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Is There A ‘Spec Engine’Program In Your Future?

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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 engines” or “crate engines.” 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 including Jasper and Recon also offer crate motors.

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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.

ASA uses a modified version of General Motors’ LS1. The tracks that run the NASCAR Late Model Stock Cars allow the use of crate motors from the big three; GM part number 88958604 and Ford’s part number M-6007-Z351S. Dodge engines will be allowed as soon as they are available.

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. Even the Indy Racing League and Champ Car are using spec motors.

This procedure is similar to that outlined in the cover story in the May issue of Engine Builder about sprint car engines. It was explained that the top racers no longer build or repair their own engines. In most cases, teams are just replacing the motor with another when they have a problem, much as you would replace tires or brake pads. 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.

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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.

While you may not be able to get into the engine building for Champ Car or IRL, you could become an authorized builder to many other series. If you are a dealer or authorized re-seller for the OEMs or some of the other big boys, you may already have a program to work with.

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 a track’s other racing divisions.

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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.

For instance, tracks running NASCAR Late Model Stocks require that approved engines be purchased and sealed through the track at which the racer will compete. The track will seal the engine, record the seal numbers, and will share that information with the other tracks. An unsealed engine will not be allowed to compete.

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The NASCAR Late Model Crate Engine rules also require a specific ignition system with an internal rev limiter set at 6500 rpm. Limiting rpms not only keeps the engines equal, it also provides greater durability, again helping to reduce costs.

The ACT was one of the first organizations to begin using crate engines. In 2000, Tom Curley, ACT director and promoter of Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, VT, developed a five-year plan for phasing in a crate engine program. That first season, eight teams bought the crate engines, but only four actually used them. By 2001, some 70 of these engines were being used on the circuit and that number had reached 100 by the 2002 season.

Crate engines are now winning 75 percent of the races and are also responsible for a huge increase in car counts, something every promoter loves. Something else promoters love is having many different winners, and the crate engine program has helped this to the point that instead of five or six different winners, now they’re seeing 20-25 different winners in a 30 race season.

As a shop owner, you have several alternatives to 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.

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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.

OEM crate motors may be tough competition but a crate or spec engine program of your own could be a great addition to your shop, particularly if you are the authorized supplier/rebuilder for your local track or organization or you’re interested in supplying the sport compact market. Either way it may present a profit opportunity worth looking into.

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