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How It Works: Driven Racing Oil

Everyone thinks their job is tough, but the chemists formulating modern motor oil really earn their paychecks.

Stephen Kim Dec 1, 2013
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Everyone thinks their job is tough, but the chemists formulating modern motor oil really earn their paychecks. As the EPA continues tightening up on emissions standards, it has forced motor oil manufacturers to take good stuff like zinc and moly—which substantially reduce engine wear—out of their formulations. The degree of difficulty is further compounded by modern fuels high in ethanol content, which attracts moisture, dribbles down the cylinder walls, and dilutes oil even more. The NASCAR community reached the same conclusion in the late 1990s, when the additional stress imposed by high rpm and flat-tappet camshafts brought the shortcomings of modern street motor oil to the forefront. In response, Joe Gibbs Racing—one of the most dominant teams in Sprint Cup competition—took matters into its own hands by developing its own line of race motor oil. Driven Racing Oil was born, and today the company continues to push the envelope of lubrication technology.

Just like NASCAR teams don't have to worry about tailpipe emissions, neither does most muscle car enthusiasts whose rides are old enough to be emissions exempt in most states. The same applies to sportsman racers, since their cars don't drive on public streets. That means many hot rodders can also run quality race oils in their engines just like the big boys. As such, Driven has formulated oils specifically for street/strip machines, street rods, and also for LS engines. To get the low-down on the technology that goes into formulating state-of-the-art lubricants, we sat down with Lake Speed Jr. of Driven Racing Oil for the full scoop.

Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the premiere powerhouse teams in modern Sprint Cup racing. While most teams are content selecting from oil that's readily available to them, JGR takes things one-step further by developing its own motor oil. "Since NASCAR still mandates flat-tappet camshafts, JGR began having cam wear issues back in 1999 due to the reduced levels of zinc, also known as ZDDP, in off-the-shelf motor oils. Up until the late 1990s, NASCAR teams just purchased regular motor oil from the parts store," Lake explains. "When the zinc levels began to drop in these oils, our camshafts started going flat. JGR saw the need to develop an oil formula that would not only stop the problems, but would also allow JGR to be even more aggressive with valvetrain designs. Once JGR began learning about the science of motor oil, Driven was created to provide JGR with cutting-edge lubricants. Prior to the creation of the Driven Racing Oil products, JGR had won less than a dozen races and no championships. Since the creation of Driven products, JGR has won eight NASCAR series championships and over 100 races."


Emissions vs. Lubrication
In recent years, the shift in motor oil formulation has been influenced more by emissions regulations than maximizing lubrication properties. Not surprisingly, engine lubrication suffered as a result, and it's not just the rings and bearings that have endured the additional abuse. "Joe Gibbs Racing was not alone in having lubrication related problems because of these changes in motor oil formulations, so Driven has taken what we learned from working with JGR and offered it to everyday racers and hot rodders that need better engine protection," says Lake. "The low zinc issue is not just a flat-tappet cam problem. Low levels of zinc also increase wear on distributor gears, pushrod tips, and cylinder bores. The bottom line is that higher performance engines need higher levels of zinc, and that is what Driven delivers: race-proven high zinc formulas for high-performance engines."

If an oil will thrive in a NASCAR engine, then it can handle other abusive engines as well.

Race vs. Shelf Oil
Considering that you can buy a quality synthetic oil off-the-shelf at any Walmart, how much better can a race oil really be? The simple answer is quite a bit. "The oil you buy at Walmart is designed to protect your wife's minivan engine. A race oil is designed to protect a high-rpm racing engine," Lake quips. "Chemically, the oil at Walmart and a race oil are very different because the type of zinc used in a race oil is different than the type of zinc used in the oil for a minivan. Early on in the oil development program at JGR, we tested the highest-rated passenger car motor oil available. This oil met all of the toughest U.S. and European road car specifications, but that oil failed in a NASCAR engine in less than one hour. We learned early on that race oils needed to be different. As such, a race oil uses different types of synthetic base oils and more exotic additives than regular passenger car or diesel oils."

