The Thumbprint: Planning An Engine Build For Success

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Building on the content covered in last month’s Thumbprint, the subject of planning an engine build came to mind when I was brainstorming ideas for this month’s installment.

An engine build – whether it’s your first time around or the hundredth engine you’ve put together – must have a plan to ensure success. Putting together a bunch of ideas in your head is great, but laying them out on paper helps to clarify the end goal of a build, whether it’s to put together a hot performer for your street machine or a heads-up engine capable of breaking records and taking names in the process.

The End Goal

Building a foundation that can support your intended power level is critical to ensure your happiness with the build.

Building a foundation that can support your intended power level is critical to ensure your happiness with the build. Each component – the crankshaft, block, connecting rods, and pistons – should be selected with room to grow in mind.

The absolute most important thing you can do during this process is to have an end goal. Are you looking for 400 horsepower? 500? 2,000? A solid foundation is required to achieve each of these numbers, and the devil is in the parts selection process.

If the goal is to build a solid street performer with around 400 horsepower, the chances of using many OEM parts in your build increases exponentially. Many stock parts have been used over the years to achieve this level of performance, especially with a big-block combination of choice, whether it be a Chevrolet, Ford, or Mopar powerplant.

The advent of late-model performance engines like the Ford Coyote 5.0L, the late-model HEMI platform, and the LS have shown that 400, 500, and even 600 horsepower is a reachable goal – and can be daily-driven in many instances, depending on what you’re willing to tolerate in the form of idle choppiness and less-than-stellar fuel mileage.

Using a stock engine block in these applications can be perfectly fine, but keep in mind that as you increase horsepower, components may not hold up to the abuse without extra modifications. Using older pushrod blocks from each of the domestic manufacturers is also a possibility, but select smart – make sure to use a block that’s shown its capabilities over the years. Most importantly, do your research and make sure you’re picking the correct parts for the power level you seek to achieve.

Going Up The Ladder

As you progress up the line in terms of performance, it will likely be necessary to upgrade some or all of the OE-style components, most importantly the connecting rods and pistons, and potentially the crankshaft as well. Factory connecting rods, cast or hypereutectic pistons, and crankshafts will tolerate a mild level of abuse, but not forced induction or nitrous oxide injection with any level of reliability.

Here is where the aftermarket comes into the picture. The price of forged H-beam connecting rods and forged pistons have become affordable to most, and since the foundation can never be ‘too strong’, upgrading to these items is nearly always a good idea. The same goes for forged crankshafts; they are available from a variety of manufacturers for reasonable prices.

Forged crankshafts and billet aluminum connecting rods go hand in hand with monster power. These items are required not only for strength but also weight reduction to achieve max performance.

For those of you looking to build monster power, these items should be at the top of your shopping list. The same goes for upgraded engine blocks, as nobody wants to be chasing their internals down the racetrack should the block fail. No, that factory LS block is NOT the ideal choice for 1,000 horsepower, despite what you’ve read on your favorite internet forum.

Induction Is Important

Selecting the proper cylinder head and intake manifold for your end goal is also critical. No longer do enthusiasts have to rely on modified factory cylinder head castings; the impressive number of offerings form any number of aftermarket companies, like Edelbrock, Racing Head Service, Trick Flow, and many others assure that the end goal in many cases is often as simple as doing your research, then digging under the couch cushions for the cash to purchase them.

Top-shelf induction components for top-shelf builds come at a price, and there’s a reason for that; the development and research time required to build parts that compete at the highest levels of racing is unending and incredibly expensive.

Choosing the correct induction components is critical - too big and your engine will be a dog, too small and it won't perform up to its potential. Oh, and the camshaft profile is incredibly important as well. Work with the experts - they are the experts for a reason.

We had a discussion with Dick Maskin from Dart at the recent PRI show, where he explained that the research cost required when his company was involved with NHRA Pro Stock racing was in the millions of dollars – not only in the creation of parts to increase performance, but also in the parts that didn’t work for one reason or another. Ideas were tried, parts were scrapped, and expenses rolled up seemingly by the minute.

Don’t discount the requirement for valvetrain components that can handle your intended level of abuse. If you’re shooting for a turbocharged 1,300 horsepower engine, then don’t expect those stud-mount rocker arms you picked up at the local swap meet to last for any length of time in that type of environment.

Plan, Plan, Plan – And Select A Builder With Experience

Unless you plan to machine and assemble your own engine, you’re going to have to rely on a machinist with the capabilities to satisfy your requirements. It’s been said before, but it can’t be stressed enough – working with a builder who understands your goals and is willing to do whatever it takes to help you achieve them is invaluable. Use their expertise to help direct you toward the end goal. Have realistic goals for what you can afford to spend – projects aren’t much fun when you can’t afford to finish the car.


Expert engine builders learned their craft through years of trial and error, experimenting with concepts and products that often didn’t work as advertised, but the knowledge gained through those tough times are what makes them the experts today.

Laying your goals out on paper, and noting each component you plan to use – and why – will be helpful when it’s time to reflect on the choices made. Don’t just jump to a particular combination because of cost, because that’s often a recipe for failure. As the old adage goes, going fast costs money – how fast do you want to go?

Higher end engine builds – we’ll call those north of 600 horsepower for purposes of this article – will be best served by working with the experts to ensure proper parts selection. Companies like COMP Cams have a tech line for a reason; don’t be afraid to use it. Unless all of the parts are selected with the same end goal in mind, chances are that there will be a component or three that will serious hurt performance by virtue of not being the correct part for the application.

Many times, we’ve worked with an engine builder on a particular build that hasn’t performed up to expectations, and they’ve said “We’re using these parts because this is what the customer brought in.” While in lower-performance applications, that concept might be OK, if you’re looking for maximum performance, it can often be a recipe for disaster – both on the track, and to your racing aspirations.

Don’t Discount The Tuner

Today's engine management systems offer an impressive level of engine parameter control. Select your tuner based on real-world performance with combinations like your own.

Today’s engine management systems offer an impressive level of engine parameter control. Select your tuner based on real-world performance with combinations like your own.

Building an engine can be a rewarding experience if it performs up to your expectations, but if it doesn’t, there’s nobody who will be more unhappy about it than you will.

The person tuning the engine will have their work cut out for them, and if they are involved in the project from the very beginning, the chances of success are much greater. If that person is you, educate yourself.

Ask questions. Attend tuning seminars. Spend the money, time, and effort to learn what your new combination will require in terms of tuning, and your experience is likely to be much more satisfactory at the end of your build.

As performance capabilities have dramatically increased over the last few decades, the tuner’s responsibilities have increased in kind, to where they are managing every aspect of the car’s ultimate performance – and that can only come when there’s a complete understanding of the parts used in the build.

In Conclusion

As discussed, having a performance goal on paper will make your engine build much more enjoyable. Enlist an expert (or ten experts), pay attention to what other people in your performance range are doing, and think outside the box – if you can afford to do so. There are many blueprints for success with each of the varied engine combinations out there today; with some planning, and deep enough pockets, you can achieve the level of performance you desire.

About the author

Jason Reiss

Jason draws on over 15 years of experience in the automotive publishing industry, and collaborates with many of the industry's movers and shakers to create compelling technical articles and high-quality race coverage.
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