the top sprint car 410s were probably averaging 650-700 horsepower – today that figure is approaching 900 horsepower!
The same holds true when you “freshen” or rebuild an engine for a customer. When you dyno the rebuild you can refer to the original dyno chart for that particular engine and compare your rebuild numbers to the numbers for that engine when it was new, or when it was rebuilt the last time. This quality control is important; putting out a bad product will simply kill your high performance business.
Most of the top builders now also have a SpinTron for endurance testing purposes. Used mainly to test valve train components, a SpinTron can assure you of the durability of not only the parts you use, but also the combinations you try in your R&D work.
Some builders also have a chassis dyno, which is just another way to test combinations during R&D. In modern sprint car and midget racing, the engine and chassis must work together for the best performance.
The top builders have also developed relationships with suppliers. Although parts like rods and crankshafts are generally used “off-the-shelf,” other parts such as pistons, cams and heads are custom manufactured to the builders’ specifications.
These custom designs are the result of a lot of R&D time. This work has produced little “secrets” that keep the winners ahead of the pack. Just look at the dominance the DEI cars enjoyed a few years ago at the restrictor plate tracks in Sprint Cup racing. Don’t expect your competitors to share those secrets with you!
As an automotive machine shop or rebuilder, you already have most of the equipment needed to do performance work; you may even have a dyno. Perhaps you’ve even built high performance engines but want to step it up a little more. Regardless of whether you’re just getting into performance engines or want to increase involvement, two things will be the key to your success: one, get out to the track to find out what is working now and what the racers need; and two, start talking to your suppliers. They will be your best source of information getting into this market.
Purebred “race engines” such as those used in sprint and midget racing, are total packages. Each and every part is just one piece of a puzzle that must fit together perfectly for the best performance. Most of you know the top NASCAR Sprint Cup teams have their own engine departments, some of which have upwards of 100 people building engines, machining parts and performing a lot of testing and development. R&D is the lifeblood of the top Sprint Cup teams. Sprint and midget teams haven’t reached that point yet, but the engine builders they rely on have!
We have been discussing full-size sprint cars and midgets, but they aren’t your only options – there is even more diversity out there. There are mini-Sprints, micro-sprints, three-quarter midgets, and mini midgets. They look like their full-grown cousin, but just on a smaller scale.
For the most part, these divisions use four-cycle motorcycle engines from 600cc to 1,200cc. If you have any experience in motorcycle engines, this would be a great place to find your performance niche. While you’ll need to check the rulebooks again, most of the engines used in these series must remain virtually stock with only slight modifications.
As a shop owner, you need to determine your expertise and where you can start if you want to get into the sprint or midget markets. If it’s a niche that will work for you, it could be just that little bit more of diversification that will keep your shop going.
For more information about the National Sprint Car Annual or the National Speedway Directory, visit www.speedwaysonline.com.
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