In-car timers are one of the...
In-car timers are one of the affordable products aimed at helping drivers cut their lap times.
When a top-line racing team like Roush or Penske goes to a track with a research and development car, they equip it with what looks like enough electronic gear to launch a space shuttle. Engineers can download data on wheelspin, brake pressure, horsepower, steering wheel angle, the temperature of the cold air entering the carburetor, or the heat of the exhaust gas coming out the tailpipe. And that's just the start of it.
The cost? More than what many amateur racers have involved in their entire car, trailer, and tow rig. And even if you can afford something like an elaborate Pi Research data acquisition system, you still have to learn how to interpret what it tells you. If you work for a living and race for fun, there may simply not be enough time in a season to even begin wading through the tidal wave of information available.
But just because you don't have a Penske budget doesn't mean you can't use similar technology to set up a car and improve your driving. All it takes is a bit of money, time, some creative thought, and maybe a few friends. Here are some of the things you can do on the cheap to help make you a better driver and improve the way your car handles.
A caster/camber gauge provides...
A caster/camber gauge provides benchmark information a driver can use to make basic adjustments.
Begin with a squared-up car. Gauges such as the SmarTool let you measure caster and camber and cost under $100. Toe plates cost even less, or you can build them yourself with some square steel tube, a measuring tape, and some aluminum stock. For the truly budget-constrained racer, you can make your own camber measurements with a carpenter's angle finder mounted to a steel square tube the same length as the wheel diameter. The results won't be as accurate as those made with digital units that read to a 100th of a degree, but they'll work until you begin winning prize money and can afford to replace it with something more high tech.
"You've got to have all the wheels going in the right direction," says Gary Lewis, who competes and wins regularly in NASCAR's Raybestos Northwest Series. "The first thing is to get everything tight, then make sure the caster and camber are right and the rear end is squared up. Until you know that, you are just wasting time."
Don't be afraid to begin in a slower division and work your way up to faster cars, Lewis says. It is a lot easier to learn things at lower speeds. The basics are all the same: What you learn on a Street Stock is still valid on a Late Model, and the lessons are far less costly. "I began in a Bomber class, where speeds were lower and you had time to think about things," Lewis says. "Once I moved up to faster cars, everything happened quicker and it was harder to learn."
Lewis says his team videotapes every race and gets together to review it before the next competition. "I can see what I did wrong and what I did right, how I did on restarts and where I left too much room or went too high trying to make a pass," he says. "It is really valuable because the tape remembers things I forget."
Crewmembers can see how the car handles through the corners or accelerates on the straight in comparison to others in the same division, and figure out what they need to do to make it better.
Video recorders can be purchased for well under $100 at discount stores, swap meets, pawnshops, and outlets run by agencies like the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Videotaping is a great job for a crewmember who may be too young to get into the pits, or a spouse who wants to help but isn't interested in spinning wrenches.
While they are invaluable for recording races, video cameras also can be used during testing as the data center for a host of poor-man's racing technology.