Evolution Is In The Air: Defining The Sport Compact Drag Racing Market

Dec 2, 2009

What exactly is a sport compact? As defined by Trey McFarland, sales and marketing for Mahle/Clevite Motorsports in Fletch, N.C., it’s “any car with an overhead cam and a 4- or 6-cylinder motor” or it’s “a car that’s lightweight and small and has four valves per cylinder…but the only way to get that is with overhead cams!”

“We just built 14 billet cranks for a Triumph – is that a sport compact?” asks Kerry Novak, in sales and advertising at Crower Cams in San Diego, CA. Answering his own question, he responds, “Sport compacts aren’t just ‘rice rockets.’ Sport compact is not just an import any more. They’re Neons, they’re any 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder car. Remember: it’s not the import class, it’s the sport compact class. Technically, you can include Saabs, Subarus, V6 Fords and Chevys. A lot of V8 guys still don’t accept sport compacts, but it’s starting to open up. It’s even evolving to include drifting.”

It’s a tricky category to pinpoint. McFarland agrees that the sport used to be “all drag racing,” but has broadened to include road racing and drifting, which he says is abusive on every part of the car. What kind of car? “It used to be just 4-cylinder imports. That’s still pretty much the game, but the category is broadening; it’s more inclusive now, but it doesn’t leave anything behind. The Civic is still the lightest weight, smallest car.”

Honda and Beyond

The Honda Civic may be the smallest, but, as McFarland acknowledges, we’re seeing the growth of an older market where many sport compact drag racers are stepping up from a Civic to an Acura, or from a Toyota Celica to a Supra. “The younger crowd is still with Honda because it doesn’t break their budget. The good thing about that is they keep with the sport. They get into it because they can afford it, they enjoy it, and they keep stepping up. Now there’s an older sport compact crowd driving nicer cars. There are more high-end cars being modified too. One year ago, the market hit hard on 350Z pistons. The car is still new and makes great power, but guys were going straight into the engine.” Mahle has low-compression pistons for them.

In fact, McFarland adds, Mahle serves a huge OE audience that includes Dodge, Chrysler, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda. However, the German-based manufacturer is relatively new to U.S. racing. Nevertheless, McFarland has noticed changes since Mahle’s entry into U.S. motor sports in 2000. “The market is growing. It has progressed. It started with bolt-on performance parts like exhausts, cold air intakes and cam gears. As it progressed, people needed power inside the engine. Two years ago we saw an interest for pistons.”

Honda was the first to get strong, McFarland points out. Honda’s still strong, but there’s a lot of competition now – and, as he puts it, “the other guys will spend more.” Mike Thermos, owner Nitrous Supply in Hungtington Beach, CA, isn’t sure if the opening of the industry from Honda has changed things or not. “I’m not in the trenches any more.” However, he has noticed that the “new kids on the block” are into high-tech imports. “From a cost standpoint, big V8s are not inexpensive. Usually their first attempts are with a four-banger. Economics force them into it, but they want to go faster, so they supe up their cars.”

Novak, through his experience racing with GM, has been in the trenches – at the races – and understands the shift. “The market used to be Honda-based, but now there’s a lot of everything, not just sport compacts. There’s Mopar and GM. The market has changed completely from what we knew it. It’s good; change is always good.”

Change frequently signals growth and growth means Honda is not the only affordable make any more. As the market opens, it affords more opportunities for racers at all levels. “From what I can tell,” Joe Krivickas of Precision Turbo in Hebron, IN, pauses for thought, “the sport is definitely growing. We are seeing Sportsman classes such as NHRA Sport Compact SFWD grow at a rapid pace. These classes are highly competitive and are considerably more affordable than the ‘Pro’ classes. This allows for the average guy to come out and race at a competitive level.”

Change is also apparent in the participants; they’re older and they’re growing up, Novak contends. They’re interested in sport compacts and domestic cars. “It’s not just young kids buying cheap Hondas. They have more money now and they want V6s.” What they don’t want is “old stuff. That makes it hard for vendors who aren’t manufacturers, who may order hundreds of parts from China and get stuck with them. Manufacturers need to keep up with the change in the market.” He says Crower Cams is lucky in that respect, because as the manufacturer of the components they use, they can adapt to changes in the market. “I can duplicate any crank shaft or connecting rod.”

Precision Turbo has also adapted to changing conditions in sport compact drag racing by introducing a new line of boosted turbochargers. “Our Boosted line of turbochargers can feature any number of design improvements (depending on the model), which can include optimized housing designs, lighter weight components, superior bearing systems or enhanced aerodynamics,” Krivickas details. “We are continually improving the product line to keep our customers ahead of the competition. In our fuel system division, we are proud to have successfully brought 2400cc fuel injectors to the marketplace. We have quite a few customers running both sport compact drag racing series (NHRA Sport Compact and NDRA) who are using these fuel injectors with great success.”

