Here at evolutionindustrial, we aim to inform and educate as well as entertain and this article will be no exception. Did you know, for example, that a palindrome is a word that reads the same backwards as it does forwards? “Racecar” is one such word and is also the topic of today’s post. And just like the palindrome, any inspection or preparation of a race car should always be the same whether it’s front-to-back or back-to-front… So if you want to know the basics of race car preparation and maintenance then stick around and read on!
The basis of my experience comes from many years as an Automotive Technician, working on humdrum, day-to-day cars with nothing terribly exciting to write home about, but when I made the transition to a Formula Ford racing team the seemingly dull, repetitive tasks of basic servicing and the consistency that it brought to my own working practices became incredibly useful and valuable when turning a race car around in-between sessions, either during testing or at an actual race weekend.
Safety First and Second.
This really ought to go without saying, but unfortunately, it isn’t said enough and if something did go wrong then it would be your ass in the slinger! So first things first, if you notice any issue, fault, damage or problem with the car you’re working on, report it to the Chief Mechanic or Race Engineer immediately. I remember in my early days I was sitting next to the car on the grid waiting for the 1-minute call when I noticed a locknut on the rear suspension pushrod was loose. I didn’t have a wrench to tighten it, and doing so may even have upset the balance of the car, so I instructed the driver to pit after the formation lap. He started from the pit lane, but at least the car was made safe.
The same level of attention to safety must also be extended to your own working environment and practices, not just the car. Be aware of what is going on around you, especially in a busy pit lane or garage. Ensure fuel and oils are put away in their correct places when not in use, and always have a fire extinguisher at hand when refuelling or working on a hot car between sessions. Have a second pair of eyes on the car when you’re about to release it from the pit and always, always, always ensure the wheel lugs are torqued to the correct specification before any car is lowered off the jacks!
Get Your Rhythm On.
As with any profession, if you’re in the swing of things and feeling good, then chances are it is all good. This took me a little while to figure out but the end result has at least given me a laminated checklist of “Must Do’s” that I still reference today, and is a critical tool when you’re under pressure to get your car turned around quickly between practice and qualifying, especially if important set-up changes are required. Having a list of things that should always be carried out is probably the first step in becoming a successful Race Mechanic and not looking like an idiot when the car rolls to a stop halfway along the back straight because you forgot to put fuel in for the session. Believe me, I’ve been there, and refuelling over the drivers’ head as he sits there waiting to get out on track is not an ideal situation.
Getting to this point takes time, so be patient, get as much practice as you can, and repeat, repeat, repeat ad-nauseam. By committing your procedures not only to memory but also to muscle memory it can help you avoid missing something important since if your mind forgets to do it you will forget, but if your body forgets then there is always that feeling of having missed something. Take a minute to double check, referring to your list if necessary, and go back to the area you have doubts over.
Remember, motor racing is exciting and as such is meant to be fun. Many people are lucky enough to simply ‘fall into’ it, but others who have a passion for the sport can find it very difficult and frustrating to find a position with a team where they can learn their craft in a hands-on role. I certainly fall into the latter camp and gave up 2 weeks of my time to volunteer and show my skills to the team boss before he would even consider me for a full-time position on the race team! But once you get there, being a part of the team and not apart from the team will help ensure you remain in the team for the long term.
If you are struggling to get a break and find work in an established racing team, then do consider volunteering. This needn’t even be on a team; there are several other volunteer opportunities in motorsports such as marshalling, first aid and other important trackside operations. Racing wouldn’t take place, at least not as safely as it does, without the help and assistance from thousands of people giving up their weekend to get involved in something they love doing. And who knows what it might lead to? Simply by being there, you’re going to meet people and eventually someone will give you the opportunity you’re looking for and you can get wrenching on some exciting machinery!
OK, so the following list is far from comprehensive and will, of course, depend heavily on what class you’re running in, but I’m guessing anyone reading this will be at a beginner/novice level; no-one can be expected to jump straight into Formula 1 or NASCAR without at least some amateur-level involvement. So whether you’re running open-wheel or tin-tops you should at least find something useful here that you can apply immediately to your own race car preparation duties…
- Get the car up on stands – this achieves a number of things such as getting the wheels off the ground and allowing better access underneath and also provides a more comfortable working height in general.
