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Published: 5/5/2023

Out of the Box Racing: The Mid-East 602 Late Models

Author: DAN HODGDON

Photos: COURTESY of MID-EAST 602 LATE MODELS and CHEVROLET

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The advent of the crate engine* has significantly changed the racing game. In some instances, the engine allows racers to compete at a higher level than they would be able to otherwise, while for others, the crate engine allows them to compete at all.

 

 

For years, Chevrolet Performance has been at the forefront of the crate engine movement with circle track power plants designed to offer an alternative to the cost and time involved with custom open or "built" engines.

 

The Chevrolet Performance CT350 crate engine on display at the PRI Trade Show.

 

Among the chief proponents of crate engines is Jason Walls, the owner of the Rick Hendrick City Chevrolet Mid-East 602 Late Models, along with the Mid-East 604 Late Models and Mid-East Modifieds. Walls' Southeast-based series all run on dirt and feature crate mills, but the 602 Late Models must utilize the entry-level Chevrolet Performance CT350 circle track option.* 

It is colloquially known as the "602" based on the last three digits of the part number. The next level up, officially called the CT400*, is often referred to as a "604."

As a former driver himself, Walls can relate to the ever-rising costs of racing, which the CT350 is designed to help control. In fact, he found he spent more competing in four-cylinder classes than in Crate Dirt Late Models, where he didn't have to put additional money and time into the engine.

Plus, on top of the cost savings, the crate engines offer a convenience factor.

"When you do not have to work on the motors yourself it just makes it that much easier,"  he says. "If you keep the oil changed, keep the valve springs changed, and don't do anything that you really shouldn't do with it, that motor will last you from the first race to the last race. You'll have zero problems out there most of the time and you just can't beat that."

 

Crate engine-powered Mid-East 602 Late Models compete at dirt tracks throughout the Southeast.

 

According to Chevrolet Performance, the CT350 is built for competitive performance, long-lasting durability and low maintenance for budget-conscious racers. The engine is capable of 350 horsepower and 396 lb.-ft. of torque. It is built from all-new components including a four-bolt-main block, Vortec iron heads and a dual-pattern camshaft. That means it's no slouch on the track out of the box, but its tamper-proof factory seals also ensure a level playing field.

Walls, a native of Germanton, North Carolina, who today lives in Hamptonville in the Tar Heel State, first got the idea for the Mid-East Racing Association seven years ago after attending a race at Princeton Speedway in Princeton, West Virginia.

Since then, his organization has grown to include three regions in the Southeast (North, South and Coastal) within each of its three divisions, while also sanctioning several tracks. Points are collected by drivers who tour in each region throughout the year, which they then bring to the year-end races to crown a champion.

Walls estimates that 12 to 15 teams follow the Mid-East 602 Late Models throughout the year, with approximately 26 cars per race. A total of nearly 90 cars started at least one race in 2022.

Meanwhile, among the tracks the Mid-East Racing Association works with closely is Fayetteville Motor Speedway in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Walls says a division that once averaged four cars a week now draws nearly six times that since they have gone to the more cost-effective 602 crate engine.

 

The Chevrolet Performance CT350 crate engine (or 602) is built for reliable, cost-effective performance.

 

Each of the engines in the series begins life as a Chevrolet Performance CT350, but Mid-East-approved engine builders are allowed to refresh the power plants with items like piston rings, bearings and other updates. However, each one must go through an extensive certification process to receive new Mid-East Racing Association seals. Plus, it must be put back together in the way it was originally built.

"If you do go through the engine it has to be 100% GM parts, GM specs just like it comes from Chevrolet," Walls says.

In addition to the engine, the Mid-East 602 Late Models are designed to save costs in other ways. They include a shock claim rule only allowing for certain types of shocks on all four corners, a carburetor rule and several other limitations. However, the race car is still purpose-built. That initial investment allows competitors to take part in one of dirt racing's headline divisions at an affordable price, while maintaining the option to use the same car if they want to move up the ranks. 

"If you run a 602 Late Model you can pretty much change the motor and shocks and go 604 racing, or if you want to go open motor racing, you can take the same car and just keep going as high as you want," Walls explains.

 

Rick Hendrick City Chevrolet is among the supporters of the Mid-East 602 Late Models.

 

The series' long-standing relationship with Rick Hendrick City Chevrolet in Charlotte has also proven to be mutually beneficial. The dealership's parts manager, Jim Norman, is involved with many racing series in the Southeast. He estimates that he sells around 250 circle track crate engines across all of the Chevrolet Performance offerings (CT350, CT400, CT525) each year. But he recently has found the CT350 (or 602) is one of his hottest sellers.

"Depending on the series or the owner of the series, they may have a Street Stock, they may have a Late Model, but the 602 has become an inexpensive way for beginners to race," Norman says.

Norman has been involved in the racing business for decades, including serving on a pit crew for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 car in the NASCAR Cup Series. As a result, he's keen to support racers in his region.

"When I sell a circle track engine I ask what series they're running, I like to know where we're spending our advertising money," Norman says. "Jason Walls is very good; he pushes his guys to try to buy from series sponsors which makes sense. It's a business-to-business thing and it's been pretty successful."

 

The Mid-East 602 Late Models feature a healthy car count at every event.

 

This year, the Mid-East Racing Association is also planning to honor the late former City Chevrolet employee Chris Knight with a memorial race at South Carolina's Lancaster Speedway on August 19. The event will pay $7,500 to the winner.

Walls notes that the dealership's reputation, central location for his competitors, and an understanding of the racers' needs have been a major benefit.

"They've been real good for the whole sport in general," Walls says.

The same could be said about the CT350 crate engine.

Be sure to keep watching The BLOCK for much more on all motorsports disciplines.

*Because of their effect on a vehicle's emissions performance, these engines are intended exclusively for use in competition vehicles. These engines are designed and intended for use in vehicles operated exclusively for competition: in racing or organized competition on courses separate from public roads, streets or highways. Installation or use of these engines on a vehicle operated on public roads, streets or highways is likely to violate U.S., Canadian, state and provincial laws and regulations related to motor vehicle emissions.

 

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