Getting fast fast in motorsports using data

In this post, I talk about how to get fast fast using data. Anybody can get reasonably fast with a little time and effort. For most drivers, this a year or two. However, as with any craft, the last 10% is what separates the really good drivers from the so-so drivers. Using data will help you break into the remaining 10% much faster than relaying on seat time alone.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

There are lots of books available on the topic of driving faster. If you’re an experienced driver you probably have your favorites and a lot of what you’ve learned should be instinct by now. If you’re just getting started, I highly recommend you first read some books or take a class, because this post assumes an experienced driver. My favorite book is Drive to Win by Caroll Smith.

When working on going faster I keep several KPIs at the forefront of my mind while driving and as part of measuring performance using data. They are:

  • How soon am I getting on power relative to apex? Sooner is better, and if after apex then that’s really bad.
  • After getting on power, am I staying in it or correcting? If correcting (with throttle or steering), then probably because I got on power too soon or my line was bad, or both.
  • What is my top speed just prior to braking for the next turn? Faster is better, and it’s reflective of how well I exited the previous turn.
  • How is my braking affecting corner entry speed? You want to maximize corner entry speed and carry it throughout the turn.
  • How are my steering inputs into and throughout the turn? Ideally one input and then hold, with little or no corrections.
  • Am I taking full advantage of the track surface? Even a couple inches off line can cost precious tenths — something about which a data acquisition system makes you hyper-aware.
  • Am I being smooth? Smooth is fast. Ideally, I look like I’m bored out of my mind and about to fall asleep at the wheel, as observed.

It’s far from being a comprehensive list, but it’s manageable and relevant to where I am in my driving development. Your list can be different, but have a list of KPIs for evaluating yourself on and off the track.

Notice that I didn’t include lap time. This, of course, is the ultimate goal but it’s what happens between start and finish that lowers lap time so focusing on it as a means of improving performance is not the answer.

It’s what happens between start and finish that lowers lap time so focusing on it as a means of improving performance is not the answer.

Data Collection

When I first started driving in 2000, data acquisition systems were prohibitively expensive for most drivers — including me. We had crude ‘tools’ at our disposal like a visual speed or RPM check at some arbitrary reference following turn exit. While much better than a seat-of-the-pants approach, it doesn’t compare to the even the lowest cost data acquisition systems readily available in market today.

A very good low-cost option that I’ve used and recommend is the CMS Lap Timer — it’s all that’s needed for all but the most advanced drivers, this is all that’s needed. Don’t let waiting to buy and install an expensive solution keep you from gathering data. (Yes, I’ve talked to people who use this as an excuse.)

A low-cost system like the CMS Lap Timer is all that’s needed to get started collecting data today.

I currently use a Racelogic Video VBOX Lite system to measure performance. Details on why I use VBOX and how it compares to CMS Lap Timer are discussed at the end of this post.

The following video was recorded using my VBOX at the Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, WA. I’m sure you’ll agree the amount of information available to the viewer far surpasses what would otherwise be available using a GoPro. You may notice the speed indicator sticking in areas. It’s annoying but it doesn’t affect the log data and I’ve since resolved the issue.

VBOX From the video overlay alone, you can see that I’m able to measure and record the following data relevant to analyzing driver performance:

  • Speed (slight issue with sticking in this video)
  • RPM
  • Brake pressure (%)
  • Throttle position (%)
  • Lateral, longitudinal, and total g-force
  • Lap times

Be sure to note track conditions, tire data, and any equipment changes when logging data. Here, I’m running Pirelli Trofeo R comp tires at 29.5 PSI (hot, all 4 corners) with 8 heat cycles. Track is dry and in good condition, weather is sunny and 78F.

I should be wearing a driving suit at these speeds, so please don’t follow my example if you’re pushing your car at or near the limits on the racetrack. Wear a driving suit. I’m addressing the situation for myself.

Data Analysis

I use three different approaches to analyzing the data:

  • Qualitative
  • Corner
  • Differential

The approach used depends on time available and what I’m hoping to learn.

Qualitative Analysis

Several key factors involved in going fast cannot be easily quantified:

  • How smooth am I?
  • Am I hitting my apexes?
  • Am I taking full advantage of the track surface?
  • Am I needing to correct a lot?
  • Am I relaxed and not rushing my inputs?
  • Am I being smooth and progressive with my throttle input?
  • Am I backing off throttle in places that doesn’t seem right, and why?

These can, however, be evaluated qualitatively using recorded video. In reviewing the previous video, there’s lots of room for improvement based on these factors alone. Do the same of your own driving, be self-critical, and apply what you learn in subsequent sessions. Over time, you’ll see your driving improve and lap times go down.

Using this method I’ve become much better at self-accessing my own driving in real-time. At first, my perception of how well driving in real-time was very different compared to as viewed later on video. This is why musicians record themselves while practicing their craft. We sound much better in our own minds when practicing as compared to reality because the human brain filters out mistakes. Playing back the recorded session makes mistakes readily apparent and correspondingly raises awareness, which in-turn contributes to becoming a better player.

One of the benefits of qualitative analysis is that it can be performed quickly and easily between driving sessions, with no special tools or software required. In doing so, you’ll become faster faster because you don’t need to wait until the next track day to apply what you learned. Instead, for a typical track day has 6 sessions, you’ll get 6 opportunities to review and apply what you learned while details are fresh in your head.

Corner Analysis

The key to lower lap times is in maximizing cornering performance. While the novice driver is inclined to believe its about how fast driven through a turn, the experienced driver knows it all about corner exit speed — especially if exiting onto a long straight. As with all rules there are exceptions. For example, you might sacrifice corner exit speed in a turn if it sets you up for a better turn exiting to a long straight.

Take a quantitative approach to maximize cornering performance by evaluating the following:

  • What is my corner entry speed?
  • Am I using all available grip in turns? (For mid-turn, steady-state I look at total g-force.)
  • How soon am I getting on throttle relative to apex?
  • What is my top speed at the end of a straight? (Reflective of corner exit speed.)

Apply the scientific method as a means of improving performance by establishing consistency and then controlling one variable at a time.

By consistent, I don’t mean 80 mph, then 77 mph, then 82 mph, if evaluating — for example — corner entry speed. That’s not even remotely consistent. The variance needs to small else you have no way of knowing the input change you’re experimenting with in responsible for the change.

Considering all the human, mechanical, and environmental factors involved, I’m still amazed how consistent we drivers can get in terms of laying down lap times over 2-3 miles of pavement. Tenths of seconds are normal. While consistency is important, I don’t drive around the track telling myself to be consistent. Instead, focus is on nailing turn in, hitting and pushing my brake zones, smooth corner entry, etc. There’s a lot of feel involved too. So, again, when you think about it that way, it’s amazing how consistent we can be.

The following videos shows two side-by-side laps driven in a reasonably consistent fashion. Please turn down the volume because it’s annoyingly loud.

Once consistent, start experimenting with different inputs one at a time, and observe how performance is affected. You might be surprised by what you discover. For example, a lot of drivers think braking late and hard is the key to fast laps. In a racing situation it can make sense if needed to protect position, but corner entry speed is more important for clocking a fast lap — assuming braking is reasonably aggressive and not coasting, or worse, accelerating into turn entry as a result of braking too early. It does no good to go barreling into a corner hot if it means spending the rest of the turn collecting the car.

Besides braking, some of the other inputs you can experiment with are:

  • Turn-in point
  • Line through the turn
  • Throttle application in the turn

Regarding throttle application, I typically like maintenance throttle from turn-in all the way until time to start powering out of the turn, and then the sooner the better — ideally, prior to apex bearing in mind I drive a car with an engine where it belongs (behind the rear axle). The only exception is if I’m trying to assist rotating the car through a tight turn.

Using this method you’ll watch your personal bests become your new norms over time as part of process that continues to repeat itself. Since it’s normal for a road course to have anywhere between 10 and 16 turns, go after the turns leading onto the big straights first since this is where you’ll see the biggest return on investment. As you gain more experience with a particular track, turn your focus next to the turns leading to medium-length straights, and finally the remaining turns which have diminishing returns.

Before moving on to the next section take a look at the following track map of The Ridge Motorsports Park. Write down on a piece of paper the turns that you’d prioritize working on after you’ve acquainted yourself with the track and are ready to start finding speed. If you have experience with this track then then you should have an opinion here. I’d love to hear from  think you have a better approach — write me so we can compare notes. I’m always looking for more speed.

The Ridge Motorsports Park - Track Map

The Ridge Motorsports Park track map. What turns would you prioritize working on after familiarizing yourself with this track for the first time?

Differential Analysis

VBOX includes a software application called Circuit Tools that runs on the PC and Mac. Among other things, it enables you to analyze your driving using graph data time synchronized to video. Once in Circuit Tools, you’ll have access to much more information than is available from looking at the video alone. It also enables you to view data over the length of the track with user specified channel data for visualizing patterns and identifying complex relationships, such as the impact of cornering performance on overall lap-time and braking on corner entry speed.

The most powerful feature of Circuit Tools is being able to compare two or more laps side-by-side. Laps compared can be from the same lapping session, across multiple sessions for the day, or even from different days. You can also see how you compare to another driver if you’re OK having he or she drive your car — just be prepared to check your ego at the door because you can’t blame equipment or tires if it turns out you’re slower.

The following screenshot shows a delta-t plot comparing two laps from a 30-minute lapping session at The Ridge Motorsports Park. Lap 7 (red) is the fast lap and it serves as the basis for comparison, as shown by the horizontal red line. Lap 10 (blue) is 1.26 seconds lower and we’re about to find out why using delta-t and various other channel inputs as we work our way around the track. The red dot on the track map encoded onto video shows track position. Adding brake channel data is a good way to mentally rough in the turn locations without having to scrub through the timeline when evaluating the delta-t plot.

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Using delta-t, it’s easy to spot where the additional time is being accumulated in Lap 10. For the purposes of this post, I Photoshopped in the 5 segments that are readily identifiable as being responsible for most of this time — they’re highlighted in red and labeled A, B, C, D, & E. I’ve also Photoshopped in turn references and calculated the time accumulated for each of the highlighted segments since this is not an interactive demo. The keen eyed will note these segments sum to 1.30 s instead of the 1.27 s. This is not unexpected since we’re not summing across the entire path, and it supports we have a good approximation.

