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Camshaft Profiling - Performance Profiling

The info you need to pick the right 'stick

John Nelson Mar 28, 2007

Consider the camshaft. On the one hand, it's a simple thing, a stick with bumps on it. It sits above the crankshaft, linked to it by a timing chain, and spins at half the crankshaft's speed. The camshaft's rotary motion is converted, through a lifter, pushrod, and rocker arm, to linear motion. Voila, the valves open and the engine operates. If only it were that easy. The configuration of those bumps--more accurately referred to as lobes--defines the performance personality of an internal-combustion engine. By determining when an engine's valves will be open, and how long they will stay open, the camshaft determines how much power an engine will make. It also dictates where this power will be made throughout the engine's rpm range. And that's just for starters. The camshaft is often called the brains of the engine, and that brain determines what kind of powerplant you will have. In the next few pages, we'll give you the information you need to pick a camshaft that will create a powerplant you can live with.

What we can't do is give you a handy-dandy formula for choosing the right cam, because there isn't one. Camshaft selection depends on a host of variables. Engine displacement, compression ratio, type and size of cylinder heads, carb size (or are you running EFI?), and exhaust-system specs are all crucial to picking a cam that optimizes engine performance. But unless you're building an engine that will only see dyno duty, that's just the start. How much does your Chevy weigh? On top of that, transmission type, torque-converter stall speed, and rear gear ratio are all critical when it comes to choosing a camshaft. Accounting for all these variables could drive a gearhead nuts, yet it's something more basic that trips most of us up.

The first step in choosing a cam is, quite simply, honesty--brutal honesty. "Motor specifics are important, but so is setting out your purposes and realistic goals," says Lunati's James Humphrey. "The most common issue we see is that people don't think about where they're heading," chimes in Comp Cams engineer Billy Godbold. We all like to think we can make use of a car that makes 500 hp at 6,000 rpm, but is this really the case? Is the vehicle in question meant for bracket-race duty, or is it a Pro Touring creation for a cross-country trip? If it's a street/strip car, how much of its time will be spent on the strip and how much on the street? Or are you in the performance-street category, just looking for a bit more kick in your daily driver?

With intent in mind, take it a step further and ask yourself what your goals are. Do you need low-speed torque, or do you really need high-rpm power? Is idle quality important? Custom cam grinder Ed Curtis of FlowTech Industries sums it up better than we could. "You need the power where you're gonna drive it," Curtis tells us. "You want to give up the peak for a nice power curve." In other words, pick a cam that will put the power where you can use it.

Once armed with this information, you can go on to make a selection, but again, a little honesty goes a long way. "The biggest mistake we see is mismatched combinations," says Isky Racing Cams' Nolan Jamora. "Someone reads an article, and hears from a friend, and finds a manifold on sale... They think they have the best combo, but it doesn't work." This statement strikes to the heart of the issue. The camshaft is important, but the overall combination-including the camshaft--is even more important. Here's the good part: Every cam company we talked with wants to talk to you about your combo and picking the right cam for it. "There are too many resources for people to have to do this alone," declares Comp's Godbold. "Get advice," echoes Lunati's Humphrey. "You can't have too much information." We agree, and in that spirit, here's our camshaft primer.

How Long is too Long?
This is a subjective question, of course, based on the requirements for a specific combo and its intended usage. That being said, duration--the amount of time the valves are open--has a dramatic affect on engine performance. Stock camshafts usually offer relatively short duration and lift figures; for a small-block, we're talking less than 200 degrees duration at 0.050 and less than 0.450 inch lift, done in the interests of a smooth idle and optimal part-throttle response. What happens when we change this? Let's focus, for a moment, on the intake side. Longer intake duration opens the valve sooner in the cycle and closes it later. At lower engine speeds, this means the intake valve is still open as the piston begins to move upward, pushing fresh air/fuel mixture out of the cylinder. On top of that, cylinder pressure can't build until the intake valve closes. The result is an engine with poor low- and midrange response. But the late-closing intake valve becomes an advantage at higher engine speeds, when the higher air-inlet speeds keep filling the cylinders, even with the late-closing intake valve. In other words, increasing duration shifts an engine's torque curve higher in the rpm range. Choosing a performance cam becomes a big compromise; when it comes to power, you have to give some to get some. Each engine combo will work best with a particular amount of lift and duration, so the cam swapper's goal is to create that combination. Taking the conservative route with duration figures may not yield the most peak horsepower, but it will improve and maintain an engine's torque band, improving acceleration and throttle response across a wider rpm range.

