Controversy brewing in the ARCA series

Daytona test was the first for 'spec' engines against the series' traditional V-8s.

Controversy brewing in the ARCA series
The new Ilmor/Chevrolet spec engine
Bobby Gerhart, Chevrolet
Sean Corr
Victory lane: race winner Bobby Gerhart celebrates
Victory lane: race winner Bobby Gerhart celebrates
Bobby Gerhart
Victory lane: race winner Bobby Gerhart celebrates
Testing action

DAYTONA - A new spec engine that is being introduced this year in the ARCA stock car racing series is causing some controversy among the teams. Some love the idea of a crate engine that makes comparable power to the V-8s currently used by ARCA racers, others feel as though the engines they’ve acquired over the years are now are being legislated out of competitiveness by the Michigan-based series.

Some background on ARCA: The series is regarded as a feeder for the NASCAR touring series, a way for up-and-coming drivers to get some experience in stock cars that look and handle much like NASCAR Sprint Cup cars – and some are, in fact, retired Cup cars. Drivers ranging from Kyle Petty to Danica Patrick have cut their teeth on stock car racing via the ARCA series.

The V-8 engines are also often bought from NASCAR teams. They are have carburetors, while Cup engines are now fuel-injected.

ARCA Ilmor 396

Earlier this year, ARCA announced that it was backing a spec engine that would be sourced from Ilmor. The “ARCA Ilmor 396” has around 700 horsepower, and uses Holley fuel injection. A photo of the new engine accompanies this story. It is supposed to go at least 1,500 miles before it needs refreshing. 

Teams are not allowed to do much tinkering with the Ilmor V-8, and when the engine does need refreshing, it can’t be done by the team or the neighborhood engine shop.

The power of the Ilmor was validated in this weekend’s test at Daytona International Speedway, in preparation for the Lucas Oil 200 at the track in February. Sean Corr was the fastest car in the test, at 188.509 mph in his Ford. He was running one of the eight Ilmor engines in the test.

“We’ve been running the new Ilmor motor; it’s an amazing powerplant,” Corr said. “The pull off the corners is incredible; it just wants to go. I’d fall behind them down the backstretch just to see what would happen and they’d pull away in (turn) three, but coming off four it’d power right back up to the pack. It’s an amazing motor. This is also my first time with fuel injection…everything I’ve ever raced before was with a carburetor, but this entire package is making a believer out of me.”


There are, however, a few expected issues. The new engines start at $35,000, which is reasonable for a new startup team, but a big investment for an established team that has already spent a lot of money on conventional ARCA V-8s.

Teams like Bobby Gerhart's, whose Chevrolet was the sixth fastest at 187.186 mph. Gerhart, who was also trying out one of the new Ilmors, said the power was fine, but the engine seemed less “drivable” than his own engines – less feel when he is slowing down or speeding up in traffic. Some of that, he said, may have to do with the tuning of the fuel injection. That same complaint was often heard in the old ASA series, when they first went to spec GM V-8 engines.

Gerhart, though – a superspeedway specialist with an incredible eight wins at Daytona in his Lucas Oil-sponsored number 5 – has been at this a long time with his brother as a partner. How many engines do they own? “Probably about 50,” Gerhart said. And based on what he is seeing, and hearing, they are essentially going to become obsolete, as ARCA has made it clear that the future of the series is largely based on the Ilmor engine.

“I give them credit for thinking ahead,” Gerhart said, but he will have a decision to make as to whether or not a part-time team like his wants to invest in all-new engines. The old engines will still be allowed, “But I come here to win,” Gerhart said, “not drive around at the back of the pack.” He only ran seven of the 20 races last season, all of them on tracks 1.5 miles are larger.

There is some market for the old engines, many of which Gerhart acquired from Rick Hendrick’s NASCAR operation, for series as far away as Australia. But that still doesn’t help Gerhart win a ninth Daytona race, and he and his team pride themselves on knowing what makes an engine go fast at the ARCA series’ highest-profile race, the Daytona season opener.

Cost of the new engine, and finding some value in the old engine, is only one problem with the Ilmor. ARCA did not make the mistake ASA did when they went to the spec engine: It was billed as a GM V-8, meaning teams with ties to Ford, Dodge or Toyota had a conflict if they wanted to, say, put a Ford body on their car – which was allowed – when it was known that there was a Chevrolet under the hood.

When is a Chevrolet not a Chevrolet?

While the Ilmor V-8 also starts life at a Chevrolet, at least the Ilmor badging doesn’t advertise that, for example, the engine in Sean Corr’s Ford that set the fast time is essentially a Chevrolet. “But if I owned a Ford dealership, say, I’d probably have a problem sponsoring a car that has this new engine,” Gerhart said.

In fact, of the 10 fastest times set at the practice, Gerhart had the only Chevrolet. All the rest were Fords, Dodges and Toyotas.

All that said, ARCA hasn't managed to stick around since 1953 by making bad decisions, and if they are trying to encourage new competitors, the new engine may be a good move. Not having to worry about hiring as many experienced engine techs, and being able to run 1,500 miles between freshening – many of ARCA’s races total 100 miles or so – could be appealing for start-ups, who know that at least in terms of power, they aren’t giving up anything to the more experienced teams.

But this move toward spec engines – in everything from dirt late models to sprint cars to short-track trucks – is bound to hurt both engine builders and parts makers. Chevrolet’s CT 525 “crate” engine – so named because they show up on your doorstep in crates, and you purchase them through a Chevy dealer – costs about $7,200 with everything but a carburetor, starter and engine controller, and will pump out about 525 horsepower on 92-octane gas. And since 2011, that engine has won some super late model dirt track races against “built” engines costing five times more.

Like them or not, spec engines appear to be the future of oval-track racing in the U.S., and they are making inroads into other forms or racing. Bobby Gerhart still hasn’t decided what to run in the February ARCA races – there is one more test day, in January – but you can bet it will be whatever he thinks will win.

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