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It’s easy to spot that most of the time added (60%) is in segments D and E. This isn’t surprising since T12 and the T14-16 complex lead onto medium and long straights. If trend data shows I’m not able to consistently nail these turns then I will prioritize working on them over other turns because the ROI is much higher. That said, let’s closer look at A, B, & C. They’re a bit more interesting and goal here is to simply demonstrate an approach.

Segment A

Section A is unique in that there’s no braking involved. In my opinion, T2 through T5 is the most technical part of this track. What happens in T3, T4, and T5 starts with how well entered into T2. This is not something that can be easily accessed using data, but hints of it are evident in the following screenshot.

Here you can see how I turned in sooner in Lap 7 (red), which in turn enabled me to start releasing sooner. Note the steering angle inputs and corresponding increase in speed where I’m a full 5 MPH at instance shown. The slower Lap 7 is due to bad setup (off line, wrong attitude) coming out of T3, which starts in T2, and I needed to correct as a result. In this case, I was able to salvage T5 so I didn’t get penalized in the back straight leading to T6. Conceptually, one should think of the back “straight” as starting at T4 exit.

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Segment B

In general, I seek to brake as late as possible without compromising corner entry speed. If I need to choose between the two, sacrifice braking. This is also where things get real busy and — in my experience — is what separates the professional drivers from doctors and lawyers. (That’s a Carrol Smith reference by the way, and I include myself in that group even though I’m not a doctor or a lawyer.)

I like to rely on LongAcc for how hard braking. BrakePos is not a good indicator because heat and tires can affect how much pedal force is required for a specified braking force. However, BrakePos is good for monitoring pedal inputs, including how early or late to brakes.

I like to rely on LongAcc for how hard braking. BrakePos is not a good indicator because heat and tires can affect how much pedal force is required for a specified braking force.

The following two screenshots show activity in the breaking zone leading up to T6 and T6 entry, respectively. Let’s start with the braking zone.

Braking in the slower lap (blue) is earlier and more abrupt as can be seen from the BrakePos and LongAcc channel plots. The early brake causes start scrubbing speed sooner and delta-t starts to grow. The abruptness unsettles the car as evident in the LongAcc plot line and combined G (table to left). The impact manifests itself trail braking into T6, where entry speed is about 2.5 MPH slower.

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Braking is earlier and more abrupt in the slower lap. This starts the delta-t clock ticking and the trend continues past the compromised turn entry.

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Trail braking into T6 entry, Lap 7 is 2.5 MPH faster because the car is more settled during braking. From experience, 1.2g combined is in the zone for what my car can do with R-comp tires in steady state cornering so any improvements in T6 are going to be in entry and exit.

Segment C
[Coming soon]

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Predictive lap timer

A predictive lap timer is a great way to see in real-time the impact a change or mistake has on your lap-time. Suppose you’re half-way around the track and your knocking on the door of a new personal best according to your timer (e.g., -0.07). Now you’re just one mistake away from blowing it. Focus!

It wasn’t until I started running a timer regularly that I truly appreciated just how much using every inch of track surface matters. Being 6″ off line didn’t seem so bad until I started seeing the results in real-time on my timer — it was a rude wake-up call. This also holds for the impact of otherwise seemingly small mistakes. Putting down fast laps requires focused execution and no mistakes. The predictive lap timer has been indispensable in training me to think this way — as opposed to try driving faster, which is a surefire way to go slower.

Equipment upgrades

I don’t change equipment very often because it interferes with my ability to access how I’m improving as a driver. It’s also expensive.

I don’t change equipment very often because it interferes with my ability to access how I’m improving as a driver.

I’ve seen and talked to a lot of people who spends thousands on go-fast parts only to discover their lap times are virtually unchanged. The disappointment is evident in their expressions. I know the look and feeling because I’ve been there. When racing, I tried out 4 different differentials at great expense, blood, and sweat. I was convinced each ratio would be the magic bullet but my lap times didn’t change one iota. Very frustrating and, again, disappointing.

I’m not going to be that annoying guy that goes on and on about how you shouldn’t upgrade. Some upgrades are necessary for even the beginning driver. Safety equipment, brakes, and a good set of pedals come to mind. If there’s something about your car that’s interfering with your driving, fix it! For example, lots of cars have soft transmission and engine mounts that cause the components they’re designed to support to shift under load. This can lead to the infamous “money shift” where you drop into 2nd instead of 4th, and pop goes the motor. Yep, I’ve been there too.

Let me just offer that if you’re not driving your car near or at its limit then making it faster isn’t going make you go faster, and it certainly won’t make you faster.

If you’re not driving your car near or at its limit then making it faster isn’t going make you go faster, and it certainly won’t make you faster.

If and when you do make upgrades, change only one component at a time so that you can correctly assess the cause-effect relationship of the change on lap time. This hold true for setting changes well, such a tire pressures, camber, spring rates, sways, and damping.

Always have a plan for the day

I like to have fun at the track, but you’ll never hear me say “I just want to have fun.” I always set aside sessions to have fun with drivers I trust on the track. Taking cool video footage, hanging it out in a particular turn just for the fun of it, doing some lead-follow, etc.

I also always dedicate at least 3 or 4 sessions to working on getting faster. In a nutshell, I recommend actually doiong what we all get taught in driving school, which is to have a plan for the day on what to improve. It can’t be get new personal best lap time — that’s not actionable. Instead, focus on 1 or 2 turns (or some other aspect of your driving) based on what your data it telling you. If you’ve analyzed it correctly then your lap times will drop as a consequence of your improvements in these areas.

Track day strategy

It’s pretty funny actually. All track days start and end pretty much the same way. In the morning, when it’s often cold and dewy, everybody’s in a hurry to get out on the track and go fast. There’s almost always an incident and traffic is so heavy, people are complaining about how others aren’t pointing-by. If you’re a regular, you know what I’m talking about.

I generally don’t waste my time going out for the first session. If I do, it’s just for a very mild warm-up or to do an equipment check — and even then, I’ll go out mid-session. The first couple laps are usually under yellow so the entire group only goes as fast as the slowest car, which can be agonizingly slow.

On the flip side, it’s very common to find the track virtually empty at the end of the day. Refer back to the videos above where I appear to have the track to myself. All those people who couldn’t wait to get on track in the morning only to drive in a traffic jam are nowhere to be seen.

It’s very common to find the track virtually empty at the end of the day, and this is the ideal time to work on improving driving skills.

There are lots of reasons why people may need to leave early — I’m not faulting or ridiculing them. Family commitments, equipment problems, tired, wreck, etc, are all very good reasons. However, to the extent possible, use this to your advantage as you plan out your day.

I always use the last couple of sessions of the day to focus on improving my driving and finding speed. I’m warmed up, have previous sessions to reflect upon, and — because traffic is light — I stand a chance at clicking off a new personal best.

Back-to-back Days

I also much prefer back-to-back driving events at the same track as compared to two events separated by days or weeks. It’s a challenge to fully analyze session data during the day without a support crew. In between session is spent checking tire pressures, torquing wheels, refueling (which can mean a trip to the gas station), dealing with equipment issues, and socializing. Time disappears. When driving back-to-back days I use the evening of the first day to delve deep into my data and apply what I learned the next day, while thing are still fresh in my head.

When driving back-to-back days I use the evening of the first day to delve deep into my data and apply what I learned the next day, while thing are still fresh in my head.

Unfortunately, there’s a trend by some track organizers to run back-t0-back days clockwise one the first day and counter-clockwise the next. This effectively makes for two completely different tracks, but lots of people like this format because it’s fun. I don’t attend such events.

 VBOX and CMS Lap Timer

I’ve used VBOX and CMS Lap Timer and they’re both great systems for their respective price points. In this section, I’ll briefly touch on the relative pros and cons. I also include video footage taken by each for the same time to help you see how they compare.

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Videos below are from my VBOX and CMS lap timer, as shown here.

VBOX Lite

As mentioned ,VBOX is a more expensive and capable system. You can forget about impressing your friends with cool in-car video footage but it gets the job done in terms of providing visual references while analyzing your driving, which — in fairness to VBOX — is the point of this system. For more information and installation instructions, see this post.

Some key points to consider:

Pros:

  • VBOX support multiple video inputs (2 for VBOX Lite, more for higher-end units).
  • System utilizes bullet cameras that can be positioned as desired.
  • SD video quality means not needing to worry about running out of storage.
  • External microphone input
  • Can be integrated and wired directly into the car so you never miss footage.

Cons:

  • Moderately expensive
  • SD video quality
  • Logging data is rendered directly onto video output.

The last bullet requires a bit of explanation. By rendering log data directly onto video output you cannot get the original video footage back. Practically speaking this isn’t an issue since the video quality is so poor you’re probably not going to want it for any thing other than driver analysis.

CMS Lap Timer

The basic CMS Lap Timer requires only an iPhone or Android device, a windshield mount ($10-$20), and the app (free version and pro version from $20). A high resolution GPS receiver is also recommended for better accuracy and costs around $100. Assuming you’re already an iPhone or Android user, this means you can analyzing your driving with less than $200 invested. A bargain! If you don’t have an iPhone or Android phone, an iPod Touch also works (no phone contract required). Still a very inexpensive solution. Details can be found here.

With the basic setup, you get the essential information needed to analyze your driving:

  • Speed
  • G-forces
  • Video with track position indicator for reference
  • Analysis software
  • Ability to share and compare session data

Depending on your vehicle, you may also be able to purchase an optional ODBII interface that can capture and log additional parameters such as RPM, throttle position, steering input angle, and more. I have just the basic setup.

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive (if you have an iPhone or Android phone)
  • HD video quality
  • Video is stored separately from logged data so original captured video is retained.
  • SD video quality means not needing to worry about running out of storage.

Cons:

  • No ability to customize how data is displayed
  • Depending on device and usage, amount of available storage could be a concern
  • Limited to single video input (the phone camera)

Electric car straight talk – Part 2

It’s been over two years since I posted “Electric Car Straight Talk – Part 1” and I have a lot more experience under my belt of what it’s like to own an electric car. In this post I update or add to what I covered in Part 1, so start there first if you haven’t already.

Additional Learnings

Iwill start by getting right to the point and offer pearls of wisdom regarding electric car ownership. Even though we drive a Nissan LEAF, what I’m about to share applies to electric cars in general.

