Editor’s note: In the motorsports community of engine builders, Keith Dorton is iconic. For almost 50 years, his Automotive Specialists shop has built winning engine packages for a wide range of applications, including the higher levels of professional racing. We turned to him this month for some candid opinions and perspectives from someone actively engaged in the business of motorsports, both now and looking into the future.
How healthy do you believe the current engine builder market is and are you experiencing growth or just maintain market share? Upon what do you base your response?
Well, for us right now, it’s definitely going in the right direction. I base that view on the number of engine sales last year and the type of jobs that we were working on, plus the different types of engines we were building, compared to the increases we’re seeing this year. Quite honestly, last year was not the best year for us. However, since about last December, this year may be one of the best years we’ve ever had. I mean this in terms of the quality of the work, quality of the customer and the overall number of sales.
Why is this, Keith?
I’m not sure we know, exactly. But you might find it interesting what we did about four and a half years ago. We bought the entire SB2 engine and parts inventory from Hendrick Motorsports. It was a significant investment but, in the end, it worked out OK. But even though we sold a lot of complete engines and parts, kept a few of them for our lease programs and such, there was no interest from overseas, even though we tried to stimulate that market. However, for some reason this year, we’ve received a half-dozen or so calls from New Zealand and Australia about these engines and parts. And since all the used SB2s are gone now, we’ve ended up building new ones for these customers. So this has helped a bunch.
Plus, the sealed engine program has really taken off for us as well. We had these in a racing series last year and it was quite successful, primarily because of the longevity benefits of the engines. We’ve even seen some increased activity in our land-speed engine program. Like we’re working on seven of these right now for Bonneville. I mean, you walk into our shop today and you’ll think we’ve gone crazy because of all the different types of engines under construction. But I like the diversity and challenges. I think you know that I thrive on that sort of thing.
Are you seeing new technologies appearing in the parts that you use and, if so or not, how do you account for this?
You know, in the areas where we are and always have been, we have the opportunity to see some of the more exotic things sometimes before the mainstream does. Of course, with our relationships with the Cup teams and periodic cooperative development projects with some of the parts manufacturers helps keep us around the cutting edges. I thrive on new technologies and am constantly looking for ways to include them in what we do. I mean, when you pay $10,000 for a bare cylinder block that you’ve got to do machine work on before you use it, something’s wrong somewhere.
In order to meet the power levels required in the engines you build or rebuild, is it necessary to modify the parts or do they pretty much work right out of the box, so to speak?
Today, the overall situation is much improved over what it has been in the past, especially the hard engine parts like pistons and connecting rods. I’d say that 95 percent of the time, you can use these right out of the box. Of course, we check everything, but the overall quality of these type parts is good.
What role do you see EFI having in the various circle track applications, both now and going forward?
I don’t think this will catch on in our area (the South), at least that with which I’m most familiar. I mean, you know us rednecks are slow to accept change, anyway. That’s some of it, I think. I don’t believe it’s time for it right now, although some of the younger people I talk to, that’s all they know.
For most of them, there’s not been a car to come out of Detroit with a carburetor in their lifetime. But if you just talk about circle track racing, I don’t see any benefit from it for the Sportsman racer, maybe even the touring series, at least right now. I mean, it’s not like I’ve got my head stuck in the sand because I do think we can make some improvements with it, but I believe the last thing we need right now is an option that adds to the cost of racing. Now if there was a series of racing intended to appeal to the younger racers, they’d have no problem tuning their engines with EFI. But in our case, we provide engines with a range of jetting and find our customers need to change very little to suit varying race and track conditions. So we feel the carburetor satisfies their needs, in this fashion. But I’ll tell you this, if it takes some EFI applications to get more young people into racing, I would be one of the first to jump on that bandwagon in support.
But there’s still the issue of cost. You know, with respect to the Cup teams who lease their engines and going to EFI, last year this added about a half-million dollars to a lease program, per team. I realize a change like this is politically correct, but it can be expensive.
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?
Actually, I think there are more reasons not to use it than there are for its use. I guess I’m just from the old-school, and considering our geographical location, we didn’t get to run methanol like USAC or the Outlaw teams always have. I know years ago when Jeff and I raced Mini Sprints, we ran methanol and really thought that was cool, and I’ve even been intrigued by the nitromethane-burning drag cars, so it’s interesting. But when you consider the corrosive factors of methanol, compatibility with existing parts and the problems it can bring to lubrication issues, I’m not sure about its value. It’s not that I’m not in favor of alternative fuels, because I find them interesting. I just feel like they might be premature right now.
Given the current status of circle track racing and the role your business plays in that community, what are your plans for the next five or more years?
To continue succeeding, we have to adapt to the times. Fortunately, I’ve been fairly adept at doing that by paying attention to our operating costs and longevity of our engines, as well as performance. This helps keep us price competitive in the marketplace as we focus on providing the most economical and competitive power levels.
What rules or rules changes do you think would benefit circle track racing the most?
While I understand we need to operate under certain rules, I think some of them don’t make much sense. For example, consider the stupid 390 carburetor rule, just to reduce power. You spend countless dollars reworking one of these trying to get around its limitations like “sucking air” and the other things. Plus, these carburetors cost around $3,000-$3,500, once all the modifications are made to get that extra 80 or so horsepower. Actually, if that was the goal (allow the extra power), you can bolt on a stock 600-cfm carburetor, get the same power gain with a $600 carburetor. How do you explain this?
Furthermore, we baseline dyno all the NASCAR truck engines from our shop with a stock 600-cfm carburetor and make virtually the same power as our customers do with their $3,500 modified 390. Now we’ll finish up running the customer’s modified carburetor, just to make sure everything’s OK. But every time I do this, I think, “How stupid can this be?” Even so, I know this sort of rules making has been going on for a long time, and I recognize it’s unavoidable. And I also know rules makers typically try to make good decisions with equally good intentions, so we just have to live with the situation.
Finally, you know, the days of the trickle-down parts are pretty much over. I mean the local circle track racers and even some of the touring series teams operated off the trickle-down parts from the big guys. They can’t do this anymore. Look at the current Cup engines. They’re so sophisticated that lower level racers either can’t afford to maintain them or they’re too expensive to buy. I don’t want to come across as sounding negative about progress, because I’m not. But in reality, we’ve got to make a living, too.