Speed Secrets: Off-Season Fitness for Your Car
By Ross Bentley
January 03, 2017
What do most people think of around the first of each year? Getting in shape. For most drivers, this is a good thing.
But it also applies to your car. Your car's fitness is just as important this coming season, which is why I asked John Block to share his thoughts on the subject. Now, John is not a mechanic. He's a race engineer. But as an engineer who's worked at every level of the sport, including wrenching on his own cars, he's seen a thing or two. Some of those things are in the "Do this" category, and some in the "Don't do that" category.
Enjoy! - Ross
P.S. - By the way, John Block conducts webinars about the use of data systems. Having participated in one last year, I know that he makes what is often a complicated topic seem simple.
Go to http://www.auto-ware.com/webinar_home.html to learn more and sign up for his webinars starting on January 17th.
There might be a few places where you can go to the track this time of year, but for the most part we racers are on winter hiatus. So, this is a perfect time to step back and think about our beloved activity, motorsports!
What you need to reflect on is your mindset, or approach, to the "motor" part of the activity, and there is no better time to get started than now in the off-season.
Often it is said that "Races are won back at the shop." There is a great deal of truth to this and it reinforces that your car is prepared before it leaves the shop or garage.
All too often, club racers have the attitude "We can finish/fix it when we get to the track." Any club racer that has ever turned pro will tell you that waiting to do something at the track will firmly land you in the back of the pack at best, and is likely to solicit unfavorable comments from the competitors when you cause a red flag (aka black flag all), limiting their track time because your car has to be towed back to the pits.
The bottom line is that you should have the mindset that your car will go the distance of every session without stopping somewhere on the track or parts falling off your car, endangering your fellow competitors. This shouldn't be something just for the pros. Everybody in motorsports should have this attitude.
This harkens back to the expression we have all heard countless times, "To finish first, you must first finish!"
To implement this attitude in the off-season, prep is more than just repacking the wheel bearings and checking the charge on the fire extinguisher. Prioritize your process and think safety first. Inspect every part inside and out of both the brakes and steering system. Yes, that does mean disassembling every bit and piece, but a failure in either system can obviously lead to fatal consequences for you or someone else.
All too often, as competitors, we get caught up in finding the next "go fast" part and adding that magic bullet to the car during the off-season, but in reality, reliability is much more important than flat-out speed. After all, it takes very little effort to pass someone when they are sitting in the pits or on the side of the track because something broke on their car.
That makes reliability your second highest priority. Yes, I know that is hard to swallow, but trust an old racer and work with me. It would be great to start with a brand new car every year, but that is monetarily out of reach for most racers, so everybody else has to decide where to spend the resources they have (time & money) to do the best they can to prevent on-track failures.
Life Cycle Engineering (LCE) is one approach to this dilemma, and if LCE is your chosen profession then you likely are not reading this edition of SSW because you are already out working on the car. However, this approach is not that hard to apply if you quickly cook up some math channels in your data system to log the mileage in each gear, distance on the brakes, etc., so half the battle is done every time you run the car.
For some people, an old-fashioned approach works very well, too. To begin this approach, check your run notes for the previous season. Hopefully, you have kept good notes during the season and not just "car okay" in the comments section of your log book; otherwise we need to have a different discussion. The idea is to review your notes for any crashes or significant contact that occurred during the competition season. Even if something didn't fall off or immediately fail does not mean there is not hidden damage waiting to make Murphy's Law come true at the worst possible time. Sometimes, these related items fail two, three or more events down the road.
For example: Say you have an open wheel car and find yourself in a situation where the right rear corner gets, shall we say, relocated. This is a very real scenario and likely happened to a number of racers this year. Immediately after the incident, the top and bottom wishbones get replaced, and maybe the upright needs replacing, and the axle was MIA, so it needed to be replaced as well. With the parts replaced, you set the alignment, make sure the setup is back on target, and you are back in business. All might appear fine at the next event and you may go on your way for the remainder of the season and think nothing more of the repair.
However, off-season is the perfect time to think about that incident because sooner or later, you may have a problem with the diff or gear box and find yourself sitting on the side of the track or in the pits wondering why the car won't go.
Oftentimes, hidden damage may take a while to render your car immobile. In the example above, if the axle had still been in the car and obviously bent, the light bulb may have come on to alert you that a bearing carrier may have a small crack, leading to a failure further down the road. But a missing part can't tell its story.
So, now is the time to go back and think about any contact during the season and what the resulting shock may have done to other parts elsewhere in the car. These parts need careful inspection, as does the chassis in between these parts. You will be amazed at the cracks you find that would otherwise be ticking time bombs, waiting to sideline you.
Still in the reliability priority category, now it is time to inspect everything else. Granted, you could start with this, but should you find yourself out of time before the next season starts, those time bombs might not be discovered.
Inspect high-stress parts for cracks. Inspect rivets, or better yet, remove and replace them. Inspect nuts and bolts and maybe toss out high-stress ones, even if no wear or damage is visible. By all means, if a bolt or nut has even one rounded corner on a flat, replace it. Nothing is more frustrating than when you are in a hurry between sessions and you have to fumble around with a wrench because the bolt/nut is deformed.
This is just the beginning of a subject that could fill chapters in a book relating to off-season maintenance and prep, but the idea today is to evaluate your attitude toward the care and feeding of your race car, now, in the off season.
If working on the car is not fun for you, then you should strongly consider finding a prep shop. However, if part of the fun of racing is working on the car, then do your homework before you get to the track and work smarter. Besides, then the racing part will be more rewarding because you will finish the event and be ahead of more cars.
- John Block