  • Electric charge stations are just like copy machines — they let you down when you need them most. It’s very common to find charge stations that are offline or broken, and this can be very frustrating when you plan your trip around needing one — something I rarely do.
  • Even if the charge station is functional, there’s an good chance it won’t be available. Some people hate that charge stations double as primo parking spots and express their disdain by parking their gas cars in these spots. Fred Meyer is a local grocery chain in my area offering charge stations. When I complain to management about gas cars occupying the charge stations they’re unwilling to take a stand stating there’s nothing they can do.
  • Even if a charge bay is open, time to charge can vary depending on if other cars are pulling power. For example, the really fast L3 stations in my area only charge one car at a time, even though two cars can be hooked-up. So, You might need to wait 20 minutes before power switches over to start giving you a fast 20 minute charge (for a total of 40 minutes wait).
  • The vast majority of public charge stations are Level 2, meaning it takes about 4 hours to fully charge a Nissan LEAF (or about 80 miles for a 3,000 lb car). And just like the aforementioned L3 fast charge stations, power output can drop if multiple cars are pulling power. So, unless you find a fast charge station (few and far between), the charge station in front of your local grocery isn’t going to boost your charge much unless you have a lot of grocery shopping to do.
  • Due to people parking and leaving their cars in charge stations all day long (not cool), my workplace has implemented a $5.00/hr fee after 4 hours to discourage charge pigs from hogging up the stations all day long. Of course, it’s typically the same people that were doing this on a daily basis — apparently dependent on the workplace charge stations to get home. They probably shouldn’t be owning electric cars. Moreover, the new policy is effective in freeing up spots, put it’s put a cramp in the day for people who were using them in a manner consistent with the workplace policy of bing for emergency or occasional use only.
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Electric charge stations are just like copy machines — they let you down when you need them most. Also note, even when working this L3 charge station (also called DC charge station) can only charge one car at a time even though it has two ports. So, if there another car charging next to you then you need to wait for it to finish before your car starts charging. In other words, the 20 minute fast charge could end-up taking 40 minutes.

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An all too common occurrence — gas cars parking in the electric car charge stations slots. Store owners are unwilling to do anything about and laws are needed so police can enforce just like disabled parking spots. Getting to a charge station can mean going out of your way and there are times I chose to go to this store thinking I could get a charge instead of going straight home, only to find I couldn’t charge because of inconsiderate people like this car owner on the right or because the stations were offline or broken. This has lead a couple of nail biters getting home thanks to the extra miles to go out of the way and not get a charge.

I’m going to pause here because I’m making things sound pretty bad. Going back to what I said in Part 1, I strongly discourage anybody from getting an electric car if dependent on public charge stations to get by for normal day-to-day driving. Instead, think of electric charge stations as being for emergency use only. If you approach charge stations with this mindset, then you’ll be much better off. I use a public charge stations about once per month and I’m a very happy electric car owner.

I lady struck up a conversation with me while I was topping off the charge on my LEAF at an L3 charge station. She was waiting for my car to finish so her car could start charging. (Again, even though both cars are connected, the ChargePoint L3 station only charges one car at a time.) She commented that she lives far north and needs to stop at the charge station every day in order to make the trip home from work. IMO, buying an electric car was a really poor choice on her part. I’m guessing high gas prices and great lease deals wooed here into buying an electric car, but she’s running her life around an electric car when it’s supposed to be the other way around.

  • Cold weather affects battery performance, which can result in significantly lower range. At freezing temperatures (32F), the range on our LEAF drops from around 80 to 60 miles. The one and only time I ever stranded us on the side of the road was on a very cold evening coming home from dinner. What I thought to be plenty of charge for the trip turned out not to be the case, even with my nursing the car home feather-footed and well below my normal highway speed. On a related note, Nissan offers free towing if you run out of charge.
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Data from FleetCarma on Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt electric-car battery range variation with outdoor temperature.

  • Highway speed significantly affects range, as is true for all cars. No surprise here except the extent to which the LEAF has impressed this upon me and I view this as a positive thing. When I’m driving, my wife can feel when we’re low on charge based on my driving style. How driven makes a huge difference. On one occasion I succeeded in powering through an entire charge in just 20 miles — just under one-fourth of the LEAF’s rated range.
  • Installing an L2 charger at home has made a huge difference for us. We were very happy with the LEAF even before getting the L2 charger. So much so, it took me a full year to get around to installing what I had purchased the year prior. (In my defense, I don’t do anything half-ass so this meant pulling drywall to run the wire — in other words, a big job.) Having the L2 charger has meant never needing to use the gas car on the weekends when we do a lot more driving. We can run out in the morning, power through half a charge, come home, plug-in, and be bumped back up to near full in a little over an hour. Even though were able to get by just fine on weekdays with the L1 charger (standard 110v standard plug-in charger that comes with the car), the LEAF was often a one trip pony on weekends and having the L2 charger has changed all that. It might be the best $500 we’ve ever spent (purchased on sale from Amazon). With the L2 charger, range becomes much less of an issue because the cars almost always topped off every time we leave the house.
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The L2 charger I installed at home and the best $500 I’ve spent in a long time (on sale from Amazon).

  • We had no idea how much we were going to enjoy driving the LEAF so much. It’s one of the best cars I’ve ever owned, partly because it’s an electric car and partly because Nissan did a great job with the car itself. More on this below. We got into the LEAF as a toy to have since lease deal being offered was so stupidly cheap, and since getting it’s our go-to car that we drive 90% or more of the time. Looking forward to the 2017 LEAF.
  • Several years back, I dreaded the idea that electric cars might displace the good ‘ol internal combustion (IC) engine. Nothing can compete with the sound that stirs the soul like a Porsche flat-six being driven flat-out or that feeling that you’ve arrived at the gates of hell from a 1000 bhp flame throwing Lambo in your presence. And while this will always be true for me, I don’t dread the arrival of the electric car anymore. As humble as it is, the LEAF has taught me that I can have a lot of fun driving an electric car — as anybody who has driven with me will attest. The future of the electric car looks exciting.
  • If we were to have just one car, it would definitely be a gas car. Yep, sounds like I might be flip-flopping here but battery technology and charge infrastructure is not yet to the point where we could get by with just an electric car. Even though we drive the LEAF 90% of the time, there are still times where range and charge times can be an issue. For occasional road trips we could get by renting a car, but even around town there are times when we’re doing more driving than usual and range can become an issue. Even if we don’t need it much, having a gas car is like insurance that we won’t get stuck at home waiting for the LEAF to charge.

We Love our Nissan LEAF

Just the other day, one of the shuttle drivers where I work blew through a stop sign right in front of me and I needed to get on the binders hard and set my eyes on a path around him. I had a car full of people. I told my wife about the story and her instant reaction was “It’s a good thing they didn’t hurt my LEAF!”

To appreciate the significant of such a reaction, you have to go back to the day I called my wife to come check out the LEAF. I already knew she hated the LEAF because of being so fugly. There was no way in hell she was going to ever be caught driving a LEAF. I was on the Nissan lot only because I was checking out a used truck to replace the Land Rover Disco that had gone bad, and I wanted something that could tow this time around. The salesperson asked me if I was interested in a LEAF, which seemed stupidly random considering my reason for being there. But he got my attention when he told me the numbers on the lease deal. At $130/mo, it was a no-brainer as it would more than offset the fuel costs of using a truck for my daily driver, and this would be a great and inexpensive opportunity for me to experience the electric car. So, I called my wife and asked her how quickly she could get over to the Nissan dealer. “What? Have you lost your mind?” she asked, but I asked her to at least come along for a test drive — the worst that could happen is we both got to experience what it’s like to drive an electric car. She showed up 15 minutes later, but I knew she’d be a tough customer and she was.

Long story short, we ended-up taking delivery of our LEAF the next evening. (We never buy anything of significance without at least a day to think about it. No exceptions, including no matter how great a deal may seem.) I’ve driven a lot of cars and am pretty critical, but I knew immediately that I was going to love the LEAF. Just as immediately as I knew I hated driving the Dodge Viper after testing one of those several years back. With cars, it doesn’t take long to assess their character. My wife took more convincing but at one point she asked “How much again?” $130/month I replied. “OK, let’s get.” she said. I didn’t waste anytime getting over to the Nissan dealer to sign the paperwork.

Now you have to keep in mind, the LEAF was supposed to be my car but I also wanted my wife to like it so I encouraged here to drive it and she did so with an open mind. Within a couple weeks, she wasn’t even driving her 550 anymore. Within a month, it was her car. I like to joke she stole my car. Of course, we both drive the LEAF but its her primary car and I drive the truck when we need separate cars. Since getting the LEAF, her 550 has clocked less than 1,000 miles as it idly sits depreciating away in the garage. Poor ‘ol BMW. We just finally made the decision to sell it.

So, what is it we love about the Nissan LEAF so much?

  • It’s fun to drive because handles great and has good power for what it is. The good handling come from being light by modern car standards (just 3,000 lbs) and a low center of gravity thanks to battery packs being located in the floor boards (unlike conventional IC cars retrofitted to be electric cars). The electric motors get you off the line fast and — while not fast by sports or supercar standards — it accelerates much faster than your typical econobox. Everybody I’ve ever driven in the LEAF is surprised by how quickly it accelerates.
  • It’s quiet and acceleration is buttery smooth thanks to no transmission and a constant torque. Automobile manufactures have worked relentlessly over the years to achieve the same with the internal combustion (IC) engine, which has lead to dual camshafts with variable timing bolted to 7- and even 8-speed transmissions. Very expensive and complex, and still can’t come close to matching the smooth acceleration inherent to the electric motor. After driving an electric car for a while, getting back in an gas car feels crude by comparison. Sometimes this is good. People still ride horses today for fun and excitement, because they provide the kind of experience a car can never provide. I increasingly starting to feel this way about gas powered cars. I’m certain I’ll have a gas car until the day I die, but for daily commuting I’m sold on the electric car.
  • It’s small and compact on the outside, with lots of room on the outside. The Nissan engineers did a fantastic job. We can stick the car in the smallest of parking spots with nary a worry of door dings (partly because it’s small so leaves more room, partly because it’s not a really expensive car that we’d otherwise worry about getting a ding). I’m tall but can people can still fit comfortably behind me without my needing to adjust my seat, so it sits four very comfortably, and 5 people is still no problem. And there’s good cargo space in the back, with plenty of room for two golden retrievers. Yes, it may be ugly on the outside, but it’s great on the inside where it counts.
  • As I mentioned in early post, but bears repeating, not having to stop at gas stations is a really nice luxury. It’s one of life’s little annoyances that’s been virtually been eradicated from my life. Where I used to stop for gas 2-3 times / week (I would fill up for my wife too so she didn’t have to), now I only need to stop at the gas station only once every 6-8 weeks. (While big, a diesel truck gets surprisingly good gas mileage for its size, and I only drive it when we can’t carpool.)
  • The LEAF is a great value and it makes us feel good about our decision. There are other electric car options, but they can get really expensive and — frankly — at those price points there are other non-electric cars I’d rather have for the same amount of money. But for the way it handles and drives, the Nissan LEAF holds it’s own against other cars in its price point regardless of powertrain. It just happens to also be an electric car.
  • Finally, hey, we’re driving an electric car! How cool is that? It’s fun to be a part of a revolution instead of sitting on the sidelines. And while some people seem to hate electric cars (mostly older generation folks), we get a lot of thumbs-ups from people too (mostly younger generation folks).

