Tech Talk #59 – Planning for Performance

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“We’re making more than 1300 horsepower with engines that were originally designed to produce perhaps 400 peak horsepower.”

Whether you’re remodeling a kitchen, coaching a basketball team, or racing for a championship, you’ve got to have a plan. In my last column, I wrote about the importance of the fun factor in drag racing. For the vast majority of racers, it’s not about the prize money – it’s about the enjoyment and personal satisfaction that comes with a fast run, a perfect reaction time or a round win. Developing a plan – and then sticking to it – is the key to maximizing the fun and minimizing the cost of racing.

The old adage still applies: Speed costs money, how fast do you want to go? The fact is that a more powerful engine is inherently more expensive to build and maintain than a less powerful engine. But it’s not just the cost of acquisition that increases with horsepower. The ancillary costs also go up. Tires wear out quicker, transmissions don’t last as long, and the entire drivetrain must be stronger. It’s tough to campaign a fast car without help, so that means more crew passes and higher travel expenses.

I certainly don’t want to discourage any racer from buying a more powerful engine or building a faster car. But I do encourage racers to think realistically about their objectives and then plan accordingly. Some people want to build a deadly consistent car for bracket racing; other guys would rather run the quickest qualifying time or the fastest speed than win a race. I know drivers who just want to beat their buddy, and racers who are willing to chase points all season long to win a championship. The reasons for racing are as diverse as individual personalities, so one plan definitely doesn’t fit all.

This is the voice of experience speaking. The cost of competing in Pro Stock certainly sneaked up on me. We ran a very lean operation at Reher-Morrison, but at the end of the day, the costs and benefits of racing – financial, physical and psychological – were simply out of balance for our team.

Planning can help racers avoid common pitfalls. For example, it’s always cheaper to overbuild a race car than to upgrade one. Think about your long-term goals before making the decision to buy or build a car that may not meet your future needs. A chassis with 35-spline rear axles and a stock Powerglide transmission case may be perfectly suited to Super Comp today, but if you have ambitions to race in a faster class like Top Sportsman in the future, then you’ll need more serious hardware. It’s better to start out with a 40-spline rearend, a big-yoke driveshaft and an aftermarket transmission than to retrofit them later at a greater total cost.

The stresses and strains on engines also increase in proportion to their output. The physical dimensions of our small-block and big-block engines were determined decades ago by the auto manufacturers. They were designed for passenger cars and light-duty trucks that had relatively mild duty cycles. We’re still working inside the same boxes, even though the loads have increased exponentially. We’re making more than 1300 horsepower with engines that were originally designed to produce perhaps 400 peak horsepower for short intervals. Thanks to advances in metallurgy and engineering, today’s production-based race engines are remarkably reliable, given that we’re still using the same bearing sizes and crankshaft journals that were designed decades ago.

Several of my customers still race 555-cubic-inch/900-horsepower big-blocks that we built 10 years ago. They’ve made hundreds of runs – perhaps thousands. Except for occasional overhauls every few years, these racers haven’t spent a dime on their engines after the initial purchase. And unless something totally unforeseen happens or they decide they want to go faster, their engine budget is virtually zero.

Take that same big-block package and pump it up to 1300 horsepower (or more with nitrous) and the picture changes. The loads on the internal engine components have gone up, and consequently they are not going to last as long. A set of rods isn’t going to last a decade, the pistons aren’t going to survive season after season, and the valvetrain components have to be inspected and replaced periodically. The fact is that we are asking these parts to do a lot more, so there has to be money in the plan to keep up with engine maintenance. The consequences of running a powerful engine with weak valve springs or worn-out lifters can be catastrophic  — and enormously expensive.

The cost and commitment increase with each step up the performance ladder. If you can’t foresee achieving your objectives with the time and money you’re willing to commit, then it may be a better plan to run a little slower and make more runs and races.

On the other hand, don’t be a total pessimist when planning a racing program. If you try to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong, you’d be scared to leave the garage. That’s not realistic. Chances are good that the wheels won’t fall off the trailer, the truck engine won’t blow up, and the race car won’t be hit by an asteroid – at least not on the same weekend. But it is reasonable to expect that tires will have to be replaced regularly, filters changed frequently, converters rebuilt occasionally, and valve springs checked religiously.

Anyone who has built a shop or remodeled a bathroom knows the contractor’s rule of thumb: Add 20 percent to the estimated cost to cover unexpected expenses. A similar rule applies to drag racing. If you plan ahead and evaluate your goals realistically, then racing can be a very enjoyable pastime – and that’s the whole idea.