Growing Your Grassroots Engine Business
By Jim Walbolt
Webster's Dictionary defines "grassroots" in several ways, including two that are particularly appropriate for this month's article on racing engines. These two definitions are:
1) "Ordinary citizens, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite."
2) "The origin or basis of something."
The first definition could easily be interpreted as the local racers compared to the recognizable, highly paid stars of NASCAR, IRL, Champ Car, NHRA or Formula One, while the second definition can be interpreted as nearly any division of racing throughout the country that competes at your local race track. Keep in mind that every star driver on the NASCAR, IRL, or Formula One circuit started as a local racer in another division at some point in his or her career.
And while we are on the subject of NASCAR, IRL and Formula One, keep in mind that these "elite" series represent a very small percentage of racers and racing. However, because of their high profile and popularity, racers and those businesses that cater to racers have seen motorsports popularity increase tremendously.
Some estimates put the number of racers competing on what could be called the grassroots level (essentially everything other than NASCAR NEXTEL CUP, Busch and Craftsman Truck series; IRL and Champ Car World Series; Formula One; and professional levels of NHRA and IHRA drag racing) at more than 451,000. Of course, there are several "traveling" series that may have a few full-time racers but, for the most part, the majority of competitors in these series are not full-time, although many may dream of being the next Dale Earnhardt, John Force, or Sam Hornish.
While circle track and drag racing are by far the two largest segments of racing with around 300,000 competitors split pretty much evenly (drag racing enjoys a slight edge), other segments would include autocross, rally, road racing, off-road, and karting.
The sport compact market has also made inroads into a passion for racing that was once dominated by the American V8s. The appearance of these vehicles has become commonplace at most of the 1,400-plus racetracks across North America. Tracks have found ways to accommodate them, opening whole new markets for performance businesses.
New forms of racing have also entered the realm of motorsports along with these vehicles. Just take a look at a magazine stand and you'll see the many titles devoted just to sport compact-type vehicles. Leafing through these magazines you may see terms like "countersteer," "drifting" and "Choku-Dori" that you have never heard before. But hey, don't knock it! New types of race cars or forms of racing can mean increased business for your shop.
While all different forms of racing have been mentioned, the purpose of this article will concentrate on the local track market in this article. You can be sure that Engine Builder magazine will touch on these other markets in future issues.
Growing and Changing
Though it would be very easy for racetracks to continue doing things the way they always have, most racetracks have added new divisions to accommodate these new racers. But in the process, they have also enhanced many of their other divisions of racing with rules to try and make the sport more affordable, including changes such as requiring a "spec" or "crate" motor.
In an attempt to reduce the high cost of racing, many sanctioning bodies and racetracks are experimenting with or already using what could be described as spec or crate engine programs. General Motors was one of the first to offer a crate engine for racing, but now numerous manufacturers including Ford and Dodge have crate engine programs. Not to be left out several large engine remanufacturers also offer crate motors.
Racing organizations that have taken to the crate engines include ASA (American Speed Association), ACT (American Canadian Tour), USAC (United States Auto Club) and numerous racetracks that run NASCAR Late Model Stock Cars.
In most cases, these engines are sealed so that the racing teams cannot perform any repairs or modifications. An authorized builder must perform engine rebuilds.
All engines used for ASA LMS competition must be sealed by the manufacturer and/or a Certified Engine Builder and must remain in the "as shipped" condition. The series uses a double redundant sealing system that must be displayed at all times. All engines, with or without this sealing process are subject to testing and or confiscation at any time during a sanctioned event. The engines approved for use in ASA competition are:
GM part number 88958604 with upgraded 1.6 GM Rockers, p/n: 12370839 only;
Ford part number M-6007-D347R2;
Ford part number M-6010-BOSS302 (Available late 2007 season);
Dodge part number P5007958;
McGunegill Ford part number ASA 425 LM;
Stanton Dodge part number ASALMS75360.
ASA has a network of 22 Certified Engine Builders across the country.
USAC began the Ford Focus Midget Series several years ago as a spec racing division. The only engine allowed in this series is the Ford Focus engine as supplied by an authorized representative of Ford Racing Division. Although not a true crate engine, these engines are similar in the fact that engine builders are building each engine as near to identical as possible.
Another reason for these additions and changes is the popularity of racing and the number of participants that continue to increase each year in all forms of racing. This increase in popularity, along with the addition of new divisions is great news for any shop that services this market.
While most oval tracks have one or two marquee divisions, they also have support divisions. It is fairly common to see four to six different types of racing during a normal show at your local track.
