IHRA Drag Review Magazine — DRM - October 14, 2011
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HRD Racing Heads

Racing's best-kept secret ……in my own backyard?

When deciding to write this article, my first thought was to do a "puff piece" to plug my sponsor, Horsepower Research and Development (HRD), based in Idaho. As I dove into this project, however, I realized that there was an interesting story here that needed to be shared. So I decided to formally interview the owner, Al Dicksen, so that I could best share some of his unique history and HRD's fundamental approach to cylinder head development.

Interestingly, as I got to know Al, I realized I had found an iconic cylinder head guru and without a doubt, one of the sport's best-kept secrets for nearly 40 years. After growing up in his dad's cylinder head repair shop, Al starting Cylinder Heads West in Southern California back in 1972. He later migrated to North Carolina to serve the NASCAR industry under the HRD banner. His customer list is impressive, including Jack Rousch, Robert Yates, Rick Hendricks, Bob Panella, Eaton Enterprises and Frank Aragona, to name just a few.

"Spending nearly 40 years working exclusively with high-profile professional racing teams has its drawbacks," said Dicksen. "I was typically paid by the teams to build cylinder heads exclusively for them. Since competitive racing teams are not in the habit of sharing performance secrets with their competitors, it was difficult to get my name out there even though my cylinder heads were helping to win championships."

I first walked into Al's shop eight years ago on tip from a local machinist here in Coeur D Alene, Idaho. "He isn't cheap, but we hear he is some hotshot NASCAR head guy who semi-retired here a few years ago," he told me. I immediately drove to Al's shop, which, amazingly, was just three minutes from my house.

The first thing I noticed as I entered his shop was how it was kept. There's no need for tables or dishes in this place; when it's time for lunch you just eat off the floor.

Also striking was HRD's state-of-the-art equipment, which included a five-axis CNC machine working its way through a pile (literally) of fresh GM castings headed to North Carolina. All I could say was "who are you and what are you doing in North Idaho?" I found out that Al was not semi-retired after all; he just needed a change of scenery. "I can develop and build cylinder heads anywhere I want to live as long as there is UPS service," he said.

Al's unique offerings are not limited to CNC high-volume production cylinder heads. In fact, the majority of HRD's business is custom cylinder head development. HRD remains one of the truly custom shops in the country, one in which the owner has ground every valve seat and massaged every cylinder head for the past 39 years. HRD customers routinely send in cylinder heads manufactured by other shops for performance improvements.

In Al's words, "This is really challenging work because you not only have to figure out what is wrong and fix the problem; you also have to keep the customer's budget in mind." Al is also known for being one of the best cylinder head repair welders in the world. I have personally seen heads come into his shop having been reduced to semi-molten blocks of aluminum and three weeks later looking like brand new.

Fast forward to 2009, after NHRA's wisdom to drop all of the stock and super stock indexes by .3 seconds, my .6 under C/SA 1970 Buick went from being "already not competitive" to a complete exercise in futility. I actually thought about just sending NHRA a check every time I felt the urge to attend an event and save the travel expenses. Shutting your car off at 1000' to play "heads-up" keep-away in Stock Eliminator is not drag racing, in my opinion.

Smokey Yunick once said "there are two types of racers: cheaters and losers." To me they are one and the same, so I was faced with either parking the car or finding a Stock Eliminator class in which I could be competitive without cheating.

After doing a little research regarding the potential for the 455 Buick, I found that the IHRA's crate motor class was the perfect choice. I could use the same bottom-end as my C-stocker yet run un-ported aluminum heads and intake plus a Holley 850 carburetor. So I contacted Al and we started on a cylinder head project. To my surprise, the most interesting part of the cylinder head build-up was the education I received during the process. Here are some tidbits, courtesy of "Uncle Al."

In general, most production-style heads are fairly limited on intake flow and resemble restrictor plate NASCAR engines, especially, when runner volume cc's and porting restrictions apply.

Intake flow is interesting, but, the second-best secret in cylinder head development is exhaust flow. Maximizing the exhaust port flow tricks the intake valve into thinking it is bigger via improved scavenging.

Cylinder head flow should be optimized over the range in which the valve will be spending most of its time open and based on the available vacuum signal to the intake tract. Designing port geometry without considering both of these elements will result in less than optimum cylinder head performance. Remember, the valve spends most of its time open at something less than maximum lift.

The majority of the potential in any cylinder head is dictated by the valve seat. Optimizing the valve seat, valve shape and approximately ½" to ¾" on either side of the seat is critical. The remainder of the potential is achieved via porting, "getting things out of the way" so air can more easily get to and through the seat area. In classes like stock eliminator where porting is not allowed, optimizing the valve seat becomes even more crucial.

Never sacrifice head flow for compression. Decking a cylinder head for maximum flow vs. maximum compression will always net better engine performance. It was amazing to see a flow increase of 50+cfm after decking on my stocker heads. Deck relative to valve placement is critical.

Make the cylinder heads and intake manifold the best that they can be and tune the engine for maximum performance using the camshaft as a tuning device. Designing an engine around a particular camshaft is a backwards approach.

For any given engine combination, the maximum vacuum signal to the intake runner track is typically constrained based on the engine's mechanical design, i.e. bore, stroke, camshaft, etc. Understanding the engine design parameters is crucial in approximating the available vacuum signal to use for cylinder head development. Unlike a real engine, the flow bench vacuum signal can easily be "cranked-up" to overcome deficiencies in the cylinder head, often resulting in overstated flow numbers and cylinder heads that do not perform. Remember that flow bench numbers can easily be manipulated, published in glossy magazines and accepted as truth when in fact the published numbers may not even be close to attainable in your combination.

Developing cylinder heads for peak performance requires an extensive knowledge of not only induction systems but overall engine design and development. Al Dickson's success in developing high-performance cylinder heads for nearly 40 years has been based on a simple mission, " I try to make every set of cylinder heads I am working on better than the set I just finished."

Here is brief summary of the costs to convert my 1970 Buick GS 455 from C/SA to F/CM and summary of my 2011 season using HRD's cylinder heads on my 455 Buick Stocker:

Raw Castings Shipped to HRD: $2500 (Stage1 SE -TA Performance, Scottsdale, AZ, 480-922-6807)

Intake Manifold: $400 (SPX -TA Performance, Scottsdale, AZ, 480-922-6807)

Holley 850 Carburetor (Used): $400

HRD Parts and Labor: $1750 (HRD, http://hrdracingheads.com/, 208- 762-9600) Total: $5050

Season results:

Eagle Motorplex Summit Pro-Am, No. 1 qualifier, 3570lbs, 10.48 at 128. 05mph, 1.370 under 11.85 index (D.A. 3193 ft.) Salt Lake Nitro Jam, No. 1 qualifier, 3560lbs, 10.87 at 124.17mph, 1.280 under 12.18 index (D.A. 7266 ft.)

Rocky Mountain Nitro Jam, No. 1 qualifier, 3560lbs, 10.56 at 125.35 mph, 1. 309 under 11.87 index (D.A. 3774 ft.) Altitude track

As a racer on a limited budget, I could only afford to make three races this season (31 passes total). I didn't dyno or even test the car prior to loading it in the trailer and driving 9 hours to Ashcroft, B.C. The first pass in the car right off the trailer as an F/CM stocker was 10.43 @ 127.33 mph. It was hard to remove the smile from face, and it put the fun back in Stock Eliminator drag racing. Thanks to HRD for their sponsorship and IHRA for the class and Division 6.