In racing, spark plugs are practically a disposable commodity. Use them for a while and throw them away. If the engine starts acting funny, replace the plugs just in case. It's cheap insurance and really not a bad idea at all.

But with all those sets of plugs going in and out, how often do you check the plug gap? After all, if a set of plugs is new, they should be good, right? Well, usually, but not always.

A spark plug is a relatively simple piece of equipment, but it must perform its job in incredibly tough conditions-especially in a race car. As long as the plug can produce a strong enough spark to ignite the air/fuel mixture, then we are happy, but did you realize that a difference in just a few thousandths of an inch between the spark plug's electrode and the ground strap can cause a plug to misfire? And while plug manufacturers try to produce every plug the same, doing that is just about impossible in a mass-production environment. Plus, there is no accounting how that plug is handled on all the steps along the path from the factory to your hands. That is why checking the gap between the electrode and ground strap on every spark plug you use is important. It won't exactly create new horsepower, but it will keep you from leaving some in the pits.

The critical distance between the spark plug's electrode and the ground strap (that piece of steel that curves out over the end of the plug) is called the "plug gap." The act of setting this distance correctly is commonly referred to as "gapping" your plugs. If the gap is too small, there isn't enough room for enough of the air/fuel mixture to get between the electrode and ground strap, so when the plug does fire there is a chance nothing will ignite. On the other hand, if the gap is too large the spark that does appear will be weak and may not be strong enough to ignite the charge.

When you throw in the fact that you are asking a spark plug to operate in a racing environment, that makes it even harder. The higher cylinder pressures of many race engines means that the spark plug has to work a lot harder to ignite the air/fuel charge. In addition, if that air/fuel mixture isn't completely homogenous, in other words the mixture contains both big and small droplets of fuel mixed with the air, it will be hard to ignite. And high-rpm engines allow the distributor little dwell time to build up a strong spark, which-you guessed it-makes firing the charge harder.

For most racing applications, you usually want the plug gap to be between 0.020 and 0.040-inch. Most engine builders seem to settle around 0.035-inch. Factors such as the type of ignition you run, cylinder heads, fuel, and even timing can affect how much gap will work best for you. Generally, you want as much gap as you can get by with to ensure ignition each time the plug fires. For more specific recommendations, talk to your engine builder and even call the tech help line for your preferred plug manufacturer.