One Question: Silencing Cylinder Head Purchasing Myths With Dave Localio

Here at Front Street, we’re in the unique position of having direct access to many of the automotive aftermarket’s most prominent shops, manufacturers, and innovators. As such, we’ve decided to tap into this vast network for a new monthly feature, entitled One Question, where we’ll ask an expert one relevant question about a topic which falls into their area of expertise.

This month, we’ve hooked up with record-setting cylinder head mastermind Dave Localio of HeadGames Motorworks in West Windsor, NJ. Localio and his team have been intimately involved with many motorsports champions over the last 18 years, from drag racers to rally teams and road racers, located all over the globe. We put the screws to Dave with our question—which is really a twofer deal this month, so you’re welcome!

What is the biggest mistake when buying a ported head? How can you avoid it?

Dave Localio, Headgames Motorworks: Admittedly, avoiding the pitfalls of purchasing the right cylinder head is tough. There is so much misleading information to filter through, and every day we speak to people who don’t know why they are shopping for a combination of parts or port size, other than they want more from their cylinder head. Without real knowledge of what works or reading it somewhere on the Web, you get lost in the rabbit hole of information that is not available, then lost again trying to decipher the information that is available. Or, you have spent time and money trying to achieve your goals and are missing the mark because you went with a shop that doesn’t have the knowledge from experience to help you achieve what you’ve set out to do.

It can be likened to going to a restaurant with an extensive menu for the first time. With so many choices, the only way to pick what you’d like to eat is by guessing for your flavor, or asking the server for an opinion. The server gives the opinion based on his or her palate and experience. Sometimes you get lucky and you’re praising that server for giving an awesome recommendation that fits your desires. Other times, you’re kicking yourself for getting a meal that didn’t satisfy you and may not have even tasted very good.

There is a voodoo aura around cylinder heads. It’s possibly the most misunderstood aspect of building a serious engine, mainly because people know that the power potential is locked up within its core. But, do you know why you’re buying that cylinder head? Do you know why you’re buying larger valves? Do you know why you’re buying a specific brand of cylinder head? Or why the valve angle or port size is what it is in that particular offering?

All of these questions lead to the grand question: Do you know what the hell you’re buying?! Most often, it’s because of something the buyer has read on the internet or assumed based on a conversation with someone who may not necessarily have the right answers.

From a bird’s eye view, the biggest mistake people make is purchasing more cylinder head than they really need. As a result, this makes the dyno sheet look like a ski slope, whereas the right parts—which are likely far from the largest available—build mountains of area under the curve. Bigger is not always better. Just the right size beats the “overbuild” any day.

Another mistake is building your cylinder head needs around what you plan on doing, but are not doing at the moment. Have realistic goals—not a gigantic window—just in case you win the lottery and can finish your 400 horsepower engine into the 1500 horsepower race car you’re dreaming about. Live in the now. If I were to be off with an estimate, I would rather be off smaller than you need compared to maxing out the head. It’s been my experience that we will not make as much peak power this way, but the power under the curve will be fat and wide, just how we all like them. When the head is too big, it makes more peak and less area under the curve. Don’t follow the flow charts or look at the dyno graph and only look for the big shiny number. It’s easy to be wowed by something that is peaky. The more experienced fellow knows where the power is usable and builds on that.

But remember when you’re buying a cylinder head, you’re buying into the ideas of what that manufacturer, shop or tuner thinks is best. The combo might work, and every loyal someone has an opinion as to why, but in my experience these are rarely facts. We have serviced many tuner shops that sell their own style head(s) for the genre they cater to.

And if they do not have the same ideas HeadGames sells then they are requested to not include us in advertising. It doesn’t make either of us wrong, just different—differences that make it confusing and frustrating to make a choice. You want a magic wand to make the decision for you. Unfortunately, there is none. You have a lifeline though. It’s called choice.

My advice would be to not follow the guy who sells the shiniest parts. Follow the shop which can tell you why they offer a combination. If they can’t explain their theory with real attributes, then it doesn’t make sense to go further, as it’s not their belief, it’s just something they sell. And selling is far different from doing. You can talk to anyone at HeadGames and they can tell you why we do what we do. It’s embedded in our culture, and our employees live “why” every day. You want to be wowed with information, not dictation. You’re not trying to buy the myth, you want the legend.

For more on this topic, check out Dave’s full-length article over at Speed Academy.

Stay tuned in the coming months for more One Question segments, and if you have someone you’d like to hear from, drop us a line with suggestions!