Professional race teams often live and die by their track testing programs. As proof of their importance, consider the fact that NASCAR (and many other sanctioning bodies) has had to limit testing dates in order to keep costs from getting out of hand for its competitors. Otherwise, the handful of race teams with the most money would be able to spend more time testing than anyone else and create an uneven playing field.

On the other hand, a dedicated track testing session for most Saturday night race teams is something of a rarity. It's not because track testing isn't as important for these guys--in fact, testing is often even more helpful for racers at this level--but because at the Saturday night level most people are racing as a hobby they simply can't afford to take the time off from their "real" jobs to travel to a racetrack during the week. Testing can also be as expensive, or sometimes even more, than racing, and for teams struggling just to make ends meet, firing up the race car for something other than competition may seem a bit like an unrealistic luxury.

We understand that there is a bit of an expense involved in track testing, but if you're able to take the time to do it, the results can be invaluable. Of course, if you aren't prepared, a day spent testing at the racetrack can also be a complete waste of time and money. With that in mind, here's a guide to making your test session as productive as possible.

This Ain't Racing

Yes, you're at the racetrack, you've got your race car, and you're trying to go as fast as possible. But a track test isn't a race, and if you go in with your usual racing mindset you won't be as productive as possible. Your goal with a test session is to gain as much quality knowledge as possible. And the emphasis there should be on quality.

Obviously, the more laps you are able to run, the more potential you have to gather information, but you want to make sure there is a point to every lap run on the track. This means you have to have a plan. If you race at the same track every week, your plan may be to refine your setup, or even your driving style, to maximize your speed on that specific track. If you're in a touring series, the purpose of your test may be to try different setup packages to see how they help or hinder handling in general.

The key to a test is to understand, before, you arrive at the track exactly what you want to achieve. If you take the approach that you're going to arrive at the track and simply try different things as you think of them, you may stumble onto something useful but the chances are much slimmer compared to going in with a specific plan.

The goal of your test session should be to gain useful, concrete knowledge about how your race car functions. Yes, faster lap times are the goal, but if you don't have an understanding of why the changes you made make the car faster, chances are you won't be able to maintain that advantage when the track conditions change.

Lotsa Notes

When testing at the track, there is always a lot going on. You're making changes to the car, track conditions may be changing around you, and every lap you make burns a little more fuel and wears the tires a little more. Before you know it, you can't remember if you added fuel when you made the air pressure adjustment or when you made the spring change. Maybe that fast lap was because of softening up the right-front spring or maybe it was because cloud cover dropped the air temperature. It may be easy to remember at the time, but how well will you remember all the details at the next race a week or a month from now.

If information is the key to a test, then your notebook is your most valuable tool. And we're not just talking about some notes, or even good notes. We're talking about great notes. Your notes should include every relevant detail and even anything that's at least interesting. You never know what will turn out to be useful as your test progresses, or even next month or next year as you continue to refine your racing program.

Notes are so important, that you should designate one person to be your official note taker or "Chief Information Officer." Yes, it's a hokey name, but it does give a clue to the importance of the job. Ideally, you'll be able to organize your crew so that the CIO's only job is to gather and record information. However, if you don't have enough manpower to go around, you must make the CIO's priority clear to everyone. Sometimes work on the race car will be slowed down while the CIO finishes work recording information, either from the previous run, changing track conditions or planned adjustments to be made to the car.

Be Prepared

While you do need to be willing to slow down work on the car if it means collecting better and more useful information, time during a track test is still of the essence.

To make the most of your test session that may involve only eight hours at the track, you'll need to spend at least that much time or more in preparation beforehand at your shop. Take the time to test fit every component on your car that you might want to test--especially if you're purchasing new parts like shocks or suspension components. Nothing is worse than realizing at the last moment that the fancy new stuff you wanted to test won't work or require modification. Now, you are not only wasting money but valuable track time.

Another area where prep time beforehand is valuable is understanding how changes will affect your setup. For example, we sat in on a test session driver Chris Hargett had at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, North Carolina, in preparation for racing his Crate Late Model. Hargett and crew chief Neil Wilson planned to work on their baseline setup and knew they would be making a lot of spring changes during the test. So beforehand they spent hours in the shop swapping out springs, resetting the ride height, and scaling the car to make sure the crossweight remained consistent.