Ramp It Up
Increasing valve lift allows more air/fuel mixture to enter the cylinders and more exhaust to exit, which generally leads to an increase in engine performance. Theoretically, doing this without increasing duration would create more power without altering the characteristics of the power curve. In reality, an increase in lift almost always leads to an increase in duration, because increasing lobe lift requires more distance to create the opening and closing ramps. And as we've noted elsewhere, more duration is not necessarily a good thing. This paradigm is being altered, however, by today's computer-designed, asymmetrical-profile cams. "Our asymmetrical cams have a high-acceleration opening ramp, while the closing side sets the valve down softly, helping longevity," says Isky's Jamora. "The idea is to have instant opening, dwell at the top, set it down." How is this accomplished? A cam's opening or closing ramp may look like it's a single section, but computer programs enable designers to get much more sophisticated. "With software, we can design a ramp with six or seven sections," observes Jamora.

Camp Cams' Godbold echoes these ideas. "Before, we had to make everything on the lobe faster," he tells us. "Now we look at every section of the lobe. We can be quick off the seat and create a lot of area under the curve. It makes a cam little and big at the same time." Crane had similar ideas in mind with its Z-cams. In addition to getting the valves open as quickly as possible, David Bly discusses Crane's goals when it comes to duration. "We want to keep our advertised duration number as small as possible, and our 0.050-inch duration figure as large as possible. The idea is to have a camshaft that 'acts' big but also improves low- and midrange power."

Open & Closed
A camshaft's function can actually be reduced to four points: intake opening (IO), intake closing (IC), exhaust opening (EO), and exhaust closing (EC). Intake closing is crucial, since it does the most to establish where peak torque occurs. An early IC improves low-speed torque, but limits high-rpm power since it also limits time for cylinder filling. On the other hand, a later IC allows more time for a cylinder to fill at high rpm but limits low-end torque, since cylinder pressure is pushed back through the intake port. Intake opening plays a big part in establishing overlap (when both intake and exhaust valves are open). An early IO increases overlap and can lead to a sluggish engine, since the intake charge is contaminated with exhaust gasses. A later IO reduces overlap, improves idle quality, and increases low-speed torque. Exhaust opening ranks second only to intake closing in affecting engine performance. An early EO can limit low- and midrange power by allowing torque-creating cylinder pressure to escape but help high-rpm performance by creating more time for exhaust gas to be expelled. Exhaust closing also affects overlap. An early EC reduces overlap. The time that both the intake and exhaust valves are open is reduced, improving idle but limiting midrange power. A late EC increases overlap, which hurts idle but helps high-rpm power. You'll find all these figures on a typical cam card, which can usually be downloaded from the manufacturers' Web sites before you buy. After that, it's all about deciding what characteristics you want your ride to have and choosing accordingly.

Take Your Pick
It's the lifter dilemma: Flat-tappet or roller, solid or hydraulic? All have their places in today's performance world, and price is often the deciding factor. Here's a quick rundown, with comparative price samples from Summit Racing.
* Hydraulic flat-tappet: This type of lifter is self-adjusting, thanks to a valve-controlled plunger inside its lifter body. Engine oil pressure maintains preload against the pushrod, and since no lash allowance is needed, they run quieter than mechanical lifters. On the other hand, they can perform poorly at high rpm due to an inability to bleed down excessive oil pressure. Plan on paying about $170 for a cam and lifters.
* Mechanical flat-tappet: This type of lifter is also called a solid, since that's essentially what it is--a solid link between the cam lob and the pushrod. They allow greater rpm potential, since bleed-down is not a concern, but do require that lash, or clearance, be set between the valve and rocker arm to allow for expansion as the engine gets hotter. You're looking at around $200 for a cam-and-lifter set.
* Mechanical roller-tappet: This type of tappet allows for the most-aggressive lobe designs, due to the roller follower, and lends itself to high-rpm operation, since it's a solid body design. Like its solid flat-tappet brother, it requires a lash setting that must be readjusted over time. A retrofit mechanical-roller cam-and-lifter kit costs about $550.
* Hydraulic roller-tappet: This type of tappet, used in OEM small-blocks since 1987, allows for aggressive lobe designs along with self-adjustability and quiet operation. They can, however, also suffer from bleed-down at high rpm. The tab jumps to almost $700 for a retrofit cam-and-lifter set.

