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.
A test session is just you,...
A test session is just you, the car, the track and an incredible opportunity to gather all the information you can. Or it can also be an expensive waste of time. Here’s how to make it the former.
Between laps on the track,...
Between laps on the track, make sure to make only one change at a time. This way you know exactly how it affects the car relative to the rest of the setup.
Driver Chris Hargett designated...
Driver Chris Hargett designated himself to log all the information from the test. This way he is able to make notes while his crew works on the car. He is also able to put down his impressions from the driver seat without it being interpreted by a crewmember. Hargett also made sure to log the information immediately after every run so that he didn’t forget anything or get information mixed up from one run to the next. For the sake of consistency, only one person should log the information, and that should be his or her first priority.
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.
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.
From that work they created a chart showing, for instance, that going to a 50-pound lighter spring on the right front corner requires lowering the adjuster nut on the coilover shock X number of turns to return the car to the correct ride height. Their chart also provides measurement points that they can go back and check their work. The result of all this preparation means that at the track they can confidently make spring changes and know that they haven't thrown anything else on their setup out of whack that might throw off their data.
Proper preparation also includes everything you would normally do before bringing the car to the racetrack. You want to simulate racing conditions as closely as possible. This should include tire prep, weight placement, even taping the car up the same way. As a rule, every variable that you can eliminate or otherwise account for will help eliminate those pesky "what if" questions later on.
Play it Safe
One of the side benefits of a track test is that a day spent at the racetrack beats a day spent just about anywhere else. The pace is usually a little more relaxed than race day, and it can be quite enjoyable. But if you're the driver, don't mistake the peace and quiet of being alone at the racetrack for the chance to let your guard down.
You can get hurt just as quickly by yourself on a racetrack as you can during a race. Your race car is travelling just as fast and the walls are just as hard. So make sure to take all the safety precautions your normally do for a night of racing. This includes wearing your driving gloves, shoes, head-and-neck support, and all the other protective equipment you use. Besides personal protection, changing your equipment for the test may also change your driving style and affect the accuracy of your tests.
Normally, renting a track for a test means the facility will also provide an ambulance and first responders, but that's not always the case. If you don't have first responders on the grounds, make sure you know where the local hospital or emergency room is located. Hopefully, you'll never have the need to use them, but make sure you know how to get there just in case.
Crew chief Neil Wilson makes...
Crew chief Neil Wilson makes a spring change according to the testing plan. Because Wilson and Hargett have spent time in the shop beforehand scaling out every change they planned to make, Wilson knows how much to move the coilover adjuster nut to account for the change in ride height a stiffer or softer spring will make. This saves valuable time during the test and ensures that the ride height and crossweight stays the same from one run to the next.
Be careful to make sure tire...
Be careful to make sure tire wear doesn’t throw off your data. You don’t need to swap on a new set after every run, but keeping two sets on hand that you can swap out when testing “Setup A” versus “Setup B” can help eliminate the tire wear variable.
Track tests can be expensive,...
Track tests can be expensive, so don’t be afraid to make use of every resource you have available to make the most of it. In Hargett’s case, his shock specialist, Wesley Page (right), was willing to attend the test to help develop a package of shocks (and adjustments) that will work with Hargett’s setup.
The After Report
A track test is pointless if you can't make use of the information you have gathered. The best way to do this is to write up an After Report. This should boil down all the information you've gathered and focus on what you've learned, how it affects the car, and the situations where you'll use it in the future.
The idea for the After Report is to distill down the mountains of information you've collected and create a reference that is quick and easy to use. You should be able to incorporate the After Report into your setup book or go back to it later to quickly determine how particular changes will help you in specific situations.
Sometimes you'll spend a day testing and not learn anything that makes you any faster. But that doesn't mean your test day is wasted. Knowing what doesn't work can be just as valuable as what does. If your competition starts chasing ideas or setups that you already know not to waste time on, then that puts you that much further ahead.
So hopefully, in the future you'll have the opportunity to spend a day testing at the racetrack. If you do, remember these tips to help you make your time as profitable for your racing program as possible.
We don't know how your kid is doing at school and can't help you with that. But we do have some tips when testing at the racetrack
You should be able to incorporate the After Report into your setup book or go back to it later to quickly determine how particular changes will help you in specific situations
Don’t forget to take into...
Don’t forget to take into account track conditions. Hargett will rarely race in the early afternoon sun like he is testing under, so he will need to take that into account when determining how the information he has gathered will translate into race-day setups.
Keep an eye on the details....
Keep an eye on the details. Air pressure can change from one run to the next and mask the true result of a chassis change you’ve just made.
One trick Hargett and Wilson...
One trick Hargett and Wilson use to make sure they don’t get off the mark with their setup is a set of standards they’ve cut from aluminum bar stock to keep track of ride height. By using these in specific points that they’ve pre-determined, they can quickly and easily confirm that the ride height and crossweights are correct.
Don't Let Shocks Spin You Out
Shock programs have become serious business in all forms of racing recently. And given the advancements that shock specialists have made, they can be quite helpful. But you can also just as quickly put yourself right out to lunch with a bad shock combination.
Wesley Page of WP Racing Shocks joined Hargett during his track test, and while we will respect the confidentiality Hargett would prefer when it comes to the specifics of the program Page set up for his race team, we did get the opportunity to speak with the shock specialist about the current state of shock programs for Saturday night race teams. Page works with both asphalt and dirt race teams, and has clients at all levels of the sport, including more than a few NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams.
His advice is much like we've heard from other shock specialists: Don't depend on shocks to magically cure all your other problems. Even the best shocks can't cure a bad setup, so spend time dialing in your car as well as possible before spending a lot of time and money on your shocks. Once that is right, your shocks can work with a well-handling chassis to put you over the top.
"I almost hate to say it," Page adds, "but the biggest issue I see with a lot of teams is maintenance, especially if they are racing on dirt because that requires extra attention. They don't have their suspension bars freed up and they are binding. Bars are bent or birdcages are binding up. That sort of thing.
"Guys that buy their chassis from a good manufacturer have access to setup information that they can win with. But if you are setting up your car the way your chassis builders says and it never works like it should, then that's a real good sign something is probably wrong with the car and it's not going to be right until you find it."