In the last issue we continued our debate on crate motor racing and offered some suggestions that could create a happy medium between all parties. Our three suggestions were:
1. Just Tech It: aka enforce the rules.
2. Ditch the bolts: by unsealing the engines you keep tech inspectors from assuming the engine is legal just because of the presence of the bolts.
3. Spec It: create a list of approved aftermarket components that any racer or engine builder can use.
Reinforcing the fact that there is a problem with crate racing, shortly after the last issue went to press two-time StormPay.com Dirt Late Model Series National Champion
David Gentry of Lewisburg, Tenn., was suspended from series competition for one year. The reason? An engine rule infraction found by StormPay.com Dirt Late Model Series Technical officials on a warm December Saturday during the Third Annual Crate Racin' USA World Championship Race at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa, Fla.
When Gentry requested to change engines after he had won his heat race, officials agreed to the engine change provided that they could inspect the engine that was used in the heat race. When they cracked the motor open they found a valve in the left cylinder head that was not machined into spec, and ruled the engine illegal. Gentry appealed the decision, and StormPay.com technical officials looked further into the cylinder head and valvetrain components, where they found the ports on the cylinder head had also not been machined into spec.
Gentry's engine had the correct "RM" seal bolts at the time of the inspection, which indicated it had been previously worked on inside the sealing bolts of the engine. At press time, the Gentry-StormPay issue is still open and is going to take a lot of hard work on StormPay's part to determine exactly what happened.
You know you have a good crowd when the seats are filled to the railings. Photo by Jeff Hu
The incident is arguably the highest profile penalty to hit the crate racing scene since its inception five years ago. But as we dissected the actual crate racing situation, we kept coming back to the same conclusion, which goes back to something Scooter Brothers, part-owner of Comp Cams, said in our initial interview on this subject back in November of 2007.
"My fear is that racetrack promoters see this crate engine as a gift from heaven that will automatically double their car counts," said Brothers. "The only thing that I have ever seen to double car count is to roll up the sleeves and go to work."
Hmmm, hard work, what a concept.
Let's face it, crate or open, the days of opening the gates on Saturday, collecting the money and going back to your day job on Monday are long gone, if they ever existed at all.
While a legitimate concern to engine builders and part manufacturers from a competitive standpoint, the crate motor issue is a symptom of a much larger problem facing the motorsports industry-the bozo promoter.
You know him. He's the bulls--- artist who likes to bad-mouth other promoters, tries to squeeze every penny out of his racers while ignoring the front gate and does little or nothing at all to involve the local community in the track. He's the reason short-tracks around the country are closing, not NASCAR broadcasting races on Saturday night.
But while there are plenty of those bozo promoters around, there are also a whole host of guys and gals attempting to do it the right way. For this story we talked to a few of them in different areas of the country.
Sitting on 50 acres in the center of Florida is Ocala Speedway, a dirt track for 45 years before it was paved in 1997. For the next eight years, the track remained asphalt but went through several different owners before former driver Mike Peters bought the 3/8-mile semi-banked track two years ago. Peters heard the rumblings of Ocala's former dirt glory. "I ignored it the first year, but then I started talking with the folks at DIRT about eight months ago," says Peters, a lifelong asphalt racer and admitted dirt beginner. So after conversations with the sanctions, racers from all over Florida and beyond, as well as other dirt track owners, Peters made the gutsy decision to dump 350 truckloads of prime Florida clay on the track.
Ocala Speedway is making the switch to dirt for 2008. Photo by B.J. Cavin
"It would have been easier to sell the place. After all we're sitting on 50 acres of prime industrial property that is probably worth way more as something other than a racetrack," he says. But being a true racer, Peters wanted to see the track thrive, not go under. His solution was to look back to the history of the speedway and find when they had the most success. Ocala's heyday was as a dirt track under the management of the Powell Family. Now, Peters is hoping that taking a page out of history will pay off for the track's future.
Here's why he decided to go dirt:
Uniform Set of Rules: his competitors can run at different tracks around the Southeast with little to no change to the car.
Better Racing: As an asphalt track, Ocala had a single groove that didn't promote side by side racing. That should change with the addition of the dirt.
More Cars: Peters says, rightly so, that promoters must put on the most entertaining show possible to attract fans to the stands. One key to that is a healthy car count. In the dirt world, it is not uncommon for a $2,000-to-win feature to attract more than 100 cars. Conversely, 30 is a strong car count for an asphalt race.
Lower Cost to Race: In many cases, dirt cars tend to be lower cost for a driver to run. This translates into a healthier car count.
Granted, Peters is a novice dirt track operator and 2008 will be a learning year for him. However, he may have done one of the smartest things he could have possibly done in the scheduling of his shows. Ocala Speedway is going to run on Friday nights. Why is that so smart you may ask?
