The rules are pretty simple: build a low-dough motor with an iron block, off-the-shelf heads, an off-the-shelf carb, and a shot of juice. Don't go overboard on the trick parts, though, because the guy next to you can buy your engine for $3,000.
Welcome to Cheap Street competition. PRO bills it as the ultimate "real world" class in its pro series, with the competitors driving street-based combinations-more or less. And to keep the competition relatively attainable to checkbook-challenged racers, the class has adopted a longstanding tradition in the sportsman circle track world: claimer engines.
In Cheap Street, a racer who believes another competitor might have an unfair edge can claim that competitor's long block for $3,000, as well as a transmission for $2,000 and even the carburetor for $500. It keeps the players on a level playing field on oval tracks, and, theoretically, ought to do the same in this heads-up, wheels-up class.
But drag racers are a notoriously crafty bunch, and being competitive in Cheap Street requires at least 600 horses and high-9-second e.t.'s. That's a lot to ask of car weighing a minimum of 3,200 pounds and powered by a stock-headed small-block.
We recently followed the build of a Cheap Street engine at Thomson Automotive, a Detroit-area shop run by longtime racer Brian Thomson. He's been building drag race and circle track engines for more than 20 years and he said he was confident he could find the maximum power with the parts allowed.
But what are the parts allowed? Good question. Here's an overview of the Cheap Street rulebook:*Iron small-block displacing no more than 385 ci*Mass-produced cast iron or aluminum heads; millingpermitted, but no porting, welding or epoxy allowed*Maximum valve sizes of 2.025 intake, 1.610 exhaust*Flat top pistons only*No roller cam allowed*Nitrous oxide allowed, but only with single stage system, maximum jet size of 0.063 inch.*No more than a single 750-cfm carburetor; "typical" carb mods allowed*Exhaust pipes have a maximum 3-inch tubing diameter*Supercharging, turbocharging, and fuel injection prohibited
Sounds simple enough, right? Yes, but keep in mind that flat-top pistons with stock heads isn't exactly the recipe for excess horsepower-and a 0.063 nitrous jet won't make the Pro Mod guys tremble.
"It's harder than it looks," says Thomson. "The easy way to make power, even with stock-type heads, is to add compression. The flat-tops limit compression severely, and the tiny nitrous jet certainly won't double the engine's output."
And, there's the weight factor: Pre-'75 cars and all trucks in Cheap Street must weigh 3,200 pounds if equipped with at least a 365-cid engine; it's 3,250 for '75-and-later cars. However, a weight penalty of 10 pounds per cubic inch is assessed for each cube over 365.
The engine Thomson built for this story was headed for a Third-Gen F-car, meaning it would have to weigh at least 3,250 pounds.
"The owner wants to avoid adding weight, so we decided to keep the engine under 365 cubic inches," says Thomson.
Firm FoundationAlthough cognizant of the claimer rule, Thomson and the engine's owner knew there was no way to build a competitive engine for $3,000-and make it last for an entire racing season. The decision was made to use the strongest parts where possible, knowing that items like the unmodified heads, intake and carb would be relatively affordable.
Rather than start with an all-new short-block, however, Thomson started with a used block and cleaned it up. By giving it the standard 0.030-inch overbore and a 350 crank, the engine would displace 355 ci.
The rotating assembly was built for durability, low mass and low friction. The lightweight Diamond aluminum pistons and GRP aluminum rods from GRP aren't exactly cheap, but they provide a necessary performance edge, according to Thomson.