Keith Dorton is the owner...
Keith Dorton is the owner of Automotive Specialists, a winning race engine shop, and a trusted voice in the stock car racing community.
Keith Dorton is the owner of Automotive Specialists, a championship winning engine shop in Concord, NC. He's not only a trusted friend of Circle Track magazine, he's also a veteran of the racing industry with a wealth of experience in everything from Late Models to NASCAR's top touring series. Recently, he wrote us this letter, which because of its significance to the racing industry, we're printing in its entirety, unedited. - Editor
I have been pretty quiet about crate and spec engines for a while now, and events have developed to the point that I think it's time to get back up on the soap box. There is a strong push for these engines, but I think we need to take a look at all sides to make sure we aren't making mistakes that are going to hurt the racers in the long run.
Let's start with crate engines. There has been a lot said and written about them in the past few years. A great deal of that has been by yours truly, and many of my predictions have come true. The most significant of these are increases in cheating, decreased interest from the fans, fewer car counts and expenses for race teams that are the same or higher. There have not been many weeks in the last three years that I have not gotten at least one call from someone looking for counterfeit bolts for sealed crate engines. I just refer them to a friend that has been making them for quite a while. I must add he's doing quite well supplementing his income by making and selling them.
Built engines have seen a renewal in the Southeast in 2007, and I hope this trend will continue across the country. Crate engines, however, still seem to be most prevalent at tracks that give them a substantial advantage over built engines. Usually, it's something along the lines of a bigger carburetor along with a substantial weight break, and the advantage is so significant that racers have to run the crate engines if they are going to have any hope of being competitive.
The aluminum-block LS motors...
The aluminum-block LS motors may be a great design for road cars, but they are inadequate for competitive stock car racing. In my experience, I've found that the bores quickly distort, and current rules have no adequate fix for this problem.
Another thorn in my side is what is being referred to as "Sealed Engines." These engines are being used in a number of Late Model events across the country.
I'm not sure how sealed engines came to be in stock car racing, but they are designed to be operated at rpms significantly lower than normally seen on a race track. This means the engines use cheaper parts of lower quality than you would see in an engine built expressly for racing. In order to make up for the difference, the tracks sanctioning sealed motors allow a bigger carburetor to give the engine more horsepower.
The problem with this is the big carbs allow the sealed crate engines to make much more power than the built engines racers have been using for years. Why obsolete those engines? Why not make the sealed engine use the smaller carburetor that was already being run and use weight or some other measure to make them more equal? Instead, racers who have already invested in a built race motor that can last them several seasons with regular rebuilds have to basically throw those engines away and buy new sealed crate motors and the bigger carburetors so that they won't be trapped at the back of the field.
The lower initial costs of these engines may look attractive at first, but why penalize those racers who already have one (or more) race engines in their inventory? For example, I have a longtime customer that has been running in the USAR's Hooters Pro Cup Series. He also has a Late Model and recently wanted to run in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. I suggested that we change the oil pan on one of his Pro Cup engines to fit the Late Model chassis. This engine is 360 cubic inches and makes about 600 hp with a 600 cfm carb. The promoters said he could run the Pro Cup engine with a 390 carb. This would cut the horsepower down to around 520. But the sealed engine makes a little over 600 hp with an 830 carb and 380-plus cubic inches. See where I'm going with this? Even though he already owned a perfectly good race engine, he had to go out and buy a new sealed engine in order to race. Isn't this program supposed to be saving the racers money?
Another weak area of this...
Another weak area of this engine package is the oil inlet fitting near the oil pan. The only thing sealing the fitting and the block is an O-ring that's part of the oil-pan gasket, and it can be easy to torque this fitting enough to cause an oil leak, especially if the member of the race crew isn't careful not to over tighten the fitting. A leak here can allow air bubbles into the system which can severely damage the bearings. Our solution has been to cap off the fitting, tap into the block itself and install our new fitting. It may or may not be legal, we haven't asked, but we feel the change was necessary to protect our customers.
It is simply not a good thing for short track racing in general when the rules are twisted so that you are forced into using a mass-produced street-type engine in order to compete. I will be the first to admit that built race engines have gotten expensive. But so has everything else in racing, and as long as the rule book stays consistent, a well-built race engine can provide a lot of value in the long term. I have said before that there are ways to keep engine costs down while maintaining brand identity and tight competition. I would be glad to share these ideas with anyone, any time.
The sealed motors have been around for a while now, and people are starting to see more clearly how they aren't the magic cure they were billed to be when they first came out. But now we also have a similar situation with the recent introduction of NASCAR's new spec engine used in the Busch East and West Divisions. They aren't affecting a lot of people yet since they are in only two racing divisions, but there are plans to use this engine in a growing number of series and I believe we need to take a good hard look at the spec engine before it gets too far.
