During a recent discussion with Dean Nardi of, I happened to mention how difficult it is to develop accurate feedback of product tests. I explained to Dean that it takes a special individual who can overcome several very obvious pratfalls to be a reliable source of information. Dean felt that not only would the drivers find this interesting, but also the crew chiefs would have valuable input as to what to watch for in a test session. In this article, we are going to take a look at you, and what you must first understand about yourself, your car, and most importantly, how to get past some potential mental roadblocks. Although it is focusing on the brake system, the key elements of the points presented affect every system on a racecar. If you study the concepts, the application to a wide variety of other components will become obvious.
Over the last 30 years, I have watched many trends and trick ideas make their rounds with the drivers and chassis builders in their never ending attempt to improve the brake system. Quite often a change to the brake system will make a driver think he has improved his brakes when he has not. Other times even though he may have improved his brake system for one or two stops, the system may not be able to take the punishment for an entire race. In the case of the brake system, most major improvements are made by the little things, those things very often considered unimportant by the owner, driver and mechanic, simply because they seem insignificant. As you read this article, consider how many times you have fallen into one of the traps mentioned below. Self-improvement sometimes requires us to take an honest evaluation of our own strengths and weaknesses. This is how some of the biggest improvements are made.
Racing, unlike other things we do in life, requires the driver to understand the strengths and limitations of the vehicle he is driving, intimately. The more familiar they are with that vehicle, the more they can actually function as a part of the vehicle. They must “feel” the irregularities and the changes so that they may effectively communicate with their mechanics and car owners to constantly improve. Usually, the way this is done is by “gut feel” of the driver, together with confirmation of the stopwatch.
Unfortunately, this method is often not reliable, and potentially highly inaccurate. The driver is allowed to use “value judgement” to make the determinations as to whether there has been an improvement in the car. But is that value judgement always accurate?
How can mistakes in testing dramatically affect outcome? Let’s take a look at a few ways that evaluation of a brake product can be disastrous and produce counterproductive results.
Keep in mind this important factor; not all drivers are capable of evaluation. Some drivers are simply more sensitive to the subtleties of the car, while others are just extremely good at figuring how to get the vehicle around the track fast. Whenever a new part is bolted on the car, such as a caliper, it will make a change to the “feel” of the brake system. The change may feel minor or major, but usually, it will be different to some extent. Since the key to a fast car is driver confidence, how does this change affect them in the car? As you can probably imagine, any time you make a change to a car that changes the handling, there is a natural corresponding mental change in the way you view the car. It is very common for a part that is truly an improvement to be thought to be inferior, purely because it is different from what was used, unless you keep an open mind. Haven’t you ever been in the situation where you were first to try something new, didn’t like it and abandoned it, only to see another person at the track try it, and make it work. We all have. We just have to keep an open mind.
For instance, if a caliper improves the stopping distance of the car, it means a driver must make a mental change in his driving style to allow the car to continue deeper into the corner before tapping the brake, but it also means something else. If you just improved the deceleration rate, didn’t you also just change the weight transfer during deceleration? Doesn?t more weight shift to the front thereby placing more load on the front suspension, and, at the same time, unload the rear. Did you remember to check the spring rates, shock travels and other suspension characteristics to take advantage of the brake improvement, or did you forget to look at those important aspects of how to dial in the car to take advantage of the change? Some drivers have difficulty in making the change. Many times I have been told that the car has too much brake. In reality this is not true, but is a perception. Instead of making the adjustment to make full use of the new product, they remove it.
A very good example of this happened about 6 years ago with Randy and Dutch Hedger. Randy, an excellent NASCAR Modified driver, and Dutch, a very chassis savvy crew chief attempted to implement a method to make the car “squat” when the brakes were applied, as opposed to allowing the weight to transfer forward. Due to a lack of funds, and consequently, track test time, we were only able to test once. The car improved dramatically, but would not turn going into the corner. The lack of weight transfer made the car want to push. The spring rates should have been reduced drastically, but we never had the time to test. The result was that for the time being, we had to abandon what would probably result in a major improvement. We just didn’t have time to make the changes necessary to take advantage of the potential improvement.
Also, the same thing applies conversely. A part can be perceived to be an improvement, when truly it is not. I have seen a caliper with better torque capabilities to be taken off for one with less. One potential reason for this lies the size of the pistons. The smaller the piston, the less the torque output, however, the firmer and higher the pedal during use. Many drivers equate this feel with an improved brake, when in fact; they have just made the brakes worse. This is why it is so critical that the people testing the products be mentally prepared to respond honestly to specific questions so that I may properly evaluate the product test.
Next, a driver’s loyalties and personal desires for test outcome must be set aside so that data can be gathered. Blind testing whenever possible is best so that the driver is unaware of what is being tested, but even this must be conducted with clarification for proper evaluation. Any test must be clear as to what it is we are testing for. The product may have a mixture of desirable and undesirable results. Brake components have a tendency to not be just black or white during testing and must be evaluated on several different levels. Take for instance, a brake rotor. Removing a heavy rotor and replacing it with a light one will make a car feel much more responsive when the accelerator is depressed, and consequently, feel very good the driver. The brakes, likewise, will feel very good, at least for the first few corners, until the temperature rises to the point where it begins to cause the pad to fade. The result is potentially, an improper evaluation, especially if you intend to use that rotor for a long and grueling race.
