In your quest for speed, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need the latest gizmo or widget to go faster. This also applies to the tools and techniques used to measure and improve your performance. While it might be nice to have a high-tech data logger and data acquisition system (in some cases it's necessary), it may not be completely necessary at this stage in your career. Besides, many racing organizations have made data loggers and on-board computers illegal during competition.

There are many other choices that can help you go faster without breaking the bank. If we take a systematic approach to this problem, we may be able to help you tune your way to faster lap times, a higher average finish, and maybe even a win or two. Remember, these tools are not the tuning process. They are helpers and enablers, an offshoot of the tuning process. If you can't measure, you can't improve. The tuning process is a thinking process; you gather information and make decisions based on the empirical data set. The most critical tool is resting between your ears. These tools will enable you to gather data or make measurements and then make decisions based on information you glean from the use of the tool or tools.

Tuning Tools

The bare minimum is a stopwatch. Keep it simple. You will not need a graphing or printing stopwatch. It is best to have a stopwatch that will do continuous laps and splits. It's not a necessity, but it is a nice feature.

You can get crazy here, but I suggest you go with an economy model at first. You can plan on losing several stopwatches during your racing career, so start out with the more reasonably priced units. You should be able to purchase a nice digital stopwatch for $20.00 or less. I have looked at digital sport watches with large faces that have stopwatch functions for $19.95. This is even more of a bargain because you get the multifunction stopwatch and a really handy kit that mounts it to your wrist so it is always available for use.

Cost Range: Stopwatch - $19.95 to $55.00

It would not hurt to gather some notebooks, writing utensils, and a calculator or two. I suggest using hardbound notebooks, since they tend to be a bit more durable than the spiral-bound and paper-cover type. They are available at the larger book stores and the larger chain office supply stores. This book is going to store your information, and you need the documentation to remain in place so you can use it. Furthermore, I suggest that you leave the first several pages blank, as these pages provide a good place to develop a table of contents. As the book begins to accumulate notes, it is always nice to have some reference so you can navigate the contents with greater ease and speed.

Stay away from scientific calculators, as you will not need the majority of the functions for the type of calculations you will be doing (at least at first). A basic math calculator will work just fine. If you want all the special functions, the cost is not that much greater. I suggest a medium to large calculator with the larger keys. It is possible that you will not always be in the most optimum conditions, and larger keys help make the calculator easier to use.

Cost range: Calculators - $9.95 to $39.95; Notebooks: $5.00 to $8.00

You will need tools to measure and control tire parameters. First and foremost, it is critical to have a good air-pressure gauge. Plan on spending in the range of $50.00 to $100.00 for a quality air-pressure gauge. Do not scrimp here. The face of the gauge should be large, and the numbers very easy to read. The numbers should be in 0.5 psi increments. It isn't completely necessary, but a glow-in-the-dark face is a helpful feature. The gauge should be in a protective cover to guard it from impact. The interface to the tire should be large enough to be used with a gloved hand.

There should be a flexible hose from the tire interface to the gauge. It is critical that there be a button-controlled bleeder valve in line from the tire interface to the gauge so you will be able to bleed-off excess pressure. One thing to remember is that a digital gauge is no more or less accurate than an analog gauge. They may be easier to read, but the fact that it is digital does not ensure any greater accuracy. Another thing to remember is that digital gauges may be affected by the environment more than an analog gauge.

Select a gauge that has a midpoint within the tire pressures you will be running. For example, if your normal tire pressures are from 20 to 30 psi, you should use a gauge that ranges from 0 to 60 psi and places the pressures you need to measure in the center of the gauge's range. On an analog gauge, this is the area or zone with the greatest accuracy. Digital gauges do not seem to suffer from this issue to the same degree, but you should still select a gauge that has a midpoint within the tire pressures in which you will be operating.