This spec engine is based off of Chevrolet's LS family of engines. It is available in kit form or fully assembled through Provident Auto Supply. Wegner Automotive did the development on this engine, and the main selling point is the cost savings a racer can benefit from by using this lower priced engine.
This engine will replace the 18-degree Chevy engine that has been in use in racing for quite a while. The 18-degree engines cost approximately $40,000 complete. The basic engine will last a number of seasons. In fact, we have had engines using the same block, crankshaft, connecting rods, cylinder heads and other components last five or more seasons if the team takes care of them and follows a sensible rebuild schedule. And, believe it or not, at the end of those five seasons they are still competitive. They make approximately 600 hp and operate at a maximum rpm somewhere around 8,500.
By comparison, the spec engine makes about the same horsepower, but they are limited to approximately 7,500 rpm because of the hydraulic roller cam that they use. They also use an 830 cfm carburetor while the 18-degree was limited to a 390 cfm carb. Sounds like a good idea, right?
But wait a minute, let's back up a bit and look at the entire picture.
When this spec engine was proposed, the kit (unassembled) price was going to be $12,500 while the assembled version was to be priced at $15,000. Things changed however as the first kits my customers bought cost $22,500. This is for a kit not an assembled motor.
Apparently, we are supposed to unbox, clean and assemble the spec engine kit, providing Automotive Specialists (or any other engine builder, for that matter) a profit of $2,500. But there are some things I just can't bring myself to do, and one of the biggest is assembling a race engine without at least verifying the clearances. Remember, a lot of the components in the spec engine are production-line pieces where the tolerances simply aren't held to the same specifications as a true racing component. That makes checking clearances even more important than on an engine built with real racing components. I don't want to discuss our pricing, but I will say we assemble these engines in the same manner as all our racing engines and price accordingly.
Here are the spec pistons....
Here are the spec pistons. You can see the scuffing on the skirts that comes both from the bore distortion and the fact that this is a short deck block. To get the stroke the crank actually pulls the piston skirts out of the bottom of the bores.
But if a racer has his engine assembled by someone that just wipes off the parts and bolts everything together, he could very likely have a very frustrating experience.
I assembled several of these kits in 2007 and the horsepower was pretty consistent with good tuning. These engines were then returned after the season for rebuilds or maintenance as needed. After checking, I found that multiple engines had distortion in the cylinder bores up to 0.0025 of an inch. This amount of distortion simply isn't acceptable in real race engines because it leads to poor ring seal and piston problems. The easiest solution is to bore the cylinders 0.005 over to clean up the distortion. But when we called about getting 0.005 or 0.010 oversize pistons we were told they are not legal. Re-sleeving the cylinder bores would cost more than the entire block, so to rebuild these engines properly a brand-new block and a new set of pistons have to be purchased!
Then, there is no way to prevent the cylinders from distorting right away, again. This certainly does not seem very cost-effective to me. I thought the reason behind this type of engine is to keep the cost down. It's a little bit like a bait-and-switch. The racer is only told about the up-front cost. What he isn't told about is the cost of maintaining these engines. Considering the cost of a proper rebuild, race teams would be better off purchasing a brand-new spec engine every year, and even if we are talking about the basic cost of $25,000 plus per engine, he's already exceeded the cost of a more durable 18-degree engine in less than three years.
But things have already started changing pretty quickly-and I'm not talking about the parts being used. At the start of 2008-just one year into the program-the kit price has already gone to $23,900! And because there is only one resource for obtaining these engine kits, there is no competition and no guarantee that prices won't go up again in the future. Take, for example, the crankshaft for the spec engine. It costs $2,046, and it's the same crank I can buy direct from the manufacturer for $1,200. The difference is the $1,200 crank doesn't have the tracking code that makes it spec-legal. There's no performance or durability to be gained from the spec component that costs nearly twice as much! Now we are at the point that racing two seasons (and replacing your engine instead of a rebuild) will exceed the cost of a true 18-degree race motor.
I understand that we have to have rules to keep those with unlimited budgets from ruining the fun for everyone else. And I'm a proponent of intelligent ways to help maintain costs for the racers. But being forced to buy parts from one source for this type of series is like forcing Tiger Woods to buy his clubs from Kmart.
We can buy these encrypted parts and put together these engines and still make a living, but what a boring way to do it! And I think the effect will be the same for the race teams and the fans at the race track. I will always cherish the days of competing against others in the business. Ford racing against Chevy and Mopar. Crane versus Isky versus Comp. We've designed and built our own oil pans, valve covers, headers, accessories and worked with several different manufacturers to design other components that make more power and last longer. The real fun in racing comes when you have the freedom to find ways to overcome the current limitations of the equipment.
In the short term of the sealed crate and spec motor era, some will save money-and a few will certainly make money. But motorsports in general will surely suffer because of it. I don't have all the answers, but I am certain that the direction we are headed isn't a good one. And as always, I welcome your responses, whether they are critical or positive.