In fact, he dubs the 2007 season as “spectacular” for both Precision Turbo and many of their customers, with the potential for multiple champions in the NHRA Sport Compact drag racing series, as well as NDRA and the NOPI drift series. Modestly, he notes that many racers in NHRA Sport Compact drag racing series this year, such as Brad Personett, Paul Efantis, Gary Gardella and Stephanie Eggum, are Precision Turbo customers.

Cataloging Parts

Novak argues that there’s currently no ‘hot’ make or model in the sport compact drag racing category. “It used to be Honda, of course, but now it all depends on who’s building your motor.” If that’s true, and if McFarland’s contention that the Civic SI with a K24 motor is hot, that puts Honda on top once again. “It’s strong,” McFarland insists, adding, “Subaru and Mitsubishi are also popular, but it’s all about big boost now. They originally built pistons to handle 20-25 lbs. Guys want more power, so now they’re pushing 30.” He says that turbo chargers and super chargers provide more boost with less penalty, retaining drivability. Pistons need to keep up with added boost. “I think we’ll continue to see higher boost and more power, and we need to deal with it. I also think the trend to modify upper end cars will continue.”

Nothing gives a boost like nitrous. Thermos got in early; 27 years ago he founded NOS on $1,000. “When I owned NOS, nitrous was perceived as a cheap trick. Getting into the manifold was inexpensive. It’s not what a supercharger or turbo is; it has limitations without hurting something. But we were lucky. We soon had 90 percent of the market and were worth about $90 million. Holley called and bought the company about the time the movie The Fast and the Furious came out. They couldn’t keep up with the business.”

Times have changed; the industry is more and more high tech. There’s still a large hard-core market for American V8 racing, but when the supercharger came in, there were no rules for nitrous. Thermos believes it’s still better from a price standpoint and from a power standpoint, and to prove it, he’s got a new company, Nitrous Supply. “We’re a nitrous supplier. We plumb the manifold and sell fittings, solenoids, nozzles and service kits.” Although Thermos considers the market more fragmented these days, he also believes there’s more understanding of nitrous, and thus, a bigger market for it.

Whether it’s an understanding of new technology or simple acceptance of every possible advantage, McFarland thinks the sport compact crowd is liberal with new parts, especially as compared with a more conservative domestic audience. “They try things. It helps us with our growth.” Also contributing to Mahle’s growth is the interest it gets from VW, Audi and BMW because it’s a German-based company. “Tolerances are tighter on imports,” he reasons, “and even tighter on a German import. It’s another step up.”

Mahle steps it up by offering three levels of custom pistons, including a pro series – a show stock version for higher end racers, sprints, etc. – and a power pack program for sportsman racers and the sport compact drag racers. “It’s our main focus, our biggest volume,” McFarland reveals. The power pack kit includes pistons, pins, clips and rings. Mahle pistons feature dual coatings and a slipper skirt design that’s popular with AWD cars like Subaru and Mitsubishi.

McFarland explains that engine blocks with an aluminum bore that has carbon fiber fragments in the casting instead of a steel cylinder sleeve can’t run regular pistons because similar metals wear. “The stock piston has iron fragments, but you can’t put iron in a forging. We have the technology to run forged pistons in an aluminum bore. We put a special coating on our pistons that keeps them from galling and seizing on the bore.” Pointing out that the new Celicas and Honda S2000s have an aluminum bore, he admits that customers can pay to sleeve the block, but suggests that it’s expensive and isn’t easy to do correctly. Instead, it’s easier to drop in a set of pistons.

Making it Big: Taking the “Compact” out of the SportCompact Business

It’s easy enough to sell parts if you have a corner on the market because you’re the only manufacturer, but when there’s competition, Thermos says some shops cherry pick from the catalog because they can’t afford the whole line. His solution is for the speed shops to “make” the manufacturers help them be competitively priced to level the playing field.

“Big companies like Summit and Jegs are taking over and running out small businesses,” Thermos states. “[NOS] had a built-in antidote; we taught the small guy how to do business by refilling bottles. It lets the small shops compete. Being first is important because minds don’t change, but if you can’t be first in a category, create another category you can be first in. If not nitrous, be first in refills. It’s narrower, but it’s profitable. If you’re selling refills, guys return to your shop often. That’s an opportunity to sell a spare bottle, bigger jets, valves, and all the bells and whistles.” As an added assist, Thermos gave shops discounts for specific functions – discounts not based on sales volume, but on services like refills and things that enhance their line. “Some of them didn’t understand, but that helps small speed shops compete.”