One of a roller cam's greatest advantages is that rolling frictional forces are less than those caused by the "sliding" of a flat-tappet cam, which frees up some horsepower. In general, roller-tappet profiles can be more aggressive; in other words, more lift can be employed for a given duration. On the other hand, a flat-tappet cam actually accelerates the lifter more quickly in the initial portion of the lift curve. With a short-duration cam, a flat-tappet cam can actually get to a higher lift faster than a roller cam. Again, it all comes down to defining priorities and determining what will work best with your combo.


A picture is worth a thousand words, right? The curves on this graph represent the action of an intake and exhaust lobe, with lift indicated on the vertical axis and degrees of duration across the bottom. Note the red exhaust-valve curve. It opens before bottom dead center (BDC) and closes after top dead center (TDC). The intake valve, represented in blue, opens before TDC and closes after TDC. Right smack in the middle, where the two curves intersect, is the overlap area. This chart also points out the intake and exhaust centerlines, as well as the lobe-separation angle. The 360 degrees represented here denote one rotation of the crankshaft, but remember, two rotations (720 degrees) are required to complete a four-stroke cycle.

Roller-tappet cams can achieve higher velocities than flat-tappet cams with the same amount of lift, which creates more area under the curve; i.e., more power at lower valve lifts (1). On the other hand, a flat-tappet cam has greater initial acceleration, reaching higher lift more quickly than a roller cam until the latter reaches its maximum velocity (2). This can be an advantage when running a short-duration cam.

Isky Racing Cams has been hard at work, creating hundreds of new small-block Chevy grinds in both roller- and flat-tappet versions, as well as the lifters, rocker arms, and valvesprings to complement them. Isky is one of the latest manufacturers to take advantage of the beehive spring technology.

Note the difference in the roller cam, at the left, with the flat-tappet cam next to it. Since a roller lifter concentrates valvespring pressure on a small contact patch compared with a flat-tappet cam, roller cams must be made from hardened steel. The shiny lobe surfaces on a roller cam make it easy to tell them apart.

"People think pushrods are just little sticks, but they're one of the chief causes of valvetrain failure," says our custom-cam guru, Ed Curtis. "It's not an item to get cheap on." The Comp Cams High Energy piece at the bottom will hold up to most everyday use, but the one-piece, thick-walled Magnum pushrod in the center is much stronger. Most cam companies will specify a pushrod length, but a length checker, shown at the top, can quickly determine the proper dimension for your application.

Comp's Billy Godbold's motto for valvetrain components: Make them light, and make them stiff. He goes further than that when it comes to springs. "I'm amazed that in roller world people are scared of lift," he tells us. "If a spring is designed to run the lift you want to run, you can certainly have it."

Comp's Thumpr camshafts are designed to create the rough idle and aggressive exhaust note coveted by gearheads, without sacrificing power output or streetability. The grind is actually similar to what Comp provides for endurance-racing motors, creating an early torque peak and a long, gentle fall-off.

Lunati has been adding improved springs to complement its Voodoo cams. Beehive springs for small- and big-blocks are now on the menu, as are Pacalloy springs, which Lunati says have superior tolerances and resonance qualities. An example of Lunati's micropolished solid flat-tappet and a pressurized roller lifter are also shown.

Lunati's Voodoo cam line uses asymmetrical lobe profiles with aggressive opening ramps to create more area under the curve, and slower closing sides that set the valve down easy for less noise and wear. The line started with small-block hydraulic flat-tappet and roller offerings. Solid roller grinds for big-blocks (left) and small-blocks are now available, with solid flat-tappet versions to come.

Hydraulic flat-tappet cams are still popular, but today's oils lack the substances that enabled this type of follower to survive. Break-in solutions like this one from Crane contain additives that help hydraulic flat-tappet lifters survive the break-in period, and guard against premature failure.

