A Good Turn

Apr 15, 2011

It’s the time of year when race cars come out of their winter hiding and hit the tracks. For those cars that spend most of their racing time turning left, it’s a new season of circle track action.

Those servicing this market use this time to take a reading on how the season should play out. To that end, we asked a number of industry experts their thoughts on the 2011 season.

Stock Those Shelves

Our first question was about the hottest circle track products.

“Our latest product for circle track and endurance races is CSP Coolant System Protector,” says Lake Speed Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing. “Since most racers don’t use distilled water in their cooling systems, their cooling systems don’t operate at peak efficiency due to corrosion, scale and rust caused by the minerals in the water. We created the CSP Coolant System Protector to eliminate the rust and corrosion caused by the minerals in water. Every Joe Gibbs race car uses CSP to keep the cooling system working at peak efficiency and that was critical at Daytona this year with the two-car draft.”

Inside the engine, flat tappet and roller lifter cams have been popular for retailer Herbert Performance Parts, according to Doug Herbert.

“They have been great sellers,” he says. “We work hard to get our customers the proper grind to match their application and that will get them the best on-track performance at a great price. We have also been selling quite a few of the caster/camber gauges with the magnetic adaptor that allow the racers to make quick adjustments in the field.”

MAHLE Clevite’s Bill McKnight says his company is also seeing success offering application-specific parts.

“We have, of course, two main products used in circle track engines. Clevite engine bearings continue to be the main choice of circle track race engine builders. Our cast, copper-lead intermediate layer combined with both the H series and V series overlay options in the most popular part numbers give the racer and race engine builder many choices and options.

“MAHLE Original performance piston rings (formerly Perfect Circle brand) provide expanded steel top ring choices, Napier second rings, three different oil ring tensions and the U-flex one piece, oil ring used in the extreme high-end circle track engines,” he adds. “This year will see a continued move to more steel ring options for circle track engine builders, especially for those on a budget.”

Jason Neugent of Brodix Cylinder Heads says his company also has a variety of offerings for oval-trackers.

“The latest heads that we have for the circle track market are the KC 13 STD and the WP FF 13 STD,” he says. “The KC 13 STD is a full CNC ported head with a 13-degree valve angle for the conventional 4.400 bore space block. The WP FF 13 STD is a full CNC ported head with a 13-degree valve angle for the new 4.500 bore space blocks. This head has been gaining popularity in the late-model class. We also have the Spec, ASCS and SUPR heads that have been popular for many years.”

MasterCraft Safety/Impact’s Kelli Willmore talks safety.

“Racers in all areas of motorsports, including circle track, are becoming more safety-conscious and are opting to run a head-and-neck restraint, even when the sanctioning rules do not require it,” she says. “As a result, both Impact and MasterCraft Safety have seen an increased demand for custom sewn-to-length restraints (wrap-around, clip-in or bolt-in style) with the HANS-compatible shoulder harnesses and the quick safety release (QSR) adjusters.

“Of course, Impact and MasterCraft Safety also offer helmet support collars for the price-sensitive racers whose sanctioning rules do not require the use of a head-and-neck restraint,” she adds. “Because many of the circle tracks are extremely dusty by the main event, the Impact helmets with the integrated air induction port are gaining in popularity, and tear-offs are an obvious necessity for the dirt tracks.”

Regarding rod ends, we turn to Rod End Supply’s Bob Douglas.

“The (most popular) product is our NylaFiber injection-molded race rod ends in chromoly steel, mild steel and aluminum. We also offer the economy two-piece rod ends in a variety of materials.”

Money Matters

Our second question was about outside factors currently affecting the circle track market.

The first, according to Chet Herbert of Herbert’s, is money.

“Budget is very important to everyone these days, especially racers. We find that helping customers with parts that offer the quality they need at a good value is a great benefit. We offer products dedicated to certain racers from Saturday night dirt racers to Sprint Cup teams with consideration for budget as well as performance and ease of use and installation.”

Neugent also says that the recent economic downturn has been a concern.

“The main outside factor is cost. When the economy went in the tank 2-1/2 years ago that was a big hit with people losing their jobs, and then the price of gas going through the roof. This created a waterfall effect on everything else, causing prices to go up on everything.”

That’s created a market for quality racing products that will last.

“The entire racing industry has been affected by the current economic climate and competitors now more than ever are in need of products that will endure a full season (or longer) of racing,” Willmore notes. “The main consideration for the circle track racers tends to be more on the quality versus the price, because as with anything the saying holds true, ‘you get what you pay for.’ While many safety items are regulated by the date of manufacture tags and require replacement when the outlined timeframe expires, racers are also opting for the highest-quality products that will withstand the abuses of three nights a week of racing over a full season of competition.”

Speed agrees.

“Keeping racers racing is the goal,” he says. “It costs money to go racing, but a lot of money is wasted due to poor maintenance. Over 70 percent of all machine failures are due to contamination, and the majority of contaminants can be prevented or removed by frequent and proper maintenance procedures. It is cheaper to spend $100 a week on maintenance over a 20-week season than it is to spend $4,000 for a midseason rebuild.”

Douglas from Rod End Supply adds, “In the past couple of years, the weather and the downturn in the economy has hurt the circle track market.”

Another factor for some engine builders is the emergence of crate engines, says McKnight.

“From our perspective, we see the crate or spec engine changing the marketplace for our products. We also see the requirements in some series for sealed engines that need to be run for several races having a negative effect on our business. The impact on our business certainly is not what we’d call cut-and-dried. If the aforementioned rules do their intended job and make the series more affordable, then more racers and teams will participate, offsetting the negative impact to our business of the rules themselves. Regardless, we’ll do our best to support the industry and racer/engine builders by both offering the products they need and the tech help to support those products.”

