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Solid Foundation—A performance partnership yields robust Coyote short-blocks with secret-sauce sleeves

Seeking a durable solution for its own projects and customer vehicles, Li Tuning and Racing partnered with Fast Forward Race Engines to build rugged, sleeved Ford Coyote 5.0-liter short-blocks for high-powered applications.

Today’s engines don’t need much help making power. Feed them with boost and fuel and they will flourish. That is definitely true of the Ford Coyote engines, as well as their RoadRunner and Voodoo cousins. Because of their high-winding nature and free-flowing, four-valve cylinder heads, they really take to power adders of all kinds. Eventually, however, some of the stock hardware will reach its limit and that’s where the aftermarket performance parts manufacturers, tuners, and engine builders step in.

The combination of performance and driveability offered by these engines led Sai Li to leave the corporate world behind and start his own business. He couldn’t find what he wanted in the market, so he opted to do it himself. These days, Li Tuning and Racing offers both calibrations and hardware designed to enhance modern Mustang performance.

“I am a very picky person, so I tried very many tuners on my own cars. I was never happy with them. They always seem to do one thing better than the other. Either they went wide open throttle great and drove bad, or they drove great and didn’t do well at wide open throttle,” Li told us. “So it was one or the other. I wanted to make something that would do everything. I wanted something that could drive on the street perfectly, have street manners, and at the same time would go wide-open throttle great and have great performance at the track the street, whatever that may be for the build for that customer.”

This piece of automotive jewelry is one of Fast Forward Race Engines Coyote short-blocks, which feature flanged sleeves and rugged internals from the likes of ARP, Diamond, Ford Performance, King, Manley, Total Seal, Trend and more. These engines are typically built to support up to 1,500 horsepower and are available exclusively through Li Tuning and Racing.

Eventually he began pushing his own Mustang into the 7-second zone with turbochargers, tuning, and more. Known as Ferdinand, his gray S197 has seen multiple single-digit passes. It eventually found the limit of the internal stock components and Li wanted to be able to offer his customers the same solution that he used in his own project vehicle.

“We started off with a stock-sleeve engine on that car. We pushed it all the way to the limit. We had a twin-turbo setup on it about three years ago. We pushed it as far as we could on the factory sleeves. We went 7.90s with that engine. So that engine was making a little bit too much for the factory sleeves, but we pushed it to see what the limit was,” Sai explained. “We are safe to say that the stock sleeves are good for around the 1,100-horsepower range with what we do with them assembly-wise on what we call our ‘Stage 1,’ which is the factory sleeves on an H-beam with a custom piston in it. They still use the factory crank.”

From drilling the cranks and pressing in Mallory metal to block boring and line-honing, Fast Forward Race Engines focuses on precision machining in its fully equipped machine shop.

He needed a reliable engine to live at that power level, and that let him to forge an alliance with Fast Forward Race Engines. Li learned the value of partnerships in the corporate world, and he set his sights on collaborating with a proven engine builder that had history in both all-out pushrod machines and high-tech overhead-cam powerplants. It took a bit of convincing, however.

“Sai approached us about doing some Coyote engines because he was having some failures in their programs. So they came to us and said, ‘This is what we have, and this is what we’re currently doing. What can you provide us?’” Fast Forward’s Joe Irwin explained. “We built them an engine. It performed well. We built multiple engines, and knock on wood, they’ve all done really well. He said, ‘What’s it gonna take to do a, you know, an engine program with you, like you’ve already done?’’

LA Sleeves provides a proprietary version of its spun-cast ductile iron cylinder sleeve liners to Fast Forward. These flanged sleeves allow for precision installation and bolster the factory Coyote block for a much higher level of sustained output.

“I pulled Joe aside and I said ’I would like to start a Coyote engine program. I’ve been chasing you for a long time,’” Sai said. “We finally got to a point where he said, ’Let’s go ahead and try it.’ And then we built this partnership that we have now. We are over 50 engines in and we are about only about a year and a half into the program.”

Showing just how far performance has come, the average customer for these engine is solidly gunning for the four-digit range in a car that can behave like a factory fresh machine.