Final Thoughts and Summary

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and hopefully you’ve gotten some value out of this post. A lot of what I’ve had to say is opinion based on personal experiences, so please be sure to keep that in mind if you’re thinking about getting an electric car or are already an electric car owner and have had different experiences.

In summary, we’re very happy about our choice to get an electric car. The Nissan LEAF has exceeded our expectations in almost every way, and we see more electric cars in our future. At the same time, we wouldn’t want the LEAF as our only car even though it’s our primary car. Charge times are still slow by comparison to the time it takes to fill a gas tank, and charge stations have proven themselves to be undependable in our experience.

If you’re thinking about getting an electric car, think very hard about if range will be an issue given what I’ve had to say above. We live about 10 miles from work, but average 40 miles of driving each day when accounting an occasional lunch outing, dentist appointment, stop at grocery on the way home, an extra trip home because forgot something, etc. So in other words, don’t just double your distance to work and assume you’ll be OK if that fits into the range of the car you’re considering. That’s not a real-world evaluation. Also keep in mind range drops in cold weather and factor that in too.

Finally, the biggest advice I can offer is if having an electric car means you’re dependent on public charge stations to get by, then don’t get one. On the other hand, if you can get by charging from home for all but exception cases then an electric car is a great choice that gets my highest recommendation.

Thanks for reading and happy motoring!

Electric car straight talk – Part 1

Thinking about getting an electric car? If so, you’re in luck because I’m here to tell you what it’s like to live with one, and I also dispel some common misconceptions. You’ll get an unbiased view because while I believe the electric car is the future, we’re still away off before the electric car can replace the conventionally powered car. And thank goodness for that. For all the benefits they bring (often overstated), they’re digital appliances that trade emotion for logic. If your name is Spock, you’ll conclude that the benefits of electric cars outweigh the conventional auto. But for the rest of us mere humans the better choice is not so clear.

We leased an electric car about three months ago and have logged 3,600 miles. This is our first time leasing a car and we chose this route because electric cars are evolving much faster than conventional autos, and battery replacement is very expensive so we didn’t want to have to concern ourselves with usage factors that might affect battery life. I expect in 2 years (when our lease is up) there’ll be more options at lower price points and better performance (longer range, shorter charge times, more power, etc.), making the LEAF we purchased today less desirable (like a 1X CD-ROM reader today). Little or no downside if wrong, but lots of upside if right.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to really learn what it’s like to live with an electric car I’m sharing my thoughts and experiences. My thoughts are opinion (feel free to disagree, I don’t care) and my experiences are my experiences and not open to debate. The goal is get people thinking before jumping in headfirst. I start with some high-level thoughts and takeaways, and then progressively drill deeper.

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The 2013 Nissan LEAF is our first electric car. Most people find them ugly but I like that it looks like an electric car. It’s destined to become an icon like the Porsche 911 is for sports cars.

Common Misconceptions

Two common misconceptions about electric cars are:

  • Electric cars are zero emissions vehicles.
  • Electric cars are cheaper to drive because you don’t have to pay for gas.

If an electric car is zero emissions then call me a vegan because I didn’t kill the cow. The facts are that electric cars require more energy to manufacture than conventional autos, pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere in the process. Also, the primary sources of electricity in the United States are coal and natural gas, both major CO2 producers. In the long run, electric cars probably do result in fewer CO2 emissions (long terms impact of properly recycling remains to be seen) but calling an electric car zero emissions is marketing hype capitalizing on the green movement. More on this later.

Electric cars are significantly more expensive to drive than their gasoline powered equivalents, at least for today. Putting aside emotions of paying $4.00 / gal and doing simple math instead makes this readily apparent. In short, if you’re thinking about buying an electric car to save money then think again. Eventually the scales will tip in favor of the electric car, but I’m willing to bet it’s at least 4 to 5 years out, as gas gets more expensive and electric car manufacturing scales out.

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My favorite thing about owning an electric car is not needing to stop for gas. This scene at the gas station near where I live is not uncommon. Even the Prius owner can’t escape needing to wait to pump.

Things I Like About The Electric Car

  • Not needing to stop for gas. Even though plugging and unplugging is a minor pain in the rear (below), this daily routine doesn’t come close to the inconvenience of needing to stop for gas. Not needing to stop for gas is easily my favorite thing about owning an electric car.
  • Quiet operation. This might come as a surprise to anybody who knows me given my other cars, but for the daily commute to and from work the ultra quiet operation means I can join all the other road zombies by turning my car into a moving office. If you can’t beat ’em, join them. I find myself being much less frustrated with traffic and my mom loves that I call her much more frequently.
  • Smooth acceleration. Electric motors mean no transmission and a flat torque curve. Acceleration in the LEAF is much faster than gas powered economy cars and surprisingly good from 0-30 mph. More often than not I’m way out in front of most cars just a few seconds after the light turns green. Acceleration is best described as smooth and effortless, which makes a conventional auto feel crude by comparison. (Although, sometimes I like crude.)
  • Climate control. Electric cars have electric heaters. This means you can heat up the car before starting your commute, so it’s nice and toasty on those cold winter mornings from the moment you start driving. No more waiting for the engine to warm-up to get heat.
  • Reduces dependency on foreign oil. In my opinion, this is the biggest benefit of the electric car. (As opposed to lower emissions, which is what everybody talks about.) It’s not a tangible benefit as in the case of the other likes, but something we certainly appreciate.
  • The electric motor sound is actually kind of cool. I thought I’d miss the sound of a well tuned exhaust note of a conventional auto, and I was right! (More on this below.) But the barely audible, high pitched whirling sound of the electric motors takes the sting out. It sounds kinda futuristic and I’d happily give some of the quiet operation to get more of this sound.

Electric Car Dislikes and Annoyances

  • Range Anxiety. You’ll find yourself watching the charge level a lot more closely than your fuel gauge. Charge stations are still few and far between, and it takes a lot longer to charge-up than to fill-up with gasoline. In short, you need to plan your trips more carefully and running low on charge feels like running low on fuel when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Hence the term ‘range anxiety’. When’s the last time you let the fuel gauge in your conventional auto dictate where and when you drive? With the electric car, it happens.
  • Charge stations. About one year ago, my workplace had electric car charge stations installed. Up until about 3 months ago (shortly after we got our electric car) they were almost always free. Nowadays, they’re almost always in use. Fortunately, I live near enough to work that I don’t normally need them but it’s annoying that I cannot grab a charge during the day when I do. A fellow co-worker of mine requires a charge to get home and often needs to work later than he normally would to get some charge time after normal work hours when the charge hogs are gone.
  • Forgetting to plug-in and unplug. It happens. You forget to plug-in after unloading the groceries so you start the day with less charge than usual. On the opposite end, you’re in a hurry and forget to unplug. You buckle on in and press the ON button only to be notified you need to unplug. Annoying.
  • This might be LEAF specific, but it takes about 3 seconds for all systems go after pressing the ON button. Sounds like nothing on paper, but it’s annoying when you’re in a rush to get someplace. It’s odd to me that an IC powered car can start up in a fraction of a second, and an electric car takes seconds.
  • The electric car has no soul. It’s an A-to-B transportation appliance. If your idea of the perfect car is a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, then driving cars is not your thing. Your emotions are set aside as you let an Excel spreadsheet drive your purchase decision. But if the sound of a Ferrari driving by stirs your soul then you’ll likely agree that the electric car has no soul.

Is the Electric Car Right for You?

The electric car is not suitable for everybody and you should think critically about fit for you by asking the following questions prior to lease or purchase:

  • On average, how many miles do I drive per day?
  • How many miles can I go on a single charge? (Varies by vehicle)
  • How long is required to recharge?
  • What’s the availability of charge stations in my area?
  • How much money am I saving or loosing by going with an electric car?
  • What’s my primary motivation for considering an electric car?

The best advice I can give someone thinking about an electric car is to approach it as though charge stations are for emergency use only. If your daily routine has you dependent on them then you’re destined for frustration. Charge stations are still few and far between and Murphy’s law says the one you’re counting on will be occupied when you need it most. They’re also virtually non-existent in rural areas.

I average 35 miles per day going to work and back, including going out to lunch, running errands on the way home, etc. I average around 70 miles on a full charge, so I have plenty of headroom for those days where I drive outside of my daily routine. Most of my charging is done at home where it’s always available (and cheapest). We have our conventional (and much more fun to drive) autos for long trips and weekend drives, or as back-up for when the LEAF is low on charge. For all of these reasons, range is a non-issue. We most definitely would not want to own a LEAF as our only vehicle.

