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.
Across all the series, all three of the major tire brands can be found with one or more group. Also, all the groups allow quick-change rearends, and have similar engine set-back and transmission rules.
The Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor...
The Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway is a marquee track that hosts late-model racing, both crate and open. Jeff HuneycutT
It's interesting that a number of top Super Late drivers have run with the Crate series. Such drivers as Jeff Purvis, Ronnie Johnson, Mike Head, Mike Boland, Jimmy Owens, Rodney Melvin, Steve Barnett, Dennis Franklin and others, have competed with the lower-powered models. But don't get the attitude that it's just the Dirt Late Models that will experience this engine transformation. Several groups are looking at other series for crates and at least one other organization has already gone that direction with a lower series.
Following are the how's and why's of these growing series:
Fastrak Racing Series This organization was the first of the crate engine series with its first race held in April 2004. Since then, the organization, which is headed by Stan Lester, has grown into a national group with nine self-operating Regions.
At season's end, a series champion is crowned at a national competition. The group sanctioned 26 local tracks in 2006 and more than 50 in 2007. The Fastrak tire is Goodyear with either the G45 or G50 types.
Lester pointed to the economic advantages of these cars from his point-of-view. "Most of the guys that run with us are using cars that are 2 to 3 years old. In fact, our 2006 Champion won with a 1999 car." Lester also noted that many of the drivers in his series were former Super Late drivers who couldn't afford to continue at that level. "We have even had some former Super Late drivers come out of retirement to run with us," he explained.
Lester added that he tries to make his series a fun thing with no pressure to win as well as involving fans as much as possible with his shows. "We don't have any guys doing this on a fulltime basis, they've all got 8-5 jobs."
Eventual feature winner Chris...
Eventual feature winner Chris Ferguson coming through Carolina Speedway's turn two in a mid-september Fastrak event. Big Mack
The pay-offs from Fastrak are about $600-to-win at the numerous local tracks, $2,000-$10,000 for the national events, and an amazing $50,000 to the National Champion. Also, $5,000 will go to each of the Regional Champions.
In addition to the Late Model division, Fastrak also runs a successful Modified division using the 602 engine. "You could really go racing on the cheap with that combination," says Lester.
Stormpay.com Dirt Late Model Series This organization is headed by Mike Vaughn and sanctions crate Late Model racing in the Southeastern and Midwest U.S. He explained his thinking on the new class of Dirt Late Models, "These cars are an alternative to the Super Late Models at weekly tracks. With our group, we figure a crate Late Model costs about $25,000 less than that of a Super Late. Therefore, the promoter at a weekly track can pay half the purse, or in some cases even less, and stand a better chance of staying in business."
According to Vaughn that's a big deal. "Weekly dirt tracks are shutting down across the nation at an alarming rate. Race fans are showing that they will pay a high-price ticket for a special Super Late Model show, but they won't pay a higher ticket price for a weekly Super Late Model show. It's a vicious circle because the Super Late competitors won't race for the lower purse that keeps the promoter in business."
The weekly shows are the backbone of the short-track. "We had several StormPay.com Weekly Racing Series tracks this past season that replaced the Supers with the crate Late Models as their top division," says Vaughn. "They all made money. The fans liked the competition. It was a good situation because since the engines are all the same, the competition is more about car setup and driving ability."
2006 was the second year for the StormPay.com National Tour, and the first for its Weekly series at 20 tracks. That number jumped to over 30 sanctioned tracks with 700-plus drivers in 2007. "I think that the interest was very evident at the East Bay Winter Nationals when we had 96 cars for the three-day event," says Vaughn.
The StormPay.com weekly track shows pay $500-$700 per race. With the touring series, the winning payoff is from $2,500 to $3,000 per show. Two tire brands are allowed in this season with either the Hoosier D55 or the American Racer 56.
Crate late models like these...
Crate late models like these of Chip Brindle (#38) and David Gentry (#56) racing in the Stormpay.com series deliver close racing action. Mike Blevins
Indiana Crate Series Co-Owners Mike and Donna Bechelli's Indiana-based series began in 2006 and ran that first season under Fastrak sanction. This season, they are going it alone with 12 races scheduled, all of them in Indiana. Right off the bat, Bechelli's hyped about the reliability of the crate engine. Still an active driver, he indicated, "Heck, I ran one of them 1,600 laps last season and only had to change the valve springs and retainers." Instead of a standard points fund, Mike will award racing parts and pieces including chassis from Rayburn, Rocket and MastersBuilt along with transmissions and engine parts. Hoosier, American Racer, and Goodyear brands are all allowed with this series.
Crate American Racing Series (CARS) Being around only since late 2005, the CARS organization was formed by a group of car owners, track promoters and officials who were all looking for a more economical form of Dirt Late Model racing. Car counts were dropping and all concerned were interested in an alternative to the high-dollar cost of running a Super Dirt Late Model. Using basically the same rules as the other crate organizations, CARS carries out its racing activities in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana. It also sanctions weekly events at Mt. Vernon (Ill.) Raceway, along with Kentucky tracks Paducah International Raceway and Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway.
In addition to the tracks listed, 2007 saw CARS aligned itself with Fredericktown (Mo.) Raceway, Tri-City (Ill.) Speedway and Windy Hollow (Ky.) Speedway. CARS had 108 different drivers compete in the series in its first full year with hopes that this number will double this season!
"With the cost of running a (Super) Dirt Late Model, we felt the CARS crate Late Model series was the answer for controlling the cost of these cars," explained Kentucky's Soggy Bottom Speedway track promoter Don Adams. Adams' was another track that joined CARS in late 2006.
Modified teams like this one...
Modified teams like this one may soon be able to race with a crate motor instead of the built one currently residing between the framerails. Rob Fisher
The tire requirement for CARS is the Hoosier WRS-2. The winner's payoff at weekly series CARS tracks is $500-$600 with special events paying between $1,000-$2,500.
IMCA Crate Models Noting the success of other crate Dirt Late Model groups, the longstanding IMCA group entered the fray this past season. For the immediate future, the racing will be done at the local level. IMCA VP of Operations, Brett Root, says with the used Dirt Late Model market being very strong, it's possible to pick up a car with a crate engine go racing for as little as $10,000.
"It makes a very affordable option for low-budget teams and for tracks that want to start a crate class from scratch." The Hoosier D55 is the spec tire with the winner's share being between $300-$600 depending on the track.
Late Model sanctions aren't the only ones who are following the crate trend. There are an increasing number of organizations developing Sprint, Modified and even Sportsman crate divisions. One of the higher profile organizations, DIRT Motorsports, which sanctions the prestigious World of Outlaws Super Dirt Late Model series, was one of the first. Cory Reed, Director of the Dirt Sportsman Division, indicated that the series will be completely converted to the crates in 2008.
"We didn't want to start a new division and felt the Sportsman cars would be a good place to start the crates in our organization." But this isn't all new to the series (also known as the Northeast Modified Division) as the crate engines have been allowed in the series for the past two years. "The standard 350 small-block and the 350 crates have run together with the crate-powered cars getting a 150-pound weight break, that was the same situation for the 2007 season," Reed said.
The future of crate engine dirt racing seems especially bright in the late-model ranks, due largely to the affordability. All of the divisions and series in this article were running strong in 2007 and are looking to have an even better 2008 season.