Get the Business

So, how can shops connect with local circle trackers?

“Attend trade shows like IMIS, PRI and SEMA so you’re in tune with the big picture,” says McKnight “Support a local track/series and attend the winter awards banquet for that group.”

Willmore suggests focusing on products and support.

“Race shops that offer products relevant to circle trackers and also offer after-hours track-side support during events will create goodwill and loyalty with the market they are catering to,” she explains. “Racers will support the businesses that support their endeavors. Race shops that go the extra mile and have a presence at the track and can provide a solution to inevitable problems that arise during the course of a competition will have the upper hand over other businesses offering the same products.

“Circle trackers in particular are consumed with car set-up and are very competitive. When little issues arise (such as needing a new helmet shield), having immediate track access to these products and other necessary fixes will go a long way in creating loyalty with the racers in general and particularly the circle track crowd.”

She also suggests shops look into value-added services such as hosting product and safety training and seminars.

“Shops have to be at the local tracks to hand out business cards or flyers touting their products and services,” says Douglas.

“Education is the key,” adds Speed “Many of today’s racers don’t have the mechanical background that the early racers had, so many of the tips and procedures are not commonplace anymore. Having education days during the off-season helps connect with the local racers and it helps them be better-prepared for the coming season. Manufacturers love the opportunity to share information with the racers, so a local speed shop should use those connections to bring in the manufacturers to provide product training. The end result will be more sales of value-added products for the speed shop, and the racer benefits from better performance and longer part life.”

The key is to be seen.

“We have had great luck attending local races,” says Herbert. “We take a parts van to some tracks and carry some of the most common parts that are needed like tear-offs, gloves and some gaskets. Building a relationship with the racers has been a key to attracting new customers.”

Anything to get involved.

“Whether it be offering physical help or financial help, get involved,” suggests Neugent. “Ask questions on what they need or what they want to see and then make some kind of plan to see what would be involved to achieve those needs.”

Up to the Task

Of course, other challenges also exist when serving this market.

“Race shops supplying the circle track crowd face the difficult challenge of keeping up on current trends and balancing that with product inventory that will still be viable at the start of the following season,” notes MasterCraft/Impact’s Willmore. “Another challenge is the fact that many of the safety items are date-of-manufacture controlled and the series and sanctions require replacement of certain items every two to three years (such as restraints). Keeping enough inventory in stock to supply the immediate needs of the customer without ending up with obsolete and dead inventory is a definite challenge.”

It means having a strong knowledge of what you have in stock, as well as what’s available.

“The shops need to have knowledge of what style of product that is used on a particular type of car,” notes Douglas of Rod End Supply. “Then they need to carry a certain amount of inventory for those types of cars. If the local guys are racing modifieds, B mods and street stocks, then you have to stock the style of product that those particular types of cars use. The aforementioned cars will use primarily economy rod ends; therefore it doesn’t make sense to stock a lot of aluminum rod ends.”

Speed of Joe Gibbs agrees.

“Having the parts when they need it (is the biggest challenge). Racers need things now. You have to have a part to sell it. When it is Thursday and (a racer) needs a rod end, you don’t have time to wait for the delivery.”

Herbert of Herbert Performance goes a little deeper.

“The understanding of the parts has always been an issue. We always try to have certain sales people that will specialize in different areas, so that when a racer comes into our showroom or calls us on the phone, we can get the customer talking directly to the salesman that can relate to the issue and help the customer get into the right parts they may need or at least help the customer solve any problems they may be having with their car. If you can offer your customers great advice, they will come back to you when they need something.”

MAHLE’s McKnight stresses education.

“Staying up-to-date (is the main challenge). You need to be reading, listening, talking and attending functions to keep up with what’s going on!”

Bottom line, notes Neugent of Brodix, is meeting the immediate and long-term needs of the customer.

“For the manufacturer, I would say the challenge is making good-quality parts at an affordable price for the racer.”

Next Race

Lastly, we asked about the outlook for the circle track market in 2011 and beyond.

“The market, even though it’s soft right now, still looks bright,” says Douglas. “People still want to race and people still want to watch those races. Everyone will have to be a little more inventive as to how they approach affording their passion.”

Neugent is equally optimistic.

“I see the circle track market growing more and more. There are a lot of young racers moving up into bigger and faster cars and I just see these racers that are dedicated doing whatever it takes to race. Once the market survives this tough economy, you will see more racers involved and the market get bigger.”

Speed has his eye on the non-asphalt crowd.

“Dirt racing, especially IMCA modifieds, continues to grow, so products for those markets are key to growing volume.”

And McKnight believes a rebounding economic climate will help on all fronts.

“As the U.S. economy improves, so do all the racing series. We’re excited about the prospects for 2011 and beyond.”

Willmore says recovery will take time.

“Both Impact and MasterCraft Safety are cautiously optimistic in our outlook and approach of the circle track market,” she says. “While racers are starting to buy again and we have seen an increase in sales across all markets, the volume is not what it was previously. We do expect the market to regain slow momentum and increase again over the next few years. Currently, we are looking outside of the traditional circle track markets here in the U.S. and researching opportunities to grow business in other countries. Reaching more racers will likely be the key to growth.”

And as a retailer, Herbert says, “We feel that circle track will continue to be a growing market for us in parts and engine building. Racers want to find value in the parts they are purchasing, not necessarily to have the least-expensive parts but parts that offer the customers value for their money. As the economy improves, the racing business will continue to pick up. Working hard to build relationships with customers and the racers at the tracks that you service is the key to success in this business. We feel that by building relationships, the customer base can continue to build for us.”