Electric cars take a lot longer to recharge than a fill-up at the gas station. How long it takes to charge depends on the vehicle and charge station. Using a standard 110v wall outlet, the Nissan LEAF takes about 20 hours to recharge. This is called Level 1 charging. You can significantly cut down the charge time by installing a Level 2 charger at home, which draws 220v. Using a Level 2 charger, the Nissan LEAF takes 4-6 hours to fully recharge. Much better but it will cost you around $2k to have one installed. Most charge stations are Level 2. There’s also DC fast charging which draws 440v and charges a LEAF in about 30 minutes! Unless your last name is Gates, having a DC fast charger installed at home is out of the question. In the Seattle area I’ve only seen them at some Fred Meyer stores. You can arrive empty and leave with a full charge in the time it takes to do your grocery shopping. It’ll cost you $5 if you’re a member of the Blink network ($8 for non-members). As mentioned, I rarely use charge stations and I’ve only needed to DC charge once. At home we Level 1 charge. At 35 mi / day average the car is only 50% charge depleted when we get home and takes about 10 hours to fully recharge — plenty of time before we head out for work the next day. It’s simply not worth it for us to spend money to have a Level 2 charger installed.

Finally, be sure to check your reasons for considering an electric car against the facts. Don’t expect unbiased objectivity from the manufacturer, sales persons, or electric car special interest websites. Electric cars are not the panacea these groups will have you believe. That said, we purchased one because it makes a lot of sense for where we live and how we use it.  Overall, we love the car and are driving it right at the limits of what our lease allows (12,000 mi / year) — twice what we initially anticipated. Also, we are all fortunate to be living in a time where we can experience both the conventional auto and the electric car. The single biggest factor in my wanting to get an electric car was to experience one first-hand instead of watching a revolution unfold from the sidelines.

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If you’re not close to your destination this scene is bound to make you anxious. Even if a charge station is nearby, who wants to spend an hour or so bumping up the charge level to complete the trip? (Unless you’re lucky enough to be near a DC fast charge station, which are very few and far between.) In this case, I was very close to home. Once the charge gets this low, the LEAF stops projecting miles remaining and shows the three (3) dashes instead.

If you’re not close to your destination this scene is bound to make you anxious. Even if a charge station is nearby, who wants to spend an hour or so bumping up the charge level to complete the trip? (Unless you’re lucky enough to be near a DC fast charge station, which are very few and far between.) In this case, I was very close to home. Once the charge gets this low, the LEAF stops projecting miles remaining and shows the three (3) dashes instead.

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Over the Christmas break, I was doing a lot more driving than usual. It was one of the few cases in which I actually needed a charge. Unfortunately, two gas powered SUVs decided say ‘fuck you’ to electric car owners by parking in the only two DC fast charge station slots. I needed to get creative. This was the second time in a week that this has happened to me.

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Six months ago, these two charge station slots where I work were almost always available. Today, they’re almost never available during normal working hours. The drivers who rely on these spots monitor their phone apps throughout the day waiting for a slot to become open so they can race downstairs and grab a slot as soon as one becomes available. Fortunately I don’t rely on using charge stations for my normal driving routine, but it’s annoying that I can’t get a charge bump when the occasional need arises. These two cars are parked here regularly, so I can only assume that they’re dependent on charge stations. In my opinion, they would have been better off with a high mileage conventional auto instead of having their cars run their life.

Tesla Model S

Some readers are bound to point out that you can get a Tesla Model S with a 200-300 mile range, depending on model and how driven. Certainly this will address a lot of the range related challenges outlined above. It’s also priced outside the range of the average person. They are very cool cars but I can’t see paying $100K for a $50K car — my opinion. It’s just a matter of time before market forces and technology advances drive prices down where high range electric cars are more financially accessible . For now, I don’t consider the Tesla Model S an economically sensible alternative to the conventional auto.

Cost: Electric vs. Gas

There are good reasons to get an electric car, but saving money isn’t one of them — at least not today. Electric cars cost more than similar conventionally powered cars because they’re more expensive to build. Think of the extra cost as the tax paid to buy electric. Federal and state incentives help take the sting out, but they don’t cover the difference. We benefited from the following at signing when we leased our LEAF:

  • Federal tax credit ($7,500)
  • No sales tax in WA state (10% savings)
  • Nissan factory rebate on the LEAF

Your mileage may vary depending on when you buy and where you live.

Together, these incentives brought the LEAF down to around $20k USD (base model w/ quick charge option).  By comparison, I could have purchased a Nissan Versa for about $14K.  So — ignoring all other factors — I need to drive the LEAF 60,000 miles before breaking even, based on the Versa getting 35mpg and fuel at $3.50 /gal. That’s a lot of miles!

I also mentioned other factors, which can be significant. Electricity is not free. An obvious statement but easily overlooked because — unlike a gas pump — there’s no meter at home indicating how much you paid to ‘fill-up’ your electric car. The cost for electricity to drive the LEAF is approximately $0.03/mile. Taking this into account the break even point bumps to around 80,000 miles, assuming always charged at home using a 110v Level 1 charger.

The time required to fully charge the LEAF using a Level 1 charger is about 20 hours. In other words, a really long time! For me this is not an issue because I average 35 miles / day — or about 1/2  range on a full charge for the LEAF — so overnight is adequate time to leave me with a full charge each morning. For those planning to drive more or who intend to use the LEAF as their only vehicle a Level 2 charger is advisable. It requires a 220V power supply, costs about $2,000 installed, and will fully charge the LEAF in about 4 hours. For those needing a Level 2 charger installed at home the break even point to bumps further to around 100,000 miles.

The $0.03/mile figure mentioned above is assuming you charge at home. If you live in a large metropolitan area, you’ve probably seen charge stations popping up at malls, grocery stores, and maybe even at your workplace. Just like a gas station, they enable you to top off your car’s energy supply so you can keep on driving. In general, these charge stations exist to make money and you’re going to pay more for electricity plugging into them than at home. For example, Blink usage is based on an hourly charge rate and you’ll get charged for an hour even if you only charged for 20 minutes. It’s important that these network exist and I treat them as emergency use only. If I had to rely on them daily, it would be stressful. More on this later. For now, just understand that heavy reliance on charge stations is going to further push out the break even point of buying an electric over gas car if your goal is to save money.

In summary, if your only motivation for buying an electric car is to save money at the pump then you’re better off sticking with a gas powered car. In the case of a Nissan LEAF, you’ll need to drive on the order of 100,000 miles just to break even and this is ignoring other factors such battery pack replacement which is a very real possibility at this many miles. For some cars like the Tesla, you’ll likely never reclaim the difference in price.

Environmental

Zero Emission Vehicle. Think again. It sounds really great, and what a great marketing campaign. Drive a LEAF and save the world from global warming. In the long run, electric cars probably are better for the environment than the conventional auto but I don’t think anybody can conclusively state this to be true until the long-term impact of battery manufacturing, disposal, and re-manufacturing is factored in. But for now, let’s assume none of this matters.

Electric cars require electricity to run. Most electricity in the US is produced by CO2 generating coal and natural gas plants. Even Washington state — where I live and which has the benefit of a disproportional large percentage of hydroelectric power — relies on power generated from coal and natural gas. With this in mind, claiming an electric car to be zero emissions is false advertising.

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The process of converting coal and natural gas into electricity is a major source of CO2 production. If you think driving your electric car produces zero emissions think again. Source: US Department of Energy. 2012.

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The Zero Emission vehicle badge was developed in the marketing department to capitalize on the green movement. Electric cars produce CO2 emissions just like conventional autos. The only difference is they emit from the stacks at plants used to generate electricity instead of at the the tailpipe. It’s just a matter of upstream versus downstream. In truth, the ‘Zero Emission’ badge should be replaced by ‘Lower Emission’.

Well-to-wheels. This is the term used when evaluating the true cost of an energy source has in automotive applications. It considers the entire energy conversion and distribution pipeline starting with extracting it from the ground (or wind, solar, hydro) to propelling the car forward.  It takes into account power generation, conversion, transmission, storage, motor and battery inefficiencies, etc. The following table from the US Department of Energy (DOE) compares projected well-to-wheel CO2 emissions for cars in 2035. For comparison, they also include a 2012 gasoline powered car. I would have been great if they included a 2012 electric car because the table leaves us guessing about how gasoline compares to electric today; however, it’s fair to say electric will continue to improve just as gasoline does so certainly a significant and non-zero value. The full report can be found here.

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Something often overlooked when talking about electric cars and hybrids is the detrimental factors that they introduce environmentally speaking, as compared to conventional gas powered cars. The CO2 emissions required to manufacture and electric (or hybrid) car over twice that for the conventional auto. So just like the added cost of an electric car, you’ll need to drive a lot of miles to just to break even with the petrol car in terms of <em>real</em> CO2 emissions. That is, cost to manufacture and drive the car.

To learn about my experiences after a couple years of electric car ownership, continue on to Part 2 of this topic.

Getting started in road racing

I didn’t start sport driving and road racing until my 30s and if I could go back in time I’d almost certainly start sooner. It’s an exciting lifestyle that challenges you on many levels and connects you with great  people. I started driving cars since before I had a license. My first experience driving a car was grandma handing me the keys to her 1974 Z28 Camaro at age 13. It came naturally because it was just like driving a motorcycle but easier. I drove it like I stole it. By age 15, I was sneaking out the family cars late at night to go drag racing, then rebuilding engines and gearboxes with my brother so mom could get us to school and her to work. After getting my driver’s license life at age 16, everything revolved around cars, drag racing, and cruising the strip. Life was like a scene out of American Graffiti. That all abruptly ended when it came time for college.

Even though cars exited my picture, a good college friend of mine was into road racing. He had a ’65 fastback Mustang that was track prepared. I wasn’t impressed by it because it wasn’t very powerful and it was a bit rough looking. Perhaps he sensed this because one day while driving he looked over to me and said hang on. We were speeding down the road and there was a sweeping right-hand turn ahead. He accelerated towards it and at one point a I screamed ‘slow down!’ while bracing for impact. Still keeping into the throttle, he finally braked hard, turned in, and then back on throttle to accelerate out of the turn. The car stuck to the road! I couldn’t believe it. It seemed as though we had just cheated physics. That was my introduction to what road racing is like. It made an indelible impression and left me with a latent interest in getting involved, but it would have to wait until some future time.

 I got my first taste of what road racing is all about in a car very similar to this. A friend drove it hard into a big right-hand sweeper and I was sure we were going to die. The car stuck and I my fear turned into laughter because it seemed as though we cheated physics. Suddenly, handling (chassis design and suspension tuning) became a lot more interesting than 0-60 and 1/4 mile times, trap speeds, and horsepower.

