Stories

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News A stream of mud flies up from Dylan Smith's modified during a heat race July 30 during Mod Mania at RPM Speedway in Hays. Smith was competing with a crate engine.

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Tyler Frye pilots his claim motor in his Northern sport mod during the Race of Champions on Sept. 7 at the 31st annual IMCA Super Nationals in Boone, Iowa.

Crate debate

The car pulled into tech lane, and the window net went down.

Travis Sherfick unbuckled his safety harness and helmet and slid out of the car.

The modified driver from WaKeeney wiped the sweat from his brow and scratched his head.

He just finished fourth at the Sept. 15 season finale at his hometown track. And despite finishing fourth in the night's feature and wrapping up the track title, he wasn't exactly pleased.

"We may have to find us a crate and see what we can do with it," Sherfick said.

Meanwhile, Kyle Rohleder was smiling from ear to ear as he posed for pictures in the winner's circle for the second time in as many races at WaKeeney Speedway.

Rohleder had dominated the final three races at the track, winning the final two nights and almost the other night before spinning his car to avoid a lap car that unfortunately slid out of its line and into Rohleder's in the waning laps as he was leading.

On the side of Rohleder's ride was the word "crate." That signified he had a motor with less horsepower than Sherfick's claim motor, but one many drivers throughout the nation believe has a few advantages.

"These crate motors, they're something with the spoiler and the lightness on the front end of them,"  Sherfick said that night. "I don't know what it is about them. But I guess we're all going to be running them before long. It's going more and more to that anyway. Luckily, most of the year nobody has really gone to one so we haven't had to do that. We might have to go crate shopping before long. I'd like to get one before (Fall) Nationals and try it."

Indeed, Rohleder is one of the drivers in the area to go the way of the crate motor in its first "official" year being licensed by IMCA. He's also been fast with a claim motor as well in the past.

The motors are lighter, produce less horsepower than a claim motor and also allow a spoiler on the back of their modified. That helps create more downforce and traction.

* * *

Fast forward six days, and Sherfick pulled into tech lane at RPM Speedway in Hays. He unbuckled just like he did the previous week at WaKeeney and exited his car.

Sherfick took a quick glance down at the side of his car, near where the window net is secured to the car.

A nice, shiny Chevy emblem with the word "crate" tattooed on it stared back at him.

Sherfick, in his first foray into the crate world, had just dominated the field at RPM for another win at the track -- only this time with a different type of pony under the hood.

"I can't say it felt any faster than my open motor on that kind of race track," Sherfick said. "I wished it would have been dry-slick across the whole race track, and I really could have told what it had. It's fast, but there's definitely a difference in horsepower on these motors. You stand on them, and you're thinking, 'Man, am I down a cylinder or what?' It makes the car a lot easier to drive. I think putting that rear spoiler on the back of the car definitely plants the rear of the car. You can drive it into the corner a lot harder. All around, I think it's a good deal. It will be interesting if we all get one, we might all just be following each other out there. I don't know yet."

Just one car behind Sherfick was his younger brother, Dylan, who had a claimer motor.

"I think so, when it slicks off,"  he said about the crate motor having an edge against his claimer. "It's got a little advantage. I don't know if I'm ready to jump on that boat yet. I'm going to see if they make some rule changes and see what happens."

Two cars from Sherfick's winning ride was Corey Lagroon, who had just wrapped up his third modified track title in Hays.

He's a firm believer in the crate motor having a distinctive advantage on dry-slick tracks.

"Definitely,"  Lagroon said. "If I had the money, I'd have one next week."

Sherfick bit the bullet and purchased the crate. He was more than pleased with the end result -- a win.

"Ricky Alvarado and I talked about it," Sherfick said. "He put a crate in, and he's been winning all sorts of races out West. He said he was worried about everybody putting a crate in and then everybody just following everybody and nobody being able to pass anybody. I'm sure there will be more of them coming around. I had to try it once. After the last couple races at WaKeeney, the crates have just been kicking butts. I told Dad this week I was going to order one and we were going to try it out. I'm sure Dylan wants one now. We figured we better try one before we bought two of them. I think it makes the car easier to drive all around."

* * *

The 604 crate engine in modified racing is a newer option for drivers. The engine, produced by GM, must be unaltered and sealed, with specially marked IMCA Cable-Lok systems, according to the official IMCA modified rule book.

Drivers must clearly mark the word "crate" on their cars, and there are disqualifications, hefty fines and possible suspension if they have been altered beyond the manufacturer.

The engine is lighter than a normal claim engine, and the spoiler is riveted onto the back. Claim motors have no spoiler on their cars, and they aren't allowed to have one, according to the IMCA rules.

"The foundation of IMCA modified and all the divisions is affordable auto racing,"  said Brett Root, vice president of operations at IMCA. "For us, the crate motor fits that mission statement."

A crate engine can be purchased for approximately $5,000, a far cry from what many modified drivers have put into their claimers.

Sport mod and hobby stock crate engines are cheaper, too, some at approximately $3,000.

"The nature of the sport is people thinking big power and spending money results in making a racer faster -- and better racing,"  Root said. "Big horsepower and torque numbers and big engines is what some people want. That's not necessarily what it's all about. All it does is make more noise sometimes. ... The crate is definitely kind of presenting that situation in racing."

The modified crate motor has less power, sometimes 200 less horsepower, Root said. But some drivers argue that less weight from the crate motor, along with the rear spoiler, creates an unfair advantage.

Some people don't like the crate for fear of what it might do to local engine builders. They fear the crate will run the mom-and-pop engine builders out of business.

