Before the Southern 500, David...
Before the Southern 500, David Pearson solicited Smokey Yunick's opinion on the health of his engine. Smokey's reply was "This one ain't gonna make it." Pearson was the race's first retiree, after 17 laps. The cause, a blown engine. Photo by David Chobat
(Editor's Note: Last month we promised you some insight from Circle Track's most legendary contributor, Smokey Yunick. So this month we went into Smokey's vault again and cracked open some advice for getting started building your first motor)
Did you ever wonder how long articles like this are written in advance of your reading them? This is being written in late September (1982) on a flight from Buffalo, NY to Daytona Beach, Fla.-all high-class stuff written above 35,000 feet.
This is gonna be addressed to the new racer. You aces who won last Saturday or Sunday can turn your 20/20 hindsight and reminisce, if what I have to say parallels what you went through. Everybody dreams of jumping in his first racecar and winning his first time out. In real life, it ain't that way. As I can clearly see with my 20/20 hindsight, a much better approach is to sneak up on that first win. In your first race you lack experience, regardless of your ability and courage. A racecar capable of winning, in terms of handling and power, can actually hurt you if you don't drive it right. Most good racecars handle well only when driven to their limits. Let's face it, as a beginner, you can't. So I'd say the best plan is to accept that it's gonna take a while; aim for a car that handles, has reliability, and isn't too powerful for your skill and experience.
You get experience from miles and miles of racing. The start, middle, and end of a race all need special skills, and you can't learn to dogfight the last two laps if you blew or wrecked in the middle. Your ego will get along a lot better, too, if you finish Seventh to Tenth rather than going out in the middle of the race while running Second, because they only pay for where you were running at the end. Progress is quickest if the car and driver come along together, each complementing the other.
The block is the foundation...
The block is the foundation to any good motor. Photo by Jeff Huneycutt
Don't wander off battling windmills on a crusade to be different. There's plenty of time for that after you hit Broadway in a couple of years. Run the engine and car configuration with the best reliability record as of now. For example, if you're a Ford or Chrysler lover, but Chevys are cleaning house week after week, go Chevy. Your route to success, fame, and fortune is shortest when you finish-slowly finishing higher and higher. This gets you good rides and good sponsors. If you get lucky and get into a good car too early and stuff it into the wall, you'll find you just took a giant step backward. Most newcomers don't get the good rides. They have to buy or build their own cars and do their own engine work. This is where I think I can help, especially with engine-building advice. By and large, most new racers over-every-thing; over-cam, too much compression, too big a carb or injector, turn the engine too tight, too much ignition timing, too much oil and water temperature, parts too light, and play fuel wizards. They jump at every speed secret rumor, play monkey-see-monkey-do, and spend fortunes going nowhere.
There are a tremendous number of considerations when building an engine to achieve the result of power, reliability, response, and proper matching to the application and track. I could just start out talking about each aspect of a racing engine, but that could fill an entire magazine. Instead, I'm just gonna touch on a bunch of different areas in hopes of stimulating your interest and curiosity. Let's take it from the top.
What about new versus used blocks: How long will a block really live? Where can it be lightened? Which is more important, high tin or high nickel content? Are four-bolt caps really necessary in all forms of racing? And so on and so on. Get the picture? You can dig into almost any component or part of an engine with similar questions.
I favor aluminum over cast iron every time. There are ways to stop heat loss, improve head-to-block sealing, prevent cracking, improve cooling, and add strength.
A critical component to any...
A critical component to any engine is the valvetrain, if you get it wrong, you don't get to finish. Photo by Jeff Huneycutt
Forgings, provided they're good forgings, are the best, but billets and even some castings can offer acceptable alternatives, depending on the application. When it comes to 180 degree cranks for V-8's, forget it.
Here again, a good forging is best, but almost everybody uses Carrillo or Crower steel rods to get the sizing they want. As for aluminum and titanium rods, forget it until tomorrow. They work, but expert techniques are needed. They're not for the beginner.
Lots of considerations here, but none is more important than reliability. Dome shape, skirt shape, ring placement, compression ratio-you can screw up pretty badly in this area unless you get some good advice.
Tried-and-true combinations are the best bet here. Don't try to run extra-tight end gaps or super-low-tension stuff like the drag racers. Sealing the combustion pressure and keeping oil out of the combustion chamber are the first goals for reliability. Remember, the idea is first to finish, then to finish first.
Same story, go for reliability. You gotta keep from spinning 'em, and you gotta get the clearances right.
More guys mess up here than you'd believe, and it ain't a good place to make mistakes. Here's where a lot of engines go bye-bye in a big hurry. Dry-sump systems are best, but wet-sumps can be made to work too. The only problem with a wet-sump is that it's like having a live rattlesnake in the car with you-the better the car handles, the more likely the snake will strike. The pickup has to be done correctly and you have to keep 10 psi oil pressure for every 1,000 rpm. For example, at 7,000 rpm, you need 70 psi hot oil pressure under racing conditions. And if the oil temp is getting up to 280 degrees or hotter, you're in real serious trouble. Get ready for another snake bite.
