Lee Pulliam (5) and Tommy Lemons, Jr. (27) lead the field to a restart at Southern National Motorsports Park. (Andy Marquis photo)

There are many unknowns regarding the new GM (Chevrolet) “spec engine” that has been approved for competition at a handful of tracks, most notably Motor Mile Speedway.  What is known is that it is fast and it is already a hit among Late Model Stock Car racers.

The new “spec engine”, officially called the Weekly Track “SPEC” Engine, isn’t exactly a spec motor in the literal sense.  It’s more of an upgrade to existing built engines.  The new package includes aluminum heads and a roller camshaft.  The motor is intended to make more speed and create more parity in Late Model Stock Car racing while also reducing costs to the racers.

“I think the words ‘spec engine ‘name might be misleading,” South Boston Speedway competitor Mark Wertz, who has tested the new motor package, said.  “I think it’s a name they came up with because it has more of a spec head and intake.  It’s just an upgrade.  However, Dodge introduced a Dodge crate spec engine in 2004.  The problem was, it put out too much power at the time.

“Ford’s spec engine was what the crate motor was originally introduced as but continues to be upgraded,” Wertz continued.  “Ford has introduced a spec motor but they continue to tweak it which led to too much horsepower.  Chevrolet now, the builders are trying to introduce an upgrade that they’re calling a spec motor that can compete with Ford.”

Wertz, who has won multiple championships at the now-defunct Langley Speedway, has been a driving force behind the new engine along with former NASCAR Whelen All-American Series director Lynn Carroll and automotive tech guru Shayne Laws.  He feels the new package will ultimately cut down costs for teams who run built engines.

“It can allow some of the teams who struggled with handling issues, steel head motors, to catch up a little bit,” Wertz explained.  “And, I think it will allow some of the teams that have had to spend a lot of money to get a set of steel heads worked up to where they make good horsepower numbers.  Before, teams couldn’t find the set of heads they need to make good horsepower numbers.  Now, they’ll be on more of an even playing field.”

Three-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Lee Pulliam is among those who will be running the new motor.  Pulliam, who fields cars for other racers along with his own car, feels the new motor package will cut down costs for racers and produce better racing.

“It’s a big positive for Late Model racing,” Pulliam told Race22.com.  “We need something that’s got better longevity, that you have to spend less money on rebuilds and stuff.  It’s the same built motor every team used to run.  So there are hundreds, if not thousands of these motors around.  The crate motor came on the scene and was supposed to cut costs but by the time you send it to your motor builder, it’s a $20,000 motor.”

However, not everyone is sold on the idea that the new engine package will save racers money.  Chris Burns, who won three Late Model races in Carteret County Speedway’s inaugural season last year, is one of the racers who is competing on a smaller budget.  Burns races a GM 604 crate engine in his Late Model and he feels the new engine package is too expensive and would run racers like him out of the sport.

“It’s going to hurt the people who have crate motors and such,” Burns explained.  “It’s definitely an upgrade on the built motor side of things but the people running legal with crate motors like they’re supposed to, because we’re already, the old rules, I won a couple races against some of the best motors out there and mine is bone stock.  If they upgrade the Chevy built motor, it hurts me because I don’t have the money to buy a spec motor and it would hurt me if Carteret went to a spec motor.”

Pulliam said the GM built motors have largely been put off to the side by racers as more and more competitors have opted to run crate motors – specifically the Ford 347SR crate engine which has become a seemingly dominant motor in the Late Model Stock Car scene, although more races were won in 2016 with GM engines.  Despite that, Pulliam said many racers continue to run built engines largely for their reliability.  Reliability that both Pulliam and Wertz feel will improve with the new package.

“The roller cam shaft, won’t be running out so you can run 5,000 laps or more so that’s going to save $15,000-$20,000 a year,” Pulliam said when explaining how the new motor will reduce costs.  “It’s a set of aluminum heads, which every motor has.  It’s a roller cam shaft, crate motors both Ford and Chevy have that and it’s an update on the intake.  Three small deals and something that’s going to save these small teams who have these motors who can’t afford a $20,000 Ford and, they can take their built motor and for $2,500, update it and be able to race for a season or two.”