Although each cam company employs its own cam-card format, any one of them will tell you everything you need to know about your cam. This Lunati card spells out this cam's LSA, intake centerline, each of the valve-opening and -closing events, valve lift, advertised duration, and duration at 0.050 inch. The valve-adjustment spec shows zero, since this is a hydraulic cam; in a solid-cam application, the amount of lash needed would be specified. All manufacturers will recommend the appropriate valvesprings for each application; Lunati adds this information to the cam card.

If you've indulged in any bit of camshaft research or bench racing, chances are you've heard the term "area under the curve." It's the Holy Grail of cam design, but what does it mean? The term itself describes what a valve-lift cycle would look like if plotted on a graph, with time in crank degrees running horizontally and valve lift in thousandths of an inch running vertically. The more quickly the valve opens and dwells in that position, the greater the space from opening to closing, or beneath the curve. The payoff, according to Comp's Godbold, is lots of high-lift duration without low-lift duration, making for better performance at all rpm.

The intake centerline is the point of highest lift on the intake lobe, expressed in degrees after top dead center (ATDC). The exhaust centerline is that lobe's highest point of lift, expressed in degrees before top dead center (BTDC). The centerline is used to tie the valve timing to the crankshaft's rotation.

As lift refers to how far a valve opens, duration refers to how long it stays open. The opening time is expressed in degrees of crankshaft rotation, so a cam spec'd out at 230 degrees duration means the valve is being held open for 230 degrees of crankshaft rotation.
Cam makers usually refer to two types of duration:
* Advertised duration is the number of crankshaft degrees that the cam follower is lifted more than a predetermined amount off of its seat. The SAE standard is 0.006 inch. So advertised duration is the number of crankshaft degrees that the valve is open at least 0.006 inch. Not all manufacturers, however, use the SAE standard.
* Duration at 0.050 inch, on the other hand, measures the movement of the cam follower, in crankshaft degrees, from the point where it is first lifted 0.050 inch off the base circle on the opening side of the lobe to the point where it descends to 0.050 inch off the base circle on the closing side. This industry standard is especially valuable for comparing cams from different makers.
A cam lifter, also known as a follower or a tappet, makes direct contact with the cam lobes and follows the contour, or profile, of the cam. We'll discuss this in greater detail later, but there are four types of lifters: hydraulic flat-tappet, solid flat-tappet, mechanical roller-tappet, and hydraulic roller-tappet.

Lobe lift
An eight-cylinder Chevy camshaft features 16 eccentrics, or lobes, that are based on a circle (thus its name, "base circle"). The height of the lobe above this radius constitutes the cam's lobe lift.

Lobe-Separation Angle (LSA)
This measurement indicates the angle, in camshaft degrees, between the maximum lift points on the intake lobe and the exhaust lobe. Lobe separation is usually calculated by adding the intake centerline and the exhaust centerline, then dividing by two. For example, a cam with a 106-degree intake centerline and a 114-degree exhaust centerline has an LSA of 110 degrees [(106 + 114) / 2 = 110].

Overlap is the amount of time, measured in crankshaft degrees, that both the intake valve and the exhaust valve are open. This situation happens at the end of the exhaust stroke and the beginning of the intake stroke. Increasing duration or decreasing lobe-separation angle--or doing both--increases overlap. A cam with an exhaust closing point of 4 degrees ATDC and an intake opening point of 8 degrees BTDC has 12 degrees of overlap.

single & dual
* Single pattern: In this type of cam, the intake and exhaust lobe profiles are identical, employing equal amounts of duration and lift. For example, a Comp Cams 270 Magnum (PN 12-211-2) cam has 270 degrees advertised duration, 224 degrees duration at 0.050 inch, and 0.470 inch lift on both the intake and exhaust sides.
* Dual pattern: This type of camshaft has different intake and exhaust profiles. In general, the exhaust lobe will employ more lift and duration to help evacuate exhaust gas from the cylinders. For example, Lunati Voodoo cam (PN 60130) has 261/267 degrees advertised duration (intake/ exhaust), 0.231/0.237 duration at 0.050, and 0.555/0.566 inch lift.

