Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size image
Club Racing Engine Builds: Where Excitement Meets Opportunity
By Brendan Baker
When you think of fast food, you think of McDonald’s. When you think of road racing, you think of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). SCCA is a non-profit organization made up of 65,000 car crazy members. Of that number only a small percentage of members actually race, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm and in the amount of money spent on racing year after year.
SCCA has more than 8,000 licensed members who participate in over 2,000 events. The organization is divided among several divisions (Club Racing, Pro Racing, Rally and Solo Autocross) and regions. However, the heart of the SCCA is its amateur Club Racing program, which hosts 235 local events and 65 National events each year.
SCCA amateur racing offers many opportunities for race/performance oriented engine builders. Most racers don’t perform their own engine rebuilds because they don’t have the time, equipment or expertise to do so. It can be a huge asset for a racer to become involved with a knowledgeable engine builder who will provide the type of expertise and service needed to help guide them through a grueling race season.
One of the keys to success, say engine builders who are active in this market, is to be involved in the sport. Your chances of building a competitive engine and finding customers that want them will hinge greatly on how visible your success is to other racers. Yes, you can build an engine here and there with some success without going to races or being heavily involved, but to get a bigger piece of the pie you’ll need to have a presence at the track.
Although there are a large number of production based classes, SCCA is fairly equally divided between open wheel and production-based racecars. The 2.0L Ford classes – Formula Continental (FC) and Sports 2000 (S2) – are some of the most popular classes because of the "bang for your buck" principle. The 2.0L Ford engine is essentially the same engine that was used in the Ford Pinto in the ’70s. Today the engine has been developed to produce around 150 hp with 140 ft. lbs. of torque in a car that weighs about 1,000 lbs.
"The FC class has seen some ups and downs but it’s one of the better classes in SCCA right now," says Steve Knapp, Elite Engines, West Bend, WI. Racing enthusiasts might remember Knapp from three recent starts in the Indy 500 (’98-’01). He was named "Rookie of the Year" at the Brickyard in ’98, a feat he says wouldn’t have been possible without experience running in SCCA’s Formula car divisions. Knapp also won the Sports 2000 National Championship in 1986.
Elite Engines has built mostly Ford 2.0L and 1600cc engines for the past 12 years. When SCCA went to the Zetec engine for the Pro class, Knapp says Elite built about a dozen of them, but remains very focused on the 2.0L Ford engine and its classes. Elite rebuilds a few FF 1600s (Ford Kent) engines but it’s not his main business, says Knapp.
The popularity of the 2.0L class has remained steady since its peak in 1996, Knapp explains. "There was also a F2000 Pro Series at that time. We regularly saw fields of 50 to 60 cars at an event. With the recent addition of the Zetec engine for the Pro Series, we usually only have about 25-30 cars for the Runoffs. It’s still very healthy though. From everything I’ve driven – Formula Vee to IndyCars – the 2.0L classes give the most bang for the dollar," Knapp says.
The Sports 2000 class is also making a comeback as witnessed by the car count at this year’s Valvoline Runoffs at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH. The car count in the class this year was up to 22. Even the Divisions in the Midwest have seen increased car counts in S2, says Knapp. A healthy class in the Midwest regions is believed to point to an overall health of a class because only 7 months of weather can be counted on for racing compared to warmer climates that have bigger economies and year-round racing.
According to Knapp, his company has the biggest share of the 2.0L market at the moment. In fact, at the Runoffs, Elite Engines powered 23 cars. "We won Continental again, and we were second in S2. It’s our 17th or 18th title that we have won in the last 12 years," says Knapp.
What’s his secret to success? "There’s a couple of other engine builders who are capable of producing as much power as we do, but our window of what we let out is extremely consistent. One racer with one of our engines will have as much power as anyone else with our engines."
Knapp says you could go to an S2 or Continental race and as long as the teams are doing what they’re supposed to be doing for rebuilds and maintenance, you could swap one of his engines car to car and no one would know the difference. "We’re the only ones who really specialize in the 2.0L Ford engine.
When does a 2.0L need rebuilt?
"I’ve got guys who will run the 2.0L 1,300 miles before getting it rebuilt," Knapp explains. "When we were using the engine for pro racing it would go to about 800 miles and you would use the rest of the mileage for testing. That’s about 2-1/2 race weekends without testing."
The 1,200-1,300 mile point is mainly for the pros, according to Knapp. But he has many National level racers that will go all year on one engine. Many racers will get their engine rebuilt just before the Runoffs and then run it until next year’s Runoffs.
