Bill Martens, Associate Marketing Manager at Chevrolet Performance, is heavily invested in the circle track world. He spoke to the popularity of the brand’s crate engine offerings during the PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis.
“It’s a value proposition,” he said. “Because we build them in big numbers, we’re able to keep the costs down. This is about affordability. If you want to race, but don’t have a millionaire’s budget, and very few of us do, we’ve got an answer for you.”
The program is now 15 years old and has grown to feature three sealed engines: the CT350, CT400 and CT525, each filling a different need for circle track racers. They are designed for four-barrel carburetor operation (but can be used with two-barrel carbs or restrictors) and run on either pump or race gas. Each utilizes hydraulic lifters and perform exceptionally well on short tracks around the country.
"This is about affordability. If you want to race, but don’t have a millionaire’s budget, and very few of us do, we’ve got an answer for you.” - Bill Martens, Chevrolet Performance
The CT350 (or 602 as it is commonly known in racing circles based on the part number) is the most value-priced option of the three engines. It makes 350 horsepower and features iron Vortec heads. The engine is often seen in Hobby Stocks, but also appears in a variety of Late Model and Sprint Car classes. Martens believes it is pretty much bulletproof.
The next step up is the CT400, or 604, circle track crate engine. Like the 602, this is also a 350c.i. cast-iron-block engine. However, it is capable of 404 horsepower and features high-flowing, Fast Burn aluminum cylinder heads and a single-plane high-rise intake manifold. According to Martens, the power is made in this area. The versatile engine is primarily used in Late Models, but Chevrolet Performance is also seeing it used increasingly in Modifieds.
The CT525 is the high-end circle track version making 533 horsepower. It’s an all-aluminum, 6.2L engine based on the LS3 platform. It features a single-plane, high-rise carbureted intake manifold which replaces factory fuel injection. The engine requires an ignition box, as it doesn’t require provisions for a distributor. This engine is primarily used in Late Model classes, but there are some Sprint Car and Modified circuits which are using them as well.
“Pick your power, pick your price and we’ve got a choice for you,” Martens said of the circle track program.
One of the sanctioning bodies that has successfully implemented Chevrolet Performance’s circle track engines is the Vinton, Iowa-based International Motor Contest Association (IMCA). IMCA sanctions touring series and weekly divisions competing on dirt tracks around the country, and according to president Brett Root crate engines appear in five of the divisions under the IMCA banner. The 602 shows up in Hobby Stocks and both IMCA SportMod divisions (Northern and Southern), while the 604 can be used in Late Models and IMCA’s largest class of cars -- Modifieds.
“It gets back to the affordability of the engine and at the end of the day, that’s what counts,” Root said. “The initial price of the 602 and the initial price of the 604 are in the range I think most of our members are comfortable with. It’s an investment for them.
“It gets back to the affordability of the engine and at the end of the day, that’s what counts." - Brett Root, IMCA
“Then it gets back to durability … if the lifespan of that engine is one, two, three seasons, when they cost that out per race, from what we can gather it’s about the most affordable per night circle track engine that’s available in our market.”
Chevrolet Performance’s crate engine program also helps level the playing field by making the job easier on tech inspectors thanks to the engines being sealed and the mandate that only approved parts be used.
Crate engines are not required in the classes where they are allowed by IMCA, but they have become an overwhelmingly popular choice.
Root and Martens’ relationship began nearly two decades ago and remains strong today.
“GM is a huge company and obviously they’ve got lots of employees and lots of moving parts, but it’s been such a fantastic relationship for us,” Root said. “I couldn’t imagine where IMCA racing would be without the implementation of the crate in any of the divisions that we’ve got now.”
Racing with crate engines is not just popular on dirt though, as the Champion Racing Association (CRA) has also been utilizing them successfully on asphalt, with big plans for the future. The JEGS CRA All-Stars Tour presented by Chevrolet Performance features Pro Late Models (asphalt Late Models powered by crate engines). There, the CT400 a prominent option.
Martens was instrumental in the formation of the series, which is going into its ninth season and competes at tracks around the Midwest.
The series is based in Salem, Indiana, and among its several divisions is the headlining ARCA/CRA Super Series, which features open, built options. Yet, while some use the All-Stars Tour as a stepping stone, for many it has also become a destination. The reason is not only due to economics, but the racing itself.
“I think everybody’s pretty happy with the program,” said series director Glenn Luckett. “This takes a different driving style, that’s the big thing, more of a momentum-type deal than it is with the Supers.”
In addition, since the drivetrain is the only difference between a Pro and Super Late Model, many drivers can bounce between the two divisions, running a crate in each and still be competitive at some of the tight bullrings on the schedule in both disciplines.
For 2019 CRA also recently announced a Junior Late Model Series for kids ages 10-15. The program is designed to provide an option on asphalt between Bandoleros or Legends and major touring series in which kids can get experience in full-bodied cars. The cars are intended to feature relatively simple technology to teach youngsters how to race, and each is mandated to utilize the CT350 (602). The series has already been generating a great deal of buzz.
“Our goal is to have six cars at the first race,” Luckett said. “It will be April 28th at Flat Rock Speedway, the JEGS tour also will be there. Hopefully we’ll have 20 cars by the end of the year. Not huge expectations off the bat because we know it’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re very excited about it.”
“I think everybody’s pretty happy with the program. This takes a different driving style, that’s the big thing, more of a momentum-type deal than it is with the Supers.” - Glenn Luckett, CRA
For IMCA, CRA and dozens of other sanctioning bodies, Chevrolet Performance crate engines have allowed many individuals entry into a sport where often times the sheer cost can be prohibitive.
Rising car counts is a tide that lifts of all ships -- from manufacturers building engines, to promoters selling tickets and pit passes, to racers looking for competition and a trophy.
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