Tech Talk #27 – The True Cost of Racing

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

According to the calendar on my office wall, this is my last column of the year for National DRAGSTER. It’s true: Time does fly, whether or not you’re having fun.

Ten months ago, Bruce Allen and I were preparing our new Pro Stock Grand Am for its maiden run. Now both the car and the crew are showing the effects of a long season that seemed to pass in a blur. Fortunately, 2001 has been a rewarding year for the Reher-Morrison team, and I’m already making plans for next season.

The off-season is the time to recharge mental batteries, rethink combinations, and restock parts. Whether you compete in Pro Stock or Bracket 4, the decisions you make in the next few weeks will profoundly affect your success next year.

I’ve written previously about the positive impact of technology, computers and CNC machining on drag racing. Racers have never had more choices – but the staggering variety of available parts means that racers have to be smarter buyers. I know that cost is always a consideration, whether you’re purchasing a six-pack or a set of CNC-ported cylinder heads – but price should never be the determining factor.

The upfront cost of parts and the net cost can be entirely different. You have to look at what you spent at the end of the season, not what you spent at the start of the year. If you buy a part on price alone and it fails, you didn’t save money – you lost it.

The true price of a piece of racing equipment should be calculated as cost per run, not the cost of acquisition. If a more expensive part is higher in quality and lasts longer than a cheap part, then the part with the higher price tag is actually the better bargain in the long run.

I’ll use valve springs as an example because they are among the most critical components in a drag racing engine. Are you better off buying a set of springs for $100 that last 20 runs or a set of $300 springs that last 100 runs? The cheap springs actually cost you $5 per run – plus the time and effort to change them. The net cost of the expensive springs is only $3 per run – and you’ve saved the labor required to change four sets of springs.

You also have to consider the possible consequences of using inferior parts. To continue my valve spring example, suppose that a bargain spring breaks after only nine passes. If that spring failure causes a lifter to disintegrate or a valve to hit a piston, your net cost has just gone through the roof. The dollars you saved on the front end are insignificant compared to the expense of repairing a severely damaged engine.

It’s false economy to scrimp on parts that directly affect engine reliability. Oil pumps, connecting rods and wrist pins are not places to save pennies. Buy the absolute best quality you can afford in these highly stressed components. If an intake manifold doesn’t work properly, the most you can lose is some horsepower and perhaps a race; if an oil pump malfunctions, you can lose the entire engine.

Getting the most for your money in racing is not about getting the biggest box of parts. You can’t go to a Costco or Sam’s Club and buy racing components in economy-size boxes like breakfast cereal or laundry soap. Instead, concentrate on getting the most performance and reliability out of your parts.

The most effective way to reduce your cost per run is to check your engine religiously. At the risk of sounding like your mother, I’ll continue to harp on you to check the valve lash, cut apart the oil filter, and inspect your oil pan’s magnetic drain plug at regular intervals. If you can prevent $1,000 worth of damage to your engine with a 10-minute inspection, you’re earning $6,000 per hour. That’s a pretty good wage for anyone except Madonna and Bill Gates.

Another important consideration for off-season planning sessions is that the parts you buy must work in harmony. Maybe that new high-lift camshaft profile will give you the top-end power you need to qualify for the Quick 16 – but unless your intake manifold and cylinder heads have the correct port volume and runner length to complement the increased airflow, you’re not going to get a good return on your investment. The parts have to complement each other, and that requires an overall plan.

Which brings me to my next piece of free advice: work with qualified people. When I hire a CPA to prepare my business tax return or an electrician to wire a new dyno cell, I rely on their expertise in areas that I know little about. I wouldn’t hire the cheapest CPA to represent me at an IRS hearing or the cheapest electrician to install a new service panel – I’d look for the most qualified person to do the job right.

Building race engines is certainly as specialized as accounting or wiring. Since you read National DRAGSTER, you know who the players are in drag racing. Seek out the established engine shops and parts suppliers who have real-world experience in racing cars, dyno-testing engines and developing cylinder heads. Avoid the instant experts and armchair engine builders who come in and out of fashion like pop stars.

What really matters is satisfaction. When you look back next year at your racing season, will you be satisfied with what you accomplished? The quality of the decisions you make today is far more important than the amount of money you spend in the next 12 months.