Fact: There are more than 700 dirt tracks in this country and a vast number of them have some type of a Dirt Late Model (DLM) series. Some even have multiple DLM classes.
In addition, there are dozens of traveling series headed by the top-gun Lucas and World of Outlaw groups. They support a multitude of crown jewel races, such as the World 100, The Dream, the North-South 100, the World Dirt Track Championship, and others that pay $50,000 to $100,000. At Eldora Speedway in 2003, there was even a race that paid a million to win!
It is therefore easy to see that dirt late model cars rule the short tracks and have fan support that is unbelievable to comprehend. And with the great motivation to win, a large industry has evolved for engine development and production to support the sport.
These totally-aftermarket engines burn gasoline, sport compression ratios in the mid-teens, use large four-barrel carbs and produce more than 800 hp. We took a look at this market by polling some of the prominent engine builders in the market today. They told us about their engine building philosophies and their concerns about the growing cost of the dirt late model sport. Here are their thoughts on a number of different aspects of their business:
We first asked just what size engines dirt late model engine builders were building these days.
Cornett Engines, located in Somerset, KY, has been in business since 1948 and was established by “Red” Cornett. It is headed today by his son, Jack, who told us, “I have had the same displacement ranges for 20 years, from 400-440 cid and 800-840 horses. I also have a 50-50 split between Ford and Chevy engines.
Malcuit Racing Engines, Strasburg, OH, has an added aspect to their business. Brad Malcuit has previously been a car owner and continues today as an active dirt late model driver. Malcuit cars have won every major dirt late model event since he began business in 1972. Many of the top drivers have used his engines. Brad has also won several ‘Driver of the Year’ awards. Malcuit’s engines are of a lower displacement, some at 388 cid with 442 being the tops. “The smaller engine, though, can still make 800 horsepower,” Malcuit said.
Jay Dickens Racing was officially formed in 1996, but Dickens admits he worked out of his garage for several years prior. His Aberdeen, MS company has always concentrated on the dirt late model engines, but there were a few pavement engines built initially. Success has been substantial with hundreds of wins. Dickens says, “My engines work best in the 420-450 cid range. With engines this big, they can handle the increased horsepower.”
Jim Kuntz Racing started in 1963, initially working with drag racing. He opened his Arkadelphia, AR, shop in 1986 and quickly owned seven NHRA national records. He still builds drag motors but, now, DLM engines make up half his business, he says.
“It’s sort of like the only thing better than a 380 now is a little bigger. It used to be the 380 cid, but now you can’t sell one. It’s 410 to 450 cubic inch small-block Chevys and Fords.”
Baker Engineering has nearly 50 years of racing industry involvement and is a name synonymous with horsepower in the Midwest. They pride themselves on the fact that everything within the facility at BEI is engineering driven. President Jack Jerovsek says, “Our dirt late model engines that we build vary from 350 to 454 cid. The biggest variable affecting engine displacement is track conditions, specifically the amount of traction on the track.”
Draime Enterprises was named after brothers David and John Draime, who grew up around racing. Their father, Russell Draime, began racing in 1952. When David and John were in their teens they began to do work for other racers, which included building engines, race cars, and chassis set-up. By the time they had both finished school, they had a large enough customer base that they were able to work on race cars full-time. In 1973, Draime Enterprises was founded and four years later, they were only building engines. John says their engines range from 380 to 450 cid, “depending on the customer.”
The name Roush/Yates needs no introduction to the racing world. What a lot of people don’t know is that they build a large variety of engines in and outside of NASCAR. One such area is DLM and RYR’s Brad Loden says, “Everyone wants the largest thing you can build. We have certain horsepower and torque values we like to meet with the smallest displacement necessary. The larger (440 cid and up) engines do not seem to accelerate as well and can be gear sensitive.”
Our second question was about the effects of the economy on engine sales.
Malcuit says he is down 10-20%. “The economy is a factor that is causing some older drivers to retire and there aren’t enough younger guys coming along to take their place,” he says.
Dickens echoed these thoughts, “The economy has definitely affected us, especially because it has resulted in longer times between engine rebuilds, which is a big part of our business.”
Kuntz says, “Our new sales are down. It’s harder to get deposits, and it’s taking longer for racers to pick them up.”
Jerovsek explains, “Quite simply, there are just fewer people racing, particularly in the higher level classes like DLM. In addition to lower car counts, we also see teams running fewer races in order to keep costs down – less travel, less wear and tear on the car, fewer laps on the engine, etc.”
Draime agrees with the others, saying, “A lot of the hobby racers have dropped out. Also many racers have cut back on traveling.”
