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Little Engines, Big Money
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Snyder explains that there is a huge difference between the modifications that can be made and the components that can be used. "Both are 5 hp Briggs & Stratton engines," he says, "but they’re not the same."
These restrictions make WKA racing very competitive, which puts racing in the hands of the racers. Still, Carlson says that’s just fine with him. "We all have our own little tricks, but any reputable engine builder in the country will be within two-tenths of a horsepower with his competition. Out of a 5 hp engine, we’ll be able to develop 8.2 to 8.4 hp."
Because WKA tech officials tear down the top three engines at each national event, attention to specifications is critical. It’s also a great profit opportunity, says Carlson. "Ninety percent of our business is in stock WKA engines. The other 10 percent is in junior dragsters and Limited Modified and Open Class karting engines. Those classes are pretty much anything goes, and so that’s where the expensive pieces come in, i.e., billet and forged cranks, titanium retainers, double valve springs, aluminum billet flywheels it can get pretty crazy."
On its informative Web site (www.worldkarting.com), WKA updates its technical specifications regularly. Rule updates covering everything from chain drive systems, valve seat angles and installations and bore and stroke specifications are posted to keep competitors and technical inspectors apprised of the latest changes.
Although restricted in what they can and cannot do, engine builders are not forbidden from "tweaking" the engine for WKA competition. Typically, Carlson explains, blueprinting the engine will involve several precise procedures including setting the cylinder bore 90° to the crankshaft, cutting the valve seats, installing aftermarket valve guides and installing a ground cam. Other modifications usually include changing from gasoline to alcohol, and changing the stock Briggs muffler.
"We’ll do some machine work as well," says Carlson, "including milling the head down to the minimum per the rules; we cut the deck so that we have the maximum amount of piston pop-up. We’ll add aftermarket rings, bore the carburetor out basically, we try to squeak as much out of them as we can and still be legal.
"We do a lot of plateau honing the newer rings we’re using seat into the engine a little quicker," Carlson continues. "As far as valve seats go, they have to be single angle, so there’s not much we can do there. We use carbide cutters, but you have to be real careful. I’ve seen guys use stones on the valve seats and when the stones aren’t true, they’ll cut with a little bit of a taper and the racer will get dinged in the tech barn."
If you’re concerned because of the restrictive nature of the WKA rules that there may be limited opportunity for growth in this market, don’t be. According to Kart Marketing Group of Wheaton, IL, karting is a $1.6 billion annual industry in the United States. With more than 100,000 active karters and over 1,800 drag strips or oval, dirt or road-style race tracks, there will continue to be domestic interest in racing.
There’s so much interest, in fact, that Carlson builds small engines so he can race big ones himself. The former Purdue University math major races a portion of the World of Outlaws Gumout Sprint Car Series, and owes the ability to continue to do so to four-cycle Briggs & Strattons.
"Our schedule is to do 300 to 350 builds per year, about 1-1/2 engines per work day. Out of that number, 80 will be new engines. Obviously, three-quarters of my business involves rebuilds and repeat customers," he says. "We have two flow benches and a dyno, and we do a lot of R&D work, which gives us an advantage over some facilities. If a new customer is unhappy with his current builder, we can dyno the engine and see what we’re starting with."
Several of Automotive Rebuilder’s contributing editors are involved in small engine work as well. Joe Mondello, Mondello Technical School, Paso Robles, CA, teaches a course on the Briggs & Stratton 5 hp racing engine plus he does extensive research on Briggs racers.
Mondello’s school has a state-of-the-art NASCAR-type dyno cell on-site that is capable of handling 100 hp and 90 lbs. of torque on any single- and most dual-cylinder engines. "This allows us to keep our racers up to date with the best and latest products at good prices so they can continue to make horsepower, torque and have longevity to their engines," says Mondello (for more information about Mondello’s dyno capabilities, see "Hot Heads," Automotive Rebuilder, August, 2000, page 27).
