It has been a while since we presented shock tech. In this issue, we will provide a more entry level explanation of the function of shocks. This is a very good read for even veteran racers that will help to explain the foundation of all shock setups. Along with this presentation we will provide the other side of shock tech, the spring tech.
Springs and shocks go hand in hand and need to be evaluated together because they influence each other directly. You can't think out your shock setup without knowing how the springs will affect the shocks, and vice versa. So, once you get through this course on shock basics, please go directly to the spring article and read how your choice of spring rates will directly affect your choice of shocks.
First up, we need to understand just what shocks can do, and what they can't do. Shocks are a tool that we use to support and enhance our spring setup. Shocks are influenced by the spring rates and help provide that all important balance we are trying to achieve that allows all four tires to work to their maximum capacity.
What Shocks Don't Do
1. Shocks do not support the car.
2. Shocks do not control the amount of load transfer or steady state load distribution.
3. Shocks do not affect chassis balance and handling at steady state mid-turn.
4. Shocks are not a cure-all for basic handling problems.
What Shocks Do
1. Shocks control and limit the speed of the motion of the suspension.
2. Shocks allow more or less rapid movement of a suspension corner in reference to opposing corners.
3. Shocks regulate the amount of time it takes for a corner of the car to assume a new ride height when the load it carries changes.
4. Shocks can be used to redistribute the amount of load on the four corners of the car as the car is in transition on corner entry and on corner exit.
5. And, shocks can be misused to "tie" down one or more corners of the car. This can be thought of as over-control.
How a Shock Works
Shocks resist suspension motion, either compression or rebound, by using a piston that must move through a fluid of thin oil. As the suspension moves, so must the fluid must pass through openings, valves, and slots. Varying resistance is created when the oil is forced through different sized openings and at different speeds. The resistance amount is necessarily different for compression (inward motion) and rebound (outward motion).
All racing shocks are of two basic designs, twin tube and mono-tube, and can be either gas pressurized or "low" pressure. The twin tube has literally two tubes, the inside tube is where the piston is located and where the work is done and the outside tube is a reservoir that holds extra fluid and a flexible gas-filled bag.
Shocks are Spring Dampeners
Shocks are installed in race cars, as in any car, to primarily control oscillations caused by the displacement of the springs, especially coil springs. If we place a load on an un-dampened spring, such as when it supports the car, and then push and release on that corner of the car, the spring will compress and rebound in a series of diminishing oscillations over a relatively long period of time. There is no known advantage to this condition and many disadvantages, so we use dampers to control and slow down the movement of the springs.
One of the most important things to understand about shocks and springs is the following:
In our race car, both the shocks and the springs resist compression. As to rebound, the springs promote it while shocks resist it. The control of these two motions, compression and rebound is the primary function of the shocks.
Compression and Rebound
The compression control side of the shock resists the following: 1) the bump movement of a corner of the car when we hit bumps (rises in the track), 2) movement due to the transfer of load to the front end during braking and deceleration, 3) movement due to the transfer of load to the rear upon acceleration, 4) compression movement of the right side springs when the lateral forces are applied as we deviate from a straight line and turn left.
The rebound control side of the shock resists the following: 1) rear chassis movement upon deceleration and braking, 2) front chassis movement on acceleration, and 3) left side movement caused by load transfer from left to right side as we negotiate the turns.
The second most important thing to know about shocks is contained in the following statement:
1 Basic shock design utilizes a shock shaft and piston that must travel through a fluid (
2 As the piston moves inside the shock body, the fluid must flow through the piston, firs
3 The mounting of the front shock some distance from the ball joint on the lower control
The amount of resistance that the shock provides with each movement, compression and rebound, increases proportionally to the speed at which the shock is forced to move. Low speeds create low resistance and high speed movement creates higher resistance.
Shocks are rated by their resistance in pounds of force for the speed of movement measured in inches per second. For a shock that is rated at 300 pounds at three inches, it would take 300 pounds of force to move the shock at a speed of 3 inches per second.
So, a shock, any shock, will record a rate of resistance at three inches per second of movement that is less than its rate of resistance when moving at 6 inches per second. This is primarily because with faster movement, more of the fluid must pass through the shock piston and the pressure increases causing more resistance.
We generally think of two ranges of the speed of shock movement when planning out our shock setup. These are low speed and high speed. The race car will usually experience each at different times during a lap around the track. And each is caused by different conditions.
Low Speed Control
Low speed shock movement is defined as shaft speeds that are between 1 to 5 inches of movement per second. Many racers use three inches per second to evaluate the shocks low speed resistance. These lower speeds are mostly associated with suspension movement caused by chassis roll and chassis dive at turn entry where the loss of forward speed is moderate. The low speed control dictates much of the handling side of the shock design and racetrack performance gains related solely to chassis balance and load distribution.
Each shock has a piston mounted on the end of the shaft and one or more open holes in the piston allow fluid inside of the shock to flow freely from one side of the piston to the other. The size of these "bleed" holes regulate how quickly the fluid will flow back and forth and that is one way the different levels of resistance are created for low speed control.
The bleed holes can be either permanently drilled holes or adjustable needle type valves. Most of the low speed adjustments on shocks that are built with the adjustment capability work by changing the size of the bleed opening to control the amount of slow speed flow. This adjustment can be designed to allow for both rebound and compression adjustment, or just one of those.
