No doubt about it, one of the most exciting types of short-track racing is carried out by the Super Dirt Late Model machines. The 800-plus horsepower aluminum powerplants, sophisticated suspension systems, and aerodynamically-slick bodies make for high-powered side-by-side racing right on the edge. It's a type of racing that, because of its cost-in particular its engine cost-is far out of reach of the typical low-budget dirt racer. There's just no way that the average 8-5 guy can afford such an undertaking.
To address the situation, there have been different approaches taken. The so-called Sportsman Dirt Late Models and Iron Block Dirt Late Models limit the performance of the powerplants, and therefore limit the price of the engine. With the lower-level Dirt Late Model classes, there is also the opportunity to use older chassis which also helps keep the costs down. But starting in the early 2000s, another DLM price reduction hit the sport in the form of the 'crate engine.'
Crate engines in this context are sealed General Motors cast iron small-blocks. The engines of choice are the GM602 and GM604 versions. Both offer 350 cubic inch displacement and have horsepower ratings of 350 and 400, respectively. Although Ford and Chrysler also make sealed crate motors, GM's are the standard powerplants for all the crate engine Dirt Late Model sanctioning bodies. Granted, those hp figures are far short of the Super Dirt Late Model's high-tech powerplants, but these engines have proven to be very effective on the 11/44- and 31/48-mile tracks.
Cars powered by these engines are very competitive with the Super Lates because all the horsepower can be used without feathering the throttle. In fact, in a recent race at Magnolia Motor Speedway in Columbus, Miss., driver Johnny Stokes, using a crate engine Late Model, beat a field of Super Dirt Late Models using full-up powerplants. That hasn't happened often, but it has happened.
The super-attractive aspect of these crate powerplants is the price! The 602 engine comes in at $3,100, while the more powerful 604 is $5,100. It is, however, necessary to purchase the carburetor and headers on top of those prices, thus adding about $1,500. Combine those engine costs to say a two-to-three-year-old chassis, and you are going to be able to field a crate Late Model for as little as $10,000!
If a crate racer should decide to buy a new chassis, he's getting almost the same item as the Super Late Model driver. One of the top Dirt Late Model builders in the country, C.J. Rayburn explains, "There is basically no difference in the car I sell a crate racer or one of the teams in a traveling series. One small change I do make, because of the lower power of the crate engines, is to put 15-20 pounds less weight on the left rear corner."
The 400 horsepower GM 604...
The 400 horsepower GM 604 crate motor is a popular choice among late-model racers. Courtesy GM Performance Parts
The cost savings makes crate Late Models a perfect learning series for beginning Dirt Late Model drivers who could move up to a higher division at a later time.
There are currently a number of Crate Dirt Late Model sanctioning bodies: The Fastrak Racing Series, the StormPay.com Dirt Late Model Series, Indiana Crate Series, the Crate American Racing Series (CARS), and the IMCA Crate Models.
In addition, the Top-Track Challenge Series held a six-race crate series in 2006, along with sanctioning a number of tracks featuring the crates in weekly series. Crate Late Models were also a supporting class of a number of season-ending national races, including the Domino's Pizza World Short Track Championships at the Dirt Track at Lowes Motor Speedway and the National 100 at East Alabama Motor Speedway.
From the way things look at this time, the rules of all the sanctioning bodies are very similar, thus allowing cars from one group being able to run with another with little or no change. All the organizations use the same GM 602 and 604 powerplants and the post-race minimum weights vary from 2,200 to 2,300 pounds for 602 models, and 2,350 to 2,400 pounds for the 604 models.