As racecar drivers, we love to unbolt stuff, rip unneeded items from our racecars and throw those things in the trash. We are all trying to do what the Lotus founder Colin Chapman said to do, “Simplify, and then add lightness.” But, sometimes we get carried away and throw things in the trash that we might need later, like headlights, for instance. If you are going to run any sort of endurance race that takes you into the darkness, you are going to need headlights. Trust me on this one. I’ve tried it before without lights and it doesn’t work.
It turns out ripping out the stock headlamp setup wasn’t really a mistake after all because night racing requires much more headlamp power —known as lumens — than most OEM systems can provide. Additionally, stock headlamps are designed for driving directly at someone on a two lane road, with the lamps and brights directed toward the right, so as not to blind other drivers. What stock headlamps are not set up for is shooting light toward an apex to the left or right of your vehicle’s A-pillars. To resolve this, most endurance racing teams add aftermarket lights and aim them left and right accordingly for a large field of view while racing in the dark.
My team has used a number of different light setups during the years running NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill. We have learned the hard way about the durability of lights, placement, and the electrical draw on a stock alternator. There is nothing scarier than losing all your lights at full speed at night on a dark racetrack. Thunderhill is not like Daytona. There are no track lights. You only have your vehicle lights to help you see. When those lights fail, you are in big trouble. The lesson here is to ensure your light installation is solid so you can avoid an electrical failure — and tire barriers.
Modern LED lights — LED is the acronym for light-emitting diode — are extremely bright, lightweight, and don’t draw on the vehicle’s electrical system like a tungsten bulb does. These lights are also much smaller than our old-school rally lights, which provides opportunity for better aerodynamics. LED lights are also much less expensive. We decided it was time to modernize our lights and made the upgrade to LED. We searched on Amazon and found a bunch of LED light bars marketed to the off-road crowd, which would work well for road racing at night.
Once our boxes arrived at the shop, we opened things up and started to mock up how we wanted to install the lights on our enduro car. We strategically chose not to mount the lights on the front bumper to keep them safe during common “chrome horn” incidents on track. We chose to mount the lights on the leading edge of the hood, which would be safe and would not block the driver’s view.
We decided to go to Pick-and-Pull on half-price day and grab an additional Acura Integra hood ($50) just for the racing lights. This way we would have a sprint racing hood for daytime races and an enduro hood with lights on it for night races. Our friends at Olson Auto Body painted our enduro hood to match our car’s livery. Then, once we had an idea of where we wanted the lights mounted, we began the process of drilling holes into our freshly painted racing car body. This is never a comfortable feeling.
Once we had holes in the body work — adding lightness! — we started to work with the L brackets and hardware that came with the LED light bars to mount the lights onto the enduro hood. We elongated the holes in the L brackets for the apex lights to allow for adjustment. We have learned over the years that what you “think” will work and what actually works are often two different things. We knew we would want to adjust the lights once we had everything wired up and out in the dark for testing.
LED light bars are not complicated. Each one came with a ground wire and a power wire. We simply connected the wiring from all three light bars together, drilled another hole in our hood and routed the wires into the engine bay. Because this hood would be removable, we placed a weatherproof plug in the wiring line before we hard wired power and ground in the engine compartment. This was all run to a switch in the driver’s compartment for the driver to turn the lights off and on when needed, or to flash them at a competitor when passing.
We finished our project, added the required number and class decals to the enduro hood and headed to our first night race of the season, a Western Endurance Racing Championship event at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. What we found, during the race at speed and at night, was that what we thought would work, didn’t work as well as it could have. Our apex lights weren’t aimed enough to the sides and there was a gap of darkness between the front light bar light and the apex lights. We could do better.
To solve this problem, we simply adjusted the L brackets to allow our apex lights to aim more to the side. But doing this created an even larger gap of darkness between the front light bar and the apex lights. If three light bars were good, then adding two more LED lights would make things great! Isn’t everything better in abundance? We found a small LED flood light that would do just what we needed to get rid of the dark gap in our view. All we needed to do next was wait for the UPS man to show up.
With our new lights, we took the time to test our lights at night before the race started. We set up cones at different locations to act like corners of a track and sat in the driver’s seat with our helmet on while directing a friend with some end wrenches to adjust the lights until everything in front of us was as clear as daytime. This is the key to success, because when you can see what is in front of you, then you have confidence. When you have confidence, then you press harder on the go-go pedal.
Adding the new lights solved all of our vision problems. The apex lights were properly aimed into the corners. The new flood lights took care of the dark gap between the main light bar and the apex lights. And I was able to see where I was going, which is a good thing. In fact, our lights were so good, as things cooled down in the evening, we were able to set our fastest laps of the three-hour enduro in the darkest part of night at the end of the race. That is all attributed to good lighting.
Before you head to your first night race, take the time to look at some upgraded lighting options. LED lights are inexpensive, easy to install, and don’t draw as much current from your racecar’s electrical system. They are commercially available and will make you a winner on the racetrack. Just turn on the lights and go fast!