photos by: Daean Chase, Barry Kluczyk, Patrick Hill and Rick Seitz
It’s Not Always About Horsepower — Sometimes the Best Bang for Your Buck Could Come from Other areas of Your Vehicle
Like many of you, I’ve been playing with muscle cars for a long time. One thing I’ve learned is how to stretch a buck. If I’m going to be investing hard-earned cash into my car, I want to feel a difference when I’m done. The before-and-after change should be distinct, measureable, and unforgettable. My efforts and costs must be justified immediately after I finish the installation.
The biggest differences I’ve felt have been in very three distinct areas: engine, brakes, and tires. For that reason, these are my favorite places to spend money.
Engine-wise, there are few upgrades that pay off more than cylinder heads or a supercharger (whether it’s a belt-driven unit, an exhaust-driven turbo, or a chemical supercharger like nitrous oxide). While not every engine is ready for the kind of power kick a supercharger can add, I haven’t met a V-8 yet that couldn’t benefit from a great pair of modern, CNC-finished aluminum heads. The best thing about upgrading heads is that most enthusiasts have already upgraded to a good intake, cam, and/or set of exhaust headers, and stepping up the airflow potential in the heads only makes the whole package work better. Researching what heads are best for you is half the fun.
I love the process of determining how much airflow I need, finding the various heads that fit into that criteria, and weighing their various features against each other to determine which head is ultimately the best-possible choice for this particular application. I never forget that upgrading the head bolts (or studs) and gaskets should always be part of the plan. If you haven’t added a better cam, intake, or headers yet, adding them to the list of things to do while swapping on a fresh pair of heads is natural, since you’ll have everything apart anyway.
The great thing about engine upgrades is that they don’t care about your feelings. You can add whatever goodies you want in any order, as your budget and time allow, and they will all add a little bit of efficiency (that means power). But, if you’re smart and you’ve researched all of this stuff ahead of time, your final engine package will be a coordinated effort of matched dimensions, and when all of the pieces are in place it will exceed your own expectations for performance.
No car is worth a damn without good brakes. If you aspire to gain any level of ‘performance’ out of your car, your braking system must be capable of bringing your car to a stop with reliable, predictable, controllable, linear confidence. Does that all sound too romantic? It shouldn’t, since every time you stomp on that pedal, you should know precisely what to expect. It should not vary from time to time, or with heat (or laps on-track), or after repeated passes down the drag strip, or with engine rpm from idle to redline. There are more excellent brake options available today than ever before, and they are worth the investment for the performance and safety they offer.
Too often, we focus on improving a vehicles ability to accelerate without compensating for the need to decelerate at the same level. Don’t fall into this trap- upgrade your brakes. Try to overdo it. If you think you can equip a car you drive on a track with brakes that are too much, you are wrong. Additional braking capacity is an asset.
Buy as much as you can afford, and make plans to upgrade in the future until you have crazy 14-inch rotors with 6-piston calipers on all four corners. Then learn to adjust the brake bias correctly, and equip it with the best-possible pads. If you want to maximize your performance and minimize your lap times, awesome brakes are an absolute requirement.
The connection between your car and the road is completely the responsibility of your tires. Acceleration, cornering, and braking are all wholly dependent upon those four rubber donuts mounted on each corner. Consider the size of your palm, and understand that you are asking a patch of rubber of that size to hold the weight of your vehicle at high speed. When you really push the limits of a car you’ve built to push the limits, the larger that print of rubber can be, the better. Fortunately, due to advances in tire technology, the quality of that rubber patch is incredibly better
than it’s ever been. The tools to research the wide range of tires available and select the best-possible tire for your particular car and driving application have never been better. Even getting the maximum size of tire tucked under your car can be a challenge, and there are many good tools to aid in this effort too.
Use all of the tools available to you, and find the ideal tire fitment for you. Don’t cut corners to save a couple bucks. Invest in this critical conduit between your car and the road, and you will never regret it. See what your car is really capable of by putting as much of its power down as possible. Don’t wonder how much better it could be with better tires; get the best-possible tires to start with.
Everything else will come into focus once these three performance elements are in place. Having a lot of usable horsepower will encourage you to keep improving your car. Having awesome brakes will give you the confidence to push your driving a bit further, knowing you can bring the car to a halt when you need to. Tires make it all happen, and if you’ve never taken that first drive after fitting an incredibly sticky set or rollers under your car before, you’ll send me a thank you note after you do so.
Once these elements are in place, it will become incredible apparent what needs to happen next. If your shocks are shot, you’ll feel it. If your seats don’t have enough support, this will become immediately apparent. If your clutch isn’t strong enough for what you are commanding your car to do, you’ll smell it.
If you follow this investment path, your car will be better. It will be closer to the way you wanted it to be when you first bought it. It will be making steps toward that vision in your head that pops to life whenever you look at it. Once you’ve taken all three of these steps, it will be impossible not to smile, and you’ll continue to remember why we do this stuff at all.
After spending almost a decade in the aerospace industry, Scott Parkhurst chose to learn about racing engines by working in some of Southern California’s most respected engine shops. He took on the role of Tech Editor at Popular Hot Rodding magazine back in 1998, and was instrumental in the development of both the Engine Masters Challenge competition and Engine Masters Quarterly magazine. He was also the founding Editor of Street Thunder magazine and Author of the V8 Horsepower Performance Handbook.