"It depends on who you talk to,"  Root said. "You have to take everything with a grain of salt, especially with the source of some things. Some guys might not like the crate because they own an engine shop. ... And some people think the crate motor is just anti-racing. They want to build what they want in a controlled environment."

Root and the IMCA has come under fire this year at times for allowing the crate option.

"I don't think the quality of IMCA racing is going down," Root said. "In places like Hays and in other states, it's as good as it ever has been. The crate doesn't detract from that.

"As far as being pleased with the crate ... we're really taking an unbiased approach. It all goes back to affordable racing. ... If the racing is good and the car counts are good, that's great."

According to Root, sport mods -- which can use a 602 crate engine -- and sport compacts have grown the past few years. He believes that's a result of the affordability of those two classes. But he also said the modified and stock car divisions have remained steady and strong.

"The amount of guys using (a crate) is a direct result of the economics with it,"  Root said. "Sure, there's a lot of guys that are going to buy what they think wins. ... But a lot of guys are going to buy what they can afford. It's been a step in the right direction. The expense of modified racing has gotten out of hand a little bit the last few years."

It hasn't been a rule instituted by IMCA to help certain drivers win, Root said.

"Not one particular rule can make a really good racer into a bad racer," he said. "We can't write rules to make guys win or lose races."

Root said he doesn't anticipate any significant rule changes with the crate motor in the offseason, but he couldn't rule out a few tweaks.

* * *

Many drivers believe the crate motor has an unfair advantage on dry-slick tracks. Claim engines have proven tough to beat on heavier tracks that keep moisture all night long.

That extra horsepower can pay dividends those nights.

But sometimes, a car running a claim motor can be fast early in the night when moisture is available, then struggle a bit when the track slicks off and dries out as heat races and features are contested.

Modified driver Mike Petersilie has had plenty of years driving in the division. He started the year with a claim motor and switched to a crate prior to Super Nationals.

At Super Nationals, though, Petersilie went back to the claim motor.

At Boone, Iowa, the track usually stays heavier and wetter than tracks in Kansas.

"If the tracks are heavy, the crates struggle,"  Petersilie said from his experience.

"It's night and day. I'm not sure it's good or bad."

Petersilie has switched back to the crate motor for the final races this season so far. He's expecting the tracks to slick off with the drier conditions now after an unusually cooler and wetter summer for racing.

He's consistently been in the top five in Kansas races since Super Nationals. But he's also a seasoned veteran behind the wheel, one aspect he said needs to be taken into account for any driver and engine.

"It depends on the track,"  Petersilie said. "Obviously, the crate can win. With the car, it's a different way to set it up."

Rain hasn't been as plenty lately, and Petersilie said he's fine-tuning the car's setup for that. Plus, running a crate now will give him more time to adjust to it before the Duel in the Desert, a prestigious, high-paying IMCA race in early November in Las Vegas.

Petersilie said that track slicks off fast, especially with three straight days of racing.

"Obviously, the slicker the race track the more benefits," he said about the crate. "It's going to be slick toward the end of the year. That's why we're trying it. And it's going to be slick in Vegas."

* * *

The ongoing belief is tracks in Iowa have different dirt and tend to hold moisture better. Crates can tend to bog down when trying to motor around the track in those conditions.

Some drivers think that's when the claim motors have an advantage.

But someone forgot to tell Dylan Smith that. The Osceola, Neb., modified driver piloted his crate engine to victory lane at Super Nationals.

"There's quite a bit of difference,"  said Smith, who won the 2012 Mod Mania event at RPM. "On a slick track with a spoiler and everything, it is an advantage the way it is. With moisture, these things are actually harder to drive because you don't have the power. You can't let off. You have to carry the momentum. It's different to drive in the moisture. On the slick, it does have its advantages."

Smith is one of the nation's top mod drivers and has driven many cars to victory lane. He's a prime example of talent rising to the top, no matter what.

He understands some drivers' ill feelings toward the crate, though.

"It's just like anything else: People don't like change," he said. "I fought it to begin with, too, and I've finally started to come around to it. It's still not the same as when you have that open motor in there and you have the loudness and all the horsepower and it's hard to manage. That's still what a modified is. But this crate motor is not a bad deal. Once you do it, you'll understand that it does save money."

Jesse Sobbing, Glenwood, Iowa, dominated the Northern sport mod class for years. This year, he moved up to the modified class, competing with a crate engine.

He finished comfortably in the top five in the national IMCA points chase as a rookie. Again, though, Sobbing is a driver who can wheel just about anything into victory lane.

He's even credited with the phrase "truck motor" in describing the crate engine and people's ill feelings toward it earlier this season.

"I've won more races this year than I've ever anticipated," said Sobbing, who has 33 wins this season. "But it kind of goes back to the deal that not everybody is going to win races. And I'm not going to win every race just because I have a crate motor in. And Joe Blow's not going to win every race because he has a crate motor in. You still have to make a car go around the race track."

Through his first 81 races this season, Sobbing placed in the top 10 in 71 of those outings.

"All I've known are crate motors,"  he said. "I've hot-lapped a few guys' claim motors, and a few big-name guys' cars. Every time I've run one I think, 'Man, that thing has way too much motor.' I think it's pretty competitive. I'm not really sure there are many crates in the show, but there were some guys who thought they needed to come here with an open motor. Dylan and I are both in it with crate motors."

No matter the motor, it still comes down to ability and competence behind the wheel.

"Obviously a less-horsepower motor is going to be better on drier (tracks), and they have a spoiler for drier tracks," Sobbing said. "But I've had my butt kicked by open motors on dry tracks this year with guys who have their stuff going really good."

NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net