Mention the word crate motor at any racetrack in any town around the country and you will get one of two opinions. Either they're the best thing since sliced bread or they will be the final nail in the coffin of short-track racing. In the motorsports world, crate engines are the topic, a political hot potato that is the equivalent of healthcare, Iraq and social security all rolled into one.
Cost SaviorBy now you know the much publicized story, crates, a.k.a. sealed motors, are designed to save racers and sanctions time and money. The racer buys the motor from a manufacturer (GM, Ford and Chrysler all make 'em), drops it into his/her car and goes racing. The big plus is that the racer could get a 400-plus horsepower motor for about $5,000. That's significantly cheaper than a typical built race engine. Savings that big on something as costly as a race engine could help jump start an industry that is by many accounts flat if not shrinking. An extra $10,000 in the budget? Any racer worth his/her weight in 110 octane would kill for that.
Now couple that with the added benefit that the engines are virtually bulletproof and you've created a whole new level, an economical level of our industry.
"The whole premise of the program was to keep it affordable to get the guys back who had to drop out because of economics and to offer the young guys an opportunity," says Bill Martens, GM's director for the crate motor program.
Racers have claimed running the crate motors for several years and changing only the valve-springs. That kind of durability benefits the racer big time. The crates save money, time and labor which is exactly what GM intended.
Sanctions and tracks would benefit too. A factory sealed engine means that it is theoretically impossible for racers or engine builders to modify the engine thanks to the factory specific sealing techniques which include special bolts. This means that tech inspections would be expedited due to the fact that the motors are sealed. All the inspector would have to do is look for the factory seals and "BAM" the motor is legal. In addition, since sealed motors all produce at or near the same horsepower, racers would be on a level playing field, at least from the engine side. On paper it looked like a win-win for the racers and track owners alike.
ProblemAs crate racing grew in popularity, it didn't take long for the more creative in our sport to get...well...more creative. These racers started thinking if they could get in and out of the engine, gain an extra 10 horsepower without the tech inspectors knowing, they'd be laughing all the way to victory lane.
A pair of ASA Late Model Series...
A pair of ASA Late Model Series cars race at Toledo Speedway. The ASALMS is one of the higher-profile sanctions using sealed motors. Todd Ridgeway
It started crudely at first with rumors floating around tracks in the early 2000s that you could buy cheater bolts on the internet. "I had heard that story forever," says longtime promoter and current Charlotte County (Fla.) Motorsports Park owner Bobby Diehl. "But (my opinion was) until somebody shows me those bolts, it's just B.S. Because nobody had shown me those bolts, I considered them (the engines) impregnable."
But gradually the rumors and hearsay turned into reality. Diehl remembers the encounter vividly. "It was in 2005, right before Christmas at Lakeland Speedway. A guy walked up and put the bolts in my hand and said 'here Merry Christmas.'" Now, Diehl had seen cheater bolts in the past, "The first ones I saw were rusty while the second ones were kind of shiny."
But his Christmas encounter was a different story altogether. "These had GM on it and it just so happened that this was the third week in a row that somebody put bolts in my hand that had the GM stamp on it that were brand new. At that point, I told my tech guys, 'it's over boys they've impregnated the impregnable.'"
For as little as $400, you...
For as little as $400, you too can have perfectly replicated 602/604 seal bolts. Jeff Huneycutt
With the arrival of the finely-crafted, highly-machined GM-stamped cheater bolt, the nature of sealed crate motor racing took a significant turn for the worse. Racers, hell-bent on winning at any cost, could now get into and out of a sealed motor and nobody would be any wiser.
Problem CompoundedThis problem is compounded by the fact that some tech inspectors both from independent tracks and for actual sanctions will rely on the seal bolts to say that an engine is legal, even when it is obviously not. Consider this, Racer A is running a cheated up crate that turns 7,500 rpm and makes 430 hp at the rear wheels. He goes out and spanks the competition week in and week out. At some point Racer B is going to want to go get that extra muscle as will Racer C. Those two Racers could easily spend upwards of $15K each for a new, legal (wink, wink) motor. While that's their decision to cheat and potentially risk getting caught, the other 20 guys they race against who play by the rules will be robbed at a chance of victory. And that's not fair.
How Big Is It? Cheating within the crate racing ranks is hard to pin down. What is easy to pin down is the wide array of things guys are doing to the engines. From simple valve spring swaps to exotic ported heads, it's being done. "Frankly the guys have gotten a lot more creative than we ever envisioned," admits Martens.
