ETOWAH, TN – With the annual running of the Cabin Fever Race this Saturday at Boyd’s Speedway in Ringgold, GA, it marks the 13th Anniversary of a historic victory. Ronnie Johnson of nearby Chattanooga, TN won the first National Dirt Late Model race with a new unique engine, the economic all-aluminum Chevrolet Performance CT525 Engine.

Prior to that 2010 victory, a two-year development period brought the engine from an idea to a win that began a two-year Research and Development program led by Johnson and Crate Racin’ USA Founder Mike Vaughn.

Roby Helm of Helm Communications, who was the Public Relations Director and Announcer for Crate Racin’ USA from 2005 through 2020, looks back on the history of the Chevrolet Performance CT525 Engine in a series of articles. This first installment looks at the birth of the engine and its origins.

The idea of the Chevrolet Performance CT525 Engine began as a passing comment in 2003 by National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame Inductee Jeff Purvis of Clarksville, TN. Purvis had joined Vaughn to Spearhead a new series using the Chevrolet Performance 604 and 602 Circle Track Engine, also known as a “Crate Engine” that was built and sealed at the factory to prevent any expensive modifications.

The Crate Engine was designed to save the weekend warrior racer money. At the time, the 604, a 400 horsepower aluminum-head steel-block engine cost $4,995, and the all-steel 350 horsepower 602 cost $2,995.

Purvis told Chevrolet Performance Chief Engineer Bob Cross and Project Manager Bill Martens that the perfect economical late model engine would an all-aluminum engine that cost less than $10,000 race ready. In 2008, Cross looked at what Chevrolet had available, and after lifting the hood of a Corvette, he saw just what Purvis asked for.

The Corvette was powered by an all-aluminum 525 horsepower LS3 Engine. Cross and Crate Racin’ USA Technical Director Tim Sims took their notes from the development of the 604 and 602 engines, especially with the RPM range of making horsepower on a dirt track of a ½-mile or less, and found the LS3 engine could fit the bill with converting it from fuel injection to a carburetor and a cam change.

The long block assembly retailed for $6,995, and with a “race-ready” kit that included headers, pumps, pulleys, and electronics the engine retailed out at $9,995. Sadly, Cross never got to see how his latest project worked out on the race track, as he lost his life in a highway accident. Martens made it a priority to finish the CT525 project.

Chevrolet Performance chose Vaughn and Sims to do the ontrack R&D program. They had three engines and needed three race cars to put them in. Vaughn asked a good friend and a dirt track legend to help him get the program rolling in 2009. Vaughn took the engines to another National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame Inductee as a driver and a chassis innovator, C.J. Rayburn of Whiteland, IN.

They went on a successful tour of races in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio with drivers Aaron Ridley of Chatworth, GA and Rayburn’s son Christian and his Grandson Justin Shaw. The cars were numbered 525a, 525b, and 525c, each number a different color. In six races over nine days, the CT525 powered Rayburns picked up four wins as Ridley took three victories while Shaw had one win, and all three drivers had six top five finishes.

Vaughn brought one engine back to his home base in Cartersville, GA, and continued the R&D with Johnson. Chevrolet Performance instructed Vaughn and Johnson to run the engine with the Cross designed operational guidelines, and all they had to do was change the oil.

Johnson ran the engine maintenance free for two seasons with 16 wins, 35 top five finishes, and 40 top ten finishes in 44 races. In addition to the Cabin Fever race win in 2010, Johnson also won the Bama Bash at Green Valley Speedway in Glencoe, AL, and the Alabama State Race at East Alabama Motor Speedway in Phenix City, AL.

When asked about the engine, Johnson was known to say he didn’t know much about the engine because of its durability, and he hadn’t even taken the valve covers off the engine. All he had to do was change the oil. After two seasons, the CT525 Engine Johnson used went back to Chevrolet Performance for inspection.

The CT525 Engine was ready for mass production in 2013, and weekly racer Ross Martin of Talladega, AL was one of the first drivers to buy one. In January of 2013, Martin topped a star-studded field of the top dirt late model drivers in the Southeast to win the prestigious Icebowl Race at Talladega Short Track in Eastaboga, AL.

The CT525 Engine found much success at Icebowl over the next few years. In addition to Martin’s win in 2013, William Thomas of Phenix City, AL in 2014, Tim Roszell of Oxford, AL in 2015, and Michael Page of Douglasville, GA in 2017 through 2021 grabbed Icebowl wins with CT525 power.

Vaughn already had a plan for the powerplant at the completion of the R&D Program for the CT525, and Chevrolet Performance was also onboard with it. Vaughn launched the first racing series to be branded by a major American Automobile Manufacturer for the 2013 racing season as a part of his Crate Racin’ USA sanctioning body.

The Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series was announced for the 2013 racing season with a seven-race schedule. The dirt late models were powered by the Chevrolet Performance CT525 Engine. Like the 604 and 602 Engines, the CT525 was built and sealed at the factory to prevent any expensive modifications.

Sims went one step further in the traditional pre-race technical inspection by using a laptop computer to set the performance of each engine competing in each race with timing and RPM limits to help level the playing field. On August 2, 2013, 18 competitors showed up for the first race at Penton Raceway in Penton, AL.

Thomas took the first race and went on to take four wins total, six top five finishes and top ten finishes in all seven races to be crowned as the first-ever Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series Champion. The series was considered a success and word got around that the racing was good.

Vaughn got the fans up close and personal with drivers and the race cars by implementing the “Chevy Fan Zone,” a pre-race ritual where the drivers brought their race cars out of the pit area and to the fans in the grandstand area. They took the opportunity to meet and greet the race fans as they came into the speedway. The hoods came off and they got a good look at the “Corvette Engine.”

“Why that’s the same engine that’s in the vehicle I drove to the race track,” was commonly heard by fans when they got their first look at the CT525 Engine. That’s because the CT525 was based off the production Chevrolet LS3 Engine that was under the hood of not only the Corvette, but also the Camaro, and the limited-production Chevy SS.

What a concept. A National racing series with race cars powered by the same engine a fan can have in the vehicle they drove to the race track. While it was innovative, it would soon become popular with fans, competitors and race tracks. There would be much more to come.

Helm Communications is ready to serve the Public Relations needs of Motorsports Facilities, Sanctioning Bodies, Race Teams, and small businesses. Helm Communications is located at 1411 Ohio Avenue, Etowah, TN 37331. For more information call 423-781-8154, or 865-207-4157. You can also like their Facebook page at Helm Communications.