Tech Talk #35 – Warning: Racing May Be Hazardous to Your Wallet

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

Has the world really become a more dangerous place, or are we just more aware of the dangers of everyday life? If I buy a new appliance, a power tool or a treadmill, the owner’s manuals typically have dozens of pages of warnings, cautions, disclaimers and notices before I ever get to the instructions. There are enough stickers in my truck warning me about the possible dangers of air bags, roll-overs and exploding batteries to make me think that driving to work should qualify as hazardous duty. But ironically, the more we are assailed by warning signs, screaming yellow caution notices and clever icons depicting various ways that stick people can be killed and maimed, it seems the less attention we pay to them.

While I understand why liability laws require manufacturers to warn their customers of every conceivable and inconceivable danger, it’s like the fable of the boy who cried wolf so often that no one noticed when he became a canine dinner. Racers routinely sign waivers that warn them of the possible risks of motorized competition, and even my dentist required me to sign a release acknowledging that I could die if my tooth extraction went terribly wrong.

At the risk of adding to the deafening din of warnings, I would like to point out that racing engines are subject to mechanical problems. People who build their own engines are generally aware of the intricacies of competition motors, but some newcomers to our sport regard the engine as an appliance. If a refrigerator can last for a decade and a washing machine is good for 15 years, why is it so tough to build a trouble-free racing engine?

The answer is obvious: If I built a racing engine that would last 100,000 miles, it wouldn’t be competitive. It would be as heavy as a diesel and as powerful as a lawn mower. Sure, I could warranty that the purchaser would never have any mechanical problems, but I’d also guarantee that he’d never win a race.

I’ve written before that this is a great time to be a drag racer. The parts that are available now are simply light-years ahead of what we had just a few seasons ago. Advances in design, materials, metallurgy, heat-treating and machining have resulted in exceptional products at very affordable prices. Today a sportsman racer can get big power for relatively few dollars. But because the engines that are now used in the fast brackets and heads-up eliminators are just a few steps removed from a Pro Stock engine, the potential for problems is much higher.

Performance always comes with a price: the increased risk of mechanical problems. As parts become lighter and engine speeds faster, the stress on components becomes greater. Everyone wants lighter parts to reduce parasitic losses and to improve acceleration, but it is simply unrealistic to expect unlimited life from flyweight parts.

One of our typical Super Series big-blocks includes hundreds of components from 50 different suppliers – and that’s not even counting the thousands of individual items in a set of roller rocker arms or roller lifters. If even one of these parts fails prematurely, the entire engine is at risk. Fortunately, most failures can be detected before a disaster if you pay attention to the engine. But there are also catastrophic failures that happen without warning. There’s no worse feeling for an engine builder than when you’re dyno testing a promising new Pro Stock motor and it goes “bang!” at 9,200 rpm. About all you can do is examine the remains and get back to work.

Think about how many mechanical devices you encounter during a typical day that simply don’t work. If I fly out of DFWAirport to go to an event, I can just about count on finding an escalator that doesn’t escalate, a vending machine that doesn’t vend, and a seat back recliner that doesn’t recline. We just accept that not everything is perfect in the world, and hope that the engines on the airplane are in better condition than the tray tables.

Now consider that a racing engine is a complex, highly stressed mechanical device. A racing engine isn’t a place to cut corners, but the reality is that most drag racers don’t have a Formula 1 budget. Consequently you have to know where to spend and where to save. From my perspective, a set of $400 roller lifters that I can count on is a bargain compared to a set of $169 roller lifters that could destroy an engine. My advice is to use the best parts you can buy where it counts: good pushrods, good titanium valve spring retainers, good valve springs and good wrist pins. It’s false economy to scrimp in those areas because a failure will almost inevitably cost you much more in the long run.

Even the best-equipped engine shop lacks one piece of equipment: a crystal ball. Despite decades of racing experience, some problems simply can’t be foreseen. The harsh truth is that something has to happen before you know you have a problem. Sometimes you get lucky and spot an unusual wear pattern or catch an early warning sign of impending failure. Other times you don’t.

Engineers know that there are no failsafe systems. Just when you think you’ve got a solution for every possible problem, you discover a whole new set of problems created by your solutions. Let’s say you design a racing piston that won’t crack. Congratulations – but now your new piston distorts the ring grooves so the rings don’t seal and the unbreakable skirts gall the cylinder walls. The lesson is that every part in a racing engine works with other parts. You find the weak link by testing the components at the limit. And if they survive, the next question is: How can I make this lighter, stronger or more powerful? That’s the nature of racers.

As a professional engine builder, I’m committed to using the best components I can find and tracking their reliability over the long run. Our shop has built hundreds of engines over the years, and I’m happy with how infrequently failures happen. But when anybody gets an engine from me, I tell the buyer it could blow up on the first run. I don’t expect it to, but it could happen.

So that’s my contribution to improving consumer awareness among drag racers. We’re racing engines that are on the leading edge of development – and sometimes you fall off the edge.