Mark Wertz, when asked about the costs, echoed much of Pulliam’s sentiments.

“They can expect a one-time cost of around $3,000 on top of their normal retail for upgrading the motor, then they can expect an extended cycle time, more lap count on their motors which will reduce the amount of rebuilds required in the future to offset the initial costs,” Wertz stated.  “They can expect to spend less money on rebuilds.”

However, the durability of the motor has yet to be tested.

“They haven’t run these motors enough to know they won’t have to rebuild these motors every few races,” Burns remarked.  “I don’t see how it will be cheaper for me, a budget racer that runs my motors with little maintenance, for me to go spend another $10,000 up front when my $5,000 motor will last me twice as long as any of them.”

Burns said he expects to run the full 2017 season on his current 604 engine, an engine he ran for half the season at Carteret County Speedway as well as at Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Tommy Lemons, Jr., twice a winner of the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville, agreed with Burns’ thoughts.

“I respect Mark and Lee but there’s been 25 or 30 laps of testing,” Lemons said.  “Nobody’s run it for multiple laps.  We don’t know until it’s out there.  My program over the last few years to predominantly crates and we’ve run all season off one rebuild.  I know back when I was running built motors all the time, we were running 1200 to 1500 laps.  It doesn’t take long to run up to that many laps, you’re there in four or five weekends.”

Lemons has questioned the need for the motor and has taken an active role in trying to explain to track operators why he feels the new motor isn’t a positive thing for Late Model Stock Car racing.

“I just, I’ve called all the track owners and stuff and tried talking to them about the new deal that are going to allow the new motor,” Lemons commented.  “I think that they’re going to run the small teams off.  I’ve told everybody that I’ll do whatever it takes to win a race.  If it means having that package, then I’ll have it.  But it’s the smaller guys who can’t afford that who I think we’re going to run off.”

Lemons’ wife, Laura, has questioned the need for the new package on Facebook, citing the different combinations of motors that have won races and championships all across the region.  After all, 2016 was, on paper, one of the most competitive seasons of Late Model Stock Car racing in recent years.

“I’m beyond, I can’t figure it out,” Tommy Lemons, Jr. continued.  “Everything’s pretty equal as far as on track performance.  I’m at a loss as to why the racetracks, or select engine builders and tech people who got together and feel like it’s not equal I guess, but I hope I’m wrong and it doesn’t run small teams off but I don’t feel like it will benefit racing at all.”

One thing everybody agrees on, the new motor package is fast.

“I’m going to say it’s probably got another 45-50 horsepower,” Burns said.  “It’s definitely got to have more horsepower and its 75 pounds lighter on the top of the motor.  It helps with the handling of the car but it does have more horsepower.”

Wertz also cites handling as a primary thing that stands out with the new motor.

“I feel like all this motor has done, when I tested the motor with a four barrel, I know the numbers that were on an engine,” Wertz explained.  “It was right over one of the best Ford crate motors go.  The two barrel heads will be slightly behind.  With some tweaking, it will probably be as good.  We’re seeing what I call a percentage of equals.  The motor runs smooth, it didn’t set the world on fire but it let me put weight lower on the car which improved handling on the car.

“If anything stood out as an improvement, it was handling more than power.”

The GM “spec engine” has dominated in the political spectrum of Late Model Stock Car racing.  While many tracks are still finalizing their rules, the new engine has been approved for competition at Caraway Speedway, Dominion Speedway, East Carolina Speedway and Motor Mile Speedway.

Franklin County Speedway and Myrtle Beach Speedway have both come out against the new spec engine and Carteret County Speedway has told Race22.com they will most likely not approve its use in 2017.  The CARS Late Model Stock Tour also has not approved the engine for competition.

Race22.com’s Mark Rogers, Jr. contributed to this report.