Tech Talk #71 – Racing Through Hard Times

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“Next year, when the weather turns warm and the days grow longer, racers will still be racing, and fans will still be watching them.”

Along with death and taxes, the third inevitability in our lives is change. Certainly the world has been going through some major changes in the last few months, and most were not for the better. But I’m not going to join the drumbeat of depressing news – there’s already a surplus of doom and gloom on television and the Internet. The fact is that racers are going to find ways to race in good times and in bad times.

Last summer, the commentators were convinced that $5 per gallon gas would be a fact of life. Yesterday I filled up for $1.88 a gallon. Almost overnight, the cost of fuel dropped off the media’s radar screen, to be replaced by economic meltdown. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m sure there will be something else to fill the newscasts and web sites.

I’m certainly not minimizing the harsh reality that confronts people whose lives have been affected by hard times. Clearly we have entered a new economic era that will change our world as profoundly as anything in recent history.

But barring a total collapse of the world economy, I’m convinced that racers will continue to race. For professionals, it’s their livelihood. For sportsmen, it’s their passion. People will continue to do what they enjoy with their friends, whether it’s riding motorcycles, bass fishing, golfing, or drag racing. If that means cutting back on expenses, attending fewer events, or putting a few more runs on a set of tires, racers will find a way.

All of the pundits say that consumer spending is the key to economic recovery, so perhaps racing qualifies as a patriotic act. The key is to spend money wisely. For example, it’s a bad idea to use cheap gas in a high-compression racing engine. Saving a few dollars on fuel will be wiped out the first time the engine detonates. Pistons are more expensive than gasoline.

Buying any racing component strictly on price is invariably a bad decision. The downside risk of a valve spring, lifter, pushrod, or connecting rod failure is too great to justify saving money with marginal parts. I wouldn’t want to fly in an airplane that’s built with the cheapest parts on the market, and I wouldn’t advise building an engine with bargain basement components.

Unfortunately it can be difficult for an individual racer to determine the quality of parts. Two brands of pushrods may look identical and have similar specifications, yet one can be bulletproof and the other unreliable. That’s why it’s essential to talk with an experienced engine builder before making a decision on which parts to purchase.

When money is tight, it’s also important to buy the right part the first time. Talk with knowledgeable people to find out which components will work with your combination before you place the order. Be realistic about your ambitions, and buy the parts that are right for the engine you’re racing now, not the motor you plan to build somewhere down the road.

As a professional engine builder, I’d like to see every racer with a dozen motors. The reality is that you can only race one engine at a time. For a racer competing in an all-out class, that means having the fastest, most powerful engine in the car. For a competitor in an indexed or break-out eliminator, it means using the most reliable and most consistent powerplant. Regardless of the category or type of racing, it’s better to have one great engine than three average motors.

In tough times, saving money is the equivalent of earning money. In fact, it’s even better because you don’t pay taxes on money you haven’t spent. Regular readers of this column know that I’m a strong advocate of preventive maintenance for motors as a way to save money in the long run. It’s a lot more cost-effective to pull the valve covers regularly and check for broken springs than to suffer a dropped valve that destroys an engine.

Regular oil changes can head off a big repair bill by taking metal particles that scuff off valve springs, retainers, and lifters out of circulation. This trash accelerates wear throughout the engine, from piston skirts to cylinder walls. Don’t think that using synthetic oil will allow you to extend the intervals between oil changes. That’s OK for a street engine, but in a racing motor the contaminants must be flushed out of the lubrication system frequently. Change the filter at the same time as the oil, and cut the canister open to look for warning signs of metal flakes from distressed bearings, lifters, distributor gears and other components. Oil changes are much cheaper in the long run than an engine rebuild.

Much of the money that’s spent in racing is discretionary. By that I mean that it doesn’t directly affect the performance of the race car. A well equipped transporter is certainly a convenience, but an 18-wheeler never won a race. My partners and I won seven Pro Stock championships hauling our car to the track with a pickup truck and a Chaparral trailer. I realize that that was a long time ago, but if I had to choose between racing cheap and not racing at all, I’d choose cheap every time.

Travel costs are one of the biggest items on a racing budget, and one of the easiest places to conserve. Racing locally eliminates the hassle and expense of long-distance travel. Texas Raceway in Kennedale, Texas, is just a few miles from my home. Whenever I go to the track on a Wednesday night, I see people having fun. It may be a group of friends towing a ’68 Camaro on a flat-bed trailer. Maybe it’s a high school kid learning how to work the Christmas tree in his daily driver, or a Super Comp racer testing a new transbrake. The fact is that these racers support the machine shops, parts stores, and chassis builders in our area. They make the telephones ring at the big mail order retailers, and they buy tickets when a national event comes to town. It’s a scene that’s repeated all across America.

Perhaps I’m a perennial optimist, but I believe that next year, when the weather turns warm and the days grow longer, racers will still be racing, and fans will still be watching them. They’ll be looking forward to the first day at Pomona, the first round in Gainesville, or opening day at their local drag strip. After all, change is inevitable, and what is today is not what will be tomorrow.