New race engines are like newborn babies -- you are excited to bring them both home for the first time, they both cost a lot more than you expect, and both require special care and feeding at first to make sure they live a long and healthy life. The difference is when your race engine spits up something, it probably means your night of racing is done and you have a big repair bill ahead.
But by taking a few extra precautions with a new race engine, you can help ensure many nights of great racing, and hopefully more than a few trips to Victory Lane. Our baby analogy pretty much runs out at this point, but hey, aren’t you glad we didn’t go for the low-hanging fruit and make a dirty diaper joke?
So whether you have a new motor that has never been broken in on the dyno, like a crate engine or one you have built yourself, or if you are installing a double-throwdown beast that has seen several hours of tuning on a dyno by your engine builder, these steps should be taken whenever you install a new engine in the race car for the first time.
If the oil galleries aren’t full of oil, your engine can suffer severe damage in the second or two it takes the oil pump to push oil through the galleries and to all the places it needs to be in your engine. The process of priming the engine’s oil galleries before firing it up is fairly simple. For a wet sump motor, you must pull the distributor and spin the oil pump input shaft either by hand or with a drill. For a dry sump motor with an external pump the process is simpler, all you have to do is remove the oil pump drive belt and spin up the pump with a fitting on a drill.
Engaging the internal oil pump on a wet sump engine does require a special tool. Normally these are available for less than $30 at your local speed shop, or you can make your own by cannibalizing an old distributor. Either way, make sure to spin the pump until you have oil pressure throughout the engine. Many racers simply spin the pump until they see a change in the oil pressure gauge and then keep going and extra minute or so just for safekeeping, but you can also pull one of the valve covers and spin the pump until you see oil coming up through the rocker arms.
Whenever you prime a wet sump engine, that means you have to pull the distributor so that you can access the oil pump
If you have just brought home your engine from dyno testing, priming the motor again may not be necessary. But if your engine has not been on the dyno, spending a little time priming the oil system is vital. You should also consider priming the oil galleries if the engine has been sitting dormant through the off-season.
Whenever you prime a wet sump engine, that means you have to pull the distributor so that you can access the oil pump. Reinstalling the distributor and getting the timing set correctly within a few degrees without the luxury of a timing light is an important skill. You need the engine to crank quickly because oil pumps don’t begin working well until the engine is at idle rpm. Several minutes spent spinning the engine over with the starter while you try to figure out what is going wrong can lead to both damaged bearings and scuffed cylinder walls. Not only will having the engine timing set correctly help your expensive motor fire up and run smoothly right away, it is also critical to avoid having the timing set so advanced that the engine can possibly go into detonation before you have an opportunity to verify you have the correct timing with the help of a timing light.
Thankfully, if you pay attention you can set the engine timing within a couple of degrees accuracy before the engine is ever fired. The first step is to verify the number one cylinder is on the compression stroke. You can do this by pulling the spark plug and holding your finger over the whole. Spin the engine over with a wrench (you may need to have someone help you) until you feel air pressure pushing against your finger. Now you know that cylinder is on the compression stroke. Now, using the timing pointer and the scale on your harmonic damper, set the engine on your timing mark. For most Chevrolet race engines with stock cylinder heads, this is around 36 to 39 degrees before top dead center.
With the engine’s crank in the right position, install the distributor with the cap off so that you can see the rotor. Make sure the rotor is pointed toward the No. 1 cylinder. If you are using a mechanical advance, open up the advance by hand when setting the rotor. If you don’t do this, the events will kick in when the engine is revved up and set the timing so advanced that detonation becomes likely. Now when you install the distributor cap, mark the terminal directly over the point of the rotor so that you won’t lose track of which one is firing. When hooking up your spark plug wires, the terminal that you have marked should go to the spark plug in the number one cylinder.