At Circle Track we have the luxury of meeting teams at all levels of racing from all across the country. Many of you are wizards with a welder and fabricate anything. Many of you can rebuild a race engine with your eyes closed and practically tune a carburetor while the car is still running laps under caution. And many of you out there can run crossweight calculations in your head like the rest of us say our ABCs. But what we haven't heard is many racers claim to be electrical experts. Don't get us wrong, we know plenty of you are capable, it's just that very few racers are either comfortable working with electrical systems or actually enjoy it.
Still, it's important to be able to have confidence that you can wire your race car correctly so that you aren't wasting time chasing those annoying electrical gremlins that usually seem to pop up at the worst possible time. For a little help we caught up with someone who actually calls himself a wiring and electrical-systems specialist. Rick Elgin owns RaceWire Technologies, and he spends his days wiring practically everything on circle track race cars, drag cars, hot rods, and anything else with a battery and a starter.
Before starting RaceWire Technologies, Elgin spent several years at Joe Gibbs Racing as part of a small team that handled wiring all the Cup cars. While there he not only learned all the tricks, he also helped develop a few of them, and now he's applying his expertise to help Saturday night racers.
Elgin is based out of the Charlotte, North Carolina, area and travels to the surrounding states to wire cars for racers in their shops. For this story we met him at the shop of Chris Ferguson Motorsports in Mt. Holly, North Carolina. Ferguson races Dirt Late Models and like most Saturday night racers, his program is a small operation and most of his help comes from his family. They could handle wiring the car themselves but every dirt car lives a hard life between racing and the wash pit, and they wanted to make sure they had the most dependable system possible to avoid the potential of electrical problems costing Ferguson potential victories.
This story isn't going to attempt to show you every step of wiring a car front to back. Every car is a little different, and honestly, that would be a pretty boring read. Instead, we're going to pass along tips Elgin provided us and show you what he uses and why. For example, Elgin says he often helps racers fix problems with existing systems, and the problem he sees most often is poor grounding of electrical circuits. Many racers will use several grounds—maybe one for the starter, one for the gauges, and another for the ignition box—but if one ground isn't working as effectively as it should that extra electricity can bleed back into other circuits. To eliminate this Elgin prefers to always run a tracer wire to each ground, and often back to the battery, to make sure everything stays equalized and is grounded optimally. We've got lots more for you, so read on.
01. Chris Ferguson’s Warrior DLM chassis that Elgin is working on is brand new with no old wiring to pull off, but Elgin did save some samples from previous projects for us. Like most people, when beginning a project Elgin begins with the battery and starter. He recommends always using power wires that are at least 4 gauge—especially if you are using a gear-reduction starter or a 16-volt battery. Also, look for high strand count wire (in back) compared to standard wire with thicker strands of wire. The higher strand count wire is more flexible and more easy to work with, but more important, the increased number of strands conduct electricity more efficiently.
02. For your race car, you should also look for welding grade cable. The other option is audio cable, but that doesn’t have the same heat resistant sheathing as welding cable. Audio cable may be fine in a Volkswagon Jetta with four 20-inch subs the owner uses to annoy people in the mall parking lot, but it doesn’t belong in a race car where fire and excessive heat is a real issue. As proof, Elgin hits a piece of audio cable with the torch he uses on shrinkwrap tubing and it immediately lights up.
03. When Elgin pulled the torch away after a few seconds the flame died down immediately. But then he showed us the real weakness of the audio cable cover. Elgin gave the cover a squeeze between his fingers and when he pulled his hand away the cover retained the print from his thumb. For racing, you need a cable that can withstand extended exposure to heat without breaking down.
04. In comparison, when given the same treatment the welding cable never caught fire but only turned brown and didn’t get soft like the cover of the audio cable.
05. Elgin uses a crimping tool to permanently attach the terminal ends to the power and ground cables, but it is a specialized tool that many racers simply do not have. Instead, a common tactic is to use a cupped terminal like you see here. Racers will put the terminal in a vise with the cup facing upward. Then they will heat the terminal with a torch, melt a puddle of solder into it and then jam the cable into the cup until the solder cools. Unfortunately, this bond is quite weak and often breaks. The mistake, Elgin says, is not heating the stripped portion of the cable too. When the cable is cold the solder hardens to the outside of the bundle of wires only. But if you heat the wires in the cable, it will wick the solder up the cable and in between the strands, making the bond much stronger.
06. Elgin runs a high voltage Anderson Quick Disconnect at the battery. This way an emergency battery swap at the track doesn’t require any tools (assuming the battery hold down uses wing nuts).
07. Here’s a closer look at the Anderson Quick Disconnect Elgin uses. That’s the terminal that goes inside the housing. For power wires, the connections need to be beefy so they aren’t impeding the flow of current.
08. The solenoid is mounted in a protected area just behind the dash. The cable to the starter is on the left. Elgin will use the connection for the battery cable (always hot) as a terminal post for everything else that needs power. Just above the brake and clutch master cylinders is the mount for the Crane ignition box and coil.
09. Elgin cautions that the weak point in any wire is where the flexible wire goes into a hard point. Most crew know to be careful with wire where it connects to a hard metal terminal, but if solder is allowed to wick up the strands in a wire, it can create a hard point further up the wire that’s hidden by the insulator. Elgin uses solder to help ensure a good, durable connection on all of his crimped fittings, but to keep the solder from wicking too far up the wire he applies solder on the end opposite the wire. As we mentioned earlier, heat will cause liquid solder to wick up the wire, so as soon as the solder is applied Elgin quenches the piece on a moist sponge to get rid of the excess heat.
10. NASCAR Cup Series teams have gone almost exclusively to Deutsch connectors like these, and Elgin keeps a wide variety of these connectors on his trailer for all of his connections. Deutsch connectors are incredibly robust. Beside being very efficient conductors of electricity, they are resistant to fire, vibration, dust, chemicals, and all-around abuse. And for dirt track racers that like to hose everything down with a pressure washer after a hard night of racing, these connectors are just water resistant, when installed correctly they are actually waterproof down to three feet.
11. We know lots of racers who still depend on Weatherpack connectors. Weatherpacks are definitely better than nothing, but here’s a visual example why top teams have moved to the Deutsch connectors. At the top in this photo are a male and female Weatherpack terminal connector. Below that are the equivalent for a Deutsch connector. The Weatherpack plugs are rolled sheetmetal with cut out “springs” designed to ensure good contact between the two components. The Deutsch plugs, meanwhile are solid steel and there are no issues with fatigue or wear no matter how many times the two halves of the connector are separated and rejoined.
12. Once the connector is crimped to the end of the wire, it inserts through the back of the plug housing and a plastic piece is inserted to lock it into place.
13. When trying to determine how to route wires through a car it can be impossible to correctly determine the length you are going to need with a tape measure. Instead, Elgin uses rope to simulate the wire (it’s much easier to work with) and once it gets it routed exactly like he wants it, he marks the ends, removes the rope from the car and cuts his wire to match.