Aligning your own vehicle isn’t as scary as you might think. With a few of the right tools and some practice, the process is actually pretty simple. Being able to do it yourself saves you money from trips to the alignment shop and allows you to make small adjustments in setup to try to gain speed at the track. At Double Nickel Nine Motorsports, we have been doing our own alignments for years, using Watkins Smart Strings and Smart Camber tools.
As we completed our own alignments, we ran into a few issues over and over again and decided it was time to try to solve the problems. The first issue was with adjusting toe with sticky racing tires on concrete or asphalt surfaces. The tires do not want to move, and as adjustments are made, we were deforming the sidewall of the tire (as opposed to the wheel/tire actually moving). We would continually change the toe settings trying to find the number we were looking for and then eventually, the tire will slip and then our toe measurements were way off. We solved this problem using the trash.
We took two thick garbage bags, some axle grease and some really good duct tape and built or own portable sliding alignment floor. We coated the inside of one garbage bag with axle grease, duct-taped it shut. Then put that bag inside another bag with a lighter coating of axle grease and we sealed that up with duct tape. We made four of these setups, one for each tire and we put them under the car tires as we are doing alignments. The slippery bags allow the sticky racing tires to move on the shop floor. Things are always easier with a bit of lube.
Another issue we ran into was making sure our steering wheel was straight as we did our alignments. We continually roll the car back and forth to make toe adjustments, which can change the steering wheel angle. It is hard to actually see from the outside of the car if the steering wheel is perfectly straight. The best way to ensure this is correct is to leave someone in the car during the alignment to do two things: 1) Have driver weight in the car so alignment is done as close to race setup as possible. 2) Hold the wheel straight.
As much as I like having somebody sit in the car, that isn’t always possible. When I am at the shop at 3 in the morning, nerding out on 1 mm of alignment settings, I’m generally all by myself. To add driver weight to the car, I use multiple 45-pound weight lifting plates. With Smart Strings boxed around the outside of the car, you can’t open the doors to get inside to look at the steering wheel head-on to ensure it is perfectly straight. The steering wheel bubble level makes this process easy.
The bubble level is held in place by springs that push the outside edges of the bubble level toward the edge of the steering wheel. We modified our steering wheel bubble level to fit a smaller racecar steering wheel by pressing out the pins, redrilling the locator holes, and cutting the springs. This modification allowed our steering wheel bubble level to collapse small enough to fit inside a Sparco steering wheel.
With the modified steering wheel bubble level in place, it is easy to quickly glance into the driver’s window and ensure the steering wheel is straight while completing an alignment. As we roll the car back and forth and make adjustments, we will give the bubble level a quick glance and make sure things are nice and straight.
Another issue we found after some trial and error is that steering wheels can move during an alignment. Even after all the work we put into making sure our steering wheel was perfectly straight using our modified bubble level, we have found that as adjustments are made at the tie rod ends, sometimes the steering rack will move, which turns the steering wheel out of the straight position. This can be frustrating when trying to put in a perfect alignment. Amazon came to the rescue again and we found a steering wheel lock that holds the wheel in place while doing an alignment.
The steering wheel lock device adjusts its height to fit different vehicles and is spring loaded to add tightness to locking the wheel in place. First, we add our bubble level and straighten the steering wheel. Once the wheel is in the position, we like then we put in the steering wheel lock between the seat and cinch it tight. Now we can go crazy making tons of adjustments to the tie rods and toe settings and the wheel will stay in the perfect spot.
These three simple tricks and tools have really sped up the time it takes us to do an alignment and helped with the precision of our adjustments. Using the garbage bags with axle grease allows the tires to move and eases adjusting. The steering wheel level ensures our wheel is straight and our steering wheel lock confirms the wheel doesn’t move from that perfect straight position. No more driving down a straightaway with the wheel turned 5 degrees to the side. I have a lot of confidence in using Smart Strings to get our car aligned to the performance settings we want. We have aligned our car with the strings before and then took the time to take the car to an actual alignment shop to verify the accuracy — and we were spot on.
These products aren’t expensive, and I can guarantee I have saved thousands of dollars in tire shop alignments based on the amount of times I change my settings. Even if I’m not changing my setup, I like to verify that nothing has fallen out of the specifications I want for the track. If we have some minor wheel-to-wheel contact or bang curbs hard during a session, we get the strings out and check our alignment. Using these tools and tricks makes that process easy and accurate.