4 This shock is mounted inline, front to rear, with the rear spring. This means that the
High Speed Control
As the shock experiences greater velocities of shaft movement, it goes into what is called high speed control and that involves shaft velocities of from 5 to 10-plus inches of movement per second. Types of suspension movement that create the higher shaft speeds include: 1) running over bumps, ruts or holes in the racing surface, 2) heavy braking on entry and hard on the throttle on exit, or, 3) a sudden change in banking angle such as transitioning from banking onto the apron of the racetrack.
The piston mounted to the end of the shaft also contains a valve mechanism that allows the fluid to flow through slots that are designed into the piston. The valves consist of discs that open as the internal oil pressure increases due to shaft movement in either compression or rebound. The discs are arranged in different sizes and thicknesses to control the dampening rate associated with higher shaft speeds.
An important consideration in designing a racing shock is called shaft displacement. When the shock shaft is pushed into the shock body and into the fluid, it displaces the oil inside the shock. Suppose we pull the shock shaft out as far as it would go, fill the shock body completely with oil and then try to push the shaft back into the shock body. It couldn’t go because the shaft would be trying to compress and displace an equal volume of oil. Because oil will not compress, and it’s in a sealed environment, none of the oil can escape to allow the shaft to exist inside the shock body.
So, we need to create a space inside the shock and fill it with a substance that will compress. Gases such as air and nitrogen will compress. Every shock needs to have a certain volume of gas along with the fluid, in order to allow for the displacement of the fluid as the shaft moves into the shock body and takes up space.
5 This cut-away of an Integra shock shows the working piston, valves and seal and also th
6 This “shock” made from clear plastic with red colored fluid shows the inner workings of
7 In this close-up, we see the actual piston and slots that allow the fluid to flow from
The gas should not be air or any gas that could contain moisture. Due to the heat generated by shock/fluid movement, the moisture would expand and cause high pressure buildup inside the shock. Nitrogen is a dry gas that suits our purpose and is widely used in racing shocks.
Keeping the Oil and Gas Separate
The nitrogen gas we put into our shocks to compress and allow for the volume of the shock shaft must be separated from the fluids. The gas can be contained inside a plastic bag or separated by another piston. Because the bags used in twin-tube designs are not pressurized, these shocks are referred to as non- pressurized shocks.
In truth, as the shock shaft is pushed into the shock body, some amount of pressurization must take place due to the displacement of the shaft and resulting reduced volume of gas inside the shock body. The gas bag must contract which creates a small amount of pressure.
Installation Ratios Effect
If the speed at which the shock moves determines the pounds of resistance, then how and where we install the shock is a consideration. If the shock were to be mounted at the center of the front wheel, or on top of the ball joint, then as the wheel moved, the vertical speed created by that movement would equal the shock shaft speed. This is almost never the case in a stock car because of installation ratios.
In the front suspension, there is always an installation ratio—a shock angle that affects the relationship between the speed of the wheel movement and the speed of the shock shaft. The farther the shock is mounted from the ball joint and the greater the shock angle from 90 degrees off the control arm that it is mounted to, the slower the shaft will move in relation to the wheel movement, and the less control it will have over that movement.
If the speed of the shaft movement determines the amount of shock resistance, then the slower the shock moves, the less rate of resistance it will have. Therefore, if I mount the same rated shock at 2 inches from the ball joint verses mounting it at 6 inches from the ball joint I will have greater shaft speed and more resistance with the first mount with equal wheel speed movement. It makes sense that I would need a stiffer shock when mounting it at 6 inches than I would need if mounting it at 2 inches to have the same wheel speed control.
Linear and Digressive Designs
There are two basic piston designs used in most circle track racing. One is the linear piston (photo 9) that has a high flow rate at low shaft speeds and hence little resistance, and increased resistance as the shaft speed increases. The rate of the shock continues to increase as long as the speed increases.
The other design uses a digressive piston design (photo 10) and has a lower flow rate at low shaft speeds than the linear piston and provides more resistance and control. The resistance rate increases with increased shaft speeds to a pre-designed level and then tapers off.
As the shaft speed continues to increase, the resistance stays mostly uniform above a certain shaft speed. This "pop-off" characteristic works well for reducing the high amounts of resistance usually associated with sharp increases in shaft speeds due to running over bumps and holes in some racetracks. So, the digressive piston design might be better for dirt track applications and rough asphalt tracks.
8 Here we can see the motion difference between the shock and the spring, in this case a
9 A linear design shock has a piston that is designed to start out with low resistance an
10 A digressive designed shock has a considerable amount of low speed control and builds
Rebound Verses Compression Force
Because we install our shocks with springs, and we learned that springs resist compression and promote rebound, we need to use more rebound resistance than compression. The information presented in older automotive design books related to shock design for production automobiles called for equal resistance to suspension motion in both compression and rebound, in combination with the force of the springs.
Because springs naturally resist compression and promote rebound, we necessarily need a shock design with less compression resistance and more rebound resistance to be truly equal in control of each direction of movement. This is a very important principle and has added importance for modern day setups and spring arrangements.
We should never use a true 50/50 rated shock, where the resistance is the same on both rebound and compression, on a race car. Correct thinking would have us install a shock that has more rebound than compression resistance.
When the spring rates are very high, as in the case of a bump stop or bump rubber, the shock must control that higher spring rate. Therefore, high rebound rated shocks are not just incorporated to "tie down" the suspension, but to control suspension movement for the high spring rate of the bump device.
In Shock Part Two, coming next month, we will get a little deeper into shock technology and design. We will look at modern day shock graphs, and see how we might improve our performance by using different rate shocks in relation to various types of setups, racetrack designs and track conditions. Now, please go read the Spring article it is on page 36.