Getting Warmer

May 10, 2012

While there’s a certain seasonal aspect to engine building, it’s not like once racers hit the tracks, all builders hit the beach. But the race and street cruising season does offer a chance to catch your breath and take stock of where things are before major projects pick up again in the fall.

As those who have gone through this before will tell you, now’s the perfect time to reload, re-up and re-aim your engine-building business.

To reload, you’ll need the latest parts. So we’re starting our look at summer engine building with a roundup of what’s new and exciting.

“What’s hot are Clevite Race Series bearings for the Chevy LS series engines,” says Bill McKnight of MAHLE Clevite. “From circle track to drag racing to off-road performance to street performance to you name it, everyone is working on LS motors. We’ve got bearings in all the above venues in engines making upwards of 2,000 hp.”

Liz Miles of Holley explains that those hungry power plants need constant feeding.

“Fuel systems are our hottest engine building products (carbs and EFI),” she says. “Expound on tuning it to the engine on the dyno before it leaves, so the customer is happy with the way it runs.”

And PBM’s Dick Boyer says, “Erson camshafts are our biggest mover at this time. The move of Erson to Louisville (Ky.) has dramatically improved our turnaround time on custom cams. This has allowed us to service our customer base better than ever before. Erson makes custom cams for all classes of racing, as well as performance street and marine applications.”

The warmer months are also a good time to restock your work bay with the latest tools and equipment.

PROFORM’s Rick Hobbs names one handy tool: “Our electric (piston) ring filer is hot,” he says. “It cuts down manual filing time by 80 percent.”

All in all, there are plenty of attractive products available to builders. For example, Dusty Dodge, director of marketing for Engine & Performance Warehouse, notes that EPWI has more than 125,000 part numbers in more than 110 product lines, available through 12 strategically placed warehouses across the U.S.

Branching Out

The big question, of course, is where are the opportunities to use these great new products and tools during the summer months?

“Offering customers the latest and greatest is an opportunity regularly missed,” says Miles. “Builders can get tunnel-vision using the same products over and over. The comfort of experience keeps them from being on the leading edge of engine building.

“Keeping up on what’s new in the world of induction, for example, gives you the upper hand,” she continues. “Customers are usually open to new ideas and may consider a product like Holley’s Avenger EFI throttle body kit if the builder educates them on the features. A customer who thinks they only want a carburetor may really enjoy the trouble-free, self-learning abilities of our EFI systems. They will also appreciate products to make an engine look unique.”

Hobbs points out a commonly missed opportunity.

“Blueprinting is often overlooked,” he says. “Spending money in this area is well worth it in terms of performance and longevity. For profit growth, jumping on new products-such as our new LS valve covers-is absolutely critical.”

As far as market segments to target, Boyer suggests starting with the classics.

“The restoration market seems to be growing at this time,” he says. “When I have been out in the field calling on machine shops, I have seen more flathead Fords, Buick Nailheads, Y-block Fords and other odd engines than ever before. The street rod market seems to be moving toward this type of engine as well. It seems that the more obscure the engine, the better in that market.

“On the East Coast, I see more Subaru engines in shops than ever before,” he adds. “There is an interesting niche in that area for that particular type of car.”

And don’t forget the trucks in your search for added business.

“Besides the LS I just mentioned, both the 5.9-liter Cummins and the Duramax diesels are hot items too,” McKnight says. “We have bearings for both of those engines along with Victor Reinz gaskets. As the horsepower in those engines gets in the 800-hp range, OEM parts start to fail and that’s where we come in, as well as a shop that knows what’s going on.

“This fall, we have race bearings coming for the ZZ Toyota, Mazda Miata and the popular Subaru engine, so we haven’t forgotten about that market either,” he adds.

Battling Back

Next, we asked about the challenges engine builders currently face. A main hurdle, manufacturers note, are ready-made motor packages.

“The biggest threat are all the crate engines,” says PROFORM’s Hobbs. “(It’s) getting harder for the builder to compete unless a custom engine is required.”

Holley’s Miles echoes many of those sentiments.

“Crate engines have been the enemy of custom engine builders for some time,” she says. “The remedy for this dilemma is to emphasize the importance of a build-to-order assembly. Customers are otherwise funneled into a selection of a couple builds that may or may not be exactly what fits them best. Builders can confer with their clients and make the best possible combination to suit their needs.

“Offering the most complete, tailor-made engine assembly is the key to a positive result,” she continues, noting that the many Holley brands are created to fit seamlessly into a custom package. “Topping an engine with an intake manifold knowing it will clear the customer’s hood, a carburetor or fuel injection system that’s already set up for the type of vehicle and use, and the fuel lines ready to hook up will give him or her confidence that their needs are taken care of.”

EPWI and E-Direct engine kit programs are also attractive to EPWI’s client base, notes Roger Borer, sales manager.

“It’s easy to customize our engine kits, which is a big advantage for our customers,” he says. “They need to build engines to the specific needs of their customers, and our ever-expanding product line choices, parts selection and product knowledge allows us to help each customer with almost any engine.”

Another issue builders face, of course, is the economy and the amount of disposable income available to their customers.

“The biggest challenge that shops are experiencing at this time still is the lack of credit available to their customers, and the price of diesel fuel,” says PBM’s Boyer. “Most racers are cutting back and repairing what they have instead of building new engines. This is not limited to any one class of racer. It seems to be an across-the-board issue affecting all classes of racers in almost every area. The only area that seems to be less affected by this is the Midwest region of the country. I think that the grain market is thriving thanks to ethanol, biodiesel and record corn and bean prices that have really helped the racer in that part of the country.”

Another challenge, says MAHLE’s McKnight, is the sheer volume of potential profit paths shops can explore.

“There’s so much performance activity out there that it’s hard to keep a handle on what’s happening, both in the various racing venues as well as with manufacturers’ new and improved products,” he says.

While the Sun Shines

Lastly, we asked manufacturers what shops can do to make more money during this traditional slow time for performance engine builders.

“Selling more parts to their customers probably is one of the areas shops should be working on,” recommends Boyer. “I think that one of the biggest mistakes shops are making is letting their customers carry in parts for their engines. The profit lost in parts sales and the lack of productivity due to wrong parts or inferior parts is affecting most shops today.”

But, he admits, “it’s a trend that will be hard to change with the economy the way it is. People are really shopping hard to save the most money possible.”

Reaching out to those customers on a personal level with also yield results, Hobbs predicts.

“These are usually slow times no matter what,” he notes. “Shops can work on promoting work for the fall by having car shows, promoting engine refreshing etc.”

Miles says it can be about defining the package the customer wants.

“If an entire engine build is out of the question for new or existing customers, a builder can offer services to upgrade or upgrade a previous build. This can include a fuel injection system in place of a carburetor, an upgraded intake manifold or headers, or even a beauty package to change the look of the engine on a budget,” she says. “Opening your shop up to services such as these can help out when the normal build flow is low.”

Of course, being able to quickly get your hands on needed parts is a must, adds Paul Van Woensel, president of EPWI.

“Our customers want products as quickly as possible, at competitive prices,” he says. “In addition, we are constantly expanding inventories and adding new products that our customers are interested in. The bottom line is that we save our customers time, hassle and money.”

And McKnight says good things come in threes.

“Align yourself with key manufacturers who support you with tech help and information. As busy as you are, get out to different venues where horsepower is being made and see what’s going on. (And three), talk to people when you’re out and about. Ask questions. How can you sell in a market if you don’t know what’s going on?”

And the truth is, even in the summer, a lot is going on in engine building circles.