"Our rush starts picking up around July," says Knapp. "We’re slow after the Runoffs but a few weeks later we will get busy again with engines we’re building for Florida races. After that it settles down again until about the June Sprints (one of the oldest and largest National Events held each year at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI).
"We can turn around an engine in about 2 weeks," says Knapp. "At least that’s what we tell people. Really, our guys can do about 4 engines a week."
That timetable depends, say several engine builders, on the workload and how rushed a racer is to have an engine. Most race engine builders say that special circumstances can influence the turnaround time, but will usually cost the customer extra. Knapp and others say that it’s not wise to promise too short of a turnaround time unless you’re prepared to meet the deadline. Racers will usually press for the fastest you can do and will be upset when there are delays.
The Formula Vee
The 1200 cc VW Formula Vee engine has evolved over the years to some degree, but SCCA competition rules have remained pretty constant. In fact, it still uses the original Solex 28 PCI carburetor. "There are a lot of tricks and subtleties that engine builders employ to make this 40 year old 1200cc (originally 40 hp) engine work the way it does today. That’s pretty much the soul of the motor," says Rollin Butler, Butler Engines, Greenville, SC. "By all reasonable logic the engine should blow up from doing the things that it does. You are using parts that were originally designed to make between 36-40 hp at maybe 3,500 rpm and making them crank out 65 hp turning 7,000 rpm with virtually the same parts. It’s just one hell of a good design to begin with so if you get it right the first time a whole lot of things can evolve from it."
There hasn’t been any one thing that has suddenly created big jumps in horsepower," says Butler. "The one big jump that occurred in the mid-’70s was that SCCA eliminated the fan housing and that opened up a lot of things – you can turn more rpms and that sort of thing.
"And there have been a few other notable updates like rocker arms that created more lift. Also, there have been some carburetion changes that have allowed more flow through the engine. You basically have to do all this to a carburetor that you can barely get your thumb down," Butler explains.
Butler says that SCCA’s Competition Board had at one point talked about switching the class to the more available 1600cc dual port VW engine, but he says "for once they used their heads and allowed racers/engine builders to use any aftermarket part as long as it’s essentially a duplicate of the original and meets the same weight and dimensions as the original part. So the parts, up to this point, have not been a problem."
The only thing on the Vee engine that is specifically regulated is the intake valve. That has to remain OE from VW. The profile of it and the way it is made is essentially the only thing that regulates the intake flow, according to Butler. "Perhaps at some point you won’t be able to get the valves from VW and it’ll open the door a little more, creating another little performance gain as a result. There’s only so much you can do to the valve; for example you can back cut it to improve the flow a little bit, but that’s about it."
The same thing is happening with the Formula Ford class: racers and builders can use aftermarket parts but the engines must maintain OE specs. There are certain regulations that haven’t changed but parts have. Because parts for the 1600 FF Kent engine have been difficult to find in recent years engine builders have been allowed to use aftermarket parts.
"Eventually Ford ran out of stock in cranks and it had a run of blocks made by somebody in South Africa that were very poor quality," says Butler. "However, SCCA opened the rules up to allow the Ford Fiesta block, which is basically the same with a few different nuts and bolts on the outside. That has more or less kept this class going." According to builders every engine has its weakness and the 1600’s was its crank. SCCA now allows the use of an aftermarket crank, which has improved the durability of the engine. OE-spec pistons are available from various manufacturers as well.
Once OE Ford heads became unavailable, an aftermarket aluminum head became available. According to Butler, the aluminum heads don’t make any more hp but are more consistent. "The difference is you can have 10 cast iron heads and you’d do the same thing to every one of them but one would be junk and one would be incredibly good out of the batch," he says. "With the aluminum heads, out of a group of 10 you may only have 2-3 percent variation, so they’re more consistent. You make essentially the same hp but you can duplicate it every time."
One difference between the 2.0L and 1600 is that the Pinto 2.0L is the same engine as if you had a brand new 2.0L casting. On the other hand the Pinto 1600 is not the same casting as the FF1600. So there is more availability with the 2.0L than with the 1600. SCCA has updated the 2.0L a little bit also. Now you’re allowed to use aftermarket rods, which is the 2.0L’s weak point.
"The only problem I’ve ever seen or had with the 2.0L is the rods. The original rods weren’t bad – they were steel forged," says Butler. "However, in the newer engine they went to powder cast rods, which were lighter and much bigger. I have seen forged cast rods bent double but these powder cast rods with the least bit of stress just shatter."
