Selecting the Proper Distributor for Your Off-Road Vehicle

When it comes to an off-road vehicle and its engine, there are plenty of components to keep an eye on. There is the engine, transmission, suspension and all sorts of safety equipment that need to be kept up and maintained, though if you dig a little deeper, you come to a component that helps manage the engine and is pivotal to its peak performance. We’re talking about the distributor, an engine component that many take for granted. However, if you don’t have the proper distributor for your engine, or it’s not set up correctly, you could be up a mountain with no way down in very short order.

Because of the importance of a distributor in every vehicle, whether it’s built for recreation or racing, we decided to talk to some of the biggest players in the automotive aftermarket and find out what was new, what was hot, and what was best for your purposes. We turned to four major manufacturers in the distributor game, COMP Performance Group (FAST), MSD, Crane Cams and Performance Distributors (Davis Unified Ignition), to peel back the skin and take a look at some of the coolest products available.

All COMP/FAST distributors are dual-sync type, and the company offers a wide variety in its billet line. Seen here left to right are applications for Chevy SB/BB, Ford SB (289, 302), and Ford 351W.

COMP Performance Group/Fuel Air Spark Technology (FAST)

A major player in the aftermarket distributor world is the COMP Performance Group. Well-known for its line of COMP Cams camshafts, the COMP Performance Group also supplies the market with ZEX nitrous systems, Inglese induction systems, and of course, FAST (Fuel Air Spark Technology) EFI systems and accessories. To get the low down on its latest distributor offerings, we spoke to David Page at FAST.

When it comes to distributors meant for the recreational rig driven both on the street and the dirt, FAST offers a full dual-sync line. “Our dual-sync distributors are equally well suited for off-road as well as street use,” Page told us. “The cam sync feature makes sequential fueling, as well as individual cylinder corrections for fuel and spark possible, allowing crisp throttle response and part-throttle driveability.”

Through FAST, off-road enthusiasts can get a dual-sync distributor for just about any engine you would want to put in a recreational or race-ready dirt vehicle. Those include: small and big-block Chevys; Ford 302, 351 and 460 engines; Chrysler small-blocks, “B” and “RB” engines; and Pontiac and Oldsmobile powerplants.

Our dual-sync distributors are equally well suited for off-road as well as street use. – David Page, FAST

According to Page, the key to FAST distributors is that every unit is optimized for EFI operation, thanks to pre-phasing process, which guarantees proper rotor alignment while still generating accurate cam and crankshaft signals for the ECU.

All of FAST’s distributors have the dual-sync feature and are perfect for street and off-road environments. For vehicles that are strictly for off-road use and never driven on the road, Page recommends FAST’s additional crank triggers, available for both small and big-block Chevys, as well as small-block Fords.

COMP/FAST crank triggers (left) are recommended for used on full-bore race rigs and can provide accurate timing under extreme conditions. The XIM Ignition Module (right) works with FAST XFI fuel injection on non-distributor EFI engines such as Gen-3 LS engines.

FAST’s crank trigger units are magnet-free, and feature a thin, virtually indestructible trigger wheel constructed of ASTM A36 grade steel. They also offer a smaller-than-average, inductive sensor that is hermetically sealed with the connector molded right into the body.

On the outer rim of the trigger wheel are tabs rather than magnets, which are the key to its dependability and accuracy. These tabs are what get measured by the inductive sensor as the wheel turns, providing data for accurate RPM measurement without the possibility of loss or fragmentation possible with magnetic units.

Most Crane distributors such as this Number 1000-1612 for Ford 351W/5.0 HO engines feature small or large cap, magnetic trigger, locked-out timing, and a stainless shaft.

Crank triggers are also recommended for race vehicles, as is FAST’s XIM distributorless ignition module, if you’d rather go the non-distributor route. With customers from weekend trail runners to King of The Hammer competitors, FAST has the distributors to accommodate every walk of off-road life.

FAST offers a variety of ways to research and decide which distributor is right for your rig, including a tech line at (877) 334-8355 and website. The COMP Performance Group also offers a dedicated forum for its potential and existing customers.

Crane Cams

A huge name in the street and off-road performance game is Crane Cams. Well known for its camshaft offerings, Crane also delivers a full line of other performance products such as valvetrain components, ignition systems, coils, and distributors. For the inside scoop, we turned to Terry Johnson.