On a regular basis, you will be measuring the outside diameter of the tires to determine stagger, so you will need a tape measure. I would avoid the metal tapes that we see in every carpenter's toolbelt. Cloth tapes work better than the metal tapes, as they are easier to manipulate than the metal tape and you will not be fighting the tape as it tries to remain straight and reel itself back into the metal case. Metal tapes can work, but you need to get the very narrow tapes, as they are much easier to work with than the wide metal tapes. The cost can range from $3.00 to $20.00.

Cost range: Air-Pressure Gauge - $50.00 to $100.00; Tape Measure - $3.00 to $20.00

Durometers are very useful for tire management. A durometer is a tool that measures the relative hardness of rubber. The durometer reads in a scale called "Shore." The durometer generates a number that tells you how hard the rubber is on the Shore scale. Shore hardness specifies hardness. Durometers come in several different Shore scales. We as racers need to use the A type, intended for softer materials. There are eight different Shore scales, so make sure any durometer you purchase is set to deliver measurements in the A type. The durometer generates a measurement based on the initial indentation into the material to be measured. In our case, it's the surface of the tire. The Shore number is directly related to the level of penetration into the material being tested. The lower the number, the more the probe on the durometer goes into the material being tested. The final Shore number is directly dependent on the viscoelastic properties of the material.

Plan on spending $50.00 to $100.00 for a good durometer. Remember, this tool requires a specific technique for operation, and you can vary the reading you get if you do not use the tool properly.

Cost range: Durometers - $50.00 to $100.00

A factor that we all deal with but have no control over is the weather. How you deal with weather from a tuning perspective is oftentimes dependent on the information you have at your disposal. There are many different products on the market that will help you monitor the weather. They range from the simplest of barometers for monitoring air pressure, hygrometers to keep track of the humidity, and thermometers for temperature measurement to some very complex all-inclusive electronic weather stations. Several watch companies make watches with weather-monitoring features. These watches were designed for use by outdoorsmen, but the data is the same for racers as it would be for a moose hunter.

You can spend a good deal of money on some purpose-built weather computers, but the data you need can be gleaned from some very simple gauges and meters that can be purchased at a reasonable price. If you are clever, you can get some weather measurement tools in the most unlikely of places. Many furniture stores sell weather stations that are decorator items, but they really work. I have seen weather stations with gauges made by some high-end instrument companies. These are usually sold in a three-gauge set with thermometers, hygrometers, and barometers mounted on a single, decorative wooden display plank. These can be mounted inside the trailer for a nice, homey touch if you so desire.

Electronics stores such as Radio Shack sell a line of electronic weather stations, and they are reasonable in cost and seem to be very robust. They have a line of handheld instruments that work well and are battery powered. The cost range can be anywhere from $19.95 to several hundred dollars, depending on the quality of the unit.

Cost range: Electronic Weather Station - $19.95 to $100.00+

The number of tools required to tune the engine is limited at the track. The parameters you will be adjusting may only be limited to ignition and carburetion. If you do anything more than that, you are getting closer to maintenance than tuning. Parameters such as any valvetrain adjustments are better left to accomplish back at the shop in a cleaner, more controlled, less harried environment.

You need a timing light to check and monitor any changes you will make to the engine ignition timing. Be prepared to pay a premium price for a good, quality timing light. Make sure the one you get produces a light bright enough to be seen in daylight. The cost will range from $29.95 to well over $100.00.

Cost range: Timing Light - $29.95 to $100.00+

It's a good idea to have a spark-plug magnifier with a flashlight incorporated to look at the plugs as they come out of the engine to check the jetting. These range in cost from $39.00 to $49.00 and can be obtained from most speed shops. This should be the extent of engine adjustments you accomplish at the track.

Cost range: Lighted Spark-Plug Magnifier - $39.00 to $49.00

There are other things you can do to further tune your car at the track, but these things will require you to make physical changes. Scales are an example, as they are not really a low-dollar tool. They are important, but they require a substantial amount of investment to procure.

The tuning process is more about asking and answering questions than it is about developing an impressive array of fancy tools and instruments. Critical thinking is more important than just having a shiny tool in the box. It's about getting a shiny trophy as a measure of your ability to tune.