Truth be known, with so many rules and regulations in racing, there is not a whole lot the average Saturday-night racer can do to give his car's electrical system a marked advantage on the track. But this is not to imply that a racer should just give up and run any part that fits. As technology advances, so do the electrical components that aftermarket companies are making available to the Saturday-night racer. Ignition systems, distributors, alternators, batteries, and even gauges are becoming more advanced and affordable while remaining perfectly legal in many racing divisions. The trick is choosing the right part for the application, so understanding what options are available is paramount to making the correct decision.
DistributorsNot long ago, the Saturday-night racer's ignition setup was a dual-point distributor and a high-performance coil. Today, most local rules demand a stock GM ignition in hopes of keeping costs down, but there are some classes that allow modified HEI-type ignitions for higher compression engines. This is where aftermarket companies are focusing their efforts.
"We developed the racing D.U.I. (Davis Unified Ignition) High Energy Ignition (HEI) distributor back in 1989," says Steve Davis, president of Performance Distributors, "to improve on the GM version."
GM was the first to introduce an HEI distributor for production cars around 1974, but they were notorious for breaking down around 5,000 rpm. So Davis experimented with various modules and coil combinations to come up with a 9000-rpm racing HEI distributor.
"The technology at that time," says Davis, "was limited to electronic spark boxes that a racer would hook up to his distributor, and he would have to mount the coil and the module outside the distributor. Those spark boxes were developed back in the early '70s for lean-burning, OEM Chrysler applications. Those systems would draw from 6-10 amps off the battery, and that hurt the Saturday-night racer, especially if he is not running an alternator."
But new technology has increased the amount of dwell inside the module (the amount of time the circuit is closed), which helps lead to a longer spark at the plug.
"In addition," adds Davis, "on our coils, the trick is not only high voltage but also maintaining that high voltage at high rpm. Stock HEIs would start misfiring around 5,000-5,500 rpm. We had reworked the internal workings of the coil to maintain a superior fire all the way up to 9,000 rpm."
Such a racing distributor lowers the amperage draw to about 2-3 amps, which helps racers that run older stock boxes cure misfiring or skipping in the firing process as they get later into the race. In addition, with a lower amperage draw, the racer can run for a much longer time while maintaining usable battery power.
Also, the extra dwell and the higher voltage of the coil allows the racer to run his plug gaps wider.
"That is good because you can open up the plug gap, which helps to burn the fuel mixture more efficiently. Think of it like using a bigger stick of dynamite will explode more stuff," Davis says with a grin.
Racing BatteriesThe role of the battery is fairly simple-to provide electricity. Under racing conditions, however, that role is put to the ultimate test. Fortunately, several aftermarket companies have spent countless research hours on developing batteries for almost any racing application.
Performance Distributors also offers a racing battery called The Terrorist. It is an 18-volt output and is an ignition-only battery that is run strictly through the ignition to hop up the spark even more. Using an ignition-only battery through the HEI distributor allows the racer to open up the plug gap even wider.
"For example," says Davis, "with this battery and HEI distributor setup, we can go to about 70 to 75 thousandths on the plug gap. With that kind of spark in there, you can richen up the fuel mixture to make the engine more powerful."
Since a racer cannot crank off the battery, it requires a separate 12-volt battery. Performance Distributors recently introduced its 1311/42-pound dry cell Dyna-Batt battery. Together the Dyna-Batt and the 7-pound Terrorist ignition-only battery provide a more efficient and powerful battery system that still weighs about 20 pounds. All classes of racing may not necessarily allow this setup, so check your local rules.
If you happen to be in a class that will not allow the 18-volt battery, then Davis suggests you run an improved racing alternator. Alternators eliminate charging at the track and keep the voltage in the battery constant for the entire race.
Battery ExtenderBattery maintenance is probably not real high on the Saturday-night racer's checklist, especially when the car sits for an extended period of time. To combat battery wear over storage periods, Auto Meter has created a new item called the Battery Extender.
"This is a newer item that we have introduced in about the last year or so," says Ron Piasecki, media relations for Auto Meter. "The easiest way to describe the Battery Extender is that it is great for vehicles that are not used regularly."
The Battery Extender charges a battery at the rate of 1 amp until the battery reaches a full state of charge. At that point, the charge drops down to 250 milliamps. Unlike a trickle charger, which constantly puts out a few amps of charge into the battery and must be taken off the battery when a full charge is reached, the Battery Extender senses when the battery has a full charge and will not overcharge.
