Max Effort Explored — The Differences Between Drift Vs. Drag Engines

For decades, drag racing has had a foothold on American motorsports passions. The ground-pounding power and sound of an NHRA dragster screaming down the strip is an awesome sight. For the Average Joe, the barrier for entry into drag racing is very low, and as a result, there are a lot of drag racers around. As such, there is a lot of knowledge about what makes a good drag race engine. In more recent years the tire-smoking and adept sliding of Formula DRIFT cars have begun to excite fans and inspire grassroots builders to get into the drift game. As more and more people start to build their own drift cars, the question that regularly comes up is, “will the same concepts put into a drag racing engine work for drift?” The answer, of course, is yes and no.

Some of the engineering that goes into an NHRA Top Fuel dragster engine may not have the same goals needed for a Formula DRIFT car’s engine. Sure, every racer wants more power, however, at what RPM that power and torque peak can make a difference in success within the two different styles of motorsports.

These Are Race Engines

The first thing to recognize about a drift engine or a drag race engine is that neither are street engines. The engine for your street car lives its life between 3,000 and 6,000 rpm, going to the grocery store and taking you to the job you hate. Most street car engines rarely see north of 6,000 rpm (unless, of course, they are in a rental car, which are abused daily).

By contrast, a race engine lives its life at high RPM and rarely sees street engine speeds. The engine package needs to be optimized for what it is used for. That means if you try to use a valvetrain system optimized for one environment, it will be a complete disappointment in the other realm. Short answer: there is a difference.

On average, Formula DRIFT cars in the Pro class have around 1,000 horsepower (yes, you read that correctly, 1,000 horsepower). The drivers need that power on tap to help them control the car and maintain the perfect drift during an event. How they get that massive amount of power is through a carefully combined package of engine parts.

Drift vs. Drag Differences

To understand some of the differences between drift and drag engine builds, we spoke with Billy Godbold, COMP Cams’ Valvetrain Engineering Manager. Godbold explained that a racing engine is continually pushed to its maximum ability for performance, which requires constant maintenance and refreshing. “People would be amazed at just how few cycles occur in a drag race event. Fifty thousand cycles might be considered a full life on a Sportsman drag race valvespring, where even a single pass at Bonneville might run twice that many cycles. An then a Pro Stock drag racer might expect as few as 5,000 valve spring cycles. While I do not believe many of the Formula DRIFT racers expect a NASCAR style five hours between rebuilds, I am sure almost everyone in that series would want two-plus hours before freshening the valvetrain.”

The engine cycles prior to a rebuild that a drag racing engine endures versus a drift engine varies dramatically. A Pro Stock drag race valve spring may only get 5,000 cycles before it is replaced. A drift engine will need to endure over two hours of hard running before freshening the valvetrain.

Dangers Of All-Out Competition

Godbold detailed how things can go wrong for some race engines, saying, “There is often a harsh similarity of doom between drift and some drag race engines (especially in turbocharged drag race classes). The harshest thing for a valvetrain system is sitting on an ignition cut. When you cut spark without cutting fuel, not only do you get the negative effect from the unloaded crank springing forward, you also allow a fresh fuel and air charge through the chamber and out the exhaust.

“When the ignition is brought back in subsequent cycles, you reload the crank, and also provide an ignition source for the fuel-air charge (or tiny bomb) in the exhaust header. For turbo drag racers, this explosion and pressure spike excites the exhaust turbine side of the turbo system, allowing boost to build more quickly. For drifters, the same type of explosions can excite a turbo (and the sound excites the fans and the series’ judges) to keep turbine speed up in transitions.

A Look Inside Of A Formula DRIFT Pro-Level LS

Engine: LS7 Port Work: Jon Kaase Racing Engines
Builder: Jon Kaase Valves: Titanium Comp
Total Displacement: 427 cubic inches Valvesprings: Comp dual spring
Bore x Stroke: 4.125 x 4.000 Rockers: Comp shaft mount
Block: RHS Pushrods: Comp
Crankshaft: Callies forged steel EFI System: FuelTech
Rods: Callies 6.125-inch forged steel Injectors: FAST 2000cc
Pistons: JE 10.8:1 Throttle Body: Fast 102mm
Oil Pump: Melling Power Adder: Edelbrock E-Force supercharger, 18psi
Oil Pan: Canton Ignition System: FuelTech
Timing Set: COMP Fuel Type: Ignite E98
Cylinder Heads: RHS LS7 HP/TQ: 991 horsepower, 1180 lb-ft (Hub Dyno)

“However, that excitement comes at a cost. The same pressure that pushes out a sound wave or spins a turbine can also lift an exhaust valve off the seat. When the camshaft comes around, a lifted exhaust valve can act exactly like you were running 0.100-inch-plus lash or clearance. No camshaft profile is designed around that type of running start.” To summarize what Godbold said above: big turbo, plus ignition cut-off, plus ignition back on, can equal instantaneous disassembly of the engine.

People would be amazed at just how few cycles occur in a drag race event. 50,000 cycles might be considered “full life” on a Sportsman drag race valve spring. Then the engine is back in the engine builder’s shop for freshening.

Over time, competitors have learned what works and doesn’t work, according to Godbold. “In drag racing, our customers are doing a much better job of staying on the chip for less time and finding other ways to build boost. Likewise, professionals in Formula DRIFT see far less aggressive popping today and have learned other tricks (reduced throttle, more timing, excessively rich) to reduce pressure spikes in the header that can destroy a valvetrain system.