“Usually, the 800- to 1,500-horsepower range are the ones that we keep in stock. Those are our target guys, which is more than 90 percent of the population out there. The 2000-horsepower stuff is great, but we only probably sell like five a year, where the average guy that wants to go up to 1,500 horsepower is the most common thing that we do,” Li said. “The Stage 1 starts at $6,500. Our engines can go all the way up to $10,000, depending on the options that they choose. ‘A lot of it has to do with the choice of rods that they pick, the piston choice, etc. We have different pistons that we use with different coatings depending on the application that we’re building it for.”

Fast Forward uses forged Coyote crankshafts from Ford Performance Parts, typically Boss 302 cranks, for its builds. They do validate each one before use to ensure it is within manufacturing tolerance, and then they debur and balance the cranks in-house to prep them for a high-performance environment. For blower applications, they can machine the cranks for a double keyway.
Ninety percent of these engines are built with a Manley I-beam rod, but for higher power levels that racers may need, the Callies Ultra I-beam rod is the upgrade. No matter which rod is chosen, they are pin-fit to ensure proper clearance.
Fast Forward opts for custom Diamond pistons in its engines. Of the robust, full-round variety, these slugs feature double pin oilers that bleed off excess pressure. These pistons are fit with Total Seal Advanced Profile top rings, Napier second rings, and standard-tension oil rings.

Most customers tend to option the engine up a bit for it to survive that four-digit level with a power adder.

“Our main target guy, it’s going to be in the $9,500 range, which is gonna be the flanged sleeves on the Coyote, “ Sai added. “We use the Boss crankshaft, ARP main studs and Manley I-beam rods with the ARP2000 rod bolts and custom pistons depending on the application.”

Since the custom Diamond pistons are far more robust that the factory slugs, the factory oil squirters are not needed to cool the piston and keep it alive. As such, Fast Forward blocks off the squirters and relies on good parts and proper clearances to withstand cylinder pressures far beyond the factory tolerances.

Of course, there is far more to these engines than just the hard parts. Irwin learned the ropes of engine building working in his grandfather’s engine shop and working for other shops before striking out on his own to create Fast Forward, which was once operated in concert with Donald Long of Duck X Productions drag racing fame. These days Irwin runs the show, but he continues to focus on the quality, details, and process that he learned from growing up around the process.

To start out, the Fast Forward Race Engines team validates the parts to ensure they are up to snuff. Sometimes there are production variances that mean the off-the-shelf parts don’t make the cut. When the parts are verified, the team focuses on refining them further for maximum performance.

“Once the core is validated, you know, everything looks good and correct on it, then we go ahead and the first thing we do is debur the whole block. The block gets completely deburred, top to bottom,” Irwin said. “Then we’ll go ahead and get it bored for sleeves. If it is going to be a full-blown race deal, then we’ll do the billet inserts in the decks of them; we’ll weld those inserts in. If it’s not and it’s going to have any street use or anything like that—up to about 1,500 horsepower—we do just the sleeve work.”

While Fast Forward prides itself on attention to detail, a major part of the secret sauce in these Coyote short-blocks is this fixture. It allows the builder, AJ Hoffman to slide four sleeves into the heated block at one time, which not only expedites the process, it also ensures they are all properly aligned and do not require any outside sealants to keep them in places. This is said to ensure durability (see sidebar).
Fast Forward invested significantly in equipment just to hone the cylinders to just the right finish for this power level. “Every single engine that comes through here gets line hone. There’s no possible way you could put all those main studs in it and not line hone them. And that happens too. So every single one gets line honed,” Fast Forward main man Joe Irwin explained. “After it gets line honed, we put the deck plates on it and finish the cylinders to whatever size it’s going to be. The majority of them are all standard-bore. After that, the block gets final cleaned and then it’s pretty much ready to go at that point.”

Fast Forward offers a variety of sleeve configurations on its engines, but the two most common on the Coyote engines are stepped decks, which leave the sleeve poking out just a bit for improved gasket seal, and traditional flat decks, which are used on most of the engines for Li Racing and Tuning. The real trick of these engines, aside from a focus on detailed machining and assembly, is the use of flanged sleeves with flats that allow for precision alignment when installed one bank at a time.

