Opening a laptop and plugging it into a vehicle’s OBD-II port has become commonplace in many performance applications these days. A surge in EFI programming has led to some enthusiasts loosely using the term ‘tuner,’ which has become synonymous with someone who modifies the software of a factory (or aftermarket) EFI system. While this is merely a half-truth, the mathematics and real-world application involved in crafting a competent tuner are lost in translation somewhere.
The School of Automotive Machinist’s (SAM Tech) newest program in motorsports EFI tuning includes some of the most comprehensive courses in the country; opening the door for both novice and intermediate automotive enthusiasts to be immersed in a hands-on, in-depth program that covers the topic as a whole. The program stretches an entire semester (roughly six months) and touches on all of the possible roadblocks that come along with modifying any standalone or factory ECU.
With SAM’s high-performance automotive roots, it’s only natural that this curriculum is geared towards the pursuit of drawing as much horsepower out as possible, while still retaining reliability in the engine. But just like everything else in this world, you must learn to walk before you can run. The first portion of this program starts in a classroom setting, where students gain a comprehensive mathematical understanding of these powerful computers and how to take full advantage of the entire range of tools at a tuner’s disposal.
“For the initial portion of the program, we go over general theory, engine operation, spark advance, what fuel injection consists of, and what different types of fuel injection there are,” explained Alex Peitz, one of SAM Tech’s highly skilled instructors. “We then go into topics like what multi-port, spider-port, and direct injection are. Another point we hit on is the history of fuel injection, and how mechanical injection transformed into electronic injection. We also cover subjects like the differences between petroleum stoichiometric scales and lambda, as well as how the stoichiometric air/fuel ratio is constantly changing based on fuel additives and the ethanol rating. All of these classroom components of the curriculum go hand-in-hand with the tuning side of the program.”
After learning the mechanics of injectors and the chemistry of the fuel they deliver, students are presented with their own personal version of the HP Tuners ECU calibration software. They then have the option to explore on their own vehicle if they choose, or using the extensive range of vehicles that are tuned at the facility under the guidance of Peitz. Some of the vehicles we spotted during our visit included a brand new Dodge Hellcat and a 5th-gen Camaro.
Another portion of this SAM program is the tuning of standalone computers, which is lead by instructor Chris Bennett. This course dives into the highly versatile abilities that these aftermarket systems provide. Class attendees are given the opportunity to tune competitive racing engines (like SAM’s shop COPO Camaro) on the engine and chassis dynamometers at this facility, as well as tuning at the track.
“When it comes to the standalone portion of the semester, I want our students to understand when it’s necessary to run something like a Holley EFI Dominator, and what kind of benefits are available when making the jump from an OEM computer,” Bennett explained. “These kind of systems allow for custom inputs and outputs, so you’re not locked into what the factory engineers determined the vehicle needed and was available to them at the time; they can create advanced tables based on any parameter. The Holley system that we use has a very simplistic interface, which allows me to turn a lot of those easy functions off. It forces them to kind-of tune it old school, I guess. I turn the spark timing off, turn the learn function off, amongst other things like that, so they’re forced to learn to do that.”
“With other standalone stuff, like Motec, there’s no real starting point,” states Bennett. “You usually have to go in and build each of these maps from scratch; that’s how in-depth you get when building a standalone tune. With Holley for example, I’ve tuned a bunch of 600 Hp V8s and I know exactly what they need. Fuel flow at idle and fuel flow at wide open throttle, it’s the same principles you would apply on carbureted engines and what you would need on jet engines as well.”
“We use this course to teach those principles, and it really doesn’t matter what system the student is using; you just have to understand how the computer calculates pulse width,” continues Bennett. “Using a Holley EFI system, you input pounds-per-hour; but with other systems like AEM‘s Infinity, you use a volumetric efficiency (VE) value. In other systems like Tuner Pro (which was used on the COPO Camaro when they first came out), they use an actual pulse width value to control the injector opening time, which is manually entered into the software.”
We continued to discuss the in’s and out’s of standalone tuning with Bennett, and talked about all of the intricacies that are covered throughout this program. He went on to describe how a tuner identifies how much fuel an engine will require at idle, when transitioning from idle to cruise, and when going from idle to wide open throttle. He also discussed how the pioneers of the EFI world learned on simplistic engines, like Shane Tecklenburg, aka Shane T (one of the most recognized Motec tuners out there), who started with small-block Chevy’s.
“It’s all math and physics, so we teach these disciplines because it’s a big part of how we calculate things like volumetric efficiency or mass air flow scaling,” states Bennett. “When you’re running a 58 psi differential fuel pressure instead of the standard 43.5 psi differential pressure, that will determine what size injector you can get away with and at what duty cycle. So instead of changing injectors, maybe change your base fuel pressure to add some buffer room.”
“We try to teach basic principles that can be applied to pretty much any platform; whether it’s using a Motec, Megasquirt, Holley, or even the factory ECM. Which is why I like to teach factory ECM tuning first,” Bennett continues. “It can actually be a little more difficult at times. So when they tune a Holley, Megasquirt, or whatever it may be, they will have a better understanding of what a completed map looks like, what they do, and exactly what needs to be changed.”
“You could throw whatever timing you want in it, but when using the factory ECM, you already have something designed by the factory engineers to start with. We try to prepare our students so that when they recalibrate an aftermarket unit they already have an idea of how the map should look, and how it should run. That way they can build a solid basemap using what they’ve seen in the past. That’s exactly what I would do.”
We also caught up with one of the programs soon to be alumni, Mike Cogburn, during our visit. This seasoned SAM Tech student recently went through the machining side of the curriculum, making him the ideal candidate to talk to about his experiences at SAM Tech.
“I think that first having a strong understanding of the way an engine operates is very important, then you can apply that knowledge to HP Tuners while navigating through their software,” Cogburn shared with us. “The biggest feat, in my opinion, is learning all of the intricacies of the program. Once you learn adjustment techniques and what tables affect what calibrations, it’s pretty much the same when using any other software. Whether that is going from HP to SCT, DiabloSport or something like that, it’s even simpler if you’re going to an AEM or Holley something like that.”
“I haven’t worked with any other standalone EFI units, but we use Holley a lot here,” states Cogburn. “As well as a couple of modular engines that I have built and tuned on the dyno. We use Holley’s system because the tables are easy to build and the software is very user-friendly.”
SAM Tech has really hit a homerun with its new motorsports EFI tuning program, and have opened the door to a new area of automotive education. As of writing this article, tuition for the EFI tuning program is $14,833.00, including lab fees. For the most up to date tuition costs and financial aid information, be sure to check out SAM Tech’s website.
There is no doubt in our mind that SAM Tech is one of the country’s top choices for young gearheads with aspirations for anything high-performance, even offering job placement assistance to its alumni. Check out SAM Tech’s complete lineup of courses online and become immersed in the octane-fueled world of EFI tuning and automotive machining.