But Loden says, “Top level racers always find a way to race. The local Saturday night racers have been hit the worst by the economy. Most racers just keep freshening old engines instead of buying new. Roush/Yates has noticed these effects and found ways to make our engines last longer, as well as offer used engines and parts to the public.”
Cornett says, “Everything is down about 20 percent, which results in a smaller profit margin.”
Next, we asked about the weak links in a typical DLM engine.
Malcuit indicated that there is no main weak point in their DLM engines in particular. “You run into various problems due to material and manufacturing flaws. This sometimes comes in cycles,” he says. “I am still an active driver and will do testing when I am racing, which helps me uncover potential problems.”
Kuntz was quick to answer with, “Roller lifters are number one and number two is rod bolt and rocker arms.”
Draime says, “Technology has come a long way, and with this comes increased rpms, causing potential valvetrain issues.”
Loden points out, “The entire engine takes a beating at high rpm. Did you know that the piston speed in a 4.00? stroke dirt engine at 8,800 rpm is more than the piston speed of a NASCAR engine at 10,000 rpm?”
Cornett says from his point of view, the pistons and valvetrain are the first to go. “At 9,000 rpm, there is tremendous stress and strain on those parts. Most of the time, it’s more than is needed.”
That 9,000 rpm figure was also mentioned by Dickens, “It’s often an issue with us, too,” he says.
We changed gears and asked about NASCAR’s recent move to fuel injection and would that be a reasonable move for the DLM engines. The answers were almost a unanimous, “no thank you.”
Kuntz said, “You would just have to change the induction side – intake manifolds and so on. In Sportsman, it costs more and makes less power,” he notes.
Jerovsek explains, “Switching to EFI would require conversion of the core DLM engine, not a completely new engine. Modifications would be required for things like the intake manifold, sensors, crank trigger and distributor. The obvious benefit would be improved driveability.”
Draime echoes others’ comments in that it would cost racers money. “Given the state of the economy, I would suggest that the rules not be changed. Every rule change causes the racer to spend additional money.”
Loden offered, “Current engines could be used. To fully take advantage of EFI, we would probably make changes to the intake manifold, camshaft and compression ratio.”
Cornett cautions, “It would be more expensive and complicated, and many things could go wrong.”
Dickens agrees. “We have such a good handle on the carburetor, why change to something else now?”
Malcuit chimes in, saying that some of the technology could be borrowed from NASCAR, “There’s the greater expense for EFI electronics and research and development,” he says. “Quite frankly, fuel injection should not be a part of dirt late model racing in my opinion.”
With their sometimes total involvement in the sport, we asked our experts about their concerns for the future of DLM racing. And their answers were well connected.
Draime said, “Not having full fields, our sport needs to have enough cars at events to make the event exciting and competitive. One example is Eldora. Rather than having 200+ cars, the entry list has dropped to around 160 if I’m not mistaken.”
Kuntz says, “I’m concerned about a good viable series, good promoters and track prep. I worry about the sheer dollars to do it and the regulations that are involved. However, there will always be people to do it.”
Loden says, “The crate engine has taken the place of local Saturday night open engine racing. The top level guys have lost their places to sell season-old equipment,” he explains. “That slows down the cycle of the touring race teams continually buying new engines and passing down their old equipment.”
Cornett he’s most worried about the costs as there are no rules in this type of racing. “Everybody wants more horsepower and rpms, which means more money. We need to make the engines cheaper with a fixed displacement, along with reduced compression ratio and rpm limits,” he says.
Dickens adds, “These engines are putting a lot of teams out of business. The weekly guys are really getting hurt. One way to help would just allow the big traveling teams to use these unlimited engines with local drivers using a small block engine with 9:1 compression ratio, a 390 cfm carb and a rev limiter.”
Malcuit agrees with Dickens saying that an engine such as this with reduced power could make 600 horsepower with much longer engine life. He also adds, “Maybe a crate engine could be another choice for the limited series cars.”
For our last question, we asked about marketing techniques for selling engines.
Kuntz says he doesn’t do a lot of advertising. “We go on referrals,” he says. “Dependability and word of mouth will bring customers. If you have the power to run in the top five, they’ll look at you.”
Loden offers some effective ideas as well. “Always remain open minded to customer feedback,” he says. “Under promise and over deliver. People sell to people. Build the best product, provide the best customers service, and win.”
Cornett was quite frank about this subject, “Racers buy what wins. They are watching over drivers and buy based on what they see. They know what the engine is that each driver is using.”
Dickens added, “Winning the big races is like money in the bank. I work closely with certain drivers; which also provides exposure.”
Malcuit indicated that competing on the track is an excellent marketing tool. “I think I get a lot of respect from the other drivers as they know I am testing my engines from a driver”s point of view.”
Dirt Late Model racing engines have their own niche. And it’s one of the biggest in racing.