Nobody is really certain how many cheated crate motors are out there, but all admit they exist. "We're not blind or oblivious to the challenges," says Martens. "But GM cannot be the crate police. Once it leaves the factory its out of our control."
And that's the truth. Policing cheating isn't GM's responsibility, although they are working on some new inspection tools and methods for track owners. They are also offering workshops on how to tech a crate at the RPM Workshops. Ensuring that racers are following the rules falls squarely on the shoulders of the promoter and track owner. It's their problem and it always has been, regardless of whether or not the motors are sealed crates, specs or open.
The only thing that can combat...
The only thing that can combat cheating is a good tech inspector. Here, Ronald Leagon, inspector at Cherokee Speedway (SC) checks valvesprings in a crate Late Model to make sure the winner didn't use cheater springs. Jeff Huneycutt
"I have to chuckle, I think proportionally we have more of our 9:1 two-barrel motors trying to be cheated," says IMCA's Brett Root, whose Northern SportMod division gives the option of a GM sealed engine as well as an open motor. "We only caught a couple of guys replacing the valve springs in them (crate motors) so far."
While IMCA is just three years into the crate motors and offer it in only two divisions, there are a number of other sanctions that have been running the crates longer. Some take a relatively soft line against cheating while others take a hard stance banning not only racers but even engine builders.
Stan Lester's Fastrak Racing Series was one of the first series to use the crate motors exclusively and also has one of the toughest penalties out there. That coupled with a lot of hard work has allowed Fastrak to grow and flourish at a rapid rate over the last several years. Coming straight from the Fastrak rule book, the penalties for cheating a crate engine include:
1.Competitor will be barred for balance of season.
2. Loss of all points and any monies due.
3. Illegal parts will be confiscated and destroyed via FASTRAK sanctioning body.
4. Competitor will be fined $1,000.
5. Competitor cannot compete in any Fastrack event.
6. Competitor may return the following year if fine has been paid in full.
7. Second offense competitor will be barred for life.
8. Barred means car, competitor and car owner.
Lester has made the penalties for cheating a crate so stiff that racers are deterred from even trying. Lester's penalties are lightyears ahead of other sanctions whose penalties sound more like a slap on the wrist. Taken straight from a Midwestern track's rulebook: cheating inside the bolts will result in a $1,000 fine, loss of winnings for the night, and neither car or driver will be allowed to participate until fine has been paid in full.
In 2007, IMCA offered a crate...
In 2007, IMCA offered a crate Late Model division as a companion to its popular late-model ranks shown here. Bruce Badgley
The bottom line when it comes to cheating can be summed up by Bobby Diehl's pet saying, "It's their job to cheat and it's our job to catch them."
The DebateCheating aside, the core debate about the crate motors deals with how it will affect the industry long term. Those for the crate make the argument that crate racing offers a low-cost alternative that brings people back and gets new people into the sport.
"If it wasn't the right thing and didn't work, we wouldn't still be selling them today," continues Martens. "Time has proven the premise to be right on. Is it going to displace all forms of racing? Absolutely not, we never intended it to."
And why would they? Do not forget that General Motors manufacturers a whole slew of performance parts that are used by engine builders at all levels of racing.Those against crates argue that their very existence poses a threat to the foundation of the motorsports industry. Here's the fundamental theory behind that threat. Let's assume that 60 percent of the motorsports industry is made up of companies that relate to engines and engine building in some form. If crate motors can supplant the built motors at the local track level, that 60 percent goes away and a significant portion of the industry is controlled by a single entity.
"I don't think we need to lose any competition and make no bones about it, engine builders compete just as much as drivers do," says Scooter Brothers, Director of R&D and Part-Owner of Comp Cams. "Any time we lose that competition, I think we've lost some element of this whole thing we call the racing industry."
The thought of losing 60 percent of the industry should send shivers down everybody's spine and that's the anti-crate position. What effect will crate racing have on the industry?
Some argue that crate racing...
Some argue that crate racing can produce crowds like this, others argue that they will be a thing of the past. Chuck Gonzalez
It's a sticky issue and arguably the most significant issue to ever confront the industry. Next month in Part Two of this series, we are going to offer our answer to that question as well as our solution that will allow each side to achieve its goals while maintaining the common good for the industry. Stay tuned.
Getting BiggerIn the course of the research for this story, we got a scoop straight from General Motors' Bill Martens. This scoop was so new at press time that we couldn't get a picture until the PRI Show which was well after this issue went to print. However, the General is coming out with a third sealed engine in its crate motor line. It will deliver 525 horsepower in an extremely durable package that will retail south of $10,000. Check out www.gmperformanceparts.com for more information.