A lot of top engine builders use this [Pro Race] distributor. – Terry Johnson, Crane Cams

Geared specifically to the race market when it comes to off-road applications, Crane offers enthusiasts two great lockout distributor options, the Race Billet Distributor and the Pro Race Distributor.

The more popular of the two due to price and feature set is Crane’s Race Billet Distributor. It features a CNC-machined billet aluminum housing with a stainless steel shaft equipped with bearings both on the top and bottom. An optical trigger makes timing accurate to +/- 0.5 degrees, while caps with solid brass terminals provide optimal conductivity. These distributors are available for most Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler engines with small and large cap options.

“The Crane Race Billet Distributor [is most popular] due in part to price point, but mainly because as soon as an engine builder/tuner puts it in they see just how stable the timing is.” Johnson shared with us.

The top-of-the-line Pro Race Distributor features dual optical triggers synchronized to within 0.2 degrees with individual cylinder timing capabilities. A fiber optic trigger is also available.

The Pro Race billet distributors from Crane feature dual optical triggers synched within 0.2 degree of crank; and a fiber optic trigger is available for use in high-heat environments.

Approved for high-performance competitions like NASCAR, Crane advertises this distributor as the most accurate “drop in and run” unit on the market. “Our Pro Race Distributor was our very first design, having seen multiple upgrades over the years. It has been very popular with the high-end racer claiming championships in NASCAR, ARCA, CRA, Pro Cup, and many other series’.” Johnson explained.

Because both of Crane’s off-road distributors are lockout designs, they don’t lend themselves very well to street driving. Crane does have a more recreational-friendly distributor coming out later this year, which is an HEI unit.

“We have already released the module for this application as we have been asked for years to make a more resilient part since the OE is prone to high failure rate,” Johnson told us. “Our HEI module is very robust with a full 8.5 amps of current.”

Crane’s distributor options can be found easily on its website as well as in its catalog. If you have additional questions, you can always browse the company’s online tech offerings or call the tech lines at (866) 388-5120, which are open all week long.

MSD Performance

Next on the list of leading distributor players is MSD Performance. Well-known for its ignition systems, MSD provides everything from spark plug wires to distributors to keep your off-road rig running its best. To give us the details on MSD’s distributor line, we turned to Todd Ryden at MSD.

The MSD Pro-Billet line of distributors, such as this 8578 model shown, feature magnetic triggers, 6061-T6 billet aluminum housings, and two sealed ball bearings guiding the shaft to help them maintain accuracy well over 10,000 rpm.

For recreational and competitive off-road use, MSD offers the popular Pro-Billet distributor line, which offers a simple three-wire installation, high-powered spark, and a built-in ignition module (in the Ready-to-Run models). The Ready-to-Run Pro-Billet line also provides a vacuum advance canister that helps streetable off-road rigs when it comes to highway driving.

“We offer two popular series of distributors, the original Pro-Billet and a Ready-to-Run model,” Ryden told us. “The standard Pro-Billet requires the use of an MSD CD Ignition such as the 6A or 6ALN series ignition while the Ready-to-Run has a built-in ignition module and vacuum advance creating more of a street/recreational model. However, the design and operation of the distributors are much the same.

“Pro-Billet distributors can handle anything from a basic 200 hp setup to a 1,000 hp performance rig and are designed for accuracy as well as strength, thanks to the CNC-machined 6061-T6 billet aluminum construction, a design MSD claims as a first in the industry.”

Pro-Billet distributors can handle anything from a basic 200 hp setup to a 1,000 hp performance rig … – Todd Ryden, MSD

“Both distributors use a sealed ball bearing to guide the shaft through high RPM and to maintain stability. We use a maintenance-free magnetic pickup for trigger signals and both units feature centrifugal advance assemblies that are easily tuneable or even locked out for race use only.”

Making MSD’s Pro-Billet distributors even more reliable for off-road applications are some of their innovative secondary features, including a bolt-down cap and a screw-down spark plug wire retainer.

Both of these features help keep everything in their proper position, no matter how big of a rock you climb or how long of a jump you take in your rig. MSD also has steel CNC-machined hold down clamps for Ford and Chevy distributors available for extra protection.

MSD distributors are designed for easy adjustment and setting of total amount of centrifugal advance.

Though the standard Pro-Billet model is the company’s most popular distributor for recreation and race use, MSD also offers two race-specific distributors for serious competitors. The first is still in the Pro-Billet line, but features two magnetic pickups positioned 180 degrees apart.

