Understanding Performance Lubricants - Fact And Friction
A look at Performance Lubricants
It makes sense to think that reducing the friction in an engine, transmission, axle, and transfer case, will result in more power available to the wheels. While correct in theory, several industry experts point out that it’s not all that simple. Modern lubricants are very different when compared to those used in the past. Nowadays, aside from reducing friction, lubricants must also possess properties that cool, protect against wear, and ultimately remain stable under extreme conditions. But while this is true for all vehicles, a Class 8 desert racing truck requires a completely different type of lubrication than your late-model Ford Raptor street truck. So understanding the needs of your vehicle’s engine and drivetrain, and correctly matching them with how you’re going to drive that vehicle, will allow you to determine which formulation can provide the greatest performance advantages.
Significant Changes In Oil Additives
In order to understand all this, it’s important to realize the significant changes in lubricants that have taken place within the last decade. Motor oils, for example, have undergone the most changes due to increasing tolerances of late-model engines, and the movement toward greater fuel economy and emissions standards. “Main stream, passenger car motor oils are focused more on increased fuel economy and emission system cleanliness,” says Danny Massie, president at Maxima Racing Oil. “The American Petroleum Institute (API) has continued to scrutinize engine oil additives for passenger vehicles and has set strict standards for oil marketers to follow.”
The two most important additives that fall under these standards are zinc and phosphorous. Both are essential to reducing wear in areas of an engine that make metal-to-metal contact such as flat-tappet camshafts, valve stems, rocker arms, etc. But the reason why there’s such scrutiny about these additives is that they are not compatible with catalytic converters in late-model vehicles. “Phosphorous in high concentrations has been shown to poison the catalyst (palladium and platinum) in catalytic converters,” says Mark Negast, Technical Director at Lucas Oil. “So the range for this metal has been reduced to 600 to 800 ppms (0.06 to 0.08 weight percent). This change was implemented to extend catalytic converter life and to reduce emissions. Oils in the past contained more like 1,100 to 1,200 ppms (0.011 to 0.12 weight percent) phosphorous.”
Fortunately, late-model passenger car and truck engines are machined more precisely and have tighter tolerances. This can reduce friction, as well as the need for additives. “In most cases, newer engines use roller cams with roller followers and have less resistance, so engine oil manufacturers can use less of the additives,” says Len Groom, product manager at AMSOIL. “It’s important to realize however, that conventional oils really rely on the zinc and phosphorous additives when dealing with direct contact, between components like cam and lifters. In lieu of pressure, you don’t have any other protection against wear other than the additives in the oil. When the base oil gets squeezed from parts expanding and increased temperatures, the additives have to activate to form a sacrificial layer that keeps the mechanical pieces from tearing apart.”
Because of this, there’s been a greater separation between racing oils and conventional oils used on the street. Because racing engines don’t require catalytic converters, more zinc and phosphorous can be added to racing oils to prevent wear under the extreme racing conditions. “ Both racing and conventional oils meet the same SAE grade requirements, but racing oils typically contain specially designed friction modifiers to reduce drag, friction, and pick up horsepower,” Negast says.
New Lower Viscosity Oils
The function and manufacturing of late-model engines has also contributed to dramatic changes in engine oils. The use of lower viscosity grade oils (lighter weight) are being used to meet fuel economy targets by OEM manufacturers. “Were seeing a lot of 0W-20W and 5W-20W weight oils that are lighter and designed to perform two different jobs,”Groom says. “This is driven somewhat by the current vehicles on the market. Tolerances are tighter, and fuel economy is the major driving factor. When oils get thinner, wear protection and strength are often decreased. But these new oils don’t sacrifice fuel economy, especially in colder temperatures. These oils are tougher to build but are where much of the industry is shifting. So we have to keep up with the trend and the demand to build the best quality engine protection available.”
While lighter viscosity engine oils are becoming more mainstream, lighter racing oils are also being used on the track. “Lighter viscosity racing engine oils are used in some specialized racing segments like Pro Stock drag racing,” Massie says. “Most racing engines, however, are designed to run higher viscosity oils in order to support the higher loads and operating temperatures associated with severe use.”
Proper Lubricant Selection Can Increase Horsepower
Understanding how lubricants, especially engine oils, are so different between racing and street driven applications, the possibility for increasing horsepower is still applicable if the proper lubricants are used. “It is important to always check what the OEM recommends for a vehicle’s lubrication needs,” Negast says. “You want to make sure that you select the proper lubricant for the proper application, especially if the vehicle is still under warranty. For racing applications you can select high- performance lubricants in place of OEM recommendations to improve horsepower and speed. In most cases they contain lubricity agents, friction modifiers, and higher levels of zinc and phosphorous. We have found through dyno testing and real-life track testing that these types of products do indeed result in increased speed and performance.”
The stresses that engine oils and other lubricants will receive in any condition are also important in selecting the right types of lubricants that will increase performance. “Under normal operating conditions, lubricants may perform to specifications. When stressed as often as we see in race situations, however, inferior lubricants will quickly separate and fall off from high-quality lubes,” Massie says. “If you do not choose a lubricant that is able to address high- pressure scenarios, then critical engine, transmission, and axle failures will occur. Race-grade lubricants can make a race vehicle go faster, last longer, and ultimately save the racer from costly repairs. Think of the investment it takes to get to a race like the Baja 1000. High-quality lubricants are inexpensive insurance.”