I got my first taste of what road racing is all about in a car very similar to this. A friend drove it hard into a big right-hand sweeper and I was sure we were going to die. The car stuck and I my fear turned into laughter because it seemed as though we cheated physics. Suddenly, handling (chassis design and suspension tuning) became a lot more interesting than 0-60 and 1/4 mile times, trap speeds, and horsepower.

I got my first taste of what road racing is all about in a car very similar to this. A friend drove it hard into a big right-hand sweeper and I was sure we were going to die. The car stuck and I my fear turned into laughter because it seemed as though we cheated physics. Suddenly, handling (chassis design and suspension tuning) became a lot more interesting than 0-60 and 1/4 mile times, trap speeds, and horsepower.

It’s random luck that finally got me involved in driving because my girlfriend (now wife) gave me a gift certificate to a high performance driving class at ProFormance Racing School. This was my introduction to sport driving and I loved it.  It’s no wonder I married that girl! It was much easier and more accessible that I had imagined to drive fast on a racetrack. I had looked into the costs associated with some of the big names schools throughout the country but was turned off by their costs and distance — I wasn’t interested in a one time experience. However, Pacific Raceways (called Seattle International Raceway at the time) was just a 35 min drive from work and ProFormance held regular lapping days, including afternoon programs at an affordable price. These were great because I could go to work in the morning, get some afternoon lapping in, and then back to finish my work for the day.

It was only about a year before I had my sights set on racing. Lapping introduced me to racers who came out to the track from time-to-time to work on their skills or test their cars. The more I learned about racing the more I wanted to get involved because I’m a competitive person and competition is something that hot-lapping lacks. I took the plunge and my life changed. Outside of work, everything revolved around racing and if I had my way there’d just be racing. I raced for 5 years before deciding to take a break in the middle of the race season. We took a trip to Europe and I then decided to take the rest of the season off. Unbeknownst to me I had ‘taken the [racing] needle out of my arm’ and I was enjoying the extra time I had to do other things in life. 1 year turned into 2, then 2 into 3. Eventually I sold my racecar.

Recently, I got back into driving casually and I intend to keep it that way. I love the people and energy at the paddock, but of course, most of all I love driving. Since returning I’ve had many fuel pump conversations with people wanting to learn more about my car and racing. Often times teenagers just like me when I was their age. I tell them whatever they want to know, but always send them off with some friendly advice to go to the track to learn more and get involved. Had somebody given me similar advice I would have likely gotten involved sooner. It’s with this in mind that I’m writing this short introduction to the sport and how to get started.

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I recent photo of me in the paddock a The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, WA. Cantrell Motorsports brought their tractor trailer and let me pit with them so I’m pretty stoked. I’m unaware that my pressure plate is about to fail. A special thanks goes out to John for jinxing me by telling a curious bystander that these GT3RS’s are bullet proof. I’m knocking on wood as I write this.

Road Racing and Sport Driving

Road racing does not mean racing on the roads. That’s illegal and you can lose your license and even go to jail. Road racing takes place on purpose-built race tracks (also called raceways or road courses). Unlike oval tracks which are used for NASCAR and Indy racing, road courses have several turns designed to challenge the driver, and vary in their length and number of turns. There’s a vast range of cars that participate in road racing. At one end of the spectrum is the modern Formula 1 car, which is more inverted airplane on 4 wheels than automobile. At the other end of the spectrum are older closed wheel cars like a Volkswagen Rabbit, which is less performant than today’s average family sedan. People will race just about anything and budget usually dictates choice. Wouldn’t we all love to race Formula 1 cars?

The following photoset shows some typical road courses and the various levels of the sport.

Road Atlanta is a 2.54 mile, 12-turn road course located near of Atlanta, GA. It runs clockwise.

Road Atlanta is a 2.54 mile, 12-turn road course located near of Atlanta, GA. It runs clockwise.

 Road America is a 4.05 mile, 14 turn road course located in Plymouth, WI. It runs clockwise.


Road America is a 4.05 mile, 14 turn road course located in Plymouth, WI. It runs clockwise.

Pacific Raceways is a 2.31 mile, 10-turn road course located near Seattle, WA. It runs counterclockwise.

Pacific Raceways is a 2.31 mile, 10-turn road course located near Seattle, WA. It runs counterclockwise.

Formula 1 (F1) cars are what most people think of when it comes to road racing, whether they're familiar with the term 'road racing' or not. F1 represents the pinnacle of road racing if not all of motorsports. F1 cars are open wheel cars meaning they don't have fenders. They're also very light, very powerful, and generate so much aerodynamic downforce that they could drive upside down if such a road existed. Because of this they can generate over of 5 Gs of lateral acceleration. For comparison, a Toyota Camry is capable if around 0.85 GS and a Ferrari 458 1.5 Gs. That's only about 0.65 Gs separating the Ferrari from the Camry. To put things in perspective, there are over 3.5 Gs separating the F1 car from the Ferrari!

Formula 1 (F1) cars are what most people think of when it comes to road racing, whether they’re familiar with the term ‘road racing’ or not. F1 represents the pinnacle of road racing if not all of motorsports. F1 cars are open wheel cars meaning they don’t have fenders. They’re also very light, very powerful, and generate so much aerodynamic downforce that they could drive upside down if such a road existed. Because of this they can generate over of 5 Gs of lateral acceleration. For comparison, a Toyota Camry is capable if around 0.85 GS and a Ferrari 458 1.5 Gs. That’s only about 0.65 Gs separating the Ferrari from the Camry. To put things in perspective, there are over 3.5 Gs separating the F1 car from the Ferrari!

Grand-AM sanctions professional road racing and includes cars like the ones shown here. The car on the left is a highly modified version of a car you and I can buy from a local car dealer, whereas the car on the right is a purpose-built racecar called a Daytona Prototype (DP) and isn't remotely similar to anything you'll find on the showroom floor. It's very common for cars from different classes to be on the track at the same time in road racing. The DP car's performance capabilities are far beyond the Mazda's on the left and if this were a video instead of a snapshot it would be out of the Mazda's fame of view in the blink of an eye.

Grand-AM sanctions professional road racing and includes cars like the ones shown here. The car on the left is a highly modified version of a car you and I can buy from a local car dealer, whereas the car on the right is a purpose-built racecar called a Daytona Prototype (DP) and isn’t remotely similar to anything you’ll find on the showroom floor. It’s very common for cars from different classes to be on the track at the same time in road racing. The DP car’s performance capabilities are far beyond the Mazda’s on the left and if this were a video instead of a snapshot it would be out of the Mazda’s fame of view in the blink of an eye.

Club racing offers amateur level road racing (i.e., no racing for money) and is where most drivers get their start. There's a class for virtually all makes and models of cars, and they’re grouped into classes to avoid situations such as a Dodge Viper competing against a VW Rabbit. That would hardly be a fair contest! Choose your car carefully though. Sanctioning bodies like SCCA finds classes for cars but they don't guarantee each model to be competitive against all others. Each class has model-specific rules regarding modifications allowed. These rules develop over time with drivers proposing changes and members voting. It’s common for a critical mass of drivers to develop around a few models who will naturally bias the rules in their favor. My advice is go out to the races and see what's winning before deciding on a car. You'll also want to find a class where there's lot of competition. There's very little satisfaction in wining if only 2 or 3 cars in class show-up to race in your class. (In this photo, I'm the 4th car back in the white BMW E30, tucked in behind the red 38 car.)

Club racing offers amateur level road racing (i.e., no racing for money) and is where most drivers get their start. There’s a class for virtually all makes and models of cars, and they’re grouped into classes to avoid situations such as a Dodge Viper competing against a VW Rabbit. That would hardly be a fair contest! Choose your car carefully though. Sanctioning bodies like SCCA finds classes for cars but they don’t guarantee each model to be competitive against all others. Each class has model-specific rules regarding modifications allowed. These rules develop over time with drivers proposing changes and members voting. It’s common for a critical mass of drivers to develop around a few models who will naturally bias the rules in their favor. My advice is go out to the races and see what’s winning before deciding on a car. You’ll also want to find a class where there’s lot of competition. There’s very little satisfaction in wining if only 2 or 3 cars in class show-up to race in your class. (In this photo, I’m the 4th car back in the white BMW E30, tucked in behind the red 38 car.)

 Hot-lapping (also called sport driving or just 'lapping') is a popular way to get initiated into the world of high performance driving. It takes place on a racetrack but it's not racing. (I can swim in an Olympic pool but that doesn't make me an Olympic swimmer.) Hot-lapping is non-competitive (no timing or winner declared), requires a point-by and assist from person being passed (usually only in designated let-by zones and from the left-hand side), and is overall less intense than racing (i.e., not driving at your full potential). It's a great way for people to get introduced to the sport, build skills, and enjoy their cars on a racetrack where they can explore the limits legally and safely. It's common for hot-lappers to eventually transition into racing.


Hot-lapping (also called sport driving or just ‘lapping’) is a popular way to get initiated into the world of high performance driving. It takes place on a racetrack but it’s not racing. (I can swim in an Olympic pool but that doesn’t make me an Olympic swimmer.) Hot-lapping is non-competitive (no timing or winner declared), requires a point-by and assist from person being passed (usually only in designated let-by zones and from the left-hand side), and is overall less intense than racing (i.e., not driving at your full potential). It’s a great way for people to get introduced to the sport, build skills, and enjoy their cars on a racetrack where they can explore the limits legally and safely. It’s common for hot-lappers to eventually transition into racing.

Roadmap to Racing

My progression into racing was typical and as follows:

1. Attend an introductory high-performance driving class. Associated with each racetrack is a usually a school. I attended the Proformance Racing School Introduction to HP Sport Driving class where l learned about things like ‘the line’, weight transfer, understeer and oversteer, and the importance of being smooth. Exercises helped drive home the concepts followed by some actual on track driving. Even if you don’t continue on from here the lessons learned are beyond the average driver education curriculum and will make you a better driver on the street. Ironically, public roads are a much more dangerous place to drive than the racetrack. On racetracks, there’s no opposing traffic, pedestrians, trucks with unsecured loads, sudden slowdowns from congestion, kids running into the road, and you don’t have to deal with drivers who are drunk, distracted, or otherwise impaired. Not a day goes by that I don’t apply some of the principles I learned in my high-performance driving class to my everyday driving.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t apply some of the principles I learned in my high-performance driving class to my everyday driving.”