- Put the battery on charge – this assumes you’re running with one of course. Some classes don’t require an onboard power store for a variety of reasons, however, if you do run a battery, then the last thing your driver needs is being unable to restart the engine having spun out and stalled in the infield.
- Remove any bodywork that can be to allow for better access to areas of the car that require inspection or repair. Doing this now also helps heat to escape and makes for a safer and more comfortable working environment.
- Calculate the fuel requirements for the next session and add it to the tank. Remember, you only want to run as much fuel as is needed for the session, plus ~10% contingency and for the stewards should they want to take a sample.
- Before removing the wheels, I go around all 4 corners and perform a wobble check – this will reveal any worn or loose rose (heim) joints, rod ends, wheel bearings or other faulty mechanical steering or suspension components.
- Remove the wheels to gain full access to brakes, suspension and other onboard systems that require maintenance and inspect the mountings, including the stud threads and lug-nuts. Doing so ensures there is reduced risk of one parting company and stranding your driver rather embarrassingly out on the track and not all rogue wheels are as co-operative as that one in the Australian V8 Supercars (search “well behaved tyre” on YouTube or just click here).
- Plan your brake pad usage for the entire weekend and allocate parts accordingly. This ensures you have enough material for each session and can prevent a potentially dangerous brake failure. Actually, I don’t know of any brake failure that isn’t dangerous! It is also a good idea, if you do plan to change brake pads during the weekend, to get your driver to run a couple of laps during a practice session of all the sets you intend to use to break them in and avoid that ‘dead pedal’ feel of brand new pads.
- Fluid check – engine oil (whether wet or dry sump), engine coolant, brake and clutch fluids, transmission and final drive oils, etc… Also a good idea to check for any leaks at this stage too, since doing so will help give you an idea of oil usage; if there are no engine oil leaks for example, but you still find the level a litre down after 10 laps, you get a good picture of what the motor is doing. I would always check and drain any overflow or catch tanks during this step as well.
- Spanner check – basically what this means is checking for any loose or damaged fasteners. On a larger or more complex vehicle, it is worthwhile breaking it down into sections and checking one area after each session. Assess any running repairs at this stage too, such as loose floors or other body panels, damaged hoses, broken locking wire, etc.
- Additional items – this might include downloading the datalogger, resetting the lap transponder, carrying out any tuning or upgrades, checking the onboard fire extinguisher and giving the car a vacuum out and cleaning the bodywork. After all, a clean racecar is a fast racecar, and you want your important sponsorship logos to be clear and visible to keep the coffers happy, even if the results aren’t!
Only once all these steps are completed would I consider the car ‘turned around’ and ready for the next session. It is now time to refit the wheels, ensuring they are torqued up properly, check and adjust the tyre pressures as required and drop the car back down to the ground. A final check of fuel level and battery voltage before firing her up and being ready to do battle once again.
At the end of each day when all the running has been completed, I would always get the car ready for the following day and then spend a bit of extra time that evening doing the things that didn’t get done during the day, such as making good any temporary repairs, checking for debris, cleaning out the distributor (if applicable), checking plug gaps and leads, cleaning in and around the engine bay, lubricating any cables and pivot points, and giving the bodywork a final clean and polish. If time allowed, I would also do a quick alignment check; toe, camber, castor, etc., but I’ll leave the details of this to another article (coming soon).
So here we have it, my top 10 list of basic race car preparation and maintenance. It is by no means exhaustive and can certainly be added to substantially depending on the class or formula you compete in, but that is so huge and diverse an area I have intentionally kept this simple to apply specifically to entry-level mechanics who just need a few pointers in the right direction. I do hope I have helped at least some of you get a general understanding of what is required in the pits when turning around a race car between sessions; I wish I had a guide like this when I started out!
As ever, feel free to like, share and comment below… what are your key tips for your own race car prep? Add them below and join the growing community here at evolutionindustrial.