The phrase “off-season” implies that another year of excitement is over, whether that be football, baseball, basketball, or in this case, auto racing. It’s true, the racing season has come to an end for 2015, and the off-season is underway.
However, while many drivers might have more free time now than they did during the race season, this time of the year is a very different beast for engine builders.
No two engine builders are the same, and shops can be involved in numerous different racing disciplines, but the off-season is a time to make sure you’re staying busy. Whether you’re taking time to organize the shop, getting racing customers in for engine work or turning your focus to other kinds of engine building, here are some things you’ll want to make sure you’re doing as off-season prep time encroaches.
Off-Season ‘Slowdown’ Means More Work
Generally speaking, the race-season runs from April through October, and the off-season runs November through March. Engine builders typically see more work come in during the off-season, which means you have to be on your game and take advantage.
“The off-season for me is really more of my on-season,” says Matt Dickmeyer, owner of Dickmeyer Automotive & Engineering in South Whitley, IN. “This is the time of year when the guys who do oval track shut down for the year and I start getting a lot of the engines back. The off-season is the time when everything gets torn down and reassessed and we change the engine program, or maybe everything went great and it’s just cleaning the engine out and doing the same thing.”
Dave Arce, owner of Arce Engines in El Cajon, CA, is another builder who tackles the off-season moreso as his on-season, keeping himself busy.
“Although we are technically going into off-season right now, I can’t really say that we ever do go off-season,” Arce says.
In order to kick-start the off-season and have any engine work get done, racers have to bring their engines in to be assessed.
“Off-season is when people who have the money will rebuild something,” says George Anderson, owner of Gessford Machine in Hastings, NE. “They’ll pull the engine, bring it in and we will take it apart, go through it and we have time. That is when those things happen. The good racers will come in December – the others will come in January, February or March. The smart guys who really want to win are coming in right now and they’re ready to go.”
Going back several years, it was often harder for engine builders to get racers to bring in their engines for off-season work. Today, more racers realize the benefits of getting ahead of the competition in anyway they can, and servicing the engine is priority No. 1.
“It seems like the younger generation, especially in racing, has learned that service is important and gives you reliability and the chance to spend less money freshening up an engine,” Arce says. “We put out a reminder to the racers to bring their engines in for certain work, and 60 percent of the guys will bring them in. Guys don’t want to do engine work at the racetrack – they’re getting better at bringing their engines in, but we still poke and prod them a little bit as well.”
Typically, engine builders will spend time inspecting an engine when it comes back in after the race season. How many races does it have on it? Does it just need bearings, rings, gaskets and some freshening up, or does it need new pistons, rings and everything wet-magged?
“That’s what we have to go through with each individual racer, and everybody is different,” says Arce. “Some of the things that I look at is trying to build more power, more efficiency and examining why something is off. It’s a lot of guidance stuff when we are coming off of racing. There’s a lot of small support that goes on when you’re coming off the season.”
Steve Hogue of Hogue Racing Engines in Akron, IN, says off-season race engine jobs can come in all shapes and sizes.
“The jobs can vary from an $800 job pulling the oil pan off, putting new rods and main bearings in it, check the leakage and three sets of valves, to $8,000 putting new cams, lifters, crank, rods and pistons in,” Hogue says. “It just depends on the amount of wear and how long it’s been raced.”
The off-season allows more of a detailed rebuilding process versus just a set of heads that the guy needs freshened up or a bent pushrod replaced. Generally, during the racing season the call is for a quick fix such as a valve job.
Builders such as Matt Dickmeyer put together a detailed program in order to keep off-season jobs organized and efficient.
“We do a lot of R&D to find out what works the best,” Dickmeyer says. “Our customers tell me the end result they’d like to have and allow me to get there by any means I wish. I like to call it the customer’s engine program. We put together a plan for them and then we see how they did as a driver, how the engine did, how they did together.
“Durability is a huge thing. You can’t win races if you don’t finish them. Very few times do you make a modification to an engine that makes it more powerful and more durable at the same time. A lot of times it’s one or the other. During the off-season is when we’re coming up with ideas to improve that. We use the off-season to see how everything performed and what we can do differently. Every driver drives differently and they want a different engine to suit their needs.”
Hogue also keeps records on his race engine customers in order to know what work might be needed year-to-year.
“It allows us to look at previous years to help us know what has or hasn’t been done or whether they are due for a big upgrade or not,” Hogue says. “That also helps us get things ordered that we need. We do roughly 35 engines over the winter. Some guys want to do major work, so we try to get those projects in earlier so we can be prepared and plan ahead.”
The racing off-season doesn’t mean the same thing for every shop. Some shops involved in race engine building shift gears a bit during the off-season, taking on different kinds of work or focusing on the shop itself.