Film vs. Boundary Lubrication
Inside a running engine, certain moving parts have the luxury of relying on film lubrication, while other components must make do operating under boundary lubrication conditions. "Imagine skiing behind a boat running 30 mph across the lake, and that is what full film lubrication is like. Now imagine the boat stops moving, which is what a boundary lubrication condition is like," Lake explains. "At low speeds you don't have a full oil film. This is why you see more cylinder bore wear near top dead center on the cylinder bore, as the piston must slow to a stop to change directions. As the piston slows down, the full oil film is lost, and now boundary lubrication takes over. Additives like zinc and moly are the boundary lubrication additives that prevent metal-on-metal contact when the oil film is lost. Since the valvetrain rotates at half the speed of the crankshaft and sees extra load from the valvesprings, the valvetrain of an engine primarily operates in the boundary condition, which means having the correct additives is critical. Higher-rpm engines need different boundary lubrication additives than an engine that rarely sees more than 3,000 rpm. This is why passenger car and diesel motor oils are different from racing oils. Real racing oils are formulated differently to handle the unique boundary lubrication requirements of high-rpm engines."

Formulating an oil requires balancing the properties of the base oil with the properties of various additives. Getting it right is critical to engine longevity. According to Lake, while boundary lubricants like zinc and moly are part of the additive package, the overall additive package is far more complex than just boundary lubricants. In fact, the additive package is typically the most complex part of the motor oil. "A base oil without any additives can provide full film lubrication in an engine bearing if the viscosity is right for the speed and load of the bearing. However, using just the base oil without additives will quickly wear out the rest of your engine," Lake explains. Having the proper balance of additives for the needs of the application is the key to obtaining higher levels of performance and increased engine life. "For example, the additive package for a diesel engine is different from a passenger car engine since diesels create more soot than gasoline engines. Consequently, diesel engine oils contain more dispersant additives to keep the soot from forming sludge. Diesel engine oils are also designed to withstand the higher torque that diesel engines produce. Gasoline engines typically produce less torque and turn higher rpm than diesel engines, so gasoline motor oils are designed differently to accommodate the need for better fuel economy at higher engine speeds. An in-depth discussion of the various detergent, dispersant, viscosity modifier, friction modifier, anti-wear, extreme pressure, anti-oxidant, pour point, metal deactivator, and anti-foam additives and their related chemistry is a whole article by itself! Again, the key is tailoring the blend and balance of these additives to the needs of the application. Unfortunately, just adding more is rarely better."


High-RPM Consideration
Whenever a sanctioning body sets a maximum cubic inch limit, the race is on to turn as many rpm as possible without blowing up. The sustained high-rpm of race motors place extraordinary demands on a motor oil. "Higher engine speeds require more valvespring pressure to control the valvetrain. This puts greater loads on the valvetrain contact points, cam, lifters, pushrod tips, and rocker arms," says Lake. "This increased load places more anti-wear demand on the motor oil, so the additive package must be designed to provide fast-acting anti-wear protection. The second demand of high rpm is increased friction in the cylinder bores and bearings. The higher speeds create more friction and heat, so the motor oil must be designed to reduce friction and withstand high temperature. Many oils will breakdown under the higher temperature and friction of high-rpm engines, but real racing formulations actually thrive in these environments since their chemistry works better in these conditions."

Being involved in NASCAR not only serves as a perfect proving ground for Driven motor oil, but it has also instilled a driving spirit that continues to push innovation.

Break-In Oil
Many hot rodders think that running a low-quality conventional oil on a fresh engine helps seat the rings, but that's not necessarily the right approach to break-in a motor. To assist in the process, Driven has formulated an oil designed specifically for breaking in an engine. "Think about the difference between break-in oil and regular oil as the difference between primer and paint. Break-in oil is like primer for your engine," says Lake. "It establishes the foundation that the motor oil builds off of to protect your engine. Again, the chemistry of a break-in oil is very different than that of a regular oil. Break-in oils are designed to assist the break-in process while still protecting the engine. The worst thing you can do for break-in is to use a poor oil that helps the engine ‘wear-in.' There is a big difference between wearing-in an engine and breaking-in an engine. A properly broken-in motor does not create high levels of wear to get the rings to seat. Using break-in oil like a primer for your engine reduces the amount of wear required to seal up the rings and break-in the valvetrain."

