The battle between open-build engines and crate engines on dirt tracks has been waged on ovals and shops for the last decade, with plenty of pros and cons to each. Despite the obvious differences, the separation between the open engines and factory-sealed crates is getting smaller. There is still a tradeoff between performance and durability, but the lines are getting closer. This season the DIRTcar sanctioning body approved an engine option for their UMP Modified racing series. Working with Pace Performance, the series approved the DC-18 Chevrolet Performance 525 engine for competition.
Chevrolet’s 525 sealed crate engine is no stranger to dirt track racing, so we wanted to find out why this package is different, and what the thought process was behind allowing the LS3 based powerplant to compete. As usual, the engine option announcement from DIRTcar carried the typical “cost-effective, affordable racing program” verbiage within the formal document. Anytime the racing community hears “affordable” and “racing” in the same sentence the hair on the back of their neck stands up.
Full disclosure, Pace Performance is an advertiser on the OneDirt digital magazine, and we certainly didn’t want anyone to think there was some funny business going on here. Currently, we have three companies that manufacture and sell crate engines advertising, and a host of others that manufacture performance parts for high-performance engines. Clearly, it is not in our best interest to throw support in either direction, but we do owe our readers an explanation of the products on the market.
We started calling around and it didn’t take long to find the man behind the DC-18 engine, Don Blackshear. Don is a familiar name in our media circle due to his long drag racing career. He first came to national prominence as a 17-year-old Champion in the NHRA Super Comp class in 1987. He went on to race alcohol dragsters and enjoyed a great reputation as a winning driver. It was only a matter of time before he decided to start his own business, Blackshear Racing Engines, providing highly competitive engines for every type of racing class. We were pleased to find his voice on the other end of our call.
OneDirt: Don, what’s the deal with this UMP Modified crate engine? How did it start and is it a good rival on the tracks?
Don Blackshear: All of our CT525 engine packages are developed for tracks or series that want to utilize a sealed, cost-containment engine program. Our first venture into this was with Knoxville Raceway with their 305 sprint car division. I developed a CT 525 sprint car version for Knoxville that would blend with their existing “built engine” 305s.
We could come in with an engine at half the cost and be competitive.
The issue out there and why they wanted to go this direction was that their built engines were ranging in the $35,000 range. We could come in with an engine at half the cost and be competitive. We’ve won two championships in the past two seasons using the Knoxville engine. Last year, we had 9 of the top 10 points-finishers that utilized the engine. This year we had to entire top five utilize the engine.
That’s where the original concept started for our department to get involved with developing the package. That success lead to the development of the DC-18 package that I did for DIRTcar. It is a spec component, sealed cost-containment-type engine program. This year, I think, we’ve sold 24 of them, and we have had (I believe), five or six feature wins this year in the UMP competition.
OD: Wait… the 305 sprints were supposed to be a cost saver for racers. $35,000 isn’t saving anyone costs, is it?
Don: Not in a division that pays $400 to win. It was out-of-control. John McCoy and Mike Proffitt actually met me at the promoters workshop in Daytona and saw that we [Pace Performance] had developed the ability to put a sealed crate engine into a sprint car. I developed the drive hub and yoke assembly, and because these engines are externally balanced in the rear, it took a little unique balance hub to make it work in a sprint car for the 602/604 engine. That’s how we got going on the 525 with their situation.
[Ed Note: John McCoy is the Promoter of Knoxville Raceway. Mike Proffitt is the Competition Director of Knoxville Raceway]
OD: How is that different from the typical UMP crate engine?
Don: The UMP modified dirt engine package is the same basic combination as far as pumps, pulleys, and things of that nature. It is just specifically developed for the modifieds. There is a spec timing map that I program into the ignition boxes for them.
OD: Is the cost savings the same as the sprint car engines?
Don: In the UMP world, for a competitive engine you are probably somewhere in the twenty-five thousand dollar range. $20-$25,000 would be the target range for a name-brand built engine that is utilized out there. Our DC-18 package is $10,818 less the carburetor, headers and flywheel. So basically it cuts the initial operation of the engine in half.
OD: How are the dependability, maintenance, and operating costs with this package. We always hear how great these items are in crate engines, so give us real-world numbers.
Don: Our engines use a hydraulic roller camshaft, so there is no weekly valve adjustment, maintenance on them are very minimal.
Most guys will run a season on an open-built motor, some of them will get it rebuilt halfway through the season depending on the number of races on it. On our engine packages, we have guys with over 100 nights of racing on them and are still competitive and winning races with them in the CT525 version.
These crate engines don’t require racing fuels to operate them. These engines basically make the same power on 93 pump gas as they do on 110 race fuel. A lot of our competitors utilize E85 in their modifieds, which is what I refer to as your biggest bang for your buck as far as performance over a pump gas would be. So you cut your race gas bill, which is anywhere from $9 to $12 a gallon, to buying pump gas for less than 4 bucks a gallon for fuel.
OD: What other crate engine tricks do you have up your sleeve?
Don: We basically developed this package for the UMP modifieds, but we also have the package in the USRA and USMTS series with Joe Duvall and several other racers that utilize it in those series. It’s the same type of situation there with the built engine costs that continue to escalate. We’ve been able to provide a sealed, cost-containment engine that has durability and has the performance to compete with the open-built engines in those applications.
