Tech Talk #94 – Are You Connected?


By David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“The connections that were formed 30 or 40 years ago still play a role in my daily life as a professional engine builder.”

The state of the art in engine building is a moving target. A set of cylinder heads that is on the cutting edge this year can become outdated parts by the next season.

It’s the nature of racers to find ways to make their cars faster, quicker, and more reliable. Unfortunately, sometimes good parts get lost in the dust.

It was reminded of this cold, hard fact a few weeks ago when a customer delivered a box of parts for us to assemble. He didn’t scrimp, and he’d bought good quality pieces. The problem was that he’d collected his components on the installment plan, buying parts over many years as his budget allowed. What he ended up with was an outdated combination that was 100 horsepower down from what a similar engine assembled with current components would produce.

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of buying parts piecemeal and putting them on the shelf. If budget is an issue, then it’s a smarter strategy to put the money in the bank until you can afford to buy all of the parts at the same time. Then you won’t end up with pieces that have changed from state-of-the-art to vintage.

The rate of change in race engine technology is accelerating. Every year I see improvements in key areas such as materials, metallurgy, and machining. Subtle nuances in cylinder heads mean that ports move more air without sacrificing velocity. Piston rings get thinner to reduce frictional losses while improving cylinder sealing. New alloys make engine blocks stronger and better able to withstand high loads. Valvetrains become more stable at high rpm, rocker arms lighter, and springs capable of handling more lift without losing pressure.

The tidal wave of new parts for GM’s LS engine family illustrates this process. The LS series has been around since 1997, but only recently have LS engines found favor with serious racers. That’s due to the development of hardware such as big-port cylinder heads, siamesed cylinder blocks, high-rpm valvetrains, crankshafts with eight counterweights, and a host of other go-fast components. A racer who bought a set of early LS1 cylinder heads with narrow intake runners, a small-bore aluminum block, and a non-programmable engine controller in anticipation of building an LS race engine “someday” would now be sitting on a very expensive pile of obsolete parts.

So how does a racer stay current with engine technology? Some would say that the Internet has the answers – but I am not among them. Pardon me while I climb onto my favorite soapbox to proclaim that there is a better solution. It’s called getting connected with people. You know, what we used to call friendships and personal relationships before networking was invented.

When Buddy Morrison and I were a couple of bucks-down sportsman racers with a Chevy-powered Maverick, we met people who would have huge impacts on our personal and professional lives. In the Dark Ages before qualifying took place at scheduled times at NHRA national events, we’d literally spend days in the staging lanes. The staging director would pull six or eight pairs of cars from the head of the staging lane. If your car wasn’t among the chosen few, then you had to wait for the rotation to come back around to your category. Consequently we had plenty of time to talk with fellow racers, manufacturers, and fans.

The staging lanes were where I met people like Richard Maskin, who raced his “Mouse Pack” Modified Production Camaro and then went on to found Dart Machinery. I met Don Tewles, the guru at General Kinetics who gave us a cam and valvesprings that tuned up our Maverick by two-tenths of a second. I met Danny Jesel before he had the notion that shaft-mounted rocker arms might be worthwhile, and Sonny Bryant, a Stock eliminator racer who became the preeminent supplier of racing crankshafts. There were dozens more, from the late Dick Moroso and piston manufacturer Bob Brooks to kids who are now leaders in the racing industry.

I’m not trying to make an impression by dropping names, but rather to underline how connections that were formed 30 or 40 years ago still play a role in my daily life as a professional engine builder.

In short, I feel connected. If I need something unique for a project, I know who to call. And it’s a two-way street – we help manufacturers to develop parts by providing input, feedback, and real-world results.

Reher-Morrison Racing Engines certainly isn’t the only engine shop with this kind of relationship. As a reader of National Dragster, you already know which shops are plugged into what’s really going on. I respect our competition – heck, I used to race against many of them back in the day. We’re still competing today, although in a different way.

So what can a connected engine builder give a racer that the Internet cannot? In one word: knowledge. Whether I am looking for avionics for my Cessna or a new refrigerator for our kitchen, I know there are people who know more about these subjects than I do. They’re the people I look to for advice. I confess that I’ve been seduced in the past by a flashy promotion or a glitzy website. The uncomfortable truth is that perception has become reality for many people in the 21st century, and that’s often to their detriment.

If you’re looking for a set of off-the-shelf cam bearings or header gaskets, then the Internet can be your friend. But if you are looking for the right cylinder heads or custom pistons for a serious competition engine, my advice is to talk with an engine builder who is connected.