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.

Hip To Be Square

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.”

Caught On Tape

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.

During testing, try mounting the camcorder inside the car so it will show where the car is on the track in relation to specific landmarks. While testing, have someone time and record each lap. Find the fastest lap and then go through the videotape to see how you drove it. Then see if you can do it again. Once you are consistently running the fast times, begin timing laps in segments and concentrate on individual corners, working to improve each one until your times drop again.

“You have to concentrate on running the perfect line,” says Lewis. “During testing you shouldn’t be driving around problems with the car, you should be solving them. Once you get the car right, then you can begin trying things.”

Think you are a late braker who is on the gas all the time? Install a red light on the dash where the video recorder can see both the light and the track. Wire the bulb into the brake circuit, using either the factory-provided brake light switch or a pressure-activated switch in the brake line. You may be surprised at how early—and how long—you are on the brake pedal. Most drivers aren’t nearly as brave as they think … or tell their crew chief. Using a factory switch, it costs about $2 to add the light to most cars.

Time Machine

You can mount a tachometer next to the red brake light to get a fairly accurate picture of where a driver gets on and off the throttle. It is also a way to check how fast the engine is turning at different points on the track, which could indicate the need for a different rearend ratio.

In-car lap timers, such as the Hot Lap system, are about $270. They use a light beam to trigger a sensor mounted on the rollcage and pointed to the outside of the track. A battery-powered trackside transmitter sends a signal to the in-car receiver each time the car passes it. A dashboard readout instantly gives the driver the last lap time, accurate to 1/100th of a second.

By mounting the readout where the video camera can also see it, you can create a visual record of every lap with how you drove it and how long it took. If you are on a track with a lot of landmarks, you can use them to time the car through portions of the track and come up with segment times.

“You can really work on a corner to get it just right,” Lewis says. “Sometimes we look for the best line that will carry speed and still save the tires. Finding it sometimes means changing the turn-in point or where I get on the gas by just a little bit. We also use the timer to help us find the perfect qualifying line, the one lap where you just go out and don’t worry about the tires.”

Lewis says drivers can learn many things from a lap timer. “You have to have some idea of what you are doing to begin with, but that just takes time and thought,” he says. “But you have to know how the car works before you know what to change.”

Data On The Cheap

Many drivers buy too much data acquisition, says Dave Scaler, owner of Advantage Motorsports. “They end up paying for things they don’t need and will never use. And then they get so much data they don’t ever begin to approach figuring out what they have, never mind what it means and how to use it.”

Scaler’s company builds a basic data acquisition system that costs less than a set of race tires. For under $600 the basic Advantage system can gather data on wheel and engine speeds. “If you really think about it, for most circle track applications that’s all you need at the amateur level,” Scaler says. “That tells you where the car was fast.”

Scaler uses the example of a driver who turns laps in the low 19-second range. “His laps are all very close to one another and his crew chief brags about how consistent he is,” Scaler says. “But on the first lap he was fast in Turn 1 and on the next lap he was fast in 3. The key is to find out why he was fast in 1 and why he was fast in 3 and make him turn laps where he is fast in both of them.”

Because the basic system samples only two sources, even an outdated computer has enough processor horsepower to do the job. “A lot of folks buy the system and dedicate the computer in the closet—the one they were going to throw out—to the race program,” Scaler says.

As a team gets more involved and the needs more sophisticated, they can add data on things such as throttle position, brake pressure, and g-loads. “With g-loads we can map the track and overlap laps and really find out where a driver is fast from lap to lap,” Scaler says.

Advantage Motorsports
#7 Krenkel Ct.
NJ  08822
Longacre Racing
14269 N.E. 200th St.,
WA  98072
IOPort Racing Supplies
14 Juniper Dr.
CA  94549
Pi Research
236 Raceway Dr., Suite #14
NC  28117