Start with Engine Basics - Engine Builder Magazine

Start with Engine Basics

This column is for the young folks out there who believe they have passion for automotive performance. You see the people in this industry and you really want to get involved. I get a lot of calls and emails from these younger folks who want to maybe intern or come to the shop to learn. There’s always emphasis on the fact they are willing to learn.

A lot of people imagine they need to go to school in order to acquire the knowledge necessary to be able to do performance stuff. That is somewhat concerning to me, because the people I know who are pretty proficient at this stuff are mostly self-educated. Just understanding a piston engine should not be something you need to go to school for.

I liken the big UTI programs to acting coaches who have courses for people who think they’re going to be performing across from Denzel Washington in the next six months. People might have unrealistic ambitions about where they might fit into the industry. You might lack aptitude. 

A lot of people imagine education is what’s missing that will help them have a light go off and understand this stuff, but there is a lot of aptitude involved. If you’re going to get into automotive performance and you lack the basic knowledge of internal combustion – intake stroke, compression stroke, power stroke, exhaust stroke – if you don’t understand that stuff and can’t name the basic internal components to an engine, this doesn’t mean you can’t develop into a good technician. It just means that your development might be limited. 

The other problem is if you feel like you are dependent upon outside sources to develop you such as a school. To me that is a big red flag, because it tells me you lack the integrity to get the information. You don’t possess the natural curiosity that would have you Google internal combustion engine and read about it and study it.

For me, I was ripping through my dad’s automotive repair manuals as a little kid. By 7 years old, I understood internal combustion. I knew the compression ratio, the bore and stroke of my dad’s 460 – 4.36˝ x 3.85˝, 72cc combustion chamber, 2.19˝ intake valve or whatever the case may be. I was fascinated by that stuff. I was a kid that wanted to take stuff apart and put it back together. 

I think a lot of people today are wrapped up in the hype about automotive performance. You see the videos. You hear the engines. You hear the cam sound and you want to go from A to Z without doing the prerequisites. You want to jump right into watching sloppy YouTube mechanics DIY cam swaps and you have no idea what the numbers represent.

The people who say they’re willing to learn are living in a delusion that they’re going to enter a business and out of the kindness of someone’s heart they’re going to pay you to drop the productivity of the business to hold your hand and train and develop you for the next year so you can actually do something that’s valuable. That’s unlikely.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with school, but if you’re going to try to be kicking ass in this industry, you better be a standout student. You can’t go to UTI and get a C or even a B. You better already have the prerequisite knowledge. If you don’t have any automotive knowledge now or understand anything about an engine, I would suggest this career path isn’t for you. You may not have the aptitude or the integrity to make it here. You’re looking for a big brother or father figure who is going to be responsible for developing you somehow.

Sure, my dad got me started, but that was it – just the basic seedlings of understanding. It’s been learning ever since. The point I’m trying to make is if you say you’re passionate about something, I would expect evidence. If you say you’re passionate about art and you’re going to be an artist, you better not be dependent on art school to develop you. I better see some paintings happening because there’s always going to be some savant somewhere. There’s going to be people out there who are actually driven and determined and they’re teaching themselves. 

If you have internet access and resources such as books available, but you haven’t bothered to do any of that and you think you’re going to go straight to a shop to get trained and developed. No way. I’m not interested in people who are unable to contribute. It doesn’t matter how nice you are or your story or background. If you had real determination, grit, intent, and aptitude, you’d already be developing yourself. 

When I get people that hit me up who aren’t doing anything except surfing YouTube and Instagram and being inspired by cam sounds and think they want to do something, yet there’s no real evidence they’ve made any moves and they imagine that it’s someone else’s responsibility for their development – that’s the YouTube culture. The information comes so easy that people don’t seem to want to be responsible for their own hands-on development. They think if they get into the right environment they’re going to learn by osmosis.

For those of you who might have the passion and might not have the knowledge yet, it’s not too late. It might sound like I’m trying to discourage you, but I’m trying to ground you in reality. A lot of us put ourselves on a developmental track a lot earlier by understanding the basics. Trying to jump into performance without the ABCs or terminology of an internal combustion engine is setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.

If you go to school, you can learn how to do a brake job and operate certain equipment, but if you want to be dynamic and have an expansive intelligence around what’s going on performance-wise, it’s going to start with a foundation of prerequisite understanding, so you can comprehend things. You need to know more than just the right answers.

For instance, what’s the right cam for this engine? Well, you should understand what all goes into that equation and why. Understand how a camshaft works and the four cycles of internal combustion. If you can’t calculate the displacement of an engine or the compression ratio then those are things you should want to understand. If you can’t explain how an engine transforms the energy from fuel into torque, then trying to jump in on performance and imagining a career there could be a dead end. 

It doesn’t mean it will or that you won’t find an angel intellectual who’s going to take you under their wing and give you all the knowledge, but there’s something different about the people who are coming up today in the performance scene where they want to go from nothing to 1,000 horsepower and don’t care about the little steps in between. That’s what’s missing in people’s true development.

That’s problematic in the Information Age, and points to a disconnection with respect to what it takes or what true passion is. If you are really down for this stuff, I would expect more than “willing to learn” or someone who imagines someone else teaching them. We all learn from others and had people that contributed to our knowledge, but we have to pull it towards us. We have to be curious, not just interested. That insatiable curiosity that can keep you up at night imagining things! If you don’t have that, you ain’t got it. EB

Nathan Bush – Sales/Operations Manager, CPR Engines

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