“We like long-range projects along with our everyday stuff during the off-season,” Anderson says. “We’re doing projects such as a vintage Shelby Cobra for a guy who wants to race it in historic races in England. Another project is fixing a 1910 Velie that needs a new crankshaft. These are things we can fit in because we have time to deal with it.”
Because the racing season runs seven days a week, engine builders such as Anderson are usually in and out of the shop and at the racetrack Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“It gets tiring and it’s nice to have a little extra time, he says. “But at the shop, no matter what time of year, it’s generally pretty busy. A lot of our business here is for trucks – big Caterpillars, Cummins, John Deere – and we want to be able to spend time talking to those people and be able to get that work out the door too.”
Anderson isn’t alone in using the off-season for various types of work. Others also use some of these months to turn their focus to different areas of business.
“I don’t like to back myself into a corner by only working on LS engines or just Chevys or only turbo engines,” says Dickmeyer. “I’m an engine builder and I love the fact that I do Triumph motorcycles, Fiats, Peugeots, Chevys, Fords, push rod engines and overhead cams. I have my fingers out in a lot of different markets and that keeps us busy.”
“We have a full, complete machine shop here,” says Arce. “We do all the machining processes. We also have three bays where we do automotive repair and engine installs. We also do engine balancing, gas fuel injector rebuilding and metal fabricating. If one or two portions of that are slow, we always have something else to turn to.”
The racing off-season is the perfect time for engine builders to interact with their customers.
“Engine builders need to reach out to customers and talk to people who they’ve done work for in the past and haven’t seen in a while,” Anderson says.
Dickmeyer echoes this advice, saying loyalty will help build-up business in the off-season.
“When you’re approaching fall/winter and the racing season has concluded, you need to make sure you have loyalty from your customers,” Dickmeyer says. “Make sure that they bring their engine back to you for repeat engine builds. Get your race customers into a program where after race season is over they’re bringing their engine back to you. This way you have plenty of time to address those issues over the winter.”
This can also be a time to look at different ways to improve your business.
“Do things like give some attention to your website and make it a better resource for your business,” Anderson says. “I also take this time to look at my pricing and price increases. You’re not here to break even. Look back at the stuff you did the most of last year and stay on top of those prices.”
Dickmeyer also points out that it’s important to be multi-faceted.
“You can’t do something that is only a summer sport because most of us only have a few months of summer every year,” he says. “You almost have more months of cold weather. You need to get into some things that will keep you busy during your off-season to make your off-season your on-season.”
Steve Hogue, on the other hand, carves time out of his schedule during the beginning of off-season to make sure he gives his shop some attention and gets it organized for his busy time of year.
“We use this time right at the end of the season to make room in the shop,” Hogue says. “Throughout the summer you don’t worry about things too much and stuff gets piled up, so right now we are in clean up mode. Right before winter we always go through the shop and throw away all the old rings and bearings to make room.”
Dickmeyer also points out that it’s a good opportunity to make sure your equipment is in good working order as well.
“You could look at your machining tools and whether or not those items need replacing,” he says. “Maybe they need simple maintenance.”
No matter what your main focus is during the off-season, possibly the most important thing to keep in mind is on-going education and keeping up with what’s happening in racing.
Regardless of their workload during the off-season, every engine builder needs to make sure they are keeping up with new technologies, racing rules and techniques. If you don’t, you could be doing yourself and your customers a disservice.
“Some of the things that we look at during the off-season have to do with technology,” Arce says. “When we go to the PRI Show, we’ll look for products, more efficient ways of doing things, cylinder heads, raising compression, getting to a pump gas situation with the new cylinder heads coming out, etc. You have to always be going after efficiency and the newest products.”
Products are a big deal right now because these technologies are taking off in terms of materials, CNC work and more.
“That’s were our focus is – on the new products coming out and how we can fit it into a racer’s program as far as affordability,” Arce says.
“To get over that hump of just building a generic, local circle track race engine or drag engine and get your name hot and heavy in the racing world, you have to go to PRI and see what’s there,” Arce says. “Eventually you buy the product and tell the customer about it. You have to be able to introduce those things to your customers.”
The other thing the PRI Show offers engine builders is connections. A friend of a friend can escalate into a career/business changer.
“My huge connection and turning point was when I was the inaugural MAHLE Clevite Champion Technician and I was introduced to Doug Yates,” Arce says. “That’s when it really changed for me. Connections are so valuable. It doesn’t get that way after one time there, but go more and more and after five years or so, you’re going to have some really good connections.”
Engine builders involved in racing are all pretty close, but keeping up with emerging technologies and new products, and being able to offer that to customers is where the difference lies. That is time well-spent in the off-season.