GaugesIf there is a window to your engine, your gauge cluster is it. Reading your gauges is almost as important as reading race traffic. As important as gauges are, though, the racing community has been slow to accept the latest advancements. Electrical gauges have been around for a while, yet many racers still stick with the older analog gauges, especially pressure gauges.
There is a size difference in the sending unit in a mechanical oil pressure gauge as compared with the sending unit of an electrical gauge serving the same purpose. For a mechanical gauge, the sending unit is only about 111/44 inches long, which threads into an 11/48-inch NPT (natural pipe thread) hole. An electrical gauge has a larger sending unit, which hampers its universal acceptance even further.
"I am not seeing a lot of the electric gauges being used for racing applications," says Piasecki. "There have been some racers that we have worked with that have success with the electric gauges, but it seems the perception of most racers is that the mechanical gauges are more accurate. That seems to be the mindset for the last 40 years. A lot of racers do not want to experiment with electronics because they have been quite fond of using mechanical gauges."
Piasecki has noticed, however, a trend in racers beginning to use electric water temperature gauges in performance applications. Electric temperature gauges are generally lighter and easier to route wiring to the sending unit (the piece that sends the temperature information to the gauge) than with mechanical temperature gauges, which require running what is called capillary tubes from the gauge itself to a ball or bulb that normally goes to the intake. Such convenience may not sound like much, but the simplicity of the design delivers real benefits when the time comes for engine removal.
"It is much easier to just unplug the sending unit than to remove the whole capillary tube or to move it out of the way," Piasecki says.
One gauge that not many racers utilize is the rearend gauge. Rearend temperature, while vitally important to Winston Cup teams, may not be deemed as important to the Saturday-night racer. Remember, however, that rearend fluid will eventually break down, and a rearend temperature gauge will certainly help in ensuring the longevity of your car's rearend.
LightsGauges tell the racer what is happening with the car, but they are of no use if a driver does not read them properly. That is where warning lights come in handy. Warning lights are the easiest way to foretell possible danger. Most warning lights are simple to install and can be configured for custom applications.
For example, the array of colored lenses in Auto Meter's Pro-Lite warning lights allow a racer to specify one color for each temperature warning light. Also available is the Tri-Alert warning device, which can be used with the electric water temperature or oil pressure gauges. The Tri-Alert can work with three separate electric sending units and can trigger three separate warning lights or even electrical systems.
"I have a street car that I sometimes drag race at strips," explains Piasecki. "What I have done with the Tri-Alert is I have one separate water temperature sender for the water gauge, and I also utilize the box to turn on two electric fans separately at different temperatures. I have one fan turn on at about 170 degrees and the second at 185 degrees, along with a warning light that comes on at 210 degrees. If the temperature gets too hot, the light will warn me, and I know I have to take care of the problem."
So if a racer is using an electric water temperature, oil temperature, and rearend temperature, he can utilize the same box to trigger the warning light for those gauges, thereby saving weight while simplifying installation.
Though mostly utilized in drag racing applications, Auto Meter also offers shift lights that easily attach to all of the company's ultralight tachometers.
Digital IgnitionModern advancements in digital technology have made some serious improvements to ignition systems, but many racing bodies are slow to accept the new coils for fear of these units being improperly used.
"About three or four years ago, Holley came out with a digital-based ignition system called the Holley Annihilator Ignition System," says Robert Writesman, manager of Circle Track Motorsports with Holley Performance Products. "Some of the higher-ranking racing series did not initially take well to the digital system because of the possibility of racers using traction control or other forms of engine enhancement. So the trend continues to be based on the analog systems."
An added bonus to Holley's digital system is the addition of a rev limiter. The digital setup features a rev limiter that allows the rev limits to be adjusted with a screw on the back of the box. This eliminates having to install any extra rev-limiting equipment.
This year, Holley is introducing additional coils that will combat the vibration inherent in circle-track racing. "We are coming out with some coils that better dissipate heat and protect all internal parts of the coil," Writesman says.
As digital and electrical advancements are made, Saturday-night racers can expect to see a host of new electrical racing products enter the market in the coming years. The challenge is to closely examine the rules for the local track and the sanctioning body. Learn if there is any leeway in ignition coils, distributors, ignition wires, batteries, or any other electrical component that could at least give the racer an advantage in reliability or a savings in weight. Those factors alone may mean the difference between a trip to Victory Lane or just a trip home.