This may be a bit of a stereotype, but we're going to make it anyway: Racers are mechanical people.

See, that wasn't as bad as you thought it was going to be, was it? What we mean is that racers are normally quite comfortable with the mechanical aspects of working on their race cars. Moving linkages, setting toe, measuring camber, moving around lead to get the correct crossweight, repairing damaged crush panels, you get the idea. Mechanical people are logical, they can visualize how the movement of one component affects another, and share usual method for understanding how something works is to dig in, get their hands dirty, and figure it out by doing.

The race cars ignition system, however, doesn't have much going on mechanically. Other than the moving parts in the distributor, practically everything else is all about moving electrons through either circuit boards or wires. We're still not to the territory of nerds in white lab coats, but it's a far cry from bolting up a set of shocks or cutting off a mangled bumper.

That's why it often seems that ignition problems can give racers the biggest headaches. The problems can't always be determined by a simple visual inspection, and understanding why something does or does not work often requires a different method of thinking for the racer who is more comfortable working with the mechanical parts of his race car.

If this doesn't describe you, congratulations. But for the rest of us, we sat down with Crane Cams' Terry Johnson, who heads up company's ignition products division, to get some tips the current state-of-the-art in race ignition technology. He also shared some excellent insights on how to avoid ignition issues he commonly sees racers suffering from at racetracks across the country.

Grounds and Connectors

"I go to the racetracks, and I get to see a lot of cars," Johnson says, "and grounding is by far the biggest and most common problem that I see. Whatever you want to call it, inferior, not enough, low-grade, insufficient, poorly done, it all comes down to not being able to provide an adequate ground to the ignition system. I think ground straps or something that racers don't think about too much because it doesn't make them any faster, but if you're grounds are not good they sure will make you slower.

"Coming in a close second in that category is poor connectors that do not provide an adequate path for the signal to cross over. Poor quality connectors just aren't going to work, especially now that there are no more analog ignitions being produced by anybody. A digital ignition has to have a clean signal. If you have a dirty signal caused by insufficient or poor quality connectors, you're going to radiate noise off of them and just have problems. Then when the engine is missing, it always seems to be the box's fault—it's never your car. But it doesn't matter what brand ignition box you are using, if you have inferior harnessing, a modern digital ignition box isn't going to like that. Back when we were running analog boxes, it didn't care as much about the signal to get away with poor connectors. The new digital boxes have a lot of advantages over the old analog technology, but they do require that you have a crisp, clear signal."

Johnson says that weather pack connectors, which are popular among racers and engine builders, are a good option because they provide a solid connection with little resistance to electricity. Crane also uses what is called a "Deutsch" connector in racing distributors. "The Deutsche design is a far superior plug," he says. "The only reason that everybody doesn't use it is because they are so stinking expensive, but it is the absolute best connector you can buy so we feel our customers deserve it. All of our distributors come with that, and we also send along the mating plug as well as four feet of wire so the customer doesn't have to go out and buy the mate for the plug."

Routing Wisdom

"The problem that gets a lot of racers isn't just the hardware or the ground, it's also the routing of the wires," Johnson continues. "I see it a lot with how guys will route the mag trigger lead that goes from the ignition to the distributor. And a lot of guys think that because they have put insulation around it like you see for spark plug wires designed to protect them from heat that they have shielded that wire. But they haven't achieved anything in terms of providing protection from electrical interference. I have seen that in an enormous amount of cars.

"To do it right, have a couple of choices there. For example, you may have heard of the term ‘twisted pair.' If you get the cable from us, we do provide a twisted pair set of wires. That's where you have the purple and the green wires braided together. By braiding them together one turn per inch, it actually creates a shield for those leads along the entire length of the wire that protects it from electrical interference. Or, you can buy a harness that has a coated shield sleeve that goes over it that's braided and is grounded on one end. Those are the two ways to protect the signal from electronic interference."

Johnson also warns that you have to be careful about routing wires too close together. "I've seen where guys are really trying to have a nice clean installation in their engine compartment and they've got that alternator wire going right by the distributor, so they take that wire and distributor wire and zip tie it all together nice and tight. Hey, I agree that looks great, but now the racer is scratching his head trying to figure out why the ignition just isn't working like it should. All that high voltage coming off the alternator wire disrupts the signal. The same thing can happen if you zip tie the coil wire to that mag lead. You do not want to do anything that will disrupt that signal coming from the mag lead, and that is why we tell everybody that mag lead, the twisted pair, from the distributor to the ignition should have nothing tied to it that entire length of travel."