With an experience base derived from years of working with leading engine builders and race teams, Jay Dickens opened his own shop (Dickens Racing Engines) in 1994. This Mississippi-based facility now offers a range of engines although, as you’ll discover in the ensuing interview, Jay has currently settled into the dirt, short-track niche, avoiding “pavement” racing, and finding that dirt racing is where he wants to focus his present attention and further development of a successful engine building business. He offers some insightful perspectives and reasons for his thoughts that we think you’ll find of interest.
How healthy do you believe the current engine builder market is right now and are you experiencing growth or just maintaining market share? Upon what do you base your response?
Well, first of all, our new motor sales are up. Since about 2011, we’ve seen continued growth from demand of new engines. However, the rebuilds are way down, I think because our customers are running their engines longer and also because of the crate motor thing. I believe crate racing has put a dampener on local Saturday night racing. As such, it’s hurt open motor Late Model racing quite a bit at the local tracks. I believe the problem stems from the fact crate motors are something different. It’s also a bad chemistry caused by a terrible economy, and it’s been this way for the last four or five years. Money is tight. So, people will say they can go buy a crate engine for whatever they cost, five- or six-thousand bucks. Then, of course, you’ve got to spend another two or three thousand to get them where you can crank ’em. But it sounds appealing. It’s sort of a misconceived deal, if you see what I mean.
Actually, I’m not an advocate of crate racing. I don’t like it, although I do think it’s good for the young kids that want to get into racing, like Super Late Models. However, they don’t need an 850-horse engine to learn to race. But what’s happened is that a race series was developed and a lot of money thrown out there and it’s some of the good Late Model drivers have gone over to that area. Some people think this is great, but they’re not looking at the big picture. They’ve managed to throw some of the engine builders under the bus in the process. But you know, the cost of the cars is high, too. And they come to the racetracks with $300,000 trucks, you know? Realistically, we came up with an engine package for the Saturday Night racer, kinda like a “spec” engine for around twelve- to fifteen-thousand dollars that’ll run all season. When you compare the cost-per-lap versus a crate engine, it’s as economical as a crate engine. In fact, sometimes it’s more cost effective because those crate engines break down some of the time, you know?
Overall, I guess you could say the engine building business is a lot like racing; it’s up and down right now. I mean friends of mine who are builders are all experiencing the same sort of condition that I am. It’s hard to explain, but it comes down to the fact our profit margins are really low when you compare them to what they were in the past.
Are you seeing new technologies appearing in the parts that you use and, if so or not, how do you account for this?
My belief is that technology continues to change because it’s an on-going process. We’re all parts manufacturers and engine builders, looking for ways to improve. We’ve come to a point where we’ve improved in so many areas of the engines we build that about the only area where we are still finding gains is in the valve train. As a result, we’re constantly spending time on the Spintron, trying to gain an edge on our competitors. From the crankshafts to the blocks to the pistons, all those parts we’ve about maxed out the areas where we can get an advantage.
The only other thing is, although we’ve all got to do R&D to a certain extent, we’re somewhat budget limited. Like with the Cup teams, we don’t have millions of dollars budgeted for R&D. So sometimes, technology may not be good, if you know what I mean. We’ve got to draw a line somewhere because we don’t need or want an F1 engine in our cars.