“Now they’re custom-built racecars,” notes Jeff Baldwin, whose Baldwin Racing Engines has developed a niche market of building specialized 400-plus-horsepower bullets for cars that will get the snot beat out of them before going to the recycler.
These aren’t warmed over crate motors or refurbished claimer engines scoured from a dirt track. Instead, every derby engine out of the Baldwin shop is assembled from the ground up with new parts. And there is a specific strategy to go along with custom parts just for this crowd-pleasing application.
“Mainly, you’re trying to keep the engine running without water,” explains Baldwin. “The radiators get taken out early, so it’s who can stay running the longest.”
The two most popular engines are 355ci and 383ci small-block Chevys. Starting price is around $6,500 but they can last over multiple seasons with minimal maintenance.
“We’ve got one in right now for a refresh that the guy raced for three years,” says Baldwin, who also builds potent engines for dirt track, truck pullers and other popular competition vehicles in the Midwest.
Helping with the heat management is a conservative approach to compression ratio, loose tolerances, thermal coatings and oil squirters for the piston undersides and the camshaft.
“We cool the piston as much as possible and make sure the cam is well oiled,” explains Baldwin, who’s been in his Friedheim, Missouri, shop since 2002.
Traditional babbitt cam bearings will start melting around 370 degrees, says Baldwin, leading to a common engine failure. So his shop developed a special cam bearing to “resist the problem.”
Cam timing and head selection are focused on low-end torque with induction choices geared toward snappy throttle response. On the top end, engines will rev between 7,000 and 7,500 rpm. A 383 full-roller engine with Dart cylinder heads and 500 cfm 2-barrel carb makes over 425 horsepower with 475 lb-ft peak torque. This engine will start out with a new GM block fitted with an Eagle rotating assembly, ARP fasteners, Fel-Pro gaskets, Melling oil pump, Champ oil pan, DEC truck-pull style headers, MSD ignition and Cloyes timing set.
Protecting the engine is a custom Ski Inc. cradle that can be installed from car to car as fresh scrap heaps are safety prepped for action.
“The biggest thing is keeping the ignition and carb safe to keep the engine running,” says Baldwin. “We use the Willy’s Super Bowl on the carb because it doesn’t need a float, needle and seat.”
Don’t assume that all this effort goes for little reward at the end of all the metallic slaughter on the track. An upcoming race in Kansas will hand $20,000 to the winning team, and next year another event is expected to pay $30,000 to the champion. That’s more than the Pro Stock winner earns at a NHRA event.