For instance, Toledo Speedway in Toledo, OH, is owned by the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA), a sanctioning organization that is a companion series to NASCAR at numerous venues, including Daytona, Michigan and Talladega. Many NASCAR drivers used ARCA as a stepping stone to their careers, including Benny Parsons, Mark Martin, Darrell Waltrip, and Kyle Busch.
While ARCA itself may not be a true grassroots racing organization (it has its share of personalities and television coverage), a regular weekly show at Toledo Speedway would include Sportsman, Figure 8, Factory Stock, and 4-Cylinder classes of racing, each of which can easily be considered grassroots.
Auto City Speedway in Flint, MI, has a similar program for its regular weekly shows, featuring ACSS/Pro Late Models, Modifieds, Factory Stocks, Thunder Trucks, Lead Sleds and Hornets. The following descriptions of each division is from the Auto City Speedway's Web site:
ACSS/Pro Late Models: Template bodied cars with Super Late Model tube chassis, tires and specked crate motors. Known as the Auto City Super Stocks (Pro Late Model) Division, these cars are a favorite with fans. Built to resemble cars such as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Taurus or Fusion and the Chrysler Intrepid or Charger. They most resemble NASCAR'S NEXTEL Cup, Busch Series and Hooters Cup series cars.
Modifieds: As the name implies, these cars are almost completely modified with the one exception of a factory production front clip frame from a 1960 or newer American passenger car. As an open wheel non- fender racecar, they are a prelude to Sprint and Indy open-wheel-type racing. They have evolved into one of the fastest short track classes and follow a strict set of build rules for body and motors.
Factory Stocks: Standard size American-made coupes or sedans (two- or four-door type), these cars are the Super Late Models of the late '60s and early '70s. Racing on the quarter-mile track, they provide some of the best and most exciting racing in the Midwest. They are a large and very competitive class with some of the best drivers seen anywhere in the Midwest.
Thunder Trucks: Any full-size American-made truck, with an engine made for the year and model, can compete in this class. With the popularity of pickup trucks in the U.S., this class has become a fan favorite with their resemblance to the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks. Racing on the quarter-mile track, their rules are similar to the Factory Stock division. With no other full size truck divisions in the Midwest, Thunder Truck racing can only be seen at the Auto City Speedway.
Lead Sleds: A class of race cars formed by the Auto City Speedway in 2002 to be a more affordable type of racing and utilize the growing inventory of the larger American made cars. The class includes four-door models, station wagons, Lincoln Continentals, Cadillacs and more. The division is a more economical type of racing for the racer to enjoy and hone their skills. It is one of the larger car divisions at the Auto City Speedway.
Hornets: This class is designed to give the entry-level enthusiast the opportunity to experience the thrill of racing. Almost any American-made four-cylinder front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive sedan type bodies and pickup trucks can compete. No modifications can be made to the vehicles, except for safety items. The class is generally reserved for racers between 13-21 years of age and races on the quarter-mile track only.
As you can see looking through the descriptions, Auto City has a division for just about anyone who wants to become a racer, and they don't stop there. Another popular bit of racing they have is called "Spectator Drags" where anyone in the stands can bring their street car out onto the track to compete against other "fans from the stands." This is a great way for tracks to gain future competitors.
The Spectator Drag is not exactly a drag race as most understand it. The cars line up side-by-side at the start/finish line and when the green flag drops they race for one lap around the quarter-mile track back to the start/finish line. The loser is eliminated until a final winner emerges. It is very popular, and could even mean a little extra business for your shop should one of these spectators get a little carried away and break something.
Most oval race tracks around the country will have similar divisions, although they may call them by a different name. Another track of interest is Hickory Motor Speedway, in Hickory, NC, the track where many NASCAR drivers started their careers. Harry Gant, Ned Jarrett, Ralph Earnhardt and Junior Johnson were all track champions at Hickory. Hickory is known as the Birthplace of many NASCAR Stars and current NASCAR drivers, including Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., all cut their competitive teeth at the track. Future stars who are learning their craft at Hickory now include Mike Wallace's daughter Chrissy, who had four wins this season.
