Not long after the headers had coole from last year's event, the stage was set for this year's 5th Anniversary Engine Masters Challenge. We ran small-blocks in the debut year, followed by big-blocks, and then flip-flopped from small- to big-blocks in the two subsequent years. Popular Hot Rodding Editor Johnny Hunkins and I had been contemplating the basic configuration for the next competition, playing out the potential scenarios in typical gearhead jawboning fashion. The natural question we had been hearing from the competitors was whether it would be big-blocks or small-blocks for 2006. A little contemplation brought us both to the same conclusion: Why not run both?

The trend in custom performance engines is to make them bigger and bigger, a phenomenon made possible by the current breed of aftermarket parts. Today's small-blocks typically exceed the classic displacements of yesterday's big-blocks. The blocks, cranks, rods, pistons, and heads are all there to make it happen on a routine basis. It made us wonder what was better, a traditional 427 big-block, or a small-block built to the same dimension. Who knows, maybe the basic engine architecture wouldn't even prove to be the key factor in deciding superiority. We chose the 434-cube displacement to put it right in the range of possibility for any production big-block and well within the reach of a modern small-block stroker. We were in for some surprises when we were ready to play.

The Jeg's Engine Masters Challenge is a competition unlike any in motorsports. Here, engine builders are allowed a chance to showcase their abilities and expertise like in no other venue, running heads-up on the dyno versus their rivals in a battle of all-out power production. The competition is open, and we consider all applicants on an equal footing, whether they are recognized professional championship builders or privateer hobbyist and enthusiasts who want to prove their mettle. Here, above all, recognition is a result of talent, and even a relatively unknown builder can be thrust into the national limelight if he proves his stuff against the big boys.

Competition engines are built to comply with a detailed set of rules, essentially designed to regulate the engine components away from exotic race-only equipment, favoring off-the-shelf components, and potentially useable by the street enthusiast. Since the inception of the challenge, the engines have been required to run on spec 91 octane pump gas, a requirement fulfilled by Shell V-Power gasoline this year (see sidebar: Fueling the Fire). A major change in the guidelines for 2006 was the addition of a compression ratio limitation of 10.5:1, in contrast to no limitation in the past. Though our instinct is to allow the builders as much room for innovation in the engine's ultimate specifications as practical, we caved to criticism of the true practicality of 13:1 compression ratios in real street engines.

The Engine Masters Challenge is not a battle for the biggest peak horsepower number-that would be too easy. This contest is about the engine's full power curve over a specified rpm range. Using the DTS engine dynos at our host site of World Products, we can measure engine power over a broad rpm range. We specify the street rpm range from 2,500-6,500 rpm, and an engine's ranking in the score is based upon its horsepower and torque production over that whole rpm range. To be a contender, an engine needs to be a monster at the rock-bottom end of the rev range, fat in the mid-range, and a screaming powerhouse up-top. The sum of the average power and average torque over the full rpm range determines the score.

Gentlemen, Fire Your Engines

Gorgeous autumn weather greeted us at World's facility, and a high barometer loads the cylinders with atmosphere and taxes the more edgy combinations with increased cylinder pressure. The crew at World was infinitely dialed-in, and as the doors opened for the first qualifying day, all three dyno cells were already loaded with engines ready to run. The day's subsequent competitors were already staged on quick-deploying DTS dyno carts, which allow engines to be rolled into the cell and linked to the dyno with remarkable speed and efficiency. DTS had sent technicians in advance to verify the dyno calibration in each of the three cells, and validated their consistency with a test engine run back-to-back at each station. Custom selections of Snap-On tools, neatly arranged in Snap-On tool chests, waited at the ready for competitors at World's engine-assembly stations. We couldn't have been more prepared to run.

The competition opens with four days of qualifying, with a ladder based loosely in rank favoring former competitors and leading finishers from previous years. The opening day's field consists primarily of new competitors to the Challenge, and as such it can hold some surprises. The first day of qualifying showed a mixed field, with the Caverly Pontiac, Hinkle's small-block Mopar, an FE Ford by the Texans from TLI, and three small-block Fords, the Revolutionary Performance entry with the Jeg's/Kaase Windsor heads, and the Reincarnation and Performance Unlimited entries both sporting the Australian CHI 3V Cleveland-style top end. We saw both carnage and success in the first day, with Hinkle's Mopar dropping a valve, and the TLI Ford FE succumbing to a broken rocker shaft. Meanwhile, the two CHI-equipped Fords of Performance Unlimited and Reincarnation sizzled with scores of 1,027.2 and 1,054.5, numbers that set the pace early in the game-and set a precedent which would see the Windsor/CHI combination dominate the show.

Small-block Fords were out in force again for the second day, with the conventional Windsor of Littleton Performance, a pair of Windsors fielded by C&J Racing and McKeown Motorsports sporting those CHI 3V heads that showed so strong the previous day. A 400M block with the same CHI top-end configuration was fielded by the M6 Miller family. From the other manufactures, we had the Iron Horse Pontiac, an AMC from Kustom Kemp, while representing Mopar, Cory Short brought a Chrysler Hemi, and Troy Short came wielding a small-block Mopar. The attention-getting Hemi retired with a DNF when time expired on the allotted tuning period before the team could complete a cam-timing change attempt. Troy Short's small-block Mopar made a strong showing, but by far the stand-out of the day was McKeown Motorsports' Windsor/ CHI combo, posting a 1,054, within half a point of the current leader, Reincarnation, which ran the same basic small-block Ford combo.

Day three was also heavy with a variety of Ford configurations, with Randy Malik, and the MPG Heads' team fielding 385-series big-blocks, while Blair Patrick Racing brought an FE big-block. The School of Automotive Machinists chose the Windsor/CHI Ford small-block combination that had previously proven to work well in qualifying. Day three also brought out two Chevrolets, the big-block entries of Adney Brown from Performance Crankshafts, and the Bower's entry. Dick Miller brought the only specialty brand of the day, with his gorgeous Oldsmobile. With two Ford 385s, an FE Ford, a pair of big Chevys and the Olds, it was a day heavy in traditional big-blocks squaring off against the small-block CHI-topped Windsor of the SAM team in a big-block versus small-block showdown. Miller's Olds retired with a blown rocker, and once again the Windsor/CHI combo proved indomitable, handily taking the top spot of the day with a score of 1,026. After the third day of qualifying, these small Ford combos had a firm grasp on the top spots in the rankings.

The final day of qualifying brought some of the familiar names in the Engine Masters Challenge, and a great deal of anticipation for those who had run and were waiting to make the bump into the finals. All of the competitors on this day were Engine Masters' veterans, and they brought a wide variety of engine types. Ford was well represented with Barry Rabotnik's FE big-block, John Lahone's 385-series big-block, and Tony Bischoff sporting the deadly Windsor/CHI combination. Chevrolet was the choice of Ron Shaver and Charles Williams with big-block engines, while Larry Salisbury brought the competition's only small-block Chevrolet. Rounding out the field on the last day was Mike Phillip's Buick, and Jon Kaase's Pontiac. Williams and Salisbury both suffered engine troubles hurting their score, while Kaase and Bischoff turned in the big numbers to take the top two qualifying spots, overall, with scores of 1,082.3 and 1,075, respectively. With qualifying completed, these two competitors had a substantial leg up on the field going into the finals.