Tech Talk #47 – Raising the Redline: Why RPM Matters

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“I’m excited about the emerging trend toward fast sportsman drag racing.”

Looking back at the 2004 season, I can attribute much of the performance improvement in Pro Stock to faster engine speeds. It’s difficult to believe that 500cid Pro Stock engines now routinely turn 10,000 rpm, but the truth is plain to see on the data recorders and on the time slips.

The trend toward higher and higher engine speeds was also evident in NASCAR stock car racing until the rulemakers applied the brakes with new restrictions on rearend and transmission gear ratios. Now the growing interest in fast bracket racing, Top Sportsman, and Top Comp eliminators is bringing this same high-rpm technology to sportsman drag racers.

Why does turning an engine higher make a race car run faster? This is my final column of the year, so I’ll offer my ideas and hope that they give racers something to think about over the winter break.

The simple explanation is that raising rpm effectively increases an engine’s displacement. This might seem nonsensical because the volume displaced by the pistons doesn’t change, but consider the effects of filling and emptying the cylinders faster in real time. An internal combustion engine is an air pump, and if we turn that pump faster, we can theoretically burn more fuel in a given amount of time and consequently produce more power. For example, an eight-cylinder engine running at 6,000 rpm fires its cylinders 24,000 times in one minute (assuming perfect combustion). Increase the engine’s speed to 8,000 rpm and it will fire 32,000 times per minute, a 33 percent increase. The volume of air and fuel that moves through the engine is now equivalent to an engine with a much larger displacement. There are also 8,000 additional power pulses per minute transmitted to the crankshaft that can be harnessed to turn the wheels and accelerate the car.

Raising engine speed is analogous to supercharging or turbocharging a motor; the goal is to increase the volume of air and fuel that moves through the engine. The airflow is increased with a forced induction system by pressurizing the intake system; in a naturally aspirated engine, the airflow is increased by raising rpm. If done correctly, both approaches will increase power.

A higher revving engine also permits the use of a numerically higher gear ratio to multiply the engine’s torque all the way down the drag strip. Let’s say an engine that produces 1,000 horsepower at 7,000 rpm is paired with a 4.56:1 rearend gear ratio. If this engine is then modified to produce 1,000 horsepower at 8,000 rpm, it can now pull a 4.88:1 or 5:14:1 rearend gear without running out of rpm before reaching the finish line. The numerically higher gear ratio gives the engine a mechanical advantage by multiplying its torque by a greater number to accelerate the car faster – in effect, it has a longer lever to move the mass.

I learned this lesson many years ago when I started drag racing. I raced my little 302cid Camaro against 426 Hemis and 440cid Max Wedge Mopars. The big-inch engines had thunderous low-end power, but my high-revving 302 with a 4.88:1 rear gear would just kill them because they were all done at 5,800 rpm. My small-block had much less torque and horsepower, but I could multiply the power it had with a steeper gear ratio. The same principle applies to racing a Pro Stock or a Top Sportsman dragster. By turning more rpm, we can use a greater gear ratio to produce more mechanical advantage to accelerate the car.

There are limits to engine speed, of course. Higher rpm increases parasitic losses from friction and windage. The stability of the valvetrain also restricts engine rpm. However, with the technology developed in NASCAR and in Pro Stock, racers are learning how to build engines that operate reliably at high rpm. Research and development on valve materials, springs, rocker arms, and pushrods are now being applied to serious sportsman drag racing engines. In fact, I wish that I had some of the parts that we now install in our high-horsepower sportsman engines for our Pro Stock program a few years ago!

While increasing rpm is generally a good thing for a racing engine, it also puts more responsibility on the owner. A high-rpm combination requires more vigilance and more maintenance than a low-rpm motor. It’s important to check the valve lash frequently and to look for early warning signs such as weak or broken valve springs. Neglecting these parts in a high-rpm racing engine can produce some very expensive problems.

Raising an engine’s operating range also requires complementary changes in the drivetrain and chassis. A high-rpm sportsman engine really needs a high-stall torque converter to realize its potential. With an automatic transmission, the engine speed should ideally drop 1,000 to 1,300 rpm after a gear change. For example, if the converter stalls at 6,700 rpm, the engine should be shifted at around 8,000 rpm. Shifting this engine at 7,000 rpm would simply put the engine back on the converter, causing the converter to operate inefficiently and wasting horsepower by heating the transmission fluid.

I’m excited about the emerging trend toward fast sportsman drag racing. I enjoy working with customers who want to go fast because it gives me an opportunity to deliver the benefits of our Pro Stock R&D to other racers. Not every racer wants or needs a high-rpm engine, but if the goal is to have a fast car, raising the redline is a proven approach.