2. Develop skills at hot-lapping days, also known as driver education (DE) events. Getting fast requires practice or ‘seat time’ as drivers like to call it. It’s no different than anything else we humans need to go through in order to get good at something whether it be playing an instrument, golf, or downhill skiing. What you get out of your day depends on what you put into it. You can make it an opportunity to drive fast or practice getting faster. The first if fun, the latter is work. I always take the time to do both. Having an instructor in the car is optional (after being cleared to drive solo) but will help you develop skills faster and prevent bad habits from forming.

3. Successfully complete a competition racing class. I did the 2-day Competition Class at Proformance. You’ll learn about the rules and protocols of racing, what all the flags mean, gridding, what a splitter is, how to pass, etc. You also learn what not to do such as blocking, being ‘helpful’ to faster traffic by going off line, etc. Of course, you’ll also get a chance to experience racing for the first time.

4. Go racing. Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and National Auto Sport Association ( NASA) are the two most popular sanctioning bodies in the US for road racing. I happen to live in the Pacific North West where International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC) is  very popular among drivers, so that’s where I raced. One of the nice things about ICSCC is that as a  novice racer they don’t dump you right into racing with experienced racers. ICSCC’s program progresses you from Novice -> Area -> Senior driver. Advancement doesn’t require you to be fast, but demonstrated ability follow the rules and not endanger yourself and others.

The following videos is from hot-lapping day with ProFormance racing school at Pacific Raceways. It was common for me to have an instructor out with me for my first year, and this video is from very early on when I first started driving. As a bit of trivia, the Pacific Raceways was called Seattle International Raceway (SIR) back when these were recorded. Also, Turn 8 and 9 merged right onto the drag strip which was very dicey in the rain because the VHT that gives dragsters more traction becomes very slick in the rain.

As with anything to get good at, the greatest gains in driving come early on with practice and dedication. The rest of our days are spent finding that last 10%. Here I am a couple months later:

Car Selection

You don’t need a fast car to get started in sport driving. All that’s required is access to a well maintained vehicle which does not put you and others at risk. I’ve even seen folks show-up in minivans. Personally, I think this is pushing the limits of sensibility but if it means getting out there and learning then it’s arguably a better choice that waiting for the ‘right car’ to come along.

All that's required to go sport driving is a car that doesn't put you and others at risk. You're much better off getting out there and learning rather than putting it off until the 'right' car comes along. You'll have a great time no matter what your vehicle. The fun of sport driving is learning to control a car near or at its limits, not how fast you can go. Cars rarely reach their top speed on a road course so if it's speed you're interested in go visit the Bonneville salt flats or sign up for the Silver State Classic.

All that’s required to go sport driving is a car that doesn’t put you and others at risk. You’re much better off getting out there and learning rather than putting it off until the ‘right’ car comes along. You’ll have a great time no matter what your vehicle. The fun of sport driving is learning to control a car near or at its limits, not how fast you can go. Cars rarely reach their top speed on a road course so if it’s speed you’re interested in go visit the Bonneville salt flats or sign up for the Silver State Classic.

In my opinion, the best cars to start with are low in power, light (under 2800 lbs), and nibble – drivers call them ‘momentum cars’ for reasons that will become clear in a moment. If you can be fast in a momentum car, you’ll be fast in almost anything you drive.

“If you can be fast in a momentum car, you’ll be fast in almost anything you drive.”

With a powerful car, much of its lap time performance comes from being able to accelerate quickly down the straights. If you don’t drive through the turns fast and get good exit speed, the impact to overall lap time is less relative a lower power car (assuming also lower power / weight). In other words, power can easily become a crutch for bad driving and easily woo you into thinking you’re a hot shoe driver because you’re faster that all the other [slower] cars.

A  momentum car requires you to drive well in order to turn fast laps by driving through the turns as fast as possible to minimize scrubbing off speed that takes power you don’t have to reclaim easily, and hence the term ‘momentum’ car. Later in your driving career when you transition to a high power car, you’ll drive it like a momentum car but also have the straight-line power to boot. Then you’ll be fast driver in a fast car, instead of just a driver in fast car.

Another advantage of low power cars is that they’re generally less expensive than high-power cars. Not just in purchase price, but more importantly in terms of overall cost. And if you’re going to get serious about driving, you need to consider the overall costs which can easily overshadow purchase price sooner than you might expect depending on how much you drive. High power cars have big tires and brakes which are proportionally more expensive than the smaller tires and brakes found on low power cars, and you’ll be changing tires and brakes a lot if you get serious about driving. Driveline components are more highly stressed and expensive to repair on high power cars, and things will start to break if you track your car a lot so you need to factor in cost of replacing clutch, changing wheel hubs, engine repair (or even replacement) if you get serious about driving.  When all costs are consider, the car you think you can afford probably isn’t the car you can actually afford.

The new Subaru BRZ (shown) and Scion FR-S look to be great track day cars. They're not big on power, but they're light, good handling, and fairly inexpensive. When it comes to a car that's all about handling, this might be the 'most bang for the buck.' I haven't driven one yet but I've been on the track with one and it definitely got my attention. Also check out the Motor Trend review as driven and reviewed by Randy Pobst.

The new Subaru BRZ (shown) and Scion FR-S look to be great track day cars. They’re not big on power, but they’re light, good handling, and fairly inexpensive. When it comes to a car that’s all about handling, this might be the ‘most bang for the buck.’ I haven’t driven one yet but I’ve been on the track with one and it definitely got my attention. Also check out the Motor Trend review as driven and reviewed by Randy Pobst.

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When another driver calls you fast it means you’re fast and not the car – it’s the biggest complement a driver can receive. You can be a fast driver in slow car. You can also be a slow driver in a fast car, even though you might be turning faster lap times than the fast driver. The most rewarding experience as a driver is being faster in a slower car. Of course, being fast in a fast car is the best you can do but there’s always somebody faster so be prepared to have your ego bruised. When you’re in a fast car there are no excuses. (Hint: If all else fails, blame it on the tires. That seems to work pretty well.)

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“Driving with your wallet.” It means limiting how much your willing to push yourself for fear of damaging your car. When getting started driving it’s not an issue, but eventually you will reach a point where you need to push beyond your comfort level to improve. If you’re preoccupied with worries of damaging your car then it will affect your push and and ultimately how quickly you progress. Ironically, a slower and less expensive car can actually turn you into a better driver faster than the really expensive and fast one unless you’re made of money. Incidentally, pushing oneself should not be confused with recklessness. Your instructor can teach you techniques for pushing the limits in an incremental fashion so it can be done safely, but it does involve getting out of one’s comfort zone which the the wallet can influence.

I had this car when I first started lapping and it was really fast for it's day. On the surface, it seemed like it was a perfect track car but it wasn't long before I was driving with my wallet. One missed downshift could mean blowing a motor that cost more than most luxury automobiles. I realized it was not a good choice for me given my goals and I sold it shortly thereafter.

I had this car when I first started lapping and it was really fast for it’s day. On the surface, it seemed like it was a perfect track car but it wasn’t long before I was driving with my wallet. One missed downshift could mean blowing a motor that cost more than most luxury automobiles. I realized it was not a good choice for me given my goals and I sold it shortly thereafter.

I transitioned from the Porsche to this BMW M3 LTW, which was (and still is) a great lapping day car. Great handling, well powered, and inexpensive to fix by comparison. A missed downshift popped the motor which was a small fraction of what the Porsche motor would have cost to replace. I learned how to drive in this car and pushed my limits every time I got behind the wheel at the track.

I transitioned from the Porsche to this BMW M3 LTW, which was (and still is) a great lapping day car. Great handling, well powered, and inexpensive to fix by comparison. A missed downshift popped the motor which was a small fraction of what the Porsche motor would have cost to replace. I learned how to drive in this car and pushed my limits every time I got behind the wheel at the track.

 This is my first racecar - a 1990 BMW 325is (E30). It's a far cry from the much sexier Porsche and M3 Lightweight, but also much less expensive to repair by comparison. Tires and brakes and tires are also cheaper. Racecars break down a lot so the aggregate savings over time are significant. Even though I could afford to buy the other cars, this is the car I could afford to race. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started here since this car could have served equally well as a lapping day car.


This is my first racecar – a 1990 BMW 325is (E30). It’s a far cry from the much sexier Porsche and M3 Lightweight, but also much less expensive to repair by comparison. Tires and brakes and tires are also cheaper. Racecars break down a lot so the aggregate savings over time are significant. Even though I could afford to buy the other cars, this is the car I could afford to race. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started here since this car could have served equally well as a lapping day car.

Car Development

When getting started in driving you’re much better off spending money on instruction and extra lapping days than spending it on expensive performance upgrades. Having said that, you’re going to eventually need or want to start upgrading your car if you find yourself lapping frequently.

 The demands of racing (and sport driving) are well beyond what cars see on the street. Eventually you'll need to upgrade but do it in the right order. This is road racing and not drag racing. More power is at the end of a long list of upgrades to be considering.


The demands of racing (and sport driving) are well beyond what cars see on the street. Eventually you’ll need to upgrade but do it in the right order. This is road racing and not drag racing. More power is at the end of a long list of upgrades to be considering.

The biggest upgrade to make your car go faster is in you! With this in mind, prioritize areas that are affecting your driving first. If you find yourself hanging on to the steering wheel in the turns, invest in a better seat. If you’re having problems working the pedals get some driving shoes and adjustable pedal covers, and work on adjusting them until they feel right. If you lack confidence in your brakes because they’re fading or squishy, upgrade your braking system. You’re never going to get better or go fast if you’re concerned about being able to stop your car.

“The biggest upgrade to make your car go faster is in you!”

You’ll also want to consider safety equipment early on. At the risk of sounding cliche, you can never spend too much money on safety equipment. There. I got that out of the way. Having said that, if you’re driving a car capable of going 160mph into Turn 1, you might want to give a lot more consideration to safety equipment that the person driving a car capable of only 110 mph. That extra 50 mph amounts to over twice the kinetic energy of the slower car. A rollbar, fire extinguisher, harness, and Hans device might not be a bad idea before you go adding more power. Seems obvious when put this way, doesn’t it?