Divisions that race on a regular basis at Hickory are: Late Model Stocks, Limited Late Model, PRO-4, Street Stocks, Hobby Stocks, and Super Trucks. Descriptions taken from the Hickory Motor Speedway Web site for the Street Stocks and Hobby Stocks are as follows:
o Street Stock: This class of racecars is designed to be a very low budget racing class. Basically take a stock car and add the safety features. Example: Roll cage, fuel cell, window net, racing harness, fire control, racing seat and so on. Any other changes will be at your own risk, unless approved by track officials.
o Hobby Stock: This is a fun division designed to keep costs down. Basically, take a stock car and add the safety features (roll cage, fuel cell, racing seat, seat belts, fire control, etc.) No high performance equipment permitted. Cars must be stock and use stock replacements parts for make and manufacturer.
The Street Stock rules at Hickory allow 1960-1990 American Rear Wheel Drive models only with a 101-108 inch wheel base as the vehicle came from the factory. The Hobby Stock rules allow any 1980 or newer four-cylinder front-wheel-drive cars, coupes, sedans, or station wagons. No trucks or vans allowed. No rear-wheel-drive vehicles allowed. No double overhead cam import vehicles allowed.
As you can see, Hickory Motor Speedway has included a large variety of models that are allowed to race in these two divisions with a variety of engines. And, while they are not allowed to do much in the way of adding high performance parts and machining as they must remain in pretty much a stock configuration, these cars will all need some engine work and tweaking.
These are all engines that most of you have had in your shop; probably hundreds of them, so you are familiar with them. If you are just getting into performance type work, what better way could there be for you to get started than with something you are already familiar with?
As you move into the Late Models, Limited Late Models, Modifieds and Super Trucks, the rules will usually allow more modifications to the engines and vehicle drive train. However, every track probably has its own rules, so even if a division sounds the same at different tracks, be sure to get a set of rules from each track. You sure wouldn't want to get "blacklisted" or worse have a customer disqualified because of something you did wrong.
That's the key to a successful crate engine program. Besides building a "cookie cutter" engine that will give equal performance to all racers in a division, it must be durable and lower cost than most custom-built engines. Organizations such as the American-Canadian Tour (ACT) saw their racers spending upwards of $15-$20,000 on engines before implementing the crate engine program: now those engine costs are under $10,000. Many racers now carry a spare motor because the lower cost allows them to afford one. So what does all this mean to the average performance builder? Just think what doubling your high performance business would mean to your shop. Work with an organization, determine their needs and then put together a package that will work.
Becoming an authorized builder of crate engines has many other benefits. You not only sell new engines, but all rebuilds will come back to you in most cases. As a supplier of engines to a particular class or track, you also become the perceived expert and may become the builder of choice for that track's other racing divisions.
Also, regardless of how you supply the engines, plan on keeping several in stock ready to go. You can then make a quick exchange when one comes back with a problem.
That's another advantage of a crate engine and would be a selling point for the racers. If they develop a problem with an engine, they can quickly replace it and get right back on the racetrack the next week. They won't need to wait several weeks for their custom engine to be repaired. It's good for the racer and good for the promoter or organization because that will help keep car counts up.
Although each organization has different requirements when utilizing a crate engine program, most follow similar procedures. Most will require that a seal be placed on the motor either by the organization or the builder. The engines will need to go back to the builder or other authorized location for repair or rebuild. Remember to check with each organization for their requirements.
As a shop owner, you have several alternatives for developing a crate engine program. One, you can work with a promoter, sanctioning organization, or racetrack to develop an in-house crate engine for each particular group, or, you can become an authorized reseller/rebuilder for engine suppliers that do have a program.
Regardless of what approach you take, keep in mind that if you will be working with an organization to develop a crate engine program, don't expect it to happen overnight. Racers must also be sold on the program and its benefits. They will also need time to use up those expensive custom engines they may already have, so a phase-in period will likely be required.
While some builders may be against the idea of a crate engine, because they currently build custom engines and feel it will take business away, remember, if you currently build custom high performance engines, they aren't really all that far from a crate engine. For instance, if you build sprint car engines, you don't build each one different do you? Of course not!
Whether you currently build sprint car or late model motors, chances are that each engine out of your shop is pretty similar, with each customer getting the best you can offer. It sure wouldn't go over very well if each racer got something different would it? You'll lose customers if they think someone is getting something better than they are.
You don't have to be working at the top of NASCAR or the IRL, and you don't have to be building full blown race motors for some of the more elite divisions like Sprint Cars or ARCA stockcars to be successful in the performance market. In fact, why limit yourself to these much smaller markets?
The grassroots divisions of racing are the backbone of the performance market; they also have the most competitors. Think about it: if your local track has a weekly show with five divisions, that equates to 100 or more racers. Wouldn't you like a piece of that action?