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Drag Racing Engines
By Brendan Baker
From the early days of drag racing up until the recent past, racers built everything for their cars themselves, from the engines and chassis to the shop equipment. Most racing teams pulled their racecars to the track behind the family station wagon or pickup truck. The personalities who participated in the sport were as colorful as they were resourceful.
Today, drag racing is as much business as it is sport. According to our select panel of experts, drag racing has become a turnkey business, which bodes well for engine builders who wish to reach the staging line of this niche market.
The first dragsters of the early 1950s were lightly modified production-based vehicles with virtually stock engines. By the mid 1970s, after “Big Daddy” Don Garlits lost part of a foot when his transmission exploded, Top Fuel dragsters began to take their current form with the engine in the back and big airfoil rear wings for aerodynamic downforce. Speeds soon climbed to the 270 mph mark, and by the late 1980s the 300 mph barrier had been broken.
Today the speeds are even greater, and drag racing continues to feed the speed culture of America. The sport today is a multi-million dollar industry and hundreds of engine suppliers test their products on the track on Sunday before selling them on Monday.
NASCAR’s billion-dollar industry oval track stock car racing may be getting a lot attention these days but drag racing has a dedicated fan base as well, with the largest amount of active participants of any of the motorsports disciplines. According to the Motorsports Industry Association, there are 155,000 active drag racers in the United States alone, and drag racing is gaining in popularity internationally, too. That’s a load of potential engine sales for performance engine builders who may be interested in building these fire-breathing monsters.
The top levels of drag racing in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) are full of professional teams with large corporate sponsors and big dollar racing budgets. In most cases, these professional race teams have their own engine programs and often they build engines for some of the smaller teams as well. Top Fuel and Funny Car teams tear down their engines after every run because with 7,000-plus hp, drivers are basically sitting on controlled bombs.
For the professional performance engine builder, the drag racing market offers the greatest potential at the grassroots level think Sportsman and Bracket racing. These classes are where engine builder’s services are most in demand, according to drag racing experts.
“Ninety percent of what we do is build drag racing engines, and most of them are for Sportsman and Bracket racers,” says Dick Fox of Champion Racing Engines in McCordsville, IN. “We build a lot of big block and small block Chevy engines for Bracket, Super Class, Quick 8, Quick 16, Top Dragster and Top Sportsman racers.”
Today, most Sportsman and Bracket racers have full-time jobs and are not interested in doing engine work, say our experts. These drivers make a lot of money doing whatever it is they do for a living and would rather pay you to build a competitive engine so they can go out and have fun.
“It seems that more and more people are buying turnkey engine packages,” says Fox, who reminds us that turnkey packages do not necessarily require a crate engine ,either. Champion offers several base engine packages, which are featured on their Web site and literature, but most engines are custom builds from the base engine starting point.
“We build what the customer wants, or what we see will be best for that particular application,” explains Fox. “Our engine packages are much more flexible than a standard crate engine from GM. We like to start an engine sale by first finding out what the racer is trying to accomplish. Does the car weigh 1,800 lbs or 3,000 lbs? Will he be racing in Denver, CO or at sea level? There are a lot of things that come into play when choosing the right components, rather than saying there is a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Part of what your racing customers are buying is your reputation, say experts. It’s your name on the valve covers and racers expect a little hand holding if it’s necessary. They’re buying more than the engine; they’re buying your attention as well.
See You at the Track
“My business isn’t just selling engines; I can sell you the whole package,” says Matt Driskell, Driskell Racing Engines of Wellsville, KS, and 1996 NHRA Super Comp World Champion. “Even though I don’t run a lot of races myself anymore I’ve got the experience to be able to help them. I run a 4-link dragster and most of my customers, whether they are Bracket or Super Class racers, run a similar setup. The customer service is my biggest benefit because I don’t do 250 engines per year; I build about 50 engines per year. I try to give a little more personal service to my customers. If I’m not there at the track, I’m on the phone with my customers first thing Monday morning.”
The drag racing experts we spoke to say that they go to the track most weekends whether it’s an NHRA or IHRA National event or a local bracket race. it’s important to show up and talk to your customers and help solve problems if there are any. Many shops also run a team and are at the races anyway so it’s a good way to keep current with the sport and help customers at the same time. It also doesn’t hurt to have your name on the side of the car for potential customers to see.
“We raced professionally for ten years and then quit for a while to concentrate on business, but we are going to start racing again,” explains Steve Schmidt owner of Steve Schmidt Racing Engines in Indianapolis, IN. “Someone from our shop tries to go to every NHRA National event just to help customers. We also feel it’s good to race some. It helps us keep our name out there and up on the latest engine developments, and we can service our customers.”
