How to Shake Down a Race Car
Testing and tuning is a lot of fun, but only if the car comes back in one piece.
Check All Fluids
Finally finishing a project is an accomplishment in and of itself. With so many “builds” out there that never see completion it’s a really special moment when you finally crank the starter and hear your baby come to life. One of the first things you want to do before heading out onto the race track is to ensure that everything has been topped off with fresh fluids. Brakes should be bled with a firm pedal, oil and coolant should both be holding pressure with no leaks present. Pressure gauges are a must to allow insight into what the system is doing.
A shake down isn’t about breaking the track record. You’re looking to find any problems that present themselves at 20-30mph instead of triple digits. Think of it as being a fighter pilot going over routine checks before he hooks up to catapult off an air craft carrier.
Test in Open Ground
I personally don’t like to test any race car for the first time on the actual track. Instead, I look to find an access road or a big open space like a skid pad where I can safely throw the car left and right before there are barriers or drop-offs next to me. If something in your suspension system snaps, the brakes don’t work or one of a million other unanticipated problems happens—you’ll be fine. Accelerate lightly and make sure all your temps are registering normal values, now is when you bed in your brakes and toss the steering wheel to ensure no abnormal rattles or squeaks are noticeable. After you complete this part of the journey it’s very important to go over everything again to ensure no hardware is loosening itself up. Check your battery to make sure nothing has come loose while you’re at it.
It’s really important after your pre-shakedown drive to go over all your nuts and bolts. You will be amazed at how much potential disaster this can save you. Double check and then check once more. Now we’re ready to hit the track.
Getting on Track
Now that we know everything is secure, working properly and the car is healthy we can go out onto the track. Generally speaking, you need to think like a fighter pilot at all times behind the wheel of a racing car—calm, decisive, logical and in tune with the machine. During your first laps in a new car, the goal is to work up to speed very gradually. Even if you know you’re capable of running a lap time of, say, 60 seconds, you should slow your pace down to a 65 or 66-second lap until everything feels alright. The track can load your car differently than the access road or skid pad did, so be cautious. If everything feels solid we’re ready to start putting the hammer down. This is where the real fun begins and you start to tap into what it really means to be a racing driver.
Slow your roll! In the beginning it’s not about being a hellfire missile or smashing the land speed record. Go slow, work up to speed and let the car talk to you. If something is wrong you’ll feel it. If nothing is wrong you’re good to go.
Working up to Speed
Assuming you’re not in a hedge at this point, it’s time to start pushing the car. Everyone has their own way of evaluating when the car is ready to go full speed and I’m no different. Be mindful of any oddities the particular vehicle you’re driving might have. Quirks like inefficiencies in the cooling system can overheat your vehicle in as little as 20 minutes without you noticing and it’s easy to get into the mindset of wanting to drive so bad that you ignore these vital signs. Fast drivers put more stress on everything as well, so if you’re good behind the wheel this stuff becomes even more important to pay attention to—it will happen quicker since you’re putting more energy into everything. After 15-20 minutes you should have a reasonable understanding of how the car handles and if it’s holding up mechanically. Now it’s time to come back into the pits and evaluate tire temperatures, check fluids and assess how the session went.
Once you’re good to go, you need to bring the car up to speed gradually. Do not go full chat on the first lap or you can seriously damage the machine. It also puts yourself into unnecessary danger. Work up to speed, relax and pay attention.
Longer Testing Session
Setup adjustments will likely be made with everything from corner weights to tire pressures being factored into what needs to be done. Pay close attention to your tire pressures after each session and take note of pyrometer readings if you are using one. Log as much information as you can from the time you spend on track: how the car handled in each turn on entry, mid-corner and exit, what oil and engine temperatures stabilized at and any other thing you can think of adjusting/tuning. After everything is noted you should test a full race distance in whatever format of competition the car will be subjected to. If you don’t compete and do HPDE then running your normal 3 x 30-minute sessions or whatever the adjusted time is would be a good option. You just want to make sure that you aren’t going to get caught out after you spend money to enter a race. Things happen, but you can improve your chances of catching something before by simulating it.
Copy what the big teams do. Just because you aren’t a F1 team owner it doesn’t mean you can’t test exactly like them. A lot of it is just simple common sense. Don’t let adrenaline creep in and cloud your judgement, stay analyzing what the car is doing for the duration of your test sessions.
Where To Go
Many race tracks have open testing and tuning days where you can drive your car around nonstop provided you have a roll bar and 5-point harness. Any real race car should have these safety items installed so it won’t be a problem. From Watkins Glen in New York to Willow Springs in Southern California—where I coach—there is no excuse to not test your build in a safe and controlled environment. Avoid public roads as tempting as they may be, they often result in exhaust tickets or worse. You just get can’t away with rolling up to a road like Mulholland Highway like racers used to do in the 1970s. Be smart, drive safe, stay legal.
Always test at the track, the street is not the place to find out if your driveshaft was installed correctly. Get out to the track this weekend, have fun and remember these tips. You’re on your way to racing glory. Until then…