I know when I ask for any new components to be tested and evaluated, there are three items I will always make sure are included. First, I must know the strengths and weaknesses of the driver that will be doing the testing. He must be well aware that he is free to criticize and praise freely, and that our personal relationship does not require a constant stream of good news to maintain our relationship. In other words, he must be as honest as possible in his evaluation. Secondly, I must understand the type of vehicle and the tracks that the test car will be running, as well as what that particular driver has been using. Lastly, I must understand that particular driver’s style. How does he use the car, and particularly the brakes? Does his style place a major emphasis on the system or is he a relatively easy user. How will this same product stand up under a similar condition with someone who is much harder on the system?
Prior to any “on vehicle” testing, I compare the relative merits of the products, both my own and the competitors in a variety of ways. Weight, strength, suitability for a particular job, range of duty capabilities and a variety of others. For me to be able to answer your questions accurately and effectively I must know precisely the relative strengths and weaknesses of not only my own products, be every competitors as well. For you to be able to ask the right questions, you too must be knowledgeable about your car, your track, your abilities and your shortcomings. Only then can the best results be achieved.
Since much of my day is spent helping drivers and builders understand how to make the best choices of what they should buy for their particular application, I get to see another major source of the shortcomings we have been discussing and that is their preconceived notions. Many times I have had drivers make comments that you know have doomed them to “less than their maximum potential level.” One such remark, “I don’t need brakes at this track,” is particularly annoying, especially when I know they are running at a track that can very effectively use brakes to improve lap times. Unless you are running at a track like Eldora, then brakes are a very critical part of the racecar, and even at Eldora, a good brake system will be highly advantageous in heavy traffic and when a disabled vehicle lies ahead. Many drivers that previously thought that statement to be accurate have reported back later how grateful they were that we gave them the additional “tool” of good brakes.
Many times these comments have more to do with the frustration of being unable to improve the brake system than with the attitude that they don’t want them. Every smart driver wants every segment of the race car to be the best it can be, unfortunately, money, time and ability to prepare the car are only a few of the things that force many of them to settle for much less.
In order for a driver, owner and mechanic to prepare the car with the proper brake system, they must do something that would not necessarily be as critical on any other system on the racecar. They must first analyze both the tracks the car will be run on, and the driver’s style.
Our real goal has never been to build a light racecar or a cheap racecar. The only goal should be to build a fast racecar. In order to do that, weight, especially rotating unsprung weight, should be kept to a minimum. Since brake components are definitely unsprung, and the rotor is rotating weight, its not hard to understand how the brake system is always being scrutinized and studied for removal of any excess baggage. The problem is that before the average racer removes that heavy cast iron rotor and installs that much lighter aluminum one, they must first ask themselves if that new rotor can do the job they are going to ask it to do. That is, remove the heat that will be generated by the caliper. Too often it will not. This is where the problem starts.
Any car on any oval track is going to have to do two things well to be the fastest. The car must be fast on the straight portion of the track. This is made up of two factors, acceleration, to launch the car down the straight portion of the track as quickly as possible, and the second, good brakes that will scrub speed in the shortest distance to allow the driver to stay on the throttle as long a possible. The car must also be able to negotiate the corners. Secondly, If you are driving on an oval, a big portion of your total time will be spent on the turns and time is just as important here, as it is on the straight.
If you have the best brake system on the track, chances are you will be able to carry the car deeper into the corners than your competitors. Not only will you be able to pass them while they are already on the brake, but you will be able to change the angles that you enter and leave the corner, allowing you to run in places on the track that no one else can run. If you have entered the corner at a much deeper angle, this allows you also the ability to set the car up to exit the corner and start accelerating before anyone else. If you don’t have the motor, why not see how to make the brakes help you improve.
One of my favorite often repeated racer responses is “Our car doesn’t have any brake problems, we have just as good a system as everybody else”. Now that’s a comment you would never hear that same person make if we were talking motors and horsepower, because everyone knows that no matter how much you have, you could always use more. Why not brakes too? If everyone at your track has bad brakes, does that mean you should too? Seems to me the best place to look for more speed is exactly where everyone else isn’t looking.
Many times that better system does not mean a major investment, only a smart one. For example, I offer a pad for the early and late GM calipers. Most IMCA cars and many other forms of racing use these calipers. The biggest majority of these low buck racers attempt to use stock pads and still buy their pads from the local parts store, strictly for price. Unfortunately, these pads were never meant to take the serious torture they will see on most racetracks, and have badly faded by the fifth lap. Although the pads I supply are 3-4 times as much money, they also live 3-4 times as long, which means their true cost is the same. In addition, these pads were specially made to take the abuse of severe on-track use. If one car runs these pads, all of the other cars at the track will realize immediately that they have a new problem where none existed before. That’s the way racing is. By the time you realize you have a problem keeping up, it usually means that someone else discovered a new speed secret before you did.
Situations like we just discussed pop up all the time around the brake system. Racers get so caught up in the newest shock or secret tip on how to pick up a extra 5 horsepower that they overlook the fact that they are giving up big concessions to the other cars on the track. They have not really looked closely to see if their brake system is even adequate, let alone superior to the other cars.
Since we are dead in the middle of the racing season, now may not be the best time to make changes, but it is always time to learn more about ourselves and check our own mental awareness to see if we are approaching our building and driving needs sensibly. There is a wealth of information and go-fast ideas that will make virtually every racecar at every track faster than it is now. Sometimes more speed isn’t about big bucks, but rather close attention to detail. The brake system is one place where that rule is certainly true. Your own built in limitations may be your biggest enemy. Is that spot where you hit the brakes now still correct, or have you made improvements that would allow you to go deeper, but your confidence level isn’t there yet. Maybe the higher line you haven?t driven for a while may work because you can run deeper. Don?t overlook anything. Any time other cars are going faster than you are they know something you don’t. Let’s go find out what that is.