Racing would be a different sport if stuff didn’t break. But, we all know that’s not reality. In racing, stuff always breaks. And when it does, you need tools to fix the broken stuff. The tools you own and how you organize them can help you fix a problem quickly. Quick is the name of the game in the paddock. Nobody has time to be looking for a Phillips-head screwdriver in a drawer with only flat-head screwdrivers. When you need something handled quickly, you want to be prepared and organized. Here is some advice from successful amateur racers and professional racing mechanics on how to organize tools for your success.
The type of tools you own say a lot about you. Are you a Snap-on man? Well, aren’t you fancy? Do you eat caviar off of your $10,000 Snap-on rolling toolbox? Or do you get your tools from Harbor Freight? Well, aren’t you optimistic those tools won’t disintegrate during their first use? According to Ken Myers, NASA racer and owner of I/O Port Racing Supplies, he recommends Snap-on tools. “I have a large Snap-on box in my garage for projects,” said Ken. “I never use anything from Harbor Freight. I once saw a Harbor Freight screwdriver bend from simply using it as a normal screwdriver. Race teams deserve better.”
Regardless of what type of tools you purchase —my team uses Craftsman because we can’t afford Snap-on — organizing them will help you be efficient with maintenance and repairs. Using drawer labels, socket organizers, end-wrench organizers — with easy-to-read wrench sizes on them will assist you in spending less time looking for the right tool to allow more time to prepare the racecar. As I get older and my eyesight diminishes, I have found I only like to use sockets with large discernible labels on them. I don’t have time to be squinting as I look for a 7 mm socket.
On my team we separate shop tools from trailer tools. I do this because I want to ensure the trailer that goes to the track always has what we might need during a race. I don’t want a situation where we pulled a tool off the trailer to prep a car at the shop and then left the tool inside the shop when we would later need that exact tool at the track — where it counts. To avoid this problem, I use red tape to designate a trailer tool and blue tape to designate a shop tool. If we work on a project and I see that we ended up using a red tool in the shop to do something, then I order that same tool again so the shop has it in the future. For some projects, like a motor swap on a non-race weekend, I may insist that we only use trailer tools to ensure we can do the same project at the track when those trailer tools are all that we will have to access.
One of the best things a toolbox can have is a specific labeled place for every tool. To be able to open a drawer and immediately see that a tool is missing helps ensure a tool isn’t left in the racecar. That could be extremely dangerous. Airplane mechanics have perfected this failsafe system. A plane doesn’t leave a hangar until every tool is accounted for using this same drawer check system. Our team does the same thing before the racecar leaves the paddock and also we do a quick trailer check before we tow out to the track to ensure we have all the tools we need for success.
As teams grow, more tools and spare parts begin to accumulate. I started purchasing specific plastic boxes to store sets of tools for a specific problem. For example, we have a plastic bin devoted to just replacing CV boots. Inside the box is all the tools to replace a boot, spare CV boots, spare grease and laminated instructions. For each new box I create to solve problems for the race team, I use my Brother P-Touch label maker to designate what is inside the box. At some point I had so many boxes we needed to add a storage cabinet inside the trailer just to organize the labeled boxes.
Professional teams use similar methods in their organization of tools. Albert Watkins worked as a full-time mechanic for Risi Competizione, an IMSA Ferrari racing team out of Dallas, and for Flying Lizard Motorsports, a Porsche racing team out of Sonoma, Calif. While at Risi, Albert worked with a lot of mechanics that came from Formula 1. He said their methodology was to take the entire car apart and reassemble it at the beginning of the season. Each tool they used they set aside. Any tool they didn’t use for the project they took out of the toolbox. This was done because they traveled the globe and had to ship their tools everywhere, which is quite costly. They only took the tools they absolutely needed.
Albert admitted he is a bit of a tool snob, “Yes, I only use Snap-on tools. I know they’re expensive. In fact, the Snap-on truck was here this morning before you called and got me for $400 today.” What was surprising to me was that Albert used his personal tools even as a professional race mechanic. “Yes, my own box was towed through the paddock at every race to the pit lane so I could use them,” said Albert. The team would have some “team” tools for the “fly-in guys,” and if there was something that could make the team more efficient they would tell the team principle what they needed, and the team would purchase the new tool. “For example at Flying Lizard when we went from the Porsche 997 to the Audi, we had to buy specific tools for Audi,” said Albert. “The Audi uses a lot of Torx and something called a three-square, 12-point internal bolts that we hadn’t seen before. So, more tools were needed.” I’m sure the Snap-on truck loved stopping by Flying Lizard Motorsports.
Tools are used to loosen and tighten hardware and sometimes that hardware gets broken, stripped or lost. Having a lot of spare hardware can help a team survive a weekend. My team has an extremely heavy 5-gallon bucket of bolts we load into the trailer for every race. I’ve shamefully poured this thing out in many paddocks, sifted through the bolts looking for treasure. Eli Cronbach, team principle for Service Motorsports, who races with NASA NorCal, has found a better way. Eli purchased some stackable Dewalt cases from Home Depot and used a Sharpie to label each case filled with organized hardware.
“The project started just to help cleanup and organize the shop,” said Eli. “Then we realized should take this stuff to the track, so we put the Dewalt cases on a dolly and just roll them into the trailer for a race weekend.” Eli says having organized hardware has saved them two specific weekends in a row where they wouldn’t have been able to get the car back on track. “Sure, most people don’t want to roll these things into their trailer,” said Eli. “But it certainly beats walking around the paddock begging for a sway bar bolt that just broke.”
Craig Watkins, Porsche racer and owner of Smart Racing Products, recommends using bags to help keep tools organized. He created Smart Strings for doing alignments on cars. He travelled to many tracks with his Smart Strings tools and realized he had created a tool that had a lot of components, some large and some small and very important. “I was so focused on perfecting the tool,” said Craig, “I completely missed that I needed to design and offer a bag to store the tools.” He later engineered a bag that would store all components needed for an alignment in a single bag. Our team uses the same tools with the bag and we couldn’t imagine life without the bag.
Having had the opportunity to tour some professional racing shops and hang out in garages like Daytona during the 24 Hour, I have seen some outstanding examples of race team organization and I have tried to emulate those examples to the best of my ability and budget. At SEMA, I ran into the reps for Sonic Tools. To me, the tools were just tools, an end-wrench is an end-wrench, but the Sonic tool organization was second to none. They had the best foam storage systems with clear labeling and ease of getting a tool in and out of a drawer I had ever seen. I was ready to switch from Craftsman to Sonic. That was until they told me how much a single drawer costs. Oof!
After spending time with Sonic Tools, I later found out NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill competitor CJ Wilson, who has a Porsche and BMW dealership in Fresno, Calif., has an entire shop surrounded by Sonic Tools cabinets with drawers filled with all the organized goodies. It is impressive.
Obviously we all have to work within our budget and time constraints. Not all of us can swing a Sonic Tool cabinet or a large Snap-on box, but each of us can spend a few dollars on some tool organization (tape, labels, storage bins) to help our teams be more successful at the track.