To many, auto racing may seem like a fairly easy thing to do. The drivers do a good job of making it appear so, anyway. There are many arguments that can be made against that, but no matter what people think of the racing, there is no argument against the difficulty of getting a racecar to drive well on the track.
Every kind of racecar is different in the way it is set up, but for the most part, they all share similar assembly processes. Assembling a Modified Lite dirt car, which is about the size of a Ford Fiesta, is no easier than assembling a full-sized stock car.
It does not matter what kind of car you have. There are so many aspects at every corner of the car that it almost requires an engineer to comprehend the vocabulary of each part alone. Starting with the skeleton of the car, its frame, there is no room for error. Every location, size and bend has a purpose. The frame has a big influence on the performance of the car, as well as the safety. There is a middle ground with the weight of the frame that can be hard to find: it needs to be light, but also strong. You want to use material that is light and will bend in some locations to absorb any possible impacts, but not bend so much that the frame will fall apart during a wreck. The welding of the frame is a key aspect to its integrity as well. If pieces of the frame are not welded together correctly, you might as well be using duct tape to keep it together.
Building a frame is for people who have training in welding and understand how a racecar is supposed to work. There are many businesses that sell various racecar parts, so all someone has to do is buy the parts and assemble everything. This can actually be one of the easiest parts of the process if you know what you are doing. For working on a Modified Lite, there are not as many of the complicated parts that are seen in the more professional series. The layout is pretty simple. The seat goes in the center, motor in the front, gas tank in the back, drive shaft down the right side, two tires in the front and two tires in the back. If the frame was built correctly, there should be no issues placing everything where it belongs.
However, that is not always the case. Depending on what motor and rear end housing you get, mounts and bars may not always line up the way they are supposed to. In this case, the most common theme in auto racing building has to occur: chop, cut and rebuild.
Racecar drivers are picky about even the smallest details of their car. Comfort is a key detail in a racecar, so even a gas pedal being half an inch too high or low can really irritate a driver. Changing the length of pedals, position of the seat and location of the steering wheel is not rocket science, but can still take hours to perfect until the driver is completely satisfied with the location of everything.
Once the car is fully assembled, only half the battle has been won. Setting up the car so it handles correctly is probably the biggest challenge of all. Just about everything you touch on the car can affect the way it handles. Every car is different, so there is not one exact way to perfectly set a car up. You have to just find a starting point you are comfortable with and then tweak, tweak and tweak from there.
Starting in the front end, the position of the motor in the car can have a major effect on the weight placement in the car. Weight plays a key role in allowing the car to function properly. Too much weight on one side of the car can cause the car to react in a negative way once you take it out onto the track. This is especially important for dirt car racing, where the car essentially “drifts” through each corner and needs the weight to transfer from one side of the car to the other in order for the car to “roll over” in the center of the corner. This means the whole car essentially tries to roll over while the rear end stays planted to the track in order to gain as much traction as possible.
The best way to control the weight of the car is by putting it on scales; each wheel of the car is placed on top of a scale and it calculates the weight of each corner. But before scaling the car, there are many other steps that need to take place. In the front end alone, adjustments that need to be set are the camber, caster, toe, tire stagger, ride heights, shocks, springs and air pressure. Along with everything in the motor being hooked up, there also needs to be oil in the car (the car will not last long without oil). Each of those adjustments could have their own long description of how they work and why they are important. For example, a pound of air pressure can have a large impact on how the car handles.
Then for the rear end housing of the car, which the wheels are connected to and where the gears go, has to be square. The correct gear combination needs to be found, oil needs to be placed in the rear end, the correct rear tire stagger needs to be found, the trailing arms need to be connected and positioned on the frame, the track bar needs to be connected and positioned on the frame, shocks and springs need to be chosen, rear tires need the correct air pressure and there definitely has to be gas.
Once all of this is complete, the car can finally be scaled with the driver inside. Four weights will appear on the monitor along with a rear end percentage, right side percentage and an overall percentage, which is achieved through a formula of the combination of the left rear and right front weights. The percentages and weights can be changed by changing springs, moving weight around and putting tension on or taking tension off the springs. The most challenging part of this is that, since every car is different, there is no set number that the car should be at. Every driver is different as well in the way they like to drive, so even if two cars were exactly the same, one percentage can work flawlessly for one driver, but horribly for the other. To have an idea of what a good starting point may be, you need to know what each percentage and weight means. Then, once you actually get to the track and drive the car, it becomes a little easier to determine what needs to be changed in order for the car to get around the track in the best way it can.
But unlike asphalt racing, where track conditions usually stay consistent throughout the whole race, a dirt track can change halfway through the race and is usually different week after week. So not only do you have to know what makes the car go fast, but you also need to be able to predict what the track will be like every week in order to know which way to go with your adjustments.
On April 26 I will put all of this motorsports knowledge to the test once again at Brewerton Speedway and try to make driving my No. 83 Modified Lite look easy.
-Published in The Oswegonian