Because not all lubricants can provide the optimum wear protection, fuel economy, and reduce friction equally, especially in racing conditions, it’s important to consider the variables when selecting the right lubricants. “For example, when axles are used in a racing application, you want the least amount of resistance. But in order to do that you sacrifice some of the lubricant’s ability to protect those components,” Groom says. “So there’s a balance between the lubricant’s properties. On the other hand, engine oils are becoming slipperier and thinner. This helps mileage and fuel economy. In general, this equates to the ability to put more power on the ground. We take that approach so that we can improve mileage and apply that to the track. When we as oil manufacturers are successful at that, we give the vehicle owner that much more horsepower in reserve.”
Partnering With Engine Builders To Build Confidence
With extensive dealings with race teams, the relationship between engine builders and oil companies like Lucas, Maxima, and AMSOIL are called upon to provide lubrication that will allow their motors to survive and make additional power with the combination of components they’re using. “Engine builders above and beyond just want something that works,” Groom says. “In the past, they used trial and error in an effort to try and balance protection and longevity. Because thinner oils produced more power and sacrificed longevity, they would use a 50 weight oil that shears down to a 30 weight under extreme conditions, and make more power. With the advances in oil technology, we’ve created a 30 weight oil that will last and perform better and allow the engine builder to make power right out of the box.”
In many cases, it’s important for engine builders to partner with oil manufacturers to get a better idea of what’s available. “An engine builder’s knowledge of oil is typically only as extensive as the best oil they have ever used,” explained Massie. “It’s important for an engine builder to partner with an oil company and to build on their fundamental knowledge of oils. Education is powerful and a good working relationship will enable the builder to rely on its oil partner to work closely with them to understand the best recommendation, so no sacrifices have to be made among power, protection, or cooling. I don’t believe an engine builder would compromise their reputation based on oil selection without having a solid relationship and time with an oil partner’s products.”
Ultimately, it’s a fine line between balancing performance and longevity. So depending on the type of racing engine, oil manufacturers often have to steer the engine builder in the right direction according to what they really need. “In Pro Stock cars and motorcycles, engine builders are interested in performance only especially since the engine never really sees temperatures above 190 degrees F,” Negast says. “In Funny Cars and Top Fuel cars its entirely different, as they are strictly interested in maximum performance. When you get into other types of racing like Sprint Car, late model, Modified, IndyCar, short-course off-road, endurance off-road and NASCAR, there’s a fine line between performance and cooling. The oil has to be able to both and do both effectively. This is where it is crucial that you select the right product for the right application.”
One Goal, Different Avenues
While performance oil manufacturers agree on reaching the same goals of providing protection and reducing friction, the ways they achieve their goals are different. To begin, each performance oil manufacturer we spoke with, start with their own synthetic base blend. The amount and types of additives mixed into the synthetic base, will create the blend that is specific to a vehicle’s engine needs and application. According to Negast at Lucas Oil, the synthetic base stock is important to create the proper lubrication properties in the oil, as well as the thermal and oxidation resistance. “Lucas Oil uses the highest quality paraffinic base oils and synthetic base stocks when manufacturing both street and racing engine oils,” he says. “Almost all of our racing engine oils use synthetic base stocks as the major component. Many of these oils use very specialized PAOs with excellent oxidative and thermal stability. These types of base fluids help keep temperatures down, improve wear resistance, minimize oxidation and help the oil withstand the most adverse operating conditions associated with racing. Much of this new technology was developed while formulating NASCAR engine oils for RCR/ECR Racing. The additives used in racing engine oils are sourced from the largest additive company in the world and we work directly with their technical department to maximize the chemistry for the ultimate performance.”
Because aftermarket oil companies learn from their extensive research and applications in the racing arena, their products reflect years of experience that go into the development of their lubricants. “Like our company, our products are purpose built and driven out of the demands placed on race equipment,” Massie says. “Maxima formulates and develops with top race teams in all areas of racing. This is powerful as we’re able to apply what we’ve learned from all disciplines, from LeMans 24-hour racing to the Baja 1000. Maxima’s formulas begin with the purest base oils available. They are then formulated with robust additives to control heat, friction, and extreme pressures. Our proprietary additive system coupled with ultra-shear stable polymers that have a unique ability to regenerate once stressed, has proven to be a formula that’s consistent and hard to beat.”
“We all do things differently,” Groom says. “At AMSOIL, we start by finding out what you are asking the product to do and how do we get there. Oils use the same building blocks and how we decide to put them together include a variety of factors. AMSOIL Racing builds products to meet the needs and appetite to the engine, transaxle, etc, and deal with the cost afterward. We use extremely high-end base oil stocks in our racing oils, then we can start adjusting additives to do what you want it to do.”
It’s obvious that these manufacturers are completely dedicated to providing a higher level of lubrication. So if you’re looking to improve the performance of your lifted pickup truck, ATV, Baja Trophy Truck, etc., it’s a great idea to have a conversation with any of these manufacturer’s representatives. Learning what type of lubrication is available and how it can apply to your particular vehicle and application, will definitely give you a competitive edge.