Schmidt says his shop sells about 750 engines per year and the most popular class for him is the Sportsman classes where engine costs can range from $12,000 up to $56,000, and everything in between.
Champion Engines’ Fox says they also run all the NHRA national events in an Alcohol Dragster, but will also go to the local races when time permits. “The weekends we can get off, I usually run up to one of the local Bracket events,” says Fox. “I’m at the racetrack just about every weekend during the season; I think you have to be because that’s where your customers are,” he says.
While the national events get most of the headlines in drag racing circles, Bracket racing is where engine builders can cash in the most engine sales. “Bracket racing is a pretty big market for me because everybody who owns a drag car isn’t racing just National NHRA/IHRA events,” says Driskell Racing’s Matt Driskell. “On the off weekends everyone is bracket racing, whether it’s at the local track or traveling to the big dollar bracket races. I travel to quite a few of the bracket races, too; definitely the local ones. If I can stay within five hours of home then I can get into work Monday morning. For example, there’s a bracket race in Memphis that draws 500 of the top drivers for a $20,000 purse.”
Bracket racers who race the big cash races get paid that day if they win and there are always several contingency prizes as well, so there’s money on the line. This, in turn, may drive racers to your door for engine work in order to stay competitive.
The big block Chevy is one of the more popular engines among bracket racers and sportsman-level racers, in part because bigger sometimes is better.
The trend in recent years has been to go bigger. One of the reasons, say industry experts, is that it’s the easiest way to achieve big horsepower. The parts are not much more expensive for a big block than they are for a full-tilt small block racing motor.
“The trend has been for drag racers to buy bigger engines than in the past because when you start buying good parts it doesn’t matter if you’re building a 302 small block or a 434,” says Driskell. “There’s a shade more labor, but it’s the same for a big block. You can build a 468 or you can build a 555 for about the same price if you’re buying aftermarket cranks and rods anyway. Generally though, the more power you make the better the parts you have to buy.
So the easiest way to gain horsepower is by adding more cubic inches. Well, it’s simplest, perhaps, but to be the most efficient it’s not always the best way. You need to have a good enough cylinder head and flow numbers to support the increase in cubic inches. You may lose some horsepower per cubic inch even though you’ll make more power if you leave the same head on it.”
“The most popular engine I build is the big block Chevy,” Driskell continues. “I do everything from the smaller 555 cid to a lot of 615, 632 and big cubic inch stuff. These engines are becoming much more popular. It’s an aluminum block with spread port, Pro Stock-style heads. It produces 1,100-1,200 hp with one carburetor.”
He continues: “The guys can Bracket race these engines and still make 250 runs on it before a rebuild needs to be done. These engines can run from around $25,000-$35,000, with the average cost around $30,000. And there are alternatives for people on a budget, such as not using raised cams and roller cam bearings. It will help save your customer some money if he’s on a smaller budget.”
Driskell and others say that building drag racing engines is very labor-intensive no matter what engine the customer orders. There really aren’t any bolt-on pieces. These engines are custom built for each customer according to their specific needs. Most of the time it takes a few phone calls with the customer to figure out exactly what he needs and how much he can afford. Is your customer only Bracket racing or competing in a specific class? Does he want to run on alcohol, gasoline or something more exotic?
Most drag race engine builders try to customize each engine, so therefore they may not use the same piston or the same cam in every build. Experts say that when a cylinder head manufacturer moves the valves here or there, the valve pockets in the pistons don’t always line up exactly. As a result, you may find you have to open the valve pockets a little bit.
Most of the blocks on the smaller strokes, such as the 555 cid, are not a lot of work, according to Driskell. “You bore, hone and deck the block and you’re ready to run. The crankshafts are pretty much the same way; you balance it and it’s ready to go. The rods are not modified. Most of the cylinder heads that come CNC ported have to be taken apart to grind for pushrod clearance, and to touch them up here and there, and milled for more compression if needed. Same thing is true with the intake manifold, if it doesn’t fit perfectly you’ll have to mill it and port match the intakes.”
Drag motor specialists agree that what sets them apart from others in the industry is their ability to build a specific combination. Being able to take a base platform and choose the right combination of parts and machine work is what will build your reputation as a quality engine builder.
The guys who are buying your engines want a proven, winning combination. Driskell, Schmidt, Fox and others say that success on the track has lead to more engine sales. Racers will seek you out in your shop if your engines perform on the track.
Special thanks to Travis Reynolds of the IHRA for photography used in this issue.