Dennis Wells is no stranger to the Circle Track audience. For more than forty-five years, through his efforts at Wells Racing Engines, he has gained both experience and knowledge when it comes to engines that populate this segment of motorsports. This month, we bombard him with a litany of questions relative to the current and future status of these type engines, parts, and racing. We think you'll enjoy and find interesting how he responds to these inquiries.
Regarding the health of the current engine builder market, are you experiencing growth or just maintaining market share? Do you see any trends here?
One thing is pretty clear right now, and that's a trend more toward a father/son or father/daughter racing combination in place of a car owner having a highly experienced or professional driver. We're also building less expensive motors and rebuilding more used motors and parts, even from other builders. I think the overall economy has played into this by virtue of less money racers have to spend on their pastime. Plus, not only are these customers living closer to us but they are also racing closer to home. Again, I think this is a reflection of how the economy is affecting the sport, at least at these levels, especially in terms of fuel costs driving to and from the tracks.
Are you seeing new technologies appearing in the parts that you use or is there an absence of this, among the customer engines that you're building or rebuilding?
One major improvement we're seeing is a shift away from titanium valve spring retainers to ones machined from tool steel, thus allowing smaller springs to be used as well. This way you don't need to replace the titanium retainers every rebuild. The smaller springs are also lighter and don't require as much pressure. What this comes down to is not necessarily a change in engine speeds but improved parts life. With the lighter valvetrain components, there's also an accompanying reduction is valve bounce. We know this because engines that have been using these lighter pieces don't show valve seat damage or keepers locked into the retainers. It's pretty obvious that any increase in parts life is going to reduce overall rebuild frequency and costs.
In order to meet the power levels required in the engines you build or rebuild, is it necessary to modify the parts you use or do they pretty much work right out of the box?
Our practice is to conduct a close inspection of all the parts we use to make certain everything is within tolerance. Even in instances where a part may have been manufactured overseas, we deal with American manufacturers who may have outsourced their parts overseas but who have strict quality control requirements to maintain their own specifications. So I guess it's fair to say that if parts pass our inspections, we generally use them right out of the box. If we saw any exceptions to this, we'd change our practices.
What role do you see EFI having in the various circle track applications, both now and going forward?
Some people may disagree with me, but here's my observation. I think it's going to take some time before a younger generation becomes more involved in racing who literally grew up with computers. They aren't intimidated like many older racers who are familiar and comfortable with carburetors. For example, I have some drag race engine customers who are scared to death of carburetors and don't understand how they work. But they have no problem at all going onto our chassis dyno, opening up their laptop, and tuning that way.
As more is learned about the pros and cons of using E85 in the place of conventional racing gasoline, do you forecast its increased use or not?
Let's talk about this one for a minute. First of all, we've rebuilt a lot of racing engines during the course of my business and many of them had been running methanol, ethanol, or some higher percentage of oxygenated fuel. Maybe today that would include E85. Because of the lower energy content of these fuels, compared to racing gasoline, it takes more just to approach the same power level as with gasoline. And I'm aware the comparative cost of, in this case, E85 is less than a quality racing gasoline. But you're going to use much more of it. And even if you factor out this cost difference, plus you'll be buying more fuel, we've seen increased wear on cylinder walls and ring lands. This is simply because the oxygenated fuels have less lubricity than gasoline and the fact that you're delivering a higher volume of fuel (compared to gasoline) to the engine, it is going to increase wear. I think it's fair to say that you can run less gasoline than an oxygenated fuel and have reduced parts wear. While I can't give you a quick cost comparison, I think this aspect of the comparison should be considered because it's not just about the fact that E85 costs less per gallon than racing gasoline. Now I know that gasoline requires that an engine be more closely tuned to its optimum than with an oxygenated fuel. It's just not as forgiving. I also see a lot of racers who don't warm up their oil sufficiently when using alcohol and this goes right to the problem of addressing diluted or fuel-contaminated oil, resulting in a lot of blow-by. As a rule, you don't see this with gasoline.
Given the current status of circle track racing and the role your company plays in this community, what are your plans for the next five or more years?
I've been in this business for 45 years and don't intend to get out it any time soon. As a result, I pay close attention to the type of customers we attract and their specific needs. So if the market changes and our customer base changes, we'll change accordingly. I think they are the best indication of what defines the market, and if you do this long enough, you'll see the trends that lead to potential shifts in the market ahead of when they occur. In fact, in some instances, you can help influence what transpires by anticipating and supporting the changes.
Finally, what rules changes do you think would benefit circle track racing the most?
One event that I think would be helpful is for the engine builders, track promoters and sanctioning bodies to get together and take a really close look at the rules. I believe if they were to discuss the rules and about what could save the racers that you wouldn't have issues like the IMCA one that requires stock roller-tip rocker arms instead of true roller rockers. The roller-tip rockers burn up quickly when compared to the life of a true roller rocker. Now a racer needs to buy two or three sets of the roller-tip rockers when he could buy one set of true roller rockers to last a season or more.
I know this may seem like a minor point but it's an indication of a lack of common awareness among the three groups I mentioned to recognize that all foreseeable aspects of a rule should be considered before putting them in place.
We hear a lot of talk about reducing the costs of racing, but I think that if the people involved in making the rules had a broader perspective of how some of them affect the economics of racing, there might be a more favorable impact on the racer who is facing rising costs in a number of areas. These are discretionary dollars and the people writing the rules need to look a bit deeper into the impact of what they require.
Next month, we'll reach out to yet another engine builder to get his views on the same set of questions you've seen posed these past two months. That set of questions is the common denominator framing the answers and comments from these professionals. By design, builders selected will continue to represent a cross-section of backgrounds, experience, beliefs and types of engines being offered to their customers