Clearances And Oil Weight
Different types of engines—street, drag race, circle track, naturally aspirated, and forced induction—are set up with different types of bearing clearances and ring gaps. They also operate at different temperatures, and all these factors affect which grade of oil is ideal for each type of engine. Since all oils get thinner as they get hotter, the key to selecting the right viscosity is oil temperature. "The oil temperature in an NHRA Pro Stock engine only runs about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so these engines use a 0W-5 grade motor oil. The operating viscosity of a 0W-5 grade motor oil at 100 degrees is the same as a 20W-50 at 240 degrees, so oil temperature is a very important factor," Lake explains. "Another major factor is bearing oil clearance. The larger the clearance, the thicker the viscosity that's required. For example, a 500hp, 350ci engine that runs 220-degree oil temps can use a 10W-30 with 0.0025-inch bearing clearances, but that same engine needs a 15W-50 if the bearing clearances are opened up to 0.0030. The difference between a multi-grade conventional oil and a straight-grade conventional oil is the use of viscosity modifier additives. Straight-grade conventional oils do not use viscosity modifier additives, and as a result, they have a lower viscosity index. Synthetic oils break these rules. Synthetics tend to have an inherently high viscosity index, so synthetic oils can be multi-grade without using viscosity modifiers. For high-horsepower applications, it is important to stay away from oils that use a lot of viscosity modifiers since they tend to break down."


Oil Temperature
The growing popularity of oil coolers in OE engines reinforces the fact that oil temperature and oil life are closely related. All oils gets thinner as they get hotter, but oil can protect an engine beyond 300 degrees as long as the viscosity does not drop too low from the heat. The real question is: For how long can oil protect an engine at elevated temperatures? "For roughly every 20-degree increase in oil temperature, oil's useful life is cut in half, so for the sake of oil longevity, you want to keep oil temperature under control. Oil temperatures below 200-degrees won't burn off much fuel and moisture through evaporation, so low oil temps are also detrimental to oil life," says Lake. "Keeping your oil temp around 220 degrees is pretty much ideal because it's not too hot or too cold. It is important to realize that above 320 degrees your engine bearings will not be happy, as the bearing alloys do not like temps that high. Keeping your oil temp in the 220-degree range helps extend the life of your engine parts as well as the oil. Never forget that oil does about 40 percent of the cooling in your engine."

Synthetic vs. Conventional
Engine builders discovered many years ago that synthetic oils offer superior protection and lubrication than their conventional counterparts, but what is it that makes them so much better? "The simplest way to describe the difference is that a conventional oil is refined down to a group of molecules whereas a synthetic oil is built up to a very specific molecule structure. The process of building up the molecular structure allows a chemist to tailor the performance properties of the oil," Lake explains. "As a result, synthetic base oils feature improved thermal and flow properties that make them a better choice in extreme conditions. However, conventional oils still have a place in performance applications. Engines built with rope-style seals should run conventional oils to reduce leakage. Likewise, engines that see high levels of fuel dilution should also use conventional oils. That's because the best thing for that type of engine is frequent oil changes, and the lower price of conventional oil makes it more affordable to change the oil more frequently."


Race Conditions
As a testament to the advanced science involved in formulating race oils in modern times, engine shops rely on different types of oils for different types of races on the calendar. In sanctioning bodies that allow running separate qualifying and race engines, qualifying oils are used to increase power output during brief qualifying sessions without harming the engine. Since these qualifying sessions are short in duration, the oil can be optimized for the sprint conditions of qualifying compared to the marathon conditions of a race. "Qualifying oils use special components that work best in these sprint conditions, whereas restrictor plate race oils are also unique in that they're used in engines that need to produce maximum horsepower yet also survive 500 miles at wide-open throttle. Fortunately, restrictor plate engines are restricted airflow engines, and that reduces cylinder pressure." Lake explains. "The constant high-rpm and lower cylinder pressure allows for the safe use of lower viscosity oils, which free up horsepower. Consequently, the bearing clearances and oil cooling system in these engines are designed to run 0W-20 down to 0W-10 grade oils. One of the issues with engines that run at wide-open throttle continuously is heat, and these low viscosity oils actually help to reduce heat generation. High viscosity oils generate more heat as they are pumped through an engine, so using a lighter oil helps to prevent excessive temperatures. Again, the chemistry employed in a restrictor plate engine oil is optimized for the unique needs of that type of engine."