Thermos offers additional warnings about big companies. “Big companies put money into R&D and marketing to follow the trends; they don’t put money into making quality products.” That’s why he advises limits on how much to rely on any single big company. “A lot of companies have 50 percent of their sales going to Summit, for instance. We have 12 percent and we don’t want any more.” He explains that it’s smart to spread business among multiple suppliers to avoid the possibility of one source drying up or significantly raising prices – or lowering quality.

Getting products is only half of the business equation; selling them is the other. Thermos said the NOS name became strong through advertising. “Branding is important. We put 10 percent of our sales into advertising. It helped make our name.” He also worked on building relationships with racers. After all, he realizes that nitrous is not an impulse item. “It’s very important to win races and break records – for the consumers and for the counter guys who sell your product.”

Maintaining relationships with racers and supporting sport compact drag racing continues to be an important part of the business for both manufacturers and speed shops. According to Krivickas, there seems to be a slight decline in the sport compact fan base. “This can have an effect on the racing organizations themselves, but ultimately our business. Promoting these events through our website, word of mouth, tech sessions and venues such as the Sportsman Alley (in the NHRA Sport Compact) help to generate interest within the racing community, with the ultimate goal of increasing the amount of racers and spectators that attend races.” And, he might add, customers.

Thermos has his own ideas about how to maintain or even increase interest in the sport. “The industry continues to grow in high-tech and new stuff, like drifting. One thing is missing, though. At first, it’s really exciting, but it levels out quickly. Go to Pomona; the Chevelles and Camaros do 200 mph. We need to build a small four-banger nitro intro market to bang, pop and go 200 mph to draw people into the arena. The import division has nothing to bring the crowd in; it needs an unlimited class. It needs to escalate to draw a crowd.”

He fantasizes about buying a John Force engine, cutting off four cylinders and building a blown nitro hemi 4-cylinder engine. “It would create thunder; that would be exciting!” He also envisions a turbo-nitrous application working hand-in-hand. “It would be easy to do. You have to be careful, though; you don’t need much nitrous. It would be easy to detonate the motor.”

Going Places

Novak claims there aren’t really any new trends in the sport compact drag market, except that “the fat pipe trend is gone and newer vehicles are being changed now. People want newer engines and newer parts. Some bring in new 350Z engines. I always thought ‘who would take that apart?’ But they want new crank shafts and connecting rods. If you have a 350Z with twin turbos, your pistons, crank shaft and connecting rods can’t handle it; you’re going to need something new.”

If it’s a new configuration, Novak lets customers tell Crower Cams what they want and then he uses his experience to guide the customer. “Everything we do is custom, per order. Every small block Chevy is a custom order. With our 90,000 sq-ft building and 200 employees, we have the capability to design it, CNC it…” It may take 3-4 months to get a crankshaft and 6-8 weeks to get rods, he points out, but people don’t seem to mind; there’s a long waiting list.

Krivickas has noticed a trend of sorts – a change of direction. “This year, we have witnessed an increase in the use of ethanol, as opposed to traditional race fuel (gasoline) in racing applications. Besides the performance benefits and the fact that it is a renewable resource, the cost per gallon is significantly less than traditional race fuel.”

Thermos is considering setting his own trend, marking a new path. “There’s a concern for safety. We need to police the industry or face strict regulations. There needs to be some basic ground rules – what type of line to use, etc. In the compressed gas industry, it can blow: it’s dangerous. There are compressed gas associations that issue guidelines and recommendations. I’m thinking about going to SEMA to start talks about doing that in racing.” In the meantime, as the owner of a small shop, he says his desire is not to be “the next emperor of nitrous,” it’s to be super-competitive.

To be competitive, Krivickas analyzes customer feedback. “As our customers mature, they have the ability to provide us with valuable feedback so we can further test and develop new products, to help ensure that we stay ahead of our competition.” Some of Precision Turbo’s new products, created in part from response to customer feedback, will be on display at PRI this December. “Next season will be very exciting,” he predicts.

Novak takes a more cautious approach. “Where’s the market going – or has it gone? No one knows the next change this market will take. That’s determined by the people in the sport. Right now, no one thing stands out as a trend.”

McFarland agrees that it’s hard to put a finger on which direction the sport is headed. “Guys are swapping engines; a lot of engines come from overseas now – engines for cars that aren’t available here, like the Nissan Skyline and Sylvian. These boat motors are transplanted into cars here, but there are contact issues because the valves are in different places – even if it’s from a manufacturer that sells here. You have to make parts for it or modify it. It’s difficult to keep up with because they change quickly; every two years they have a new design. We’re constantly learning.”

“When everyone had a Honda, it was simple,” Novak reflects. “It used to be all Honda at the races. Now, it’s evolving.” While no one seems to be able to track any definite trends or directions and whether it’s restricted to 4-cylinder Hondas or open to highly modified new V6 models running nitrous, one thing is certain: the sport compact drag industry is anything but static.