Of all the setup parameters, including moment center location, alignment ranks at the very top of the list. Why? Because when your alignment is off, no other setup parameter changes will compensate for it. The alignment package has a tremendous influence on the way a race car handles.

For example, I recently talked with a Florida asphalt Modified team that I worked with some years ago. This is a winning team that cannot get the car to work the way past cars have worked. I reviewed the moment center design and the setup: The car should have been a rocket ship.

The last question I asked, last only because I thought they would know better, was if they had any Ackermann in the car's steering system. The answer was shocking. On the turn plates it showed about 2 degrees in the amount the wheel is usually turned to get through the turns at their local track. That is a huge amount of Ackermann and added toe-out, as we will explain.

Another example involves an ASA car at Lakeland that absolutely could not get into the corner because it was so loose. The driver/crew chief swore that the car was aligned. The problem was a misaligned rear end, with the right-rear wheel back 3/4 inch too far.

Alignment is a first priority in setting up any race car. It really doesn't take long, and the benefits are as great, or greater, than any other setup task you will perform. If you have not checked the alignment of your car, do it now. Follow along as we explain race car alignment and why it is necessary.

The Elements Of Proper Alignment
A. Toe Settings Proper toe settings at the front and the rear are very important. A set of tires that is not toed correctly will create a lot of drag, much like applying the brakes, and sometimes more efficiently than the actual brakes. The standard of the circle track industry is to toe the front out 11/416 to 11/48 inch. The rear wheels are to be straight-ahead and parallel to each other, having no toe at all.

Some teams desire some amount of toe-out or toe-in at the rear, whether it is desirable or not. Some formula cars are designed to work best with a small amount of toe-in at the rear. These cars are mostly rear double A-arm suspension cars, not straight-axle cars.

One theory claims that the tire contact patch deflection dictates the toeing of one or more of the rear wheels to compensate for that deflection. But it is hard to justify and can probably be best defined as a crutch used to help solve some other setup miscue.

B. Front-to-Rear Tracking The tire contact patches must track straight-ahead from front to rear, and in most cases, we need to line up the right-side tire contact patches. Our final alignment will show the right-side patches are in line with one another, along with the rear end being perpendicular to that line.

C. Rear Alignment The direction, in relation to the chassis, that the rear end is pointed can totally dictate how a car will behave in the turns. For example, on turn entry, if the rear end is pointed to the right of the chassis centerline, no amount of setup tuning will prevent the car from being loose. That looseness will stay with the car throughout the turns, especially ruining the turn exit. If the rear end is pointed to the left of the centerline of the chassis, the car will be tight through the middle and off the corner.

There should never be any reason to misalign the rear end. It should always be perpendicular to the centerline of the chassis and to the right-side tire contact patches, which are themselves inline.

D. Ackermann Adjusted The last alignment priority, and one of the most important, is making sure you have very little Ackermann, which is the creation of additional front toe as the wheels are turned. On most 1/4- to 1/2-mile racetracks, we need very little Ackermann to make sure the wheels are tracking inline with the radius of the turn for each wheel.

Calculations show that for circle tracks with fairly large radii (much more than was used to design our passenger cars to turn the corner at the stop sign), a very small amount of added toe is needed to properly align the front wheels to their individual radii.

The true amount of Ackermann needed for a 1/2-mile racetrack is 1/64 inch of added toe, or about 0.015 inch. We usually set 1/8 inch of static toe, or 0.125 inch, so there is plenty of existing toe-out to compensate for the Ackermann needed.

On a tighter 1/4-mile track, we will need a whopping 1/16 inch, or 0.063 inch, of added toe in order for the wheels to track correctly. This is still well within the initial 0.125 inch of static toe-out we set in our cars.

For your information, 1 degree of Ackermann is equal to 1/2 inch of additional toe-out. Some teams have run 2 degrees or more of Ackermann, expecting the car to turn better. Would you set your car up with 1 inch of static toe-out? I seriously doubt it. But this issue of Ackermann keeps rearing its ugly head, even after we have explained it several times in the past.

Steps to Take in Aligning the Car
There used to be only one reliable way to align a race car and that was by using a string and either measuring to the tires at hub height or at the floor by measuring from right triangles that were created on the floor. That is still a viable way to do it and necessary for the lower budget race teams.

A quicker and more accurate way to align the car in all areas is to use a laser system. The key to maintaining accuracy in a laser system is to check the tool to make sure the beam is truly tracking at right angles to the mounting device. The units we have used in the past are the True Laser Track and the Real Square(tm) Laser Wheel Alignment System. Both of these systems allow for checking the accuracy of the laser beams. This must be done each and every time we use the tool to check alignment.

The laser systems attach to the wheel hubs (Wide-5 or 5-on-5 hubs) and are pointed at targets or measuring scales. For the "analog" method, we used a nylon string from the local hardware store. We will go through the process using both methods so you can see how to perform each step.

Step 1: Wheel Runout Check Check both the front wheels and the rear wheels for runout. This means that as the wheel rotates, the outer edge of the tire wobbles slightly. We must compensate for this slight distortion by finding the extreme high spot at a point equal in height to the hub height. We can simply use a jackstand to hold the tape steady and rotate the tire, noting the distance from the stand. Once we locate the high point, we mark it with an arrow and then rotate the tire (be it front or rear) so the arrow is at the top, pointing straight up.

Now, check the toe at the rear end. Use toe plates or toe bars for the analog method and the laser systems for a more accurate assessment. Even small amounts of toe-in or toe-out are not acceptable. Each person must hold the plates steady so that the measurements are consistent. Measure several times to ensure accuracy.

When using the laser systems, attach the laser to the hubs, remembering to thoroughly clean the surface of the hub. Make sure there are no protruding threads from the bolt holes. It is recommended that you go over the hub surface with a flat file to eliminate any bulges or protruding edges of metal that would cause the laser to not be aligned properly.

Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for setting up the laser systems. Remember that the accuracy of the measurements is directly related to how closely you follow the directions and how carefully you read the system. There is a logical progression to alignment, and each company has put a lot of thought into the methods. The results, if properly applied, will be the same.