Paul Savadin, Paul’s Crank Shop, Devine, TX, does not build complete race engines, but creates one-cylinder crankshafts for them and recognizes their attractiveness and profitability. "At age 53, I can appreciate the advantages of working on a smaller crank over a larger one. The smaller cranks take fewer chemicals to clean; they take less shot and time to shot peen them; they take less time to weld and less filler rod, many times for the same welding price as a large shaft. The smaller shafts are, all around, more pleasant to work on." (see "Cranking Out Performance for the Lawn Rangers," Automotive Rebuilder, November 2000, page 42).
Although Savadin specializes in cranks, he recognizes that the opportunities don’t stop there. "The work on these small engines doesn’t stop with crankshafts," he says. "They need to be bored, and sometimes sleeved. There are valve seats and guides that need to be replaced, too. There are many machining jobs that require a mill or a lathe. There is also a need for welding. Damage to an engine block or head will require a TIG machine to weld aluminum or use of a pinning procedure to make the repair. Welding may also be needed on other things such as the chassis."
Because the work on these little blocks is frequently identical to that on larger engines (though at a much smaller scale), most engine shops already have most of the equipment needed to participate in this market. Of course, having the equipment and having the skill may be two different things.
"You can’t just go into the engines and start machining and grinding like you would for a Saturday Night Special stock car," cautions Carlson. "If you’re going to work on WKA engines, you need to get a tech manual and really study it or even go through the WKA tech seminar and become accredited as a tech person."
Building small racing engines offers phenomenal possibilities, but requires a significant commitment as well, says Carlson. "The biggest things shops need to remember is that this isn’t eight cylinders, it’s one. If you’re off a half-thousandth from one cylinder to the next on ring end gap or cylinder clearance on a 350 Chevy, it will never show up on the dyno. If you’re off a thousandth or half-thousandth on a Briggs engine, it’s the difference between a winning engine and a middle-of-the-pack motor. Tolerances are critical there’s no room for mistakes.
Future market potential
Those who contributed to this article see the market for small engines continuing to grow. Because emissions regulations have or soon will force the elimination of 2-stroke recreational motors, 4-stroke replacements will be more common. But rather than just be a market unto itself, the small-displacement engine may offer something the engine rebuilding market has been searching for a long time a way to get kids interested in engines again.
Larry Snyder supplies complete engine kits to his customers. The kits include a CNC-ported block, valve seats, sleeves, as well as all of the components needed to assemble a race-prepped engine. "Most kids today don’t even know what the parts are," he explains. "I don’t necessarily think they need to be rebuilding the motor themselves, but they should know what’s in the motor they’re driving down the track. Then, when it comes time to freshen the motor a the end of the season, I think the kid should be standing right there with Dad, learning how it all works."
Carlson agrees that getting kids into racing now will likely mean future interest as well. "The big thing about karting (and junior drag racing as well) is that you can get the kids into the pit area. If they’re allowed in the pits they can get involved and you can begin to teach them about engines."
Additionally, racers can learn another valuable lesson the importance of building business relationships at a young age.
According to Johnny Reid, Nervo-Coggin Racing, Tallmadge, OH, "The kids are learning how to get sponsors at age 5. It might just be Grandpa, but by the time they’re 15, they’ll have been learning about sponsorships and how to talk to people. It will help them make that next step in racing, which is a big one."
Twenty years ago, says Reid, a child didn’t have the opportunity to learn about racing in this way. Goodson’s Monyhan agrees.
"In the old days, people would grow baseball players and football players. Today, parents are trying to grow the next Jeff Gordon," Monyhan says. "Mom and Dad want Jimmy and Julie to be the fastest kids. Mom’s the team manager, Dad’s the crew chief, the other kids are the pit crew. They buy a motorhome, they get a trailer and it’s a total family sport. Dad gets to gear out, Mom gets to be in charge and all the kids get to eat fast food!"
The benefits offered by participation in the small-displacement engine market are evident and the opportunities are plentiful, say the experts. But still, getting past the size of the motors can be a challenge.
"For some guys, who are used to diesels or V6s or V8s, to all of a sudden say ‘Okay, I’m going to rebuild small engines...’ it can be a real comedown," acknowledges ARC’s Amundsen. "Sure, you could look at it as rebuilding lawn mower motors or, you could look at it as doing $10,000 a month in air-cooled racing engines. It’s your choice."
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