As racers, we like to focus our effort and most of our money directly into one thing and one thing only: making our racecars faster. As a racer, I respect the move, however I would recommend occasionally allocating time and finances in other directions to help the overall race team effort. Sometimes a small investment in something can save you money or headaches later. An example of this is purchasing an inexpensive laptop computer dedicated solely to your race team.
The cost of laptops has come down considerably and they are now reasonably priced. Having a dedicated one for a race team means your personal laptop is not at risk in the elements at the track.
Race teams use laptops for a multitude of reasons at the racetrack. Our team uses one constantly during a racing weekend, for Racepak data acquisition viewing, GoPro camera downloads, checklists, spreadsheets, cutting vinyl, radio programming, and viewing MyLaps data. The laptop is outside all day, in the trailer, or on the roof of a car. It is manhandled by multiple people and is always near tools and open containers of liquid. Essentially, the computer is at risk for being damaged constantly, which is why I don’t recommend using your personal $1,300 MacBook Air for this task. Instead, buy an inexpensive laptop and dedicate it to the team.
We scored this Dell laptop for $232.74 from Best Buy. To me, that is a ridiculously low price for the amount of computing power this thing has. Our team doesn’t need a lot of processing speed just to download GoPro camera footage between sessions and stare at racing telemetry from Racepak.
We purchased a basic laptop for less than $250 and it does everything we need it to do. If it falls off of the roof of a car and smashes into multiple pieces in the paddock, I won’t be happy about it, but I won’t be suicidal like I would if my personal expensive laptop that contained all of my hard work was destroyed at the race track. Even though the laptop was quite inexpensive, it still came with everything we needed, including a CD-ROM, which is handy for uploading older programs that we still use for racing.
We set up a foldable table in our trailer during events so the laptop has a home to charge and be ready for examining data and downloading GoPro footage, which helps keep memory cards clear. There is someone constantly in front of the laptop for some reason during a racing weekend.
One of the items I would recommend for a budget laptop is a wireless mouse. I’ve found that at the track and in the elements the touch pads get dirty and are hard to navigate (especially while wearing gloves during cold nights, like at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill). This is a preference, obviously, but when I’m tired and sweaty and just out of the racecar, I have found difficulty messing around with touch pads when I just want to do something simple. I guess I’m a bit old school and I like using a mouse.
A wireless mouse costs less than $20 and has small USB antenna that you can leave in while putting the laptop away in a storage bag.
Another item I recommend is a sun shade for viewing the laptop screen in direct sunlight. I have found this is a life saver on really sunny days. I found a foldable canvas one for less than $40 that works great. This can also be done with some cardboard from a 12-pack of Budweiser and some duct tape, but you would have to build it over and over again each time you want to use it.
Having a sun shade for a laptop screen is a make-it or break-it item for using a laptop in the outdoors during a sunny day. The red arrow above points to a simple shade that slips over the screen of a laptop and creates a shadow box for easy viewing of a screen in a sunny spot at the track.
Connecting a budget laptop to different accessories, like a Racepak IQ3 dashboard or a vinyl cutter, means using multiple USB ports. Two things I would recommend ensuring your budget laptop has before purchasing is lots of USB ports, for connecting or charging multiple items, and an SD card reader for GoPro footage downloading. I have found some accessories, such as a Racepak IQ3, like to use the same communication port each time you connect them or the computer won’t find the item easily. To make this easier for our team, we simply labeled the communication ports on the laptop so we know which one is which.
Our label maker, the Brother P-Touch, saves the day again with a simple label detailing the name of a particular communication port at a USB connection. Our Racepak IQ3 data logger likes this particular USB port to connect easily so we labeled it.
To take care of our budget laptop during traveling and between races, we purchased a laptop bag. The bag serves two purposes: It protects the laptop and it stores connecting cables for the Racepak, radios, GoPro cameras, etc. We keep the charging cord for the laptop in the bag and the mouse and the sun shade. Everything we need is in one convenient spot.
Another accessory we recommend to protect your $250 investment is a durable laptop bag. Race teams are mobile, which means stuff is always traveling. We made an easy to see luggage tag with a laminator, a carabineer, and a hole punch so as things are packed up after a race, we know whose laptop it is and where this bag goes.
Everyone knows that stickers make racecars faster. It turns out they make laptops faster too. Just to differentiate the team’s budget laptop from others in the paddock, we slapped on some stickers. This bold orange sticker makes it easy for us to see if we left ours behind at a drivers meeting or someplace else.
We have talked extensively about protecting the inexpensive laptop, but we haven’t discussed protecting our car’s paint when the laptop is sitting on the roof of the car. Racepak gave us a free roof protector with the purchase of our IQ3 data logger and we found it to be handy. We used it so much we realized we probable needed more. We ordered online some of our own with our DNN Motorsports logo on it. They work great and keep the roofs of our cars shiny and keep the laptop from sliding off the roof into a pile of electronic rubble on the ground. Win-win!
We ordered our own rooftop protectors for putting the laptop on the roof of the car, which is done often when connecting a car to data acquisition, shift light adjustments, or for ECU programming. We included the phrase “Remove Before Flight” because as cool as these things are, they don’t look cool falling off the back of your racecar in grid.
Our team uses spreadsheets to track components on a racecar, like hours on a set of Insane Shafts axles, or number of sessions on a set of Carbotech brake pads. The best way to continue to track these consumable items is to consistently input data into a spreadsheet each time the car hits the track, even if it is just for a 15-minute warmup session. This organization helps our team stay on top of the cars, which is challenging because we have three team cars, and our budget laptop makes this easy. The car comes in and we enter data about the session. It’s as simple as that.
Here is our budget laptop with all of our accessories at play. The roof protector, the mouse and the laptop connected to Comm Port 3 to our Racepak digital dash. This works great and provides our team the ability to make quick changes at the track and we can easily add information into the car’s tracking spreadsheet.
There are lots of expensive computer options out there for gamers and video editors, which require lots of processing speed and high-tech video cards. Connecting to racecars really doesn’t require that much computing strength. A bottom of the line laptop purchased in 2019 will be able to handle anything a racecar can throw at it. Even connecting to modern cars via an OBDII port doesn’t require much data space or computing power. Save your money for the expensive go-fast parts for your racecar. The team laptop doesn’t need to be high-end.
One laptop may not cover it for your team. At the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, we had four laptops running during the entire race. Sure, we went a bit “laptop crazy,” but we knew what we wanted to keep track of and it required four computers to do it for a two-car team.
Our entire budget laptop project, including bag, mouse, and shade, cost less than one Toyo RR tire — and will last much, much longer, of course. We use it all the time and it keeps pertinent information for the race team in one place. My recommendation to other racers who are risking their expensive personal laptops at the track, which might have work information on them or other hard-to-replace data, is to invest in a budget laptop and keep your racing stuff separate from your work or personal stuff. You won’t regret it.
Rob Krider is a NASA National Champion and author of the novel “Cadet Blues,” to read more, or to contact him, go to www.robkrider.com.