Acquiring Data

Back when I first started racing, data acquisition, at least at the club racing level, meant either poring over books you found in the “Automotive” section at Barnes and Noble, sneaking over to the fast guy’s pit spot late at night with a flashlight to see what the heck he was up to, or talking to your pals to see what was working for them. Once you acquired your data, it was up to you to see if you could make the same setup work to your advantage. However, you did have to be careful how to apply the data correctly.

I learned that the hard way when I raced in Nissan Sentra SE-R Cup. Two of my buddies, Lord Phil Usher and Tom Paule, were cleaning my clock on corner-exit out of a demonic piece of asphalt called the Star Mazda turn at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. I would own the entrance of the corner, but the car would then wash out and I would be in the dirt on the outside of the turn while Lord Phil and Tom drove right around me. That gave them a huge jump in speed entering the next straight.

After watching this lap after lap in practice and qualifying, I asked how they had set up their cars to exit the corner so well. It turned out that they had disconnected their front sway bars. This made the front of the car more compliant, which allowed the front-drive tires to hook up sooner and give them the launch out of that corner. Feeling like a man who had just discovered a cure for the world’s evil, I disconnected my front bar for the race and promptly managed to smash into Lord Phil’s door the first time through the turn. I attempted to enter at the same speed I had with the bar connected and found to my surprise that the helm was not responding because the front end was now as soft as an overripe tomato. The look on Phil’s face as I rammed into him was priceless, and I very much agreed with the finger gesture he gave me indicating that I was indeed “number one.”

The moral of the story? When you make changes based on data, you have to be cautious and scientific. In my case, I made a change and then did not fully test out what effect that change would have on the car before I charged into competition. An older and wiser racer might have held back for a few laps, slowly feeling out how the new setup would change corner entry, but in the heat of battle, armed with the vigor of youth, I made a hasty move that cost me a new door for Lord Phil and countless years of ribbing at trackside bench-racing sessions. Lesson learned.

With today’s affordable and accessible data acquisition systems, you can easily go far beyond what we could discern 15 years ago by simply popping a memory card into your laptop and carefully interpreting the metrics to see where you are losing grip and time around the track. While there are many forums and other places where you can learn to use the data you record, there is no substitute for spending some time with a true guru who can look at your results and compare them with other samples or experience they have in their bag of tricks.

You may find your guru in the form of an experienced racer running in your class, or you might take a collective approach and get the whole gang together to compare data and lap times. The ultimate approach, of course, is to retain the services of a pro just like you would in tennis, golf or skiing. I have seen folks get great results from spending the day learning with a track master who has seen it all and can turn the unthinkable into the achievable. Give it a whirl and it might just save you from having to buy your pal a new door.

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