Well, less than one hour to the east is Volusia County Speedway and just one hour and 40 minutes to the south is East Bay Raceway Park, two dirt tracks that run Saturday night shows. By running his show on Friday (along with the common set of rules), Peters is allowing East Bay and Volusia racers to run at his track the day before they run their home track. That's good business sense. Instead of competing directly with the other tracks he's working with them.
Working with nearby tracks to share racers and fans can no doubt help car counts and front gate flourish. But that is just one part of the equation.
I-25 Speedway in Southern Colorado (just outside Pueblo) has been owned by the White brothers, Randel and Perry, for almost seven years. When they took over the track it was in disarray; shoddy facilities, dwindling car counts, purported illegal activities and vacant seats in the grandstands were the norm for the little 1/4-mile facility.
To bring it back, the Missouri-born brothers treated it like it was a brand-new racetrack and applied a common sense theory of track management: "Don't let greed be the motivating factor, work as a team with the drivers, the crews and the fans. Give them ultimate respect, and do what you say you're going to do," says Perry White. "If I tell them something, they know that it is the Gospel."
That philosophy permeates everything that the Whites do; from Perry himself handing out free bottles of water to the drivers while they are waiting for hot laps to personally thanking his racers for coming to the track. I-25 offers a fair purse, clean rest rooms and a hospitable environment for racing.
But make no mistake about it, the Whites run the show. "You have to remember where your bread is buttered and you have to treat these people with respect," says White. "But you still have to draw the line."
White has an innovative approach to handling concerns. Depending upon the actual issue, White will ask the person to go to another racetrack and check out how they run their program. The person is then asked to come back and report their findings directly to White. Not only does this help White stay on top of what other tracks are doing or not doing as the case may be, but it also builds a stronger bond with his racers.
Currently I-25 draws about 2,000 people every week. While that number is small compared to the 6,000 to 8,000 at North Carolina's Bowman Gray Stadium, 2,000 is a number many short tracks would kill for. How do they do it? The Whites' respect and dignity philosophy has yielded solid car counts. Routinely, I-25 will host in excess of 18 Late Models, 26 modifieds and 26 street stocks. For a little 1/4-mile track, more cars translates into more fans.
Solid crowds are the norm at Colorado's I-25 Speedway. Photo by Mike Lippencott
But White says it's not just one thing that contributes to their success, it's a complete plan and a process. "There's a right way, a wrong way, and a common sense way. We try to do the common sense way."
One example is in the area of rule changes. At I-25 you won't find mid-year rule changes. White insists on giving his competitors at least a full year to conform to a rule change. In addition to that White says the best thing he has done since taking over the track is to join the ASA sanction, which gives his competitors excellent insurance coverage and gives him a valuable resource to tap into motorsports marketing.
The well-known North Carolina bullring sits in the middle of NASCAR country and as such it's a safe bet that the competitors at the track have a whole host of engineering technology at their fingertips, perhaps more so than at other tracks around the country. Like many short tracks Hickory runs a variety of different divisions some of which include crate motors. But unlike many crate motor divisions around the country, Hickory takes a different tactic.
"About four or five years ago, we did away completely with seals on all three crate motors that we run," says Paul Deyo, Technical Director/Chief Steward at Hickory. Deyo and his team even encourage competitors to remove the seals before coming to the track. Inspectors are going to remove them anyway and it's a lot easier to do it in the shop than at the track at midnight.
Trucks racing at Hickory Motor Speedway, a track taking an innovative approach to crates.
Hickory runs the crate in three divisions-the 602 in Street Stock (which is a new addition for '08), the 603 in Limited Late Model and Trucks and the 604 in Late Model Stock. Deyo says that they tech the motors exactly the same way they tech "built" motors. The rule book says the crate motor must be completely stock so they routinely check things such as combustion chamber size, intake/exhaust ports and runners, valve spring ratings and more. The team at Hickory has even made several tools and jigs to make these checks easier. Deyo bases the specs on a combination of the GM Circle Track Crate Engine Technical Manual and from their own inspections of known stock or legal motors.
"I am not nave enough to think that some things are not being snuck by us, but we do know where the horsepower is made and we concentrate on those areas."
Pulling the seals on the crate motor is an idea that has been written about in the pages of CIRCLE TRACK more than once. But it goes far deeper than just catching potential cheaters, the team at Hickory is ensuring a fair race. There isn't a racer on the planet who doesn't love a fair race and having fair races translates into healthier car counts which in turn translates into more fans in the stands.
At the end of the day, that is truly what it is all about, more fans in the stands. "Short-track racing is alive and well," says Randy Myers, the outspoken (we like that) owner of Friendship Motor Speedway, head of the ASA-Southern Modified Race Tour and longtime modified racer. Myers makes the comment with a caveat, something needs to be done to let people know that indeed short-track racing is not only alive and kicking, but a viable option for great family entertainment on a Saturday night.
The tracks mentioned in this article are just a few examples of successful approaches. In the coming months we will be scouring the nation to find more tracks that are taking the right approach and proving that short-track racing is alive and well. Stay tuned and maybe your local track will wind up right here.