Editor’s Note: The experience reach of Dennis Wells extends far beyond his focus on the building and rebuilding of circle track engines. For this reason, we elected to confront him with the same list of questions to which other notable engine builders have been responding in this column the past few months. As usual, his perspectives are not only thought-provoking but bear witness to certain trends that appear to be unfolding in the circle track market segment.
How healthy do you believe the engine builder market is right now and are you experiencing growth or just maintaining market share?
Well, I’m not experiencing growth as such, but what I am seeing in a slight shift in my customer’s preferences. For example, before the economic downturn we’ve been seeing, our customers were coming and buying new motors. I’d say for the most part, these were guys whose basic employment was related to construction or other trades that required them to work with their hands. Today, they’re tending to have us rebuild what they already have as opposed to buying new motors. Simply put, they’re just tighter with their money right now. They tend to ask if certain parts need to be replaced or is it possible to continue using them. I try to explain that some used parts may be acceptable but that they need to be mindful that certain components, when they break, can cause more damage and increase costs beyond what would have been the case if the parts that broke had been replaced. Generally speaking, at least among our customers, they’re taking better care of their motors so the parts will last longer, rather just blowing up something, throwing stuff into corner and buying a new one. Before cost became more of an issue, they’d sell the broken motor to somebody else or even give it away. It’s not like that today. So I guess overall, even though it’s not like it was before the recession, it’s steady.
Are you seeing new technologies appearing in the parts that you use and, if so or not, how do you account for this? In your opinion, is the technology you’re seeing in new parts headed in the direction that benefits racing?
Over time, I’ve seen this change among a variety of parts. But right now, I think the biggest improvement we’ve seen is in the area of roller lifters. Up to this point, we had some serious problems with the bearings in these lifters. We were losing the wheels from bearing failure which then lock up the block or even lose the camshaft. Of course, valvespring technology has really improved in the last few years. I mean, both advances in materials and finish have allowed the most recent trend toward smaller diameter springs and still accomplish the same valvetrain stability, like an inch-four-fifty or an inch-four-seventy spring. Before this, we were running like an inch-five-seventy or even an inch-six-hundred diameters to get the same spring performance the smaller diameter springs are delivering today. The lighter weight valvesprings are just helping maintain better valvetrain stability and still performing like the heavier ones were previously. There’s plenty of evidence that better materials, surface finishes and improved heat-treating processes are making for a better product. I think you can trace the most recent improvements back to the Spintron and what it has brought to the overall valvetrain development process. I mean with this device, you can actually see what’s going on in the valvetrain, pinpoint specific problems and then create solutions. It’s just another step in how new devices and machines can advance technologies. And you know, further to the issue of heat generation, don’t overlook the heat that’s generated in rocker arms.
What role do you see EFI having in the various circle track applications, both now and going forward?
Here’s an example of that. The IMCA sports mod engines are required to run a stock or roller-tip rocker, not a true roller rocker. On quarter- or three-eighth–mile tracks, all the rockers on the left-hand side of the car are cooking black as a result of excessive heat from a lack of proper lubrication. So when we rebuild these motors, we’ll swap these rockers with the ones on the righthand side of the car, to keep from having to buy another set of rockers. In these same engines, the newest valvespring technology is allowing stock diameter valvesprings that enable rpm around 7,800 with a stock-type rocker arm. I’ve also had customers pouring an amount of synthetic oil, like the Joe Gibbs HVL lubricant, onto their stock-type rockers (with the ball pivot), between races and seen much-improved rocker life as a result.
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, so to speak?
You know, other than just checking for tolerances to make certain they’re correct, I pretty much use them right out of the box. It’s not like in the past when you had to check just about everything. Like in the old days when I got a new set of connecting rods, I could un-torque and re-torque a rod and it would shrink a half-thousandths. This goes back 20 or so years ago, but I contacted Crower about the problem and they acted like I was crazy. But not long after that, as I continued to use their rods, you could perform the same un-torque and re-torque sequence and, guess what, they didn’t close up anymore. Today, I think the manufacturers of these type parts realize you need to let the rods cool, un-torque and re-torque them and do a re-hone, just to provide a little stress relief to stabilize the dimension. But I still check ’em. However, overall I think parts quality has improved significantly over what it was years ago. Better machinery and more attention to detail, along with increased competition, have probably been a large part of these gains.
A veteran engine builder for all types of racing shares his insights with Jim
Not around here, Jim. The customers I serve are scared to death of it. Maybe the younger generation, what we call the tuners on the street, that’s all they use. But the circle track guys are a different breed. In particular, the younger racers are likely doing it with their dads who are old carburetor guys who understand how to work on these parts. Plus, dad is paying the bills so that’s what they’re using. So with the exception of drag racing, at least in my area, there simply is no EFI. Street motors? Yes, but it seems like there’s just too many carburetors lying around for the circle trace racers around here to switch to EFI.
As more is learned about the pros and cons of E85 in the place of conventional racing gasoline, do you forecast its increased use or not?
Well, again, I don’t see it happening in our area. Let me tell you what’s been going on. Around here, all the Modified guys who were running methanol are going back to racing gasoline. They can run the car longer with about the same fuel load and they don’t need to change the car’s setup as much. And think about the difference in the volume of fuel the engine sees, comparing methanol to gasoline. I mean you could blindfold me when I tear down motors and I could reach in there and tell you which one had been running alcohol and which one ran gasoline. In my opinion, the gasoline motor will last three times as long as a methanol motor, all else being equal. And this doesn’t even account for all the corrosion in the fuel lines and damage to injectors. Even though you can hard-anodize stuff, the alcohol will still eat up the materials. It just attacks everything.
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?
As far as our racing stuff goes, it’ll probably stay about the same. But in order to preserve and maybe grow the business, I’ve diversified into doing work for the car dealerships, like cylinder head work and that sort of thing. You never know for certain where the racing business is going to go, and right now I don’t see a lot of growth. Like, in our area, the Modified car count is definitely down. These are the cars with motors in the 700 horsepower range. Three years ago, the main at a big race might have 35 cars. This year at Devil’s Bowl, the average Modified car count was 6 to 10 cars. These cars have gotten very expensive, the track promoters don’t have the spectators to create much of a purse, and you can’t run a car like with when it’s just $500 to win and, obviously, everybody can’t win.
What rules or rules changes do you think would benefit circle track racing the most?
As much as I hate to say it, while I don’t think we need to move more toward crate motors, there ought to a requirement for spec cylinder heads that you cannot touch, other than a valve job, and we’ve got classes like that right now. We also need spec intake manifolds that cannot be ported, not even port-matched. And we need a compression ratio limit, like maybe 10:1 and a piston displacement limit. Of course, all this relates to cost and given all the other economic factors involved in racing, reducing the costs of engines in a major step in the right direction. I mean they’re working at it, but they’re just not there yet.
Today, they’re tending to have us rebuild what they already have as opposed to buying new motors