OD: How do you know if a crate engine is right for you?
Don: When I talk to people, I focus on the cost to be competitive. That is what has driven racers away from racing: the cost to be competitive. As a racer, all you really want is to be competitive. When you start limiting these things where it is a cost-containment type of program, now you give Johnny down the street that used to be a really good racer but had to quit because he couldn’t keep up with the open-funded race teams … you’re giving them an opportunity to come back and be competitive with a controlled engine cost.
As a racer, all you really want is to be competitive.
There are no modifications allowed to the engine. The engine is sealed from us with our secondary engine sealing program, which is a unique program to us. Each seal is QR coded so you can scan them with a smartphone. It takes you to our database, you enter in your engine serial number and a build number that I give the engine, and it brings up all the documentation on that engine along with photo documentation of every seal on it installed here. So as a tech official in a tech barn at 11:00 at night, you can basically tech the thing in a matter of five minutes with your smartphone. The tech guys love us.
OD: Is that QR code program something that you have to pay extra for?
Don: All of our engine packages come with that QR program with the package when it leaves here. That way they know by visual identification that the seal hasn’t been tampered with since it left Pace.
It will definitely deter cheating. We actually control the sealing program for several different series that have rebuilder programs on the 602s and 604s so that the engine builder is held accountable for his work. Those programs do very well also, but our program is designed that if you tamper with it, you are going to get busted. The penalty for getting busted is a year’s suspension. If you want to go down that route, we’re going to get you sooner or later. Probably sooner.
OD: Give us some details on the DC-18 engine package.
Don: They are an all-aluminum engine, lighter than the steel-block built engines in the UMP modifieds, Our engines produce right around 550 horsepower on pump gas, and the open engines can produce 700 plus. Our engine is a little bit lighter than theirs is, so it gives it a little bit of an advantage in weight distribution in the car.
I tell guys, look, we’re in a box. We can’t find any more power. This is what we have, and it’s sealed. The tech officials have a way to tech the ignition boxes with a little handheld box. They plug it in the box, turn the ignition on and it goes through the parameters. It comes up green if all the parameters are correct, or it comes up red if the parameters have been altered. It tells you which parameter has been altered, and of course, the racer is disqualified. That’s our way of stopping these people that think they can control these engine’s computer performance by the sealed mandated programs that are in the ignition system.
I’ve tried to look at every angle where a guy could get an advantage, or alter things on it, but we’ve got everything tied up now to where it’s a moot point.
OD: How about the things that are specifically Pace Performance add-ons?
Don: I’ve been an engine builder my whole life and there was technology we just knew needed to happen with this engine to help the cooling system work a little more efficiently. I worked with CJ Jones and those guys at Jones Racing Products to help design those parts for me, as far as the water neck riser and things like that. So that is all a Jones program that we’ve worked together on. The water pump, the water pump speed, the impeller design, just to keep the coolant flow consistent through these engines.
What a lot of people don’t understand with these engines is that they were designed as an emissions engine. So it does not have sufficient water flow up the exhaust-port side of the cylinder heads. They are really prone to steam pockets inside the cylinder head water passageways. The newly designed water system that we have come up with, it has pretty much eliminated that situation.
What a lot of people don’t understand with these engines is that they were designed as an emissions engine.
Our program is literally a plug-and-play system. Being a racer my whole life, building and designing parts, I know how hard it is for a weekly guy to buy something, and it doesn’t work or it needs this or that… our package, when I tell you that it comes ready to plug-and-play, it is exactly that. The oiling system, our remote-filter mount that I designed for it, the engine has been prepped, primed, and dynoed if that is an option that was chosen. I’ve also designed some other items like the flywheel that comes with it. Our package has an adapter ring where they can use their existing flywheel from their build engine, so they don’t have to go buy another $200 flywheel specifically for the 525. The motor mounts are another piece that we designed in-house, everything is plug-and-play.
OD: How has the DC-18 engine package worked out in its first UMP Modified season?
Don: I believe we have sold 26 of them. We’ve won features in UMP and features in USRA and USMTS, so it’s been a successful out-of-the-box run for the package.
We’ve had one racer that has had multiple feature wins with it. These guys are running in the Illinois/Indiana area which is the hotbed for UMP modifieds. Dylan Woodling has won at Limaland Motorsports Park several times this season with it. Robbie Eilers has won at Highland Speedway in Illinois with it several times this season, also. Everyone that buys one of these engine packages falls in love with it, because it is a very drivable engine. It’s very smooth as far as the sweep rate of the RPM range, and of course, the ease of maintenance on it.
When the crate-engine programs started making the rounds several years ago, race fans and teams complained that crate engines were nothing more than dump truck motors and no one wanted to watch dump trucks racing. The CT525 engine uses an LS3 engine platform as the base for this crate-engine. The LS3 was first introduced in the 2008 Corvette, which is a far cry from a dump truck. When you look at what Pace Performance has done with the cooling and front drive system, the 525 looks like a race engine, and if the results are any indication, it acts like a race engine. It’s very difficult for us to argue with a competitive engine that cost more than 50-percent less than a high-performance engine from a big-name builder. There’s a place in the racing world for both.