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Little Engines, Big Money
How Small-Displacement Motors May Offer Your Shop High Profit Margin Business
By Doug Kaufman
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For the rebuilding facility familiar with typical automotive or heavy-duty engines, the small displacement, four-cycle, air-cooled engine may seem insignificant. After all, these one-cylinder motors, which may produce just 5 hp, are found in lawn mowers, rototillers and kiddy go karts, for cryin’ out loud!
Although the small four-cycle engines from Briggs & Stratton, Tecumseh, Kohler, Honda and others may indeed be found in the backyard sheds of America’s homeowners, the likelihood that they’ll be found on racetracks, too, keeps getting greater every day. That, say parts and equipment suppliers, means the potential for profits is huge.
"But from a lawnmower engine?" you may ask. Before you simply dismiss these tiny dynamos as unimportant to your bottom line, consider these facts.
The price to grind a small-block Chevy crankshaft is about $75 (depending on your locale) and may take about 45 minutes. A one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton crank can be ground for nearly $30 or more in less than 10 minutes.
A 5-hp Briggs & Stratton engine-equipped dirt track kart can reach speeds of 50 mph. Junior dragsters can top speeds of 90 mph in sub-seven second 1/8-mile runs.
A competitive dirt track go-kart racing engine may cost upwards of $25,000 a price its owner may feel completely at ease justifying.
"The big use of these motors is lawn maintenance," confirms Dave Monyhan, Goodson Shop Supplies, Winona, MN. "But the fun use is in junior drag racing, karting and mini tractor pulling. We recognized early on that these engines need attention too!"
Times were, the machining tools and equipment needed to service automotive engines needed to be significantly different than those used in smaller motors. That created a natural and often wide separation between the two markets. "But dimensionally speaking, everything kind of crashed into each other," says Monyhan. "Now, each of the five valves in each cylinder of the new $70,000 Saab has the same stem diameter as the valves in a Suzuki motorcycle."
The point is, small displacement motors offer several attractive benefits to machine shops willing to invest in the effort to not be "just another mower repair place."
In the past, rebuilders may have been too busy to bother going after the small engine business. "Let’s face it though," says Carl Amundsen, ARC Racing, Albany, GA, "the automotive machine shop business is probably half of what it used to be. It’s a consolidating market.
"But, say a shop that used to have 10 employees and now has five is looking at ways to stay afloat," says Amundsen. "It’s worth investigating the air-cooled market, and an introduction to that market is through racing."
Little cars, big-time speeds
"The biggest boost to small engine builders has been the junior dragster programs," says Brian Carlson, Carlson Racing Engines, Linden, IN. "Five or six years ago, there weren’t a lot of options available, because there weren’t very many aftermarket suppliers of parts. Now, just about any component available for a small-block Chevy is available for a 5-hp Briggs motor."
Thousands of children ages 8-17 participate in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) junior drag racing programs. These programs feature 1/8-mile racing using a Christmas tree start and dial-in indexes.
The most powerful engines found in the 8.90 class run by 10- to 17-year-olds can produce more than 35 hp and speeds in excess of 80 mph in the 1/8th-mile.
The power increases have been dramatic and predictable since junior drag racing was first introduced in 1992. "When we first started supplying parts to this market, we’d take the $165 motor you could buy from Briggs & Stratton, add a clutch and put it on a frame," says Amundsen. "You could get into racing for less than $2,000. The kid would leave the starting line and complete the 1/8th mile in 15 seconds at about 33 mph.
"Within a year, times had dropped to 11 seconds and speeds were up over 55 mph. Today, a full-blown, well-prepared Briggs motor for drag racing goes out the door for $7,000 and is capable of sub 7-second runs at 80-90 mph," Amundsen says.
Obviously, this can result in some dramatic differences in on-track speeds. What began as an attempt to get kids interested in the sport has developed into something more real racing, with all of the engine building tricks common in the big leagues. Jeff Giovino, NHRA technical services, estimates that just 25 percent of the junior dragster racers run a stock motor; most of the race teams make significant modifications to the stock block.
The NHRA rules specify that the engine for these cars be a standard configuration 5-hp flathead. Briggs & Stratton is currently the dominant engine for junior drag racers, but according to Giovino the rules now allow other manufacturers that offer standard 5 hp flatheads to compete as well. Only Tecumseh has this engine now.
"The rules state that the engine block must be kept in its original 5 hp configuration," explains Giovino, "but it can be bored, stroked, ported, polished the block can be relieved whatever the builder wants to do. There’s no maximum horsepower limit, as long as it originates in a 5 hp configuration."
The Briggs & Stratton Raptor is a race-only motor that lends itself to modifications. This motor, now in its third version, has a much heavier casting in the cylinder area, making it stronger and able to withstand much larger overbores.
For even more radical modifications, Briggs & Stratton has introduced the "Blockzilla" block which accepts all of the parts available for the Raptor, but is even more able to produce amazing horsepower. Blockzilla’s features include revised and optimal intake and exhaust tracts as well as extra room for big bore and big stroke configurations.
"People are not afraid to spend money," says Amundsen, "They’re not going to complain about having to spend $75 for Magnafluxing and a valve job on a pair of 350 Chevy heads. Junior drag race participants are coming in with a one-cylinder block and they will literally pay whatever it takes to get what they want and they have the money in their pockets."
ARC sponsors the annual spring "Gritz Blitz" junior drag race at Silver Dollar Raceway in Reynolds, GA, which draws up to 225 cars from more than 1,000 miles away. Amundsen says the amount of money families spend to compete in the sport is amazing.
"It used to be that you couldn’t sell a chassis for more than $2,000. Now, people are spending over $5,000 for the chassis, and $3,000 for the car’s paint job," he says. "Then, they’ll spend $100,000 for a trailer to take them to the race. In many cases, junior has his main car, he has his backup car, and then, just in case the local track will allow it, he has a car that will go real fast. Oh yes, the people have the money, and they love to spend it."
Because neither NHRA nor IHRA put severe restrictions on the types of modifications that can be made to competition engines, racers with fewer financial resources may be priced out of the game. While acknowledging that the sport has become less affordable to be truly competitive, Admunsen says that the sport is just mirroring its large-vehicle cousin. "It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to pay to win."
Karting not for kids only
In contrast to the "no-holds-barred" opportunity facing race teams and engine builders in the Junior Dragster market, go-kart racing is much more restrictive but no less popular or profitable.
Organized racing in the U.S. is sanctioned by three major bodies: the World Karting Association (WKA), the International Kart Federation (IKF), and the Karters of America Racing Triad (KART). In addition, there are many independent clubs and tracks that race by local rules. Today's racing karts are highly sophisticated machines capable of reaching speeds up to 150 mph. Kart racing is pure open wheel racing that captures all of the sensations and thrills of motorsports.
The leading karting sanctioning body, WKA, requires that vehicles competing in its stock class meet very precise technical specifications. According to one engine builder, this can be confusing to the uninitiated.
"Between the two types of racing, if you go to a kart shop and then go to a drag racing shop, even though both are building on a Briggs & Stratton engine, probably not even three parts will interchange," says Larry Snyder, Snyder Motorsports, DeMotte, IN. "Technically speaking, the Blockzilla is the most popular block in junior drag racing, but you can’t even run it in most go kart classes it won’t meet their specs."
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