Butler and other SCCA engine builders say that it is important to do a thorough magnetic particle inspection (MPI) on all rebuilt engines. "It’s especially important on cranks and things like that," says Butler. "But I’ve only seen one crank crack from normal usage."
SCCA competition offers something for everyone whether you want to build engines for formula cars, spec production classes or the wide open GT classes. Engine builders already familiar with rebuilding late model production engines may find the showroom stock classes the most natural leap. Most of the showroom stock cars are just like you’d buy them from the showroom floor with the exception of the addition of roll cages and minor safety and performance modifications. The only engine modifications allowed are balancing and blueprinting the stock engine. You’re also allowed to remove the muffler and catalytic converter.
Stan Lazauskas, SDJ Motorsports, Mooresville, NC, has been building SCCA engines for over 30 years. He has specialized in the Mazda rotary engine for most of his career but has built just about everything.
"I don’t really know how I got started but I was a drag racer who liked road racing better," Lazauskas explains. SDJ rebuilds drag racing engines as well as road racing and high performance street engines.
"How you build a rotary depends on the class it’s running," says Lazauskas. "If it’s a stock class then there’s not a lot that’s legal. Everything has to be stock but you can balance and blueprint the engines to optimize performance as long as you don’t take off excessive amounts of material."
In the SCCA production classes modifications such as cylinder head porting and even timing changes are strictly forbidden. Though some racers feel that cheating has become a problem in some classes like Spec Miata, professional racing engine builders should be aware of the rules for each class. "I can’t afford to be known as a cheater engine builder," says Lazauskas. "It doesn’t pay for me."
Most race engine builders admit that to make it in this market you’ll live and die on your reputation. SCCA is a large organization but a tight-knit racing community and world travels fast. Good and bad.
Lazauskas emphasizes that you can build fast, legal engines for customers but the biggest issue is how much the customer is willing to spend. Rotary engines use Apex seals which act similar to piston rings on a piston engine. "There are ceramic seals that cost up to $2,400 – it depends on how fast your customer wants to go. Right now with the economy being what it is, my people just can’t afford to do too much," he says.
Effects of Economy
The good engine builders are always going to be around and in demand. How successful they become is tied directly to the economy and how much racers want to spend. Some are getting out while others are getting into the sport so there’s always some fluctuation. The biggest challenge is the money racers are willing to spend to go racing and to go fast. "It’s not like NASCAR where there is millions of dollars going into the racing: these guys don’t have those big sponsorships," says Lazauskas.
Typically in a tight economy the upper echelon classes will suffer some fallout but the budget racing classes may actually increase. "This has not been a representative year because it’s been awful. And from what I’ve heard, it has been off for everybody else who makes a living from SCCA racers, too," says Butler Engines’ Rollin Butler.
One GT-1 racer says that his engines, which he assembles himself after a machine shop does all the machining, are not built to be "on the edge" but something still pretty close. "You could build a rocket if you’ve got the money to do that," says Tom Sloe, who races a Corvette GT-1 car and qualified for the Runoffs this year. "It’ll make gobs of power but you’ll need to rebuild it more often."
According to Sloe, a lot of engine builders don’t understand the kind of strain put on a road race engine. "In a drag car you put one quarter-mile pass on it and a half mile back idling as your run. In a road course engine, for 30 minutes you’re beatin’ and bangin’ all through the rpm range the whole time."
To succeed as an SCCA race engine builder, you must first of all have passion for the sport, which is very evident in the engine builders we spoke with for this article. With that passion you will also need a commitment to service your customers, even traveling to races on your own dime to support them at the track. If you find a niche you like, you can succeed as many engine builders have proven in the past.
A good place to start is to first become a member. Then go out to your local club and lend a hand. Get to know the people in your region. If you don’t race yourself, sponsor a local racer and volunteer your services in exchange for branding on his or her racecar. If you like it and your driver puts the car in the winners circle from time to time, you’ll get other racers who will pay for your services.
The SCCA Valvoline Runoffs, has evolved into what is now commonly recognized as the Super Bowl of amateur road racing. The Runoffs were named by Car and Driver magazine as one of the Top 10 racing events in motorsports.
This year’s event at Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course in Lexington, OH, marked the 40th edition of the National Championships. More than 600 drivers competed for National Championship medals in 24 different classes.
Qualifying For An Invitation
Each of SCCA’s eight Divisions holds a minimum of six National events where drivers compete for national points to gain an invitation to the Runoffs.
Only the top 10 competitors per Division in each of the 24 classes are invited to the Runoffs, so competition usually comes down to the last National events of the year, held over the Labor Day weekend.