One way that Fast Forward ensures consistency amongst its engines is having specialists concentrate on specific engines. AJ Hoffman assembles all of the Coyote engines, so he knows all of the nuances and can spot any issues before the process gets too far along. He keeps rod and main bearing clearance within two ten thousandths of an inch when installing the shop’s preferred King bearings.

The blocks are simply heated in the oven to allow the block to expand and establishing a heat differential between the block and sleeves. This allows for easy pressing in of four sleeves at a time using a proprietary fixture created by Fast Forward.

“You need to have that variance and then the block expands. That allows us to install these. We take these, we flip ’em over, they’ll start to go, you tap them down with a mallet,” Irwin said. “Then we have studs that go in the holes and you pull the plate out. So not only can you install them, but you could see them all at the same time.”

Here’s a completed short-block. As you can see, the LA Sleeves look like they were born in the block, and the Diamond pistons are ready to take on big boost.
Fast Forward builds the short-blocks in batches. The majority of them are built in the most popular configuration without a particular customer in mind, which improves efficiency. Of course, if you have specialized needs, they can customize the engine to your needs.

Not only does installing the sleeves one bank at a time streamline the process, but it allows installing the flanged sleeves with precision. The result is a block that looks like the sleeves are born there, which is not only aesthetically pleasing, but enhances the long-term durability of the engine. It is just one of the touches that comes from Fast Forward’s focus on precision machining.

Once the blocks are sleeved and machined, they are cleaned and put together with the right parts for the desired power level. Customers can choose the compression ratio, piston, rod, and such to suit their needs, and the engine is built to that level using Diamond Pistons, Trend wrist pins, Total Seal rings, Manley or Callies Rods, King bearings, Boss crankshafts, and ARP fasteners.

The same engines have proven successful in Sai’s own 7-second machine and others, including Brett LaSala’s 7-second Snot Rocket 2013 Mustang GT. Here we documented some highlights of the those engines, which are available to all enthusiasts as a result of the partnership between Li Tuning and Racing and Fast Forward Race Engines.

Each engine starts with this checklist so Fast Forward knows just what parts and specs to use for the build.
Fast Forward runs a number of private-label engine programs and each gets its own serial number for tracking during and after the build.

Mind the Gap

Sleeving blocks for enhanced durability is common practice with a lot of modern high-performance engines. Not all sleeve operations are the same, however. Some super-cool the sleeves with nitrogen and tap them in one at a time. Some use thread-locker to help seat them. Fast Forward Race Engines uses its own method to install flanged sleeves one bank at a time to ensure the sleeves stay put.

“A lot of people do use a green thread locker for wicking and whatnot, but that puts a barrier between the sleeve and the cylinder wall and that prevents transfer of heat,” Joe Irwin, of Fast Forward Race Engines, explained. So on the high-end engines, the guys that are really in the know don’t use anything behind there. There’s a lot of people that do. Part of that is why sleeves drop. The thread-locker starts to dry up before the sleeves set. It gets in between this flange from the bottom of the flange. So there’s multiple reasons where it could cause problems.”

Fast Forward’s proprietary method eliminates the need for such augmentation, and the flanged sleeves ensure congruent alignment. This is key, as the other sleeve styles and installations may leave small gaps between the blocks and sleeves. This allows rotating and pinching that can lead to piston scuffing and sleeve dropping. Those are obviously bad results.

Fast Forward avoids such outcomes in its sleeved blocks. By heating the block to establish the right temperature differential between the sleeves and block then installing a fixture-mounted set of sleeves one bank at a time, these builds avoid the use of any bonding agents. Installing the flanged sleeves as a set also ensures they are precisely aligned.

Here’s much of the team that creates these four-digit Coyote engines. From left to right are Jorge Sanchez, AJ Hoffman, Joe Irwin, Jonathan Sturch, Sai Li and Nick Hermes.


Diamond Pistons

877 | 552 | 2112


Fast Forward Race Engines

727 | 847 | 5777


Ford Performance Parts

800 | 367 | 3788


King Engine Bearings, Inc.

973 | 857 | 0705


LA Sleeve

800 | 822 | 6005


Li Racing and Tuning

813 | 489 | 3953


Manley Performance

732 | 905 | 3366