In every class of motor sport, engine power is increasing in impressive leaps.
Even small displacement engines now produce horsepower that only ten years ago was considered the realm of highly refined and exotic mills hundreds of cubic inches larger. And sizeable cubic inch power plants regularly produce over 1,000 horsepower in street trim with a cast aluminum intake manifold and a single carburetor. There seems to be no end to the power potential.
Cylinder head technology, with increased air flow and combustion chamber design, has led the charge. Many of these advances have been accomplished by improving the performance of the valve train, achieved largely by state-of-the-art test and development equipment such as the Spintron, and also by the latest computerized machining centers.
Over the years, the performance engine-building community has gone from using an original-equipment-style cast piston to a stronger forged design that also allows more freedom in manufacturing and a reduction in the reciprocating mass. High quality, advanced aluminum materials are employed and forged pistons are now available with outboard or with the narrower inboard pin towers. Additionally, they provide excellent load paths and rigid structures and attract an array of competent coatings to protect them.
However, the forged piston has one major shortcoming: infinite design potential. If, for example, a piston designer or engine builder or race team wishes to change the piston structure or adopt different load paths or experiment with different struts and buttresses, only a billet piston will accommodate these requirements.
NASCAR teams were quick to recognize the billet’s potential, taking advantage of its versatility. Piston manufacturers continue to develop and test new designs constantly. Nonetheless, bringing a cost-effective billet piston program to the general market turned out to be a formidable challenge—often cost prohibitive and, therefore, unsustainable. In fact, the program only became viable when manufacturers established a special department with dedicated engineering staff and equipment. Once the technique had been established, race engine builders no longer needed to work within the confines of a forging.
Many engine builders openly admit they felt they were on a short leash with any forged piston. Not being able to have it fully meet their requirements they compromised as best they could. Race teams not only openly embrace the freedom that billet pistons offer but also the ability to re-examine the cylinder head, combustion chamber and valve angle for further power gains. The possibility for another great leap in power is one of the most exciting aspects of the billet piston.
With regard to material strength there is no appreciable difference between the forging and the billet piston. As mentioned earlier, most of the NASCAR teams and the NHRA Pro Stock elite are already using billet and have proved its durability. Some NASCAR teams switched to billet pistons because they detected slight variations from forging to forging. Pro Stock and other high-rank drag racing teams longed for the opportunity to experiment with piston designs not possible with existing forgings. In addition, for highly competitive race teams, having access to a billet piston program provides them with much prized exclusivity—they prefer their secrets to remain safe.
With a forging program, the piston maker’s position is greatly compromised. When a new forging is needed he is compelled to invest in new tooling, often costing in excess of $10,000; obliged to wait months before receiving the forgings; and often required to purchase the first 500 slugs from the new tooling. Obviously, the piston-maker has to amortize the costs and as a result everyone benefits from the great idea, and exclusivity is minimal. However, a billet program eliminates the need for special tooling, associated delays, and minimum-order quantities. Now the great idea remains the property of the one who conceives it.
Usually machined from a solid piece of 2618 billet aluminum, the piston has an expansion rate slightly greater than its forged counterpart. Most users set the piston-to-wall clearance between .0065in to 0.008in. With regard to weight, the billet version is typically one to two percent lighter than a comparable forged piston for the same application.
Of course billets easily accommodate reduced skirt areas, which minimize friction and weight. They also permit the optional use of buttons instead of spiral locks. Buttons make it much easier and quicker to change pistons should the need arise. In addition buttons prevent the expander in the oil control ring from distorting around the half-moon openings in the back of the groove on the piston where the pin bores intercept the oil control ring groove. As already stated billet pistons are well-suited for teams embarking on new engine development programs. These programs often require last-minute design changes that can affect bore sizes, cylinder head configuration, valve sizes, valve pocket depths, pin boss dimensions or load paths.
Usually billet pistons are available in a range of finishes. Diamond, for instance, furnishes them in a natural finish or hard-anodized or with a ceramic crown coating and a moly skirt coating. Hard-anodized coatings help prevent scuffing and galling of the cylinder bores under extreme conditions.
In the early days of motor sport, slang for a piston was “slug”, a term that suggests a limited amount of engineering—how false that is. With the introduction of affordable billet pistons, engine development just took another huge leap forward.
SOURCE: Diamond Pistons, 23003 Diamond Dr. Dept EP, Clinton Twp, MI 48035 USA, (877) 552-2112 , www.diamondracing.net.
Ray T. Bohacz’s interests have always revolved around mechanical apparatus but he admits his true love is engines. It matters little if it is a Detroit Diesel-powered irrigation pump in the middle of a corn field or nitro-burning Hemi. His first byline appeared in 1995 and has since published over 1,200 in-depth technical articles pertaining to engines. He has also authored three books on engine systems. He is a member of SAE, American Society of Materials and the International Motor Press Association.
For a PDF of this article (complete with photos), go to: