Having gobs of power on tap is cool. Getting it free is cool, too. And concealing it from the outside world while never having to worry about turning it on is even cooler, still. Only a turbocharger can give you the best of all worlds, and we wanted to know what makes them tick and why they have suddenly "appeared" on the market as the best power-adder available. We know that turbos are nothing new and have been making power on automobile engines for decades. Unfortunately, turbocharging has been overlooked in the past as a viable power enhancer due to its inherently high cost and troublesome installation. That is until now.
While it's true that turbos will always be a costly bolt-on, huge advances in computers and Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) technology have given the average street enthusiast access to usable turbo systems for his everyday car. And it's these advances that have allowed regular-guy racers, who are not typically fond of installing computers with complicated EFI and the expensive exhaust systems needed to drive a turbo, to overlook these difficulties and take advantage of all the power a turbo can make. Today, records are being broken in just about every form of motorsports thanks to turbos, and there's relatively little chance of that trend slowing down any time soon.
What Makes A Turbo Better?
A turbocharger is a very efficient way to supercharge an engine by pumping more air into it than it could breath normally. Turbos are also as close to free horsepower as we might ever get. That's because, unlike a blower that's driven off the crankshaft, a turbo uses the engine's exhaust gasses to drive it. And unlike nitrous, a turbo is on all the time and requires little maintenance. But, as with blowers and nitrous oxide, turbos also need extra fuel to burn with all that extra air, so any turbo upgrade will probably require a fuel system revamp, as well. While turbos have been tried on carbureted engines with moderate success in the past, it's been the giant leaps in racing EFI that have given turbos a new resurgence of success. And with the cost of EFI systems reaching very affordable levels, bolting a turbo onto your '68 Camaro doesn't seem so daunting.
Factory-installed turbo systems of the past also gave the whole idea a bad rap. While automakers were trying everything in their bag of tricks to up the power and economy of their mid-'80's cars, the technology required to back them up just wasn't there. Many OEM turbo systems failed, and aftermarket turbocharging was, so to speak, shelved. Then, with the huge insurgence of "street-car"-type drag racing came a new whole new addiction to any kind of power adders. While nitrous still plays a dominant role in that type of racing, turbos are taking over fast.
The reasons for turbos moving ahead of nitrous on the racetrack are the same as on the street: advances in EFI technology. Using a turbo offers greater reliability, and it's a more easily controlled power enhancement. Sure, the costs can be 5-10 times greater to build a competitive turbocharged race car, but when you're standing in the winner's circle, nobody remembers how much it cost to get there.