Tech Talk #72 – The Price of Knowledge

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”

Anyone who buys a “Rolex” watch on the Internet for 25 bucks has a pretty good idea that it’s not the genuine article. Producing and selling counterfeit products is a lucrative global business, and it’s not just high-end luxury goods like watches and leather goods that are knocked off. There are black markets for everything from blue jeans to perfume. In the traditional auto parts business, name-brand oil filters, spark plugs, and brake pads have been counterfeited by unscrupulous operators who sell low-quality parts in familiar looking boxes.

It’s a disturbing trend when knock-off parts begin to show up on racing engines. Like many engine builders, I’ve been approached by people who are selling parts that are represented to be as “just the same as” or “as good as” the products made by reputable companies, but offered at much lower prices. It’s not hard to see that they are often facsimiles of familiar products from established manufacturers.

Current technology makes it relatively easy to reverse engineer a racing component. A cylinder head or intake manifold can be digitized on a coordinate-measuring machine (CMM) and then cloned. The duplicate may be dimensionally identical to the original – but that doesn’t mean that it’s the equal of the original part.

A significant portion of the cost of a product is the manufacturer’s investment in research and development, backed by hard-earned experience. I think of that as the price of knowledge. In the racing industry, companies like Dart, Edelbrock, Brodix and other established brands have decades of experience in casting and machining. More importantly, they know how a racing part needs to be built. In contrast, a copycat probably doesn’t know about the interference fit that is needed to prevent the valve seats from falling out, the internal reinforcements that are necessary to keep the rocker stud bosses from cracking, or the shape of a valve bowl that maximizes airflow. An offshore foundry that’s making cylinder heads one day and toaster ovens the next doesn’t have this specialized knowledge that can only be gained through years of hands-on experience.

There are certainly many high-quality parts made overseas, and there are many reputable manufacturers of racing parts that import products. It’s a fact of economic life that America has lost much of its manufacturing base to “low-cost” nations. However, there are significant differences between a legitimate manufacturer that sources parts from overseas suppliers and a copycat. A conscientious manufacturer adds value by bringing experience and expertise to the design, insisting on metallurgical analysis of the raw materials, and inspecting the finished parts before delivery. It’s doubtful that an inexpensive imitation undergoes the same level of scrutiny.

Unfortunately some people judge a product by its price and its appearance rather than by its quality and its functionality. It’s difficult for a novice racer to see the important differences between parts when there is a price difference of several hundred dollars. Without testing the component on a dyno and running it on the race track, the clone might seem to be a bargain. But the true cost of a racing component isn’t its purchase price – it’s the total cost of ownership over the long haul. If a bargain cylinder head cracks or fails, that’s wasted money. If its airflow is inferior, the engine will never perform to its potential. If a valve guide falls out and destroys an engine, that’s a huge unexpected expense. Basing a purchase decision on price and appearance alone may be the first step on a very expensive journey.

Is it worth the risk to save a few dollars up front with a no-name part instead of investing in a quality component that will last for years? That can be a difficult decision for racers, especially in times when money is tight. In my experience, quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. The highest compliment a racer can pay to a part is that he didn’t have to think about it for the entire season. The parts we remember are usually the parts that failed.

Racers and engine builders learn from their mistakes. When racers deal with people who don’t have practical experience, those lessons are often learned at their own expense. Racing doesn’t have an agency like the Federal Aviation Administration to oversee and approve every piece that goes into a race car. That’s probably a good thing, because a bureaucratic review would stifle the incredible innovation that constantly improves performance. But it also means that every racer and engine builder has to determine whether a part is truly what it’s represented to be.

The thousands of parts that are now available have created new opportunities for race cars to run quicker and faster. At the same time, they have opened many more pitfalls that racers must avoid when selecting parts. When you buy a $25 Rolex watch, you know in your heart what you’re getting. Racers should exercise the same healthy skepticism when buying parts.