If internal combustion is a war, then pistons are quite literally on the frontlines. Converting reciprocating energy into rotating force means that the four-stroke process tries to both eject the pistons out of the block deck and blow them out through the oil pan in brutal succession. At 6,000 rpm, this melee goes down 100 times each second. Furthermore, advances in cylinder head and valvetrain technology allow modern engines to turn more rpm and pack more cylinder pressure than ever. To top it all off, forced induction and nitrous often intensify the beat-down, and pump gas is getting worse by the day. Given these formidable circumstances, it's truly amazing that piston failure is so rare these days. It's companies like JE Pistons that are directly responsible for this impressive feat.
While the nickname "slugs" suggests that pistons are nothing more than archaic hunks of forged aluminum, the technology involved in their development is astonishing. To find out what it takes to design and manufacture premium-grade, race-bred aftermarket pistons, we tapped into the collective knowledge of Sean Crawford, Stephen Golya, and Alan Stevenson of JE Pistons. As we found out, there's far more to piston design than merely pounding an aluminum ingot into a cylindrical shape and calling it a day. Some of the design elements of a piston that hot rodders typically obsess over are insignificant, while factors that most people aren't even aware of can be the difference between being a hero and blowing up. To ensure you pick the right pistons for your next engine build, keep reading.
From Top Fuel and Sprint Cup to World of Outlaws and Pro Stock, JE has always been involved in high-end racing. Naturally, this magnitude of involvement has elevated the company's breadth of knowledge, which directly benefits the average hot rodder. "When it comes to professional racing, particularly at the top tiers, you can't get away with poor designs, performance, or quality. The expectations are so high that most piston manufacturers could not supply our professional customers with an acceptable product," Crawford says. Every one of JE's manufacturing steps, from design to final inspection, is strictly controlled to ensure accuracy, consistency, and quality.
JE Pistons was incorporated in 1947, and although the company has grown over the years, its primary focus remains the manufacturing of high-quality custom pistons for the racing market. "In order to keep our products at the top, we've had to make constant improvements to our engineering, manufacturing, and inspection processes over the last 62 years," Crawford explains. "We started out by manufacturing both cast and forged pistons, but have since switched to forged and billet units exclusively due to the demands of modern racing engines. To ensure we're offering the best-quality pistons on the market, our manufacturing has also evolved. Decades ago, JE used all manual machines to cut pistons, but today we utilize over 55 modern CNC machines."
In addition to helping the company fine-tune its quality control, Crawford says that many new piston innovations developed for professional racing have trickled down to JE's off-the-shelf parts. "The most recent example of this is our SRP Professional piston line. We integrated features such as a new lightweight forging design, an advanced low-friction ring package, shorter wrist pins, a unique skirt profile, and ultra-flat ring grooves. On our Chevy 383 test engine, the new design resulted in a weight reduction of 63 grams per cylinder and a 13hp gain!"