This allows racers to have twin ignition systems, providing one as backup for the other. Racers can also modify the second pickup location to have two different timing settings at the flick of a switch.

The other race-bred distributor MSD offers is the Professional HVC Distributor, which was derived with input from leading NASCAR professionals. This distributor allows users to mechanically set timing variances for each cylinder.

“When rules impose a cubic inch limit and other boundaries for teams to build around, finding the most out of every cylinder counts and being able to set the ideal timing in each cylinder can offset compromises in intake or head designs,” Ryden explained. The HVC Distributor also offers dual pickups with an adjustable secondary.

In addition to the Ready-to-Run units, MSD also offers Pro-Billet line such as the Ford 351C - 460 unit (left) and Professional HVC units (right).

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or professional competitor, MSD has the off-road distributors to back up any application. With a dedicated tech line at (915) 855-7123, website and e-mail address ([email protected]), MSD tech personnel can be reached for all your questions.

Performance Distributors/D.U.I.

Another major player in the distributor market is Performance Distributors. To get the scoop on all of its off-road options, we turned to Performance Distributors President Steve Davis.

The Performance D.U.I. Street/Strip distributors are recommended for recreational off-road use and offer an internal coil and module, custom advance curve, one wire hookup, and fire strong up to 7,000 rpm.

A true family-owned business, Performance Distributors has provided the aftermarket with top-notch distributors for years, most famously the Davis Unified Ignition (D.U.I.) Distributor. Though Performance Distributors offers a number of distributor options, the DUI is made to fit the most popular off-road brands, including Jeep, Ram, GM, and Ford.

“The recreational off-roader will enjoy these benefits from the DUI Distributor,” Davis told us. “One: It is virtually water, mud, and vibration-proof, because the electronic module and coil are inside the distributor, protecting them from the elements. This makes it very dependable when out trail running.”

“Two: Because the DUI is a one-piece ignition system, it makes for a clean engine compartment, not a maze of wiring. [It] just requires one hot wire to the DUI (and an optional tach connection).”

Because the DUI is a one-piece ignition system, it makes for a clean engine compartment … – Steve Davis, Performance Distributors

“Three: Each DUI is actually calibrated on a distributor machine with a very precise advance curve. The mechanical advance is coordinated to work with the vacuum advance, which in turn leads to great throttle response and better mpg.”

Available in standard, street/strip, and full-bore race configurations, the DUI distributor makes for an all-encompassing component. It’s more than sufficient for rock crawling, mud bogging, dune running, and much more.

So if you want to drive your off-road rig on the trail, on both the dirt and pavement, or in all-out competition mode, the DUI line has you covered.

According to Davis, Performance Distributors’ street and strip DUI distributors fire to a strong 7,000 rpm, making it great for high-performance rigs, while race-ready units fire up to 10,000 rpm.

A tip when installing any distributor, shown here on a Performance Distributors/Davis Unified Ignition Street/Strip unit, is to use a small dollop of dielectric grease for good contact, waterproofing, and easier removal later of the plug wires.

While the Race DUI is available for most makes and models, Davis noted that it’s not recommend for many off-road rigs unless the customer expects to be revving over 7,000 rpm. This is fairly uncommon in most off-road arenas, so the street and strip DUI is recommended for the majority of off-road race rigs.

When it comes to choosing the best distributor for you off-road rig, Performance Distributors offers many channels for information. These include the company’s website, print catalog, and dedicated phone line. If you have questions or want suggestions for your particular setup, you can call tech support at (901) 396-5782, as well as e-mail the company at [email protected] for technical advice.

Whether you’re fielding an all-out race rig or a recreational trail runner, you want a distributor that will keep turning and firing under the most extreme conditions. Check out what top manufacturers such as COMP/FAST, Crane, MSD, and Performance/D.U.I. have to offer and then decide what’s best for your ride.

Firing On All Cylinders

From recreational weekend outings to full-blown race competitions, the off-road scene presents dozens of opportunities to get out on the trail, in the sand, mud, or to fly down the race course to prove what you and your rig can do. But in order to do this, you must have the right parts for your engine. The proper distributor for your engine application and your off-road avocation is definitely one of the key items.

Thanks to the steadfast engineering and manufacturing that continues to go on inside companies such as COMP/FAST, Crane Cams, MSD, and Performance Distributors, your off-road distributor options are plentiful. With the unique features offered by the products each of these companies create, you just have to do the research and shop smart to get your off-road rig firing on all cylinders and helping you have the time of your life.

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
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