When considering the essential parts list for a race car build, we tend to think of exhaust headers, cylinder heads, turbochargers and so on. While it might not be the most glamorous piece of the puzzle, the starter is an absolutely vital component in your build – if it kicks the bucket, you’re dead in the water. And though it may not see the same sort of prolonged stresses that a driveshaft or set of tires sees on race day, it’s still contending with plenty of abuse from heat exposure and demands of high performance components which typically operate far outside the design specifications of an OEM starter.
High compression engines require more cranking power than their typical factory counterparts, and while some OEM units may boast a substantial amount of torque, more often than not, they’re not designed with enough strength to handle regular use with large displacement motors without the potential for failure. If you’re going to devote a substantial chunk of change to an engine build, the last thing you want is to be let down at show time by a cheap component that leaves you stranded in the pit area.
BlownZ's Meziere Starter
The starter that we’ve chosen for our Project BlownZ is Meziere’s 100 Series unit designed for LS engines with 168-tooth flexplates or ring gears (Part No. TS119). Part of Meziere’s all-new “True Start” design, the starter has components and design elements built-in to create an extreme-use unit, and that begins with the motor, which has 20% more cranking power than Hitachi-based starters.
Will Vance from TCI Automotive describes an all-too-common scenario. “Here’s a key point that I always try to instill in our racers: Imagine you’re in the finals – money and bragging rights on the line – and the announcer makes the call, “Drivers to the staging lanes!” You hit the start button. But your starter, after being hot lapped for the last two hours, refuses to budge. You frantically jump out and try to do whatever you can to get the car to turn over. The announcer declares the final call to the line, you hear your competitor fire up, and then you sit and watch as they make their pass.”
Few things in racing are more stressful and frustrating than trying to remedy mechanical failure at the zero hour, and when one part turns your race car into a paper weight, that just compounds the pain. No matter how up to the task your stock unit may seem under normal use, racing environments have a way of finding the vulnerable points in starter design and wreaking havoc.
To that end, the more efficiently a starter functions, the more reliable it will be. Heat is a major factor in that reliability, and the higher the efficiency of the starter motor, the less amps it will draw to function properly. This in turn generates less internal heat, resulting in a more reliable starter – a sentiment echoed by John Babcock of Powermaster Motorsports and Don Meziere of Meziere Enterprises.
That efficiency is bolstered in a number of ways when designing a starter for racing applications, but a common thread among manufacturers is that wiring used and the quality of the wiring connections are a major factor. Stock starters tend to use low quality wiring and, when produced in the volume that OEM units are, issues with poor wiring connections tend to pop up more often, and bad connections turn into heat. “Wiring becomes less efficient when it’s hot,” says Meziere, adding “any bad connection creates heat at the connection, which compounds on itself.”
“Wiring becomes less efficient when it’s hot. Any bad connection creates heat at the connection, which compounds on itself. – Don Meziere
While each company takes their own approach to starter design, there’s one element they all certainly agree upon. “Racing will always test the ability of performance parts. The racing environment introduces a number of circumstances and challenges that an OEM starter would not encounter under normal use,” says Meziere. “The challenge for any forward-thinking performance company is to continuously track down the weak points and maintain ongoing efforts to improve upon them.”
All agree that design evolution is an ongoing process with improvements being made on a near-constant basis, and that feedback from the racing community helps them make the tweaks necessary to ensure their starters are as durable as possible under the harshest circumstances.
The use of plastic components, powdered metal construction, and unbalanced motor operation are all potential problems you’ll run into with OE starters. While they might be trivial when installed in your typical grocery-getter, these issues become possible points of failure in the race environment. Everyone we spoke with agreed that the use of hand-picked materials like billet aluminum and high quality steel are chosen both for strength and light weight, rather than an OE design which often employs the cheapest material that fits the manufacturer’s requirements.
TCI’s Kevin Winstead points out that component choice plays a key role in the starter’s efficiency, too. “While bushings are commonly used in OE starters, the use of ball bearings creates less resistance, which means more torque is transferred to engine instead of being wasted by friction.” And less resistance and friction also equates to less internal heat.
Fitment and Selection
“Correct fitment is absolutely key to durability,” says Babcock. And while overkill isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of buying a starter that’s rated for a higher output motor than the one it’s being installed on, other factors can come into play if you decide to just “go big” without doing some research.
A lot of guys say “give me the best starter you’ve got.” The best starter is the right one for the job. – John Babcock
Determining which starter is right for your build is not only a matter of what meets or exceeds the torque rating your engine requires, but also how it will fit in the engine bay. A starter that’s too big for the space it’s installed in not only adds excess weight, but can also run into potential clearance issues, “particularly with exhaust headers and turbo charged engines with large downpipes,” warns Winstead. Not only does this create a heat issue for the starter with its close proximity to extremely hot components, but a lack of adequate air flow due to tight fitment can also compound the issue.
Along with the ability to choose a starter that’s the right size for your build, most racing starters are also “indexable”, which means they can be rotated on their mounting block to allow for more ideal fitment, a feature you certainly will not find on an OE unit.
“An extra fifteen minutes spent on the install can add you years on the life to the starter motor,” Babcock explains. “I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve gotten back a broken starter and found the high quality bolts, shims and instructions we supply [for good reason] completely untouched in the box.” He adds that installing the pinion correctly into the flywheel (about 50% of the way in) is an important detail that’s often overlooked. It might seem trivial – or obvious, depending on your DIY inclinations – but that installation manual and those additional components are included for a reason, and if a builder chooses to ignore them, they may very well end up reducing the life and reliability of their starter substantially.
There’s a clear consensus here – if you’re going to invest the substantial amount of coin required to put together a race-caliber project, there’s a number of reasons why it’s in your best interest as a competitor not to overlook your engine’s starter in the build process. Using the right piece for this job is one of the most important component choices in your drivetrain – if your starter fails, your motor essentially makes zero horsepower.