Engines are pretty amazing things. They contain hundreds of parts, many of them moving thousands of times each minute.
And few things are more daunting than looking at a table full of those parts and realizing that you have to put them all together.
That was my task at a special event sponsored by Quaker State, in conjunction with the launch of its new Defy oil for high-mileage vehicles.
I was one of a group of auto writers facing the bare block of a NASCAR engine.
We had to finish it, and finish it fast, just as the race teams do.
OK, so there was more to it than that. Most of us were novices, so experts from Hendrick Motorsports guided us through every step. And while the finished engine had to run for 30 seconds to qualify, no one was going to tackle the Daytona 500 on my handiwork.
For all their complexity, engines use relatively simple principles.
They contain pistons that move up and down to turn a central crankshaft, much like a cyclist’s legs turn the pedals. The crankshaft’s spinning motion eventually turns the wheels.
Our team was split into pairs, each building a successive section. The clock started, and the first two builders put in the crankshaft and pistons.
Now it was tag-team, and I was up. My job was to install the parts that work the valves, which allow the gasoline in and the exhaust out.
I don’t have a lot of grunt power, but there’s something to be said for tiny hands when you have to get small parts into very tight spaces.
While my partner did the heavy lifting, I slid rods into place and put in the nuts and bolts. Our section completed, we turned it over to the next on our team.
The Hendrick Motorsports experts can put together an engine in 17 minutes. We took almost twice as long. But there was a payoff: our work was wheeled outside and fired up. The (very loud) sound of success is an 850-horsepower engine running perfectly, but it’s nothing compared to knowing that you helped wrench on it to make it work.