All I can say here is, if you're trying to bore, hone, or fit rings without 'em, you're in trouble before you even bolt the engine together. Honing is another controversial subject, but let's just say you can't get a cylinder wall too smooth, provided you don't burnish it.
Float 'em if you legally can, and don't bush stock rods. Just get the pin clearance right and make sure they get oil.
The best parts in the world...
The best parts in the world won't cut it if they aren't put together correctly. Courtesy of Jeff's Performance
Again, this is no place for a beginner. If you want, buy from an expert and then try to copy the expert; but you're gonna need a flow bench to know where you stand. Who knows, you might find a better way. There's always room for a new expert.
Most everybody agrees that studs are better, but very few really know why. Studs don't pull a head or a main cap down any tighter, so what's the big deal? A lot, once you understand it. And then there's the business of getting the bolt bosses perpendicular to the bolt centerlines. Of course, you've already been doing that, right, and you understand what happens if you don't?
Rocker arm geometry and stability at high speed could be the subject of a complete book. Shaft-mounted versus stud-mounted, materials, ratios, roller tips, oiling and on and on. It's another area where if you get it wrong, you don't get to finish.
One word, reliability, says it all here. At 7,500 rpm, each valve opens and closes more than 60 times a second. In a 3 1/2 hour race, that means each valve and spring has to cycle over three-quarters of a million times, and it has to do it right every single time or else you've got big trouble.
The best parts in the world won't cut it if they aren't put together correctly. Trial fits, prelubing, gasket sealing, torquing; it's all important.
Smokey says get in good physical...
Smokey says get in good physical shape, so ditch the burgers. Photo by Kevin Thorne
The fuel-delivery system, cooling system, ignition system, induction system, exhaust system-they all have to work correctly for the duration of the race, and they all need to complement the total package and application. Again, there are tricks to keeping it all together, tricks the old-timers have learned the hard way.
I know it sounds like I'm wandering all over the place. However, I'd like to see what you could do sitting next to the most beautiful middle-aged woman (24) you ever saw. Then she finds out you're a racer and she just loves racing. She got her final divorce papers a week ago and is going to Daytona Beach to live. What's more, she hopes she can find someone to help her get acquainted with the town. Oh God!
Where was I? Okay, by now you should realize that getting started in racing confronts everybody with a lot of tough problems. The best advice I can give is to stay conservative. After all, you might luck into First by having a car that people can run in Third or Fourth place, but you'll never win if you blow 30 laps from the finish.
In tuning for power or handling, only make one change at a time to prevent getting lost. Keep a record of all changes and setup combinations. Then, if you do get lost, you can always go back to the last combination that worked.
Ask questions, but be careful who you ask. Free advice from other racers is usually worth what you pay for it. Manufacturers will give you good advice because they want you to achieve success with their products.
I know I've rambled around a lot, and I've probably missed a few important areas, especially with the distraction I've been working with on this flight. So let me try to sum it up for you with a simple plan.
1. Work up a realistic budget. Figure chassis and engine expenses, travel, fuel, tires, and time. Get to the track on time. Don't waste time and money on cosmetics. Do the engine and chassis first. Take the car in primer if you have to, but don't short safety, handling, or engine.
2. Establish priorities. Go for a finish first, and speed second.
For all his accomplishments,...
For all his accomplishments, Richard Petty has made his share of mistakes. Courtesy of NASCAR
3. Don't overbook yourself or the car, and don't stay in a class you can already handle. Work up; that's the best way to learn. Of course, if you're a local yokel, don't try to take on the New York Yankees, either. Although the ladies won't like this, I have to tell you that my observations have been that a family just makes it harder. You might as well sell your bed too, because you won't have time to use it. Most good racers wind up being married to racing and not much else. Get yourself in good physical and mental condition. The hot dogs always seem to be like spring steel.
4. Keep your mouth shut and listen. The only time you should talk is to ask questions or for advice. Loud-mouth braggers and bellyachers do it the hard way.
Here is a partial list of people I've seen get in trouble not doing some, or all of the things I've just mentioned: Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt, Fireball Roberts, Bobby Unser, Curtis Turner, Danny Ongais, Bobby Allison, Paul Goldsmith, Mickey Thompson, Junior Johnson, Bruce McLaren, Gordon Johncock, Cale Yarborough, Lloyd Ruby, Joe Leonard, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Richard Petty, and Smokey Yunick, in spades!
Those who are still alive are good enough men that if you have the courage to ask them, they will answer your questions. They know what it's like to start out. So, if you're having troubles, all of the above could make your problems seem like nothing if you knew theirs. Believe me, there is no easy way. Everyone listed above did it the hard way.
And remember, like it or not, racing is no longer a sport. It's a business. Plan well. We have no union or retirement fund, and there sure as hell is no salary. It's the only business I know where we pay for the right to work free.