It has become a part of the racing environment, and it is really showing itself for the '04 season. It's the debate about the use of crate engines or sealed engines. Opinions are varied, usually depending upon your role in the sport. For the most part, engine builders don't like them. Promoters want to embrace them. Racers are hearing they will cut costs, so they are naturally in favor, if it's truly the case. No one knows for certain if this is a trend or a fad.

We sought opinions on matters like cost, durability, and the general effect of the crate engines on racing.

The supporters believe it will save the racers in the short and long run. But there is an opposing school of thought that it could cost more in the long run. Racers have been faced with numerous ideas that were touted as money savers, yet no one seems to be opening a money market account with the money not spent.

"They're being brainwashed to thinking it's substantially cheaper," says Keith Dorton of Automotive Specialists. "When you first look at it, $7,500 for this engine that has more horsepower is an attraction. It's possible to build an engine in this price range, but you have to consider the pieces inside it. The $19,000 Late Model Stock engines can run six seasons if you don't have any catastrophes like running out of oil or something. The rods in these crate motors, they're production rods. In one season, you're holding your breath at the end, I assure you. It's gone past its recommended life."

"Our crate motors are competitive with our $20,000 motors," says American Canadian Tour head Tom Curley, who started a crate engine program in his series nearly five years ago. "Basically, everyone now has given up on the [$20,000] engine because of the cost, and everybody will buy a couple of crate engines so they have a spare. Our guys go two years-two full years-before they have to do anything if they take care of their oil changes."

"Lower cost usually means lower-quality parts," says Bob Koch of Race Engineering Inc., a manufacturer of engine components. "This is like the stupid O.E. rod rules that don't save money. Many aftermarket rods are cheaper and much stronger. Broken rods cost plenty. How many racers have skipped this season because of a $2,000 or $3,000 freshen-up cost? Now they want them to buy a crate engine plus accessories to run. Over the past 20 years, Race Engineering has seen costs of many items come down dramatically, specifically American-made steel rods and crankshafts. Quality and durability have not suffered."

The cost of engines is just one aspect of the overall cost of racing. There are other areas where cost reductions can be seen with greater immediate benefit, according to Dorton.

"Most of the costs going up have been absorbed by the engine builders over the past few years," says Dorton. "What we really need is a spec trailer. You've seen guys at the racetrack who are running in a two-barrel division, and they pull up with $300,000 rigs. Is that necessary for racing?"

"If costs really need to be contained, it's time for racers, manufacturers, promoters, and track techs to sit down and develop practical rules that can easily make sense," offers Koch. "Parts selection should make sense. The cheapest part is not always the most cost effective in a race engine. Rules that overly restrict engines also drive up costs."

Tim Schwanke of Schwanke Engines produces a sealed engine. While some may consider it a "crate" engine, Schwanke offers his view: "In my opinion, a sealed engine is a production engine modified for race use, and it uses electronic fuel injection. A crate engine is a mass produced engine that is carbureted. We have a sealed engine program. A lot of series have sealed engines, like the IRL, who leases their engines like we offer. A crate engine is distributed via a corporate network and sold as an engine. We sell ours as a program."

Proponents of the crate engines see parity winning out in the divisions using the engine. In the ACT, a few teams dominated the action. The introduction of the crate engine saw an increase in first-time winners and a greater number of winners in the course of the season. GM Product Specialist Gary Penn says crate engines offer a chance, especially in lower divisions. "If you're a backmarker, for example, and you now have the opportunity to run the same engine as the front runners, it's a great opportunity."