Who needs soap operas when we've got racing? Mostly, the wild rumors, back-room dealings, and unsubstantiated gossip are confined to the team level at the tracks-who's running a ported head, who's doctoring their tires, who has the tech inspector in their pocket. Recently, through a mixture of miscommunication and product evolution, a manufacturer-Ford-became a prime player in the NASCAR Late Model rumor mill.

Although it's the top attraction at many Saturday-night tracks, NASCAR Late Model Stock racing is not intended to be a professional-level class. The rules are designed not only to provide fierce door-to-door competition, but also to keep costs affordable for the regular guy. A big part of keeping the costs of racing down is consistency in the rule book. Even the slightest change can lead to competitors shelling out for a complete engine rebuild, chasing the absolute performance limits that the latest change will allow. The way Jerry Cook, NASCAR's main decision maker for the Weekly Racing Series, sees it, as long as the competition is tight and every make of car has an equal chance of winning, there is no need to change a thing.

Running Change, or Redesign? That's why more than a few eyebrows were raised before the start of the '02 season when Ford unveiled an improved cast-iron head and called it a replacement for the venerable N351-the only head legal for Ford engines in NASCAR's Late Model Stock division. The head was actually considered an update, or running change, to the N351, so the part number would not change. Apparently, the original tooling for producing the heads had completely worn out, and Ford engineers had taken advantage of the opportunity to update the head while bringing the new tooling online.

Unfortunately (or maybe, fortunately if you are a Chevy racer), Cook and NASCAR quickly rejected the head on the grounds that it would upset the delicate competitive balance in the series. "With the Late Models, we've got the Dodges, Chevrolets, and Fords, and there's one head for each model," explains Cook of his decision not to approve the new head. "We saw no reason to change anything in (Ford's) cylinder head from a competition standpoint. The cars are competitively pretty equal from what I've seen since we've gotten everybody down to just one head (each). When Ford came through with these modifications, it was simply something that we weren't going to approve."

This is the point where the rumors started flying. Some said the cost of retooling for a set of head castings was simply too expensive and Ford would draw a line in the sand: Either NASCAR would approve the new head or the Blue Oval would pull its support for racers in NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series. Others theorized Ford would begin producing the old-style heads again, but it would be several months to a year before they would reappear on the market. In the meantime, a suitable (read: legal) head would become hard to find.

Thankfully, none of the rumors proved true. Ford gave the updated heads their own part number (N352), and pledged to continue producing the N351. As far as Ford and NASCAR are concerned, everything is-and always has been-just hunky-dory. But the solution of producing both versions of the head means that racers in a series not sanctioned by NASCAR but still required to use a cast-iron head may have a brand-new option open to them. To find out exactly what the difference is between the N351 and the N352 we traveled to Raceparts Distribution Incorporated in Cornelius, North Carolina, to have a look for ourselves.