Blocks And Sumps
Exotic hardware—such as aluminum blocks and dry sump oil systems—were once the exclusive territory of full-tilt race cars, but are now readily accessible to the sportsman racer. Consequently, it's important to know how this exotic hardware affects oil selection. "A 0.0025-inch main bearing clearance in an aluminum block is probably closer to .0040 when the engine is hot, so aluminum blocks tend to require higher viscosity oils than iron block engines with the same clearance. An iron block engine with 0.0025 main bearing can run a synthetic 10W-30, but an aluminum block with the same clearance will need to run either a synthetic 10W-40 or a conventional 20W-50," Lake explains. "Keep in mind that you can run one viscosity grade lower in a synthetic compared to a conventional oil because of the better temperature-to-viscosity characteristics of a synthetic. In regards to a dry sump vs. wet sump engine, heat is the determining factor. Most wet sump engines run hotter than dry sump engines, so wet sump engines typically run thicker oils. A conventional 20W-50 is a common oil for a wet sump race engine. Since wet sump engines run hotter than dry sump engines, it is better to run a synthetic oil in a wet sump engine. The better start-up flow properties of the synthetic help reduce start up wear, and the higher viscosity index of the synthetic provides the required high-temperature protection. A 10W-40 synthetic is an excellent choice for a dry sump race engine. Since dry sump engines tend to run cooler than wet sump engines due to increased oil volume, decreased windage and remote cooling, dry sump engines can run lower viscosity oils. This helps with priming the system, reducing start-up wear, and reducing heat generation."


Street/Strip Oil
An engine that runs on the street and at the track provides a unique set of challenges for oil designers. Race only oils give up extended drain intervals in return for increased horsepower via exotic friction modifiers. Street/strip motor oils that offer 3,000- to 7,500-mile drain intervals trade away some friction modifiers in order to meet the varied needs of a street/strip engine. Since street/strip engines will typically see longer drain intervals than a race-only engine, the motor oil must be designed to handle longer drain intervals while still providing excellent anti-wear protection. "Don't forget that street/strip cars are not typically daily drivers, so these engines see longer periods of storage than daily drivers. As a result, storage protection and start-up wear are a bigger concern," says Lake. "Consequently, a street/strip oil must take into account start-up protection, storage protection, anti-wear protection and extended drain intervals. Chemically, street/strip oils are formulated differently to handle all of these needs. When considering all of these various applications, from break-in to racing to street/strip, it is important to remember that it is hard to fall off the bottom of a mountain, but your margin for error is narrow as you near the top. At low levels of performance, many of these factors may seem like overkill, but at higher levels of performance, these factors are your lifeline."


Assembly Lubricants
In addition to offering a full line of street and race motor oils, Driven has also developed a full range of lubricants to assist in the engine assembly process. "Since initial break-in is the most critical time in an engine's life, having the proper assembly lubricants on vital wear components is just as critical. Over the last 13 years, Driven has worked with engine parts manufacturers, JGR and select professional engine builders to create a complete engine assembly and break-in package," says Lake. "Products like our Engine Assembly grease and HVL assembly oil provide the correct additives and viscosity requirements for the various parts in an engine. The Driven Engine Assembly grease provides anti-wear protection for cams, lifters, pushrods and distributor gears. Likewise, Driven's HVL assembly oil provides anti-scuff lubricity for bearings, wristpins, and piston skirts. Finally, Driven's BR series of break-in oils can be used to soak roller lifters and shaft-mount rocker arms as well as wetting cylinder walls. As a whole, this system of lubricants provides a carefully coordinated chemistry that is proven to protect and deliver consistent break-in performance."


Driven Racing



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