Editor's Note: For more than three decades, Tim Schwanke has been applying his engine building skills to a variety of racing classes. His shop is housed in a 25,000 sq.-ft., fully-equipped facility that includes up-to-date machining, testing, and assembly capabilities. The shop's reach is global and focuses on contemporary technologies involving both EFI and advanced fuels. Here are Tim's responses to the same questions we've been posing to a variety of engine builders.
How healthy do you believe the engine builder market is today and are you experiencing growth or just maintaining market share?
To be honest with you, our overall business has been steadily growing. In fact, two years ago we moved into a 25,000 square-foot facility, primarily to accommodate growth. In particular, we're spending a lot more time in different areas that are EFI related. We've got a harness program where we do tuning and dyno testing that has enabled us to grow in segments where we'd not previously been. As far as the actual engine building market for circle track applications is concerned, I've got to feel that part is down some if not heading towards quite a bit. However, and this is interesting, although we've built both short-blocks and complete engine packages for this application, we're doing work for customers who were formerly circle trackers but are now interested in street performance. For example, they're now interested in the '69 Camaro that was in the barn for the 20 years while they were circle track racing and now looks like a good thing for them to explore. So we're seeing growth in this area where we're doing a lot of driveline installations and nostalgia restorations to support these types of interests; no bodywork but a fair amount of powertrain services. I guess you could say our shop has the skills and experience that has allowed us to grow by taking advantage of emerging new market opportunities. And believe it or not, we're seeing this on a global basis. We have about 15 dealers outside the U.S. with whom we work on a routine basis. I'm not saying there aren't hurdles to clear in developing these relationships, but once you accomplish them, they essentially become your representatives in their part of the world. It's not only good for business but it's a lot of fun in the process. Ultimately, you see these people developing what I like to call the American muscle car mentality. So yes, we're experience growth but you can see that it's not based on a function of increased sales of circle track engines and short-blocks.
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?
Well, the first area of new technology that I'll mention is safety, safety, safety. Beyond that, you see benefits from the various coatings available today and of course there are products designed for the economy, and these are both huge. As far as working with the parts manufacturers goes, to be brutally honest, a lot of the stuff doesn't fit properly when you get it so you have to rub it a little to make it work. However, the reputable companies with whom you have a rapport will work with you, and although it might take a few tries to get something right. Eventually they'll develop a product that's truly a bolt-on. Overall, there's usually a lot interaction that goes on behind the scenes between a parts manufacturer and a builder that underlies the production of good parts and relationships.
In order to meet the power levels required in the engines you build, is it necessary to modify the parts or do they pretty work right out of the box, so to speak?
Let me say this: CNC technology is huge. Since this came into the marketplace years ago, especially the aftermarket, you can hold dimensions and tolerances with far greater accuracy and repeatability. Today, there's a lot of hungry CNC shops out there and they'll do work for your fairly inexpensively. In fact, I think the future-thinking parts manufacturers who have embraced this technology have greatly improved the quality of products and enabled other newer technologies to be used, like EFI. But I know this question is coming up.
Let's go there now. What role do you see EFI having in the various circle track application, both now and going forward?
I think the world has to wake up to this or they aren't going to be in the business. I mean, look at your local parts store. Most of them don't even have a brake lathe anymore. They also don't have the equipment to provide rebuild services for your average car or truck. That entire industry is non-existent today. It's gone. Old technologies simply replace older ones. EFI is in this category. Here at Schwanke engines, we've been advocating and promoting EFI packages for about 15 years now. Frankly, virtually every day we have to sell this technology, if we're going to continue our growth. At least for now, it's virtually non-existent in most Saturday night circle track racing. Despite all this, we've shipped out about 1,100 various EFI packages to various circle track race series and experienced huge success. But it all goes to the point of about half the field is saturated, if that, and you sometimes run into the savvy promoter who wants to grow his classes and will work with you right and left to make it successful. Then some personal financial issues arise or he dies or something else causes change and you've got to start the process all over again. We've developed a lot of avenues and had quite a bit of experience with EFI, but at the end of the day, at least in my opinion, the circle track community better wake up and begin using the technology or eventually suffer some serious reductions in growth and racing.
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?
It's not only good for business but it's a lot of fun in the process
We did a huge development program a few years ago with the Minnesota Corn Growers here in Minnesota and then later with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northern Iowa, all intended to promote its use. And what we found, and this will likely not be acceptable to some people, was that today's E85 blends are not a fuel for race engines. However, we did develop an E98 racing fuel that is specific to racing engines. Right now, E85 is too inconsistent and even with EFI management, it's just too tough to tune. In fact, this is an issue for road vehicles as well. Actually, even though this depends somewhat on the season, this fuel is only required by State and Federal guidelines to be at least a 70-percent blend minimum. The E98 that we sell today is consistent at this blend level, and we typically add 2-percent 110 leaded race gas. Of course, I'm aware the consumption rate is a bit higher than with race gas but at a considerable cost reduction, probably more than half in some cases.
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?
Well, we'll obviously continue our EFI programs because that's a huge market for us today. At least in our part of the country, the circle track engine building business has been declining for a long time. However, because we have a chassis dyno that enables us to help racers tune and test their packages is something not available everywhere, so we are seeing gains in that particular market segment. I mean, we test for racers that come from up to four States away from our shop. Plus, today we're finding more and more one-engine teams. The ability to support a three- or four-engine team is virtually gone. In fact, we have teams that come to us for chassis or engine dyno testing for which we have no engine-building affiliation and don't even know what's in it. We just perform the fuel tuning and chassis adjustments to help them out. We've found that circle track racers that step up to the plate for that type testing will be in the top 10 on their points sheets, probably sometime during the season.
What rules or rules changes do you think would benefit circle track racing the most?
I'd start by updating the rules book by 25 years with emphasis on safety especially at the entry levels. And as a really good side-note to promoters, particularly at the Saturday night level, I recommend adding a Go-Kart program. Now, in and of itself, this may be a declining industry, but by so doing, there's a good chance that the 5-, 6-, or 7-year-old competitors will stick with you at least through high school. It involves families, helps keep the spectator base upheld and, who knows but what the young racer will compete in other classes as he or she grows through these years. During our Karting season that only lasts about eight races, we'll consistently have 60 Karts showing up from four different States. And the fan base for Karts is generally several hundred paid adult admissions. Promoters have got to follow the concept of selling Apple computers to school classrooms. Even aside from this, look at how many Cup drivers got their start in Karting. And I think if you'll even look past this, these kids will be better suited to becoming an adult, make better grades, will have learned to be a competitor and taken the good with the bad, all leading to a better-rounded person. I think we've tended to lose sight of these benefits.You can learn more about Schwanke racing engines by visiting the shop's home site at www.schwankeshortblocks.com/contact/.