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This 2003 Mitsubishi EVO produces over 1,000 rwhp...
The small displacement engines in today’s sportbi...
It’s definitely a diesel and it’s ABSOLUTELY high...
This 1960 Plymouth drag car had 383 Mopar power u...
Getting Into The Niche: Engine Builders Corner Their Markets
Diversifying your investments can be the key to the steady growth of your portfolio, and with enough discipline and planning can eventually allow you to retire comfortably.
By Brendan Baker
In our industry, specialty niche markets can also be the key to steadily growing your business.
Motorsports is a very broad market but when you drill down into the various categories of racing, there are many smaller markets that make up the sport. Drag racing and circle track markets may be among the most recognized in motorsports but that doesn’t mean you have to be involved in one of them to be successful. Some engine builders have carved out a niche for themselves by building one type of engine for a single type of car or racing series. The simple fact is, if you do your job well, people will want your services.
Other markets outside of motorsports can also be very lucrative for the right shop. The key to aligning yourself to a particular market is that YOU are the expert who knows the market and what it takes to build a quality product for it.
Sport Compact Passion
Imports have been around for quite a while and growing since the fuel crisis of the ‘70s, but in 2009, import manufacturers surpassed domestic manufacturers in the percentage of cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. for the first time ever.
For many engine builders, performance only comes in the form of a V8 Chevrolet, Ford or Chrysler, yet recent sales figures show domestic iron does not have the performance market all to itself. Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and others have a dedicated, educated and affluent following. Cars like the EVO and WRX have almost cult-like status in the sport compact market, and the engines themselves are no longer the tinny, underpowered wimps that were originally planted in these vehicles.
While this market is not what it used to be in the relatively recent past, there are still pockets in the country where it is strong. The warmer, coastal areas continue to have a good following of sport compact enthusiasts. One parts manufacturer says that the sport compact market, which leans heavily toward import engines, represents about 40 percent of his business. He says the market has evolved over the years from little econoboxes to serious high powered sports cars and sedans.
With fewer “decal specialists,” experts say the market seems to be moving in a more serious and positive direction. A lot of activity is centered on Subaru WRXs, Mitsubishi EVOs and Nissan 350 Zs. This is a close-knit group of enthusiasts that congregate on dedicated web forums and seek out shops that specialize in modifying their brand of vehicle.
These vehicles are true performance cars from the factory, and the majority of their owners are content with upgrading the base performance through tuning, bigger turbos and other bolt-ons. However, many of these cars are now three or four years old and showing up on the used market at very reasonable prices. These cars are ripe for total engine builds, especially for those enthusiasts who are looking for big horsepower.
Sportbike Motorcycle Engines
Today’s sportbikes are born and bred for racing competition more than anything, and are, essentially, racing machines with turn signals and headlights. The small displacement engines in these speed demons can produce more power per liter than even some of the more extreme automotive engines.
Without a doubt, motorcycle manufacturers have built impressive engines, but there’s still some wiggle room for engine builders to develop more power, especially useable power. While experts say sportbike road racing is not the healthiest these days, mainly at the pro level, there are still a number of club racing series around the country to keep engine builders busy.
Sportbike experts say the Suzuki GSXR engine is by far the most popular bike in road racing, whether it’s the 600, 750 or 1000cc. It’s the most supported by the aftermarket and it’s been around for a long time. There’s a lot of interchangeability between the bikes, and Suzuki has done a good job of evolving them instead of starting with a clean slate every year. A lot of things carry over from year to year, and it has been consistently good for the last decade.
The R6 Yamaha is also very popular and even has applications for mini-sprint cars as well. For motorcycle road racing it’s GSXR, R6 and a few CBR1000s. Kawasaki’s 600 engines are popular but not the 1000s; the ZX6R engines all inline-fours with overhead cam valvetrains, are good for road racing, say experts.
In an effort to get the weight out and maximum power, all of the manufacturers have gone to titanium valves over the past two or three years. These are great and extremely light, but titanium doesn’t have the durability of the stainless valves in some applications and is very expensive to replace. A set of Ti valves for a GSXR can set you back $1,000. Some bike engine builders use stainless valves for nitrous applications because Ti doesn’t like the thermal shock of nitrous. You can use steel seats for the stock Ti valves, but if you go to a big aftermarket Ti valve you should use a bronze seat. The stainless valve is much heavier, and then you have to have a spring to control the valve. But no one wants to rev any lower than what you can with a stainless valve.
The key to building a good sportbike engine isn’t just big power, though, it’s being able to put the power to the ground, especially in a road racing application. Sportbike experts say they’ve gotten to the point with engine technology where making the power is not as important as making the power useable. The bikes are violent and will throw you off in a hurry if it’s not right. What you do with electronics, cam timing and compression help to make it rideable.
With some racers spending up to $60,000-$70,000 dollars on their diesel performance engines, diesel experts say that any engine builder who is currently doing performance gas engines could probably do diesel performance work too. You need to learn about diesel fuel systems and how to correctly set up the injection pump, injectors and turbo, but the machine work you do on the block, heads and other internal parts are similar to any other performance engine.
Diesel engines are a different breed when compared to gasoline engines. Both use the same four-stroke cycle of combustion, but diesels use the heat of compression instead of a spark to ignite the air/fuel mixture. A diesel engine requires a much higher static compression ratio than a gasoline engine, and on most engines there is no intake vacuum because the engine is unthrottled. Speed and power outputs are determined by the fuel injection system.
Most diesel engines are also turbocharged, yet make most of their torque and power at relatively low rpm (typically 2,500 to 4,000 rpm, though in some forms of racing diesels are being revved to 5,000 to 7,000 rpm).
If you decide to build a performance diesel engine, you’ll find it will take a different approach than building a performance gas engine. The bottom end in most diesel engines is beefy already, so the amount of modifications that may be needed are usually minimal. And because most street performance and pulling applications don’t require a lot of rpms, engine balance is not as critical as in a high revving engine.
Pistons may have to be cut, modified or replaced, however, depending on how much turbo boost the engine will be running, what kind of fuel it will be burning (diesel only, or diesel plus nitrous oxide or alcohol), and what kind of modifications are being made to the camshaft and valvetrain.
In the late ‘40s to early ‘60s, cars became bigger and flashier, which led to the need for bigger engines as well. At the same time, the young sports of drag racing and stock car racing sent engine development on a race of its own. In 1949 the average car had less than 200 cubic inches. It took less than 10 years of new engine design to double that size.
Today, these cars are a symbol of the baby boomer generation that was brought up in the golden age of the automobile. The engines of this era are not going away, which is clear by the large number of reproduction parts available. Engine builders in this niche market can build a vintage engine from this ear without using any original parts.
Shops specializing in vintage engines as well as those shops thinking about adding vintage to their list of services have to stay on top of this information.
Although many respected magazine titles have been either put on the auction block or simply turned into scrap, engine building resources still exist. Engine Builder magazine continues to provide commentary from experts in the industry. Doc Frohmader, “Old Iron” columnist, runs webrodder.com, an online technical magazine that offers articles and forum discussions on hot rods and classic engines.
There are also a number of associations and enthusiast groups across the country that are available to give guidance on engines and applications. And you can count on Engine Builder to continue promoting niche markets as well.