However, these changes have taken some time to catch on throughout the worlds of either drift or drag.” Godbold and his team at COMP Cams work directly with Formula DRIFT driver Taylor Hull to develop the perfect package for getting “slideways” for the crowd.

Formula DRIFT engines are designed not to hit redline. This is done through tuning and by having an enormous amount of grip in the car. The redline for Taylor Hull’s 2015 Cadillac ATS-V is set at 8,600 rpm.

Drift Style

Taylor Hull runs in the Pro class of Formula DRIFT in a 2015 Cadillac ATS-V. You can see him destroying the rear tires of his Cadillac all across the country at different events. According to Hull, they didn’t design their LS engine to rev directly to redline like you would a drag racing engine, “We have actually designed this engine to not really get to redline.” Hull explained this is accomplished in two different ways.

First, they tuned the car to not hit redline. However, that was really a back-up to their initial method. “We put so much grip into the car that even at full throttle, the grip i is enough to keep it from reaching redline.” Taylor added, “The failsafe is to simply let out of the throttle slightly and modulate. The redline on our engine is currently 8,600 rpm. If we ever get close to it on a course, we typically just turn the rev-limiter up higher. We would rather see more RPM than have the engine bouncing off the limiter.” This method is consistent with the warning about ignition cut-off from Godbold.

Stock Eliminator class rules require the factory valve lift to be retained. However, duration or overlap can be changed. Since Stock Eliminator requires factory induction, stock valve sizes, and factory lift, one of the only ways to find more power is by extending the duration of the cam.

Drag Racing Brain

Since the camshaft dictates the opening and closing of the valves, which directly controls the flow of the air-fuel mixture to the cylinders, most people consider the camshaft to be the “brain” of an engine. Drag racers have been upgrading that brain for years to find more performance. To grasp maximum power from any cam, it must work in unison with the entire vehicle combination, from induction to displacement to gearing and even the vehicle’s weight.

Bigger doesn’t always mean better. You can increase torque by advancing the cam or you can get more horsepower at higher RPM by retarding the cam. To fine-tune the engine, you need to take advantage of generating the best volumetric efficiency by timing the cam with the crankshaft. This will help you move the power band up or down. A good drag racing engine wants to rev quickly, putting huge power down as it gets ready for the next shift of the transmission. Drift engines aren’t seeking the next shift.

Taylor Hull’s success in Formula DRIFT is directly related to the support COMP Cams provides as they work to create the perfect engine package for drifting. It is from working with Hull that COMP Cams released their NSR Drift Cam to the public.

The Formula for Drift

Drifting is different than drag racing. It isn’t simply a straight-line run for a quarter of a mile. In drifting, there is an enormous amount of modulation of the throttle to carry a drift. These drifts are done within millimeters of a concrete wall at high speeds. The commitment is big for a driver. They need an engine that can provide torque everywhere and make around 1,000 horsepower. The LS engine in Taylor Hull’s Cadillac is a Racing Head Service (RHS) aluminum block and heads, with a COMP Cams solid roller valvetrain, titanium valves, and an Edelbrock supercharger. That package provides Taylor with 991 horsepower and 1,180 lb-ft torque. Not too shabby.

To get the 1,000 horsepower needed for Taylor Hull’s LS-powered Cadillac, an Edelbrock supercharger was slapped on top of the engine.

COMP Cams developed a cam specifically for the needs of drifters after working with Hull. Godbold talked about what they came up with. “We developed a couple of packages expressly for the grassroots drift crowd. Our 54-777-11 and 54-778-11 camshafts were made just for the customer wanting to take a junkyard GM 4.8, 5.3, or 5.7-liter Gen-III LS engine and use that for drifting. Really, that camshaft, our 26906KIT spring kit, our upgraded timing chain, along with the RHS sheetmetal intake and TB kit would be a great, low-budget combination to get started in these type of competitions. Clearly, we have numerous great cams and parts for drag racing, but have not forgotten about our friends sliding around while smoking the rear tires.”

The COMP Cams NSR Drift 233/243 Hydraulic Roller Cam for GM LS GEN III/IV was created for those grassroots drifters who want to take a junkyard GM 4.8-, 5.3-, or 5.7-liter LS Gen-III engine and successfully compete in drifting.

And The Final Answer Is…

So, the final answer is drag racing engines and drift engines are different and they aren’t. Clear as mud? Both competitors want as much power as they can get. However, where they want that power band to hit can be different. What should be taken from this discussion is that it’s a carefully put together package that will make the difference at the track.

Simply bolting on random parts from the internet will rarely provide success. This sentiment is shared by Tony Bischoff, renowned engine builder and owner of Bischoff Racing Engines. According to him, building a good racing engine requires an entire package that will, “optimize the engine to generate more torque at higher RPM.”

Formula DRIFT drivers need absolute control of their vehicles, since they have to drive within inches of another driver during the lead-follow portion of an event. Having the right engine combination for peak torque at just the right RPM is crucial.

Whether you are creating a drag racing engine for straight-line speeds or a drift engine to decimate rear tires and slide sideways, you need to ensure all of the engine’s parts are paired with the rest of the vehicle to provide optimal torque at the exact RPM range to ensure you get to the finish line first or wow the judges at a drift event.

Slapping different parts together from a catalog will rarely get you the results that you are looking for. For drag racing or drifting having a combination of parts that work together for maximum efficiency will get you across the finish line ahead of your competitors.

Article Sources

About the author

Rob Krider

Rob Krider will race absolutely anything. He is a multi-national champion racing driver and is also the author of the novel, Cadet Blues.
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