A Setup Guy’s Perspective

I very rarely write in due to the fact that I may look like a goofball. Like the old saying goes, better to keep your mouth shut and look like a fool than open it and confirm it. However, the letter “Disappointed in the SBBS Article” got me thinking.

I’ve been racing since the early ’90s, on dirt and pavement, and from Street Stock, to NASCAR (formally CASCAR), to Dirt Late Models. Ninety percent of the time I raced in Western Canada, and the rest in the U.S.

It wasn’t until about 1999 that we started playing with the BBSS setup on an IMCA Modified, not due to aero, but because the tracks were so bumpy.

We won a lot of races with this. I then tried it on a pavement Late Model (CASCAR). What we discovered was that once we found “the setup,” it was great. But if we went touring, I could never find the sweet spot quick enough at the other tracks, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of what was really required and what the chassis and driver wanted.

At this time I started working for a race shop in Calgary and started to learn more about the computer programs that were available. After buying several of them, and as many books as I could get my hands on (the only ones prior to this were Paul Van Valkenburgh, and some Steve Smith), the teams I worked with became more successful.

I believe at approximately this time your programs and book came out and some of the blanks got filled in (this isn’t a kiss Mr. Bolles’s a$$ letter).

After a few more years we started having more questions about how to do better. So I started getting into the tech schools, taking classes in the U.S. from RaceWise with Mark Bush, to the three-day class with Claude Rouelle this winter. The reason was to see and learn new views on the subject, other than books and programs, by talking to other racers. Even if we don’t race in the same class or type, it might spark a new idea.

The point of all this is that since the early ’90s to today, the understanding on how the cars work has changed as much as computer technology has. Also it seems to me that what works for one driver doesn’t seem to work for another. The gentleman who wrote the “Disappointed” article finds the BBSS setup works great for him and his team. I’ve found a mix here.

Same car, same setup, same track, same day, three different drivers—one loves it, one didn’t find that much of a difference, the last hated it. All were within 0.003- second on a 1⁄3-mile track, with about 7-degree banking in the corners. Working with a lot of drivers over the years also makes for a good learning experience. Some are great, and others, not so much.

I’ve learned over the years that taking advice from a guy who talks like a expert when he’s running 15th all the time isn’t the same as talking to guys who are successful every week. Everything changes, the latest hot idea may or may not be the best idea, but I think racers need to have more of an open mind.

On the subject of drivers, I’ve found that most of them have no idea about what the car is doing. This isn’t a knock on drivers. I completely suck as one, and do admire what they do. When you try to get info from them, some try to sound like an F1 racer, others just shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” What does a driver really feel? Weight transfer, tire spin, aero?

I might be wrong here but I believe the driver only really feels a few inches of weight transfer (his back side) and feedback from the steering wheel (hands). The rest he sees (the cars pitching over) and hears (tire spin, tire chatter, brakes, and so on). One of the reasons I believe I suck as a driver is that I’m pretty much deaf. I’d love to read an in-depth article on that—what does a driver feel and how it related to setup and crew communication.

I do enjoy reading your tech articles and your book. I might not always agree with your conclusions, but do agree with your methodology. They always get me thinking about stuff, and believe that’s your real idea. I hope this letter makes some sense, and on behalf of most of the racers out there, thank you, not only for sharing your experience, but talking to other racers and sharing theirs as well.

Thank you again for your time,

Scott Alderman

Scott,

Your letter is much appreciated. Those of us who have worked with various teams and drivers will connect with what you’re saying. I agree with you, technology has changed and I think we all have a better understanding of how the car wants to be setup. After all, it’s what the car wants that’s most important. And then there’s the driver.

A driver’s ability to feel the car is, in my opinion, a born-with quality. I don’t think it can be easily learned. This comes from my own experience with driving and my experience with lots of drivers. Some take to the race car naturally and some just never are comfortable. The natural drivers can be the hardest to read because they so easily adjust to the way the car is. Unnatural drivers never can adjust and seem to complain more.

In my experience, once you give the driver a comfortable car that reacts correctly to the steering, brake, and throttle input, he’s happy. But a strange thing happens right about that time. He/she gets more acute about the things the car is doing. Instead of saying it has a push at mid-turn or it’s loose off, drivers start telling you, “Just as I get into the throttle, it has a slight push up off the corner,” or, “It’s just a bit loose right at the apex…”

This refinement of the driver’s input tells us we are very close to where we need to be. Many drivers don’t know what to tell the crew, sometimes because they have never felt a good setup to know the difference. It’s up to the crew chief or consultant to observe the car, look at the tire temps and shock travels and make a determination about the setup and what needs to be changed.

You’re also correct about our goals here at CT. We try to get racers thinking first and foremost. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my presentations and the way I think, but if they start thinking about their car and come to understand what it needs, then we will have done our jobs.