Valve Lift
This measurement refers to the distance, measured in thousandths of an inch, that the valve is lifted off its seat at the cam lobe's highest point. Remember, the cam's rotary motion is converted to linear motion through a lifter, pushrod, and finally a rocker arm. Therefore, valve lift equals lobe lift multiplied by the rocker-arm ratio. For example, if we have a lobe that measures 0.334 inch running a 1.5:1 rocker-arm ratio, 0.334 x 1.5 = 0.501 inch valve lift. Running a 1.6:1 rocker arm creates 0.534 inch valve lift.

CHP: Isky is known as one of the real old-time hot rod outfits. That said, what's new?
Nolan Jamora: Isky still has its hot rod heritage, but in the last five years we've moved to the forefront of tech. CNC, Spintron, cam-design software--in order to stay current, you have invest in technology.

CHP: Where's most of Isky's business coming from these days?
NJ: I'd say 60 percent is hard-core racing and 40 percent is street, and three fourths of that is still traditional small-block and big-block applications. In the last year we've introduced 200 new grinds for the SBC, both hydraulic- and solid-roller. We're now on the LSX stuff.

CHP: What are you seeing in the LSX market?
NJ: Street/strip and drag is where we're seeing growth. There are blocks out there, and cars are coming out of warranty... There's potential.

CHP: What drove Isky to introduce all those new grinds for traditional small-blocks?
NJ: The availability of good-flowing heads and manifolds has never been better. Some of the out-of-the-box heads are fantastic. You need a cam that cam utilize that flow. You can't use a 15-year-old cam. It's the same with big-blocks.

CHP: What else has Isky been working on?
NJ: We found that we have to supply the whole package: lifters, springs, and pushrods. Things have to match. Doing one at a time creates a weak link.

CHP: What information would you like the public to know?
NJ: It's the combination that's important. If you improve your heads, you can go with more cam. But the best tip is to call us. Very rarely will a head guy know the combos, but a camshaft guy has to know what works.

In general, what the OEM does drives the aftermarket. One example of this is the increased cam-core diameter GM employs on the LSX engines. A 55mm core's advantages include its strength over traditional cams, and it is mainly used in more-extreme, high-horsepower drag-racing applications. The deflection under the torsional stress a camshaft incurs can actually change duration values--this happens less with the larger-diameter cam. But is also has a more functional benefit, according to Crane's David Bly. "The whole cam is scaled up, and it allows for more modern lobe profiles." Isky's Nolan Jamora agrees: "We get a constant stream of requests. It's part of the trickle-down effect from newer technology." The larger-core cams won't fit in a traditional small-block, but they will fit in aftermarket blocks. As these pieces become the basis for more builds, more of them will take advantage of the benefits of a 55mm core."

CHP: So, tell us about FlowTech Induction.
Ed Curtis: Most of what I concentrate my business on is working with select dealers that want a valvetrain and heads package.

CHP: And part of that is creating custom cams?
EC: If you call one of the big companies, you're not gonna get a tech who's the designer on the phone. That's where I come in.

CHP: How do you go about creating a custom cam?
EC: One thing is the term "custom cam." If it's in a catalog, it's not custom. The big companies are locked into their lobe designs. I'll go to whoever gives me what I want. Multiple vendors give me multiple choices, and most will also tweak things for me.

CHP: What are people looking for when they come to you for a custom cam or a package?
EC: People want everything. The Power Tour made a big impact, so they want the wheels, the suspension, and a 450hp motor that gets 20 mpg. I handle the valvetrain end of that.

CHP: Besides the multiple lobe choices, what makes your cams different?
EC: Many people only know what happens at 0.050. What I value is area under the curve, though that's an overused term.

CHP: What area makes up the bulk of your Chevy business?
EC: LSX packages are the top movers. The Gen I stuff, most people just pick up a book. They're not looking for that last 10-15 percent. But the high-end guy, the guy who spends $30-40K, does.

CHP: And that's where you come in?
EC: My grinds cost a bit more, though not a lot. I put in a little more time, and it works. It's amazing how many people want a source, and I can work with them one on one to give them a true custom cam.


Crane Cams
Daytona Beach, FL 32117
Comp Cams
Memphis, TN 38118
Isky Racing Cams
Gardena, CA 90248
Flowtech Induction
Coventry, RI 02816

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