When it comes time to make your car go faster, follow the scientific method and change one thing at a time. It will help you get smart about different component changes contribute to a car’s overall performance. It’s you change a bunch of stuff all at once, then you’ve robbed yourself of this opportunity. What’s more, a change can hurt a car’s performance even if a performance part. If you change more than one component at a time, you’ll be hard pressed to single this component out or even know it’s holding you back. (You might be blissfully thinking you improved your car’s performance when in fact you took 2 steps forward and 1 step back.)

The following photoset illustrates the development of my M3 Lightweight. It slowly but surely evolved from a street car to a racecar. I developed it without consideration for race class and rules. This was a mistake in retrospect. In the end, the only class it fit was essentially a ‘free’ meaning pretty much anything is allowed in terms of go-fast modifications. At risk of offending some folks, it’s my opinion unlimited classes like these are essentially a car constructors’ classes based on who can build the fastest car (i.e., spend the most money) as opposed to a drivers’ class. I was interested in the latter. Since the car was developed to the point of no turning back I ultimately sold it.

BMW M3 Lightweight shortly after purchasing it and in mostly stock form except for brake pads and right height lowered.

BMW M3 Lightweight shortly after purchasing it and in mostly stock form except for brake pads and right height lowered.

A good braking system is an important upgrade even for novice drivers. If you don't have good brakes, you’re not going to have confidence in your car this will affect your driving and make for an unpleasant experience. A lot of folks add power before upgrading brakes, which makes their cars go even faster using the already inadequate brakes they came with (true even for expensive sports cars). Start with performance brake pads and fluid. Next comes ducting (if your car doesn't already have it) to force even more air onto the brakes to help cool them down. A road course is a series of turns connected by straight lines that you drive round and round, so the brakes don't get a chance to cool down like they would in day-to-day driving on public roads. Excessive heat causes the fluid to boil (which puts air in the lines and leads to a squishy pedal) and the pads to fade which makes it feel like you don’t have any brakes at all. Finally, upgrade to performance rotors can calipers if still needed.

A good braking system is an important upgrade even for novice drivers. If you don’t have good brakes, you’re not going to have confidence in your car this will affect your driving and make for an unpleasant experience. A lot of folks add power before upgrading brakes, which makes their cars go even faster using the already inadequate brakes they came with (true even for expensive sports cars). Start with performance brake pads and fluid. Next comes ducting (if your car doesn’t already have it) to force even more air onto the brakes to help cool them down. A road course is a series of turns connected by straight lines that you drive round and round, so the brakes don’t get a chance to cool down like they would in day-to-day driving on public roads. Excessive heat causes the fluid to boil (which puts air in the lines and leads to a squishy pedal) and the pads to fade which makes it feel like you don’t have any brakes at all. Finally, upgrade to performance rotors can calipers if still needed.

Road racing is not drag racing, and yet a lot of new drivers interested in road racing start by adding power. The best upgrade for getting a car around a track fast is to make it fast through the turns and power won't help you much here (it can even hurt you). Note how much flatter the E36 M3 Lightweight with minor suspension upgrades is in this turn as compared to the newer generation E46 M3 with unmodified suspension. The Lightweight is faster in the turn, meaning less time spent there and -- more importantly -- a faster exist speed. This leaves the blue car scratching its head as to why it's faster down the straight even though it has a less powerful engine (and inferior power / weight).

Road racing is not drag racing, and yet a lot of new drivers interested in road racing start by adding power. The best upgrade for getting a car around a track fast is to make it fast through the turns and power won’t help you much here (it can even hurt you). Note how much flatter the E36 M3 Lightweight with minor suspension upgrades is in this turn as compared to the newer generation E46 M3 with unmodified suspension. The Lightweight is faster in the turn, meaning less time spent there and — more importantly — a faster exist speed. This leaves the blue car scratching its head as to why it’s faster down the straight even though it has a less powerful engine (and inferior power / weight).

A Euro-spec motor replaced the US-spec motor that blew as a result of a missed downshift. While very cool, it was a mistake in retrospect. I turned a very rare and unique car into a Franken-car, and the added power didn't contribute much at all in the way of faster lap times. This car is not about power, it's about handling and it's better to accentuate ones strengths IMO. Even with the added power, it still wasn't a powerful car by standards for the day (e.g., compared to Corvettes, Vipers, Porches) but it be made to handle better that the big power cars. The same money would have been much better spent on suspension and more track time & instruction.

A Euro-spec motor replaced the US-spec motor that blew as a result of a missed downshift. While very cool, it was a mistake in retrospect. I turned a very rare and unique car into a Franken-car, and the added power didn’t contribute much at all in the way of faster lap times. This car is not about power, it’s about handling and it’s better to accentuate ones strengths IMO. Even with the added power, it still wasn’t a powerful car by standards for the day (e.g., compared to Corvettes, Vipers, Porches) but it be made to handle better that the big power cars. The same money would have been much better spent on suspension and more track time & instruction.

 The car evolves into a racecar and must be towed to and from the track. There's no going back to a street car at this point because it now has a full cage and other modifications that make it unfit (and illegal) for street use. Because it wasn't my plan to race when I started down the path of developing this car, I never took the time to understand racing and what's involved. Had I done that, I would have evolved this car differently or started with a different car all together. This car was developed without any class or rules in mind and was only eligible to race in unlimited class where it even more money would be required to make it competitive.


The car evolves into a racecar and must be towed to and from the track. There’s no going back to a street car at this point because it now has a full cage and other modifications that make it unfit (and illegal) for street use. Because it wasn’t my plan to race when I started down the path of developing this car, I never took the time to understand racing and what’s involved. Had I done that, I would have evolved this car differently or started with a different car all together. This car was developed without any class or rules in mind and was only eligible to race in unlimited class where it even more money would be required to make it competitive.

 Once I transitioned into racing and owned a racecar the M3 quickly started gathering dust. Even for lapping days, I took the racecar because I wanted to get faster in it so I could be more competitive. This photo foreshadows my decision to eventually sell the M3 after sitting in the garage and not being driven for nearly two years.


Once I transitioned into racing and owned a racecar the M3 quickly started gathering dust. Even for lapping days, I took the racecar because I wanted to get faster in it so I could be more competitive. This photo foreshadows my decision to eventually sell the M3 after sitting in the garage and not being driven for nearly two years.

Transitioning into Racing

Racing requires that you have a competition license. Each sanctioning body has its own rules regarding licensing requirements so it’s a good idea to figure out where you want to race and then refer to their respective regulations and rules. Or, do like I did and find someone already familiar with the regional club racing scene and ask lots of questions. You’ll also need (and want) to attend a competition school. There are nationally known ones like Skip Barber and Bondurant, but there’s a good chance your local school will also offer classes and be more plugged into the local scene where you’ll be racing. For example, I attended ProFormance Racing School’s competition program which is well known by ICSCC, the regional sanctioning body where I raced.

Contrary to what you might think, you don’t actually need to be fast to go racing – that’s only required if you want to win. What’s required is that you’re not a danger to yourself and others. This means being predictable, aware, in control, and an understanding of the rules and protocols of racing. With the exception of the latter, you might already think you’re all of these things and hopefully you are in day-to-day life. But to drivers, these terms take on a different meaning and they take time to develop. If on a hot-lapping day you’ve got a line if cars in your rear-view mirror that appear to be scrubbing your mirrors, that’s actually you driving off line and failing to recognize that you should be pointing them by. and you’re not quite ready to go racing yet.

“Contrary to what you might think, you don’t actually need to be fast to go racing – that’s only required if you want to win.”

Seat time will help you develop the skills you need to go racing and hot-lapping days are the best way to get this. They’re typically organized into two (2) or three (3) run groups based on driver experience level and that alternate throughout the day. This way you don’t have experienced drivers intimidating inexperienced, and inexperienced frustrating experienced. Initially, you’ll be overwhelmed that you’re driving your car really fast on a racetrack while unaware that you’ve actually created a traffic jam of cars waiting for you to point them by. Eventually, you’ll learn to scan your mirrors and spot faster traffic well before it’s on you’re bumper. Once you can do this, you’ve taken your first step towards becoming a racecar driver by demonstrating that you’re comfortable on the track aware of your surroundings. Over time you’ll develop car control skills, be checking turn stations, learn to control emotions, and start to develop a taste for what it’s like to compete. At some point, you’ll be ready and may have the desire to go racing. For me this happened after about 1 year of hot lapping.

Once you’re ready to go racing register for and attend a competition class —  it will introduce you to the ‘rules of the road’ in competition driving. Yes, racing does have rules and lots of them. Knowing, following, and even taking advantage of the rules can make the difference between wining and loosing a race. In competition driving, there’s a lot more to wining than being fast. Being fast is something you should have focused on while hot-lapping but now you’ll need to turn your attention to racecraft and strategy, which you’ll be introduced to in class. You’ll also learn how about and practice passing (who owns the line, side-by-side through a turn, etc.), and in general everything else you need to know that you didn’t learn and experience in lapping days.

“Knowing, following, and even taking advantage of the rules can make the difference between wining and loosing a race.”

After graduating from competition class, you’re ready to go racing. Some sanctioning bodies having you jumping right in. I started with a sanctioning body that organizes races in the Pacific Northwest called the International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC), or just ‘Conference’ in short. For the most part, it follows the same set of rules and procedures outlined by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) organizes races in the area but a far fewer number of them which might explain why ICSCC came into existence. Conference has an onboarding procedure for new racers that involves a progression from Novice -> Area -> Senior driver. This eases new drivers into competition which is better for everybody involved. The following photoset describes each phase an my journey from Novice to Senior driver.

As a novice driver, I competed only against other novice drivers in the novice race that is held at the end of the race weekend (one for closed wheel and one for open wheel cars). There's a winner declared but it's meaningless because you can enter any car without regard for class (I rented my ride). So in other words, you might be in a 100-hp Rabbit competing against somebody in a 500-hp Viper or Corvette. The goal of the Novice race is to provide additional racing experience and to demonstrate that you can be safe and adhere to the rules while in a competition setting. There are no trophies or points awarded. How long you spend in Novice depends on you. Conference will not let you upgrade until they assess that you're ready. Unless you want to spend a long time in Novice, keep the aforementioned goal in mind for your Novice race(s).

As a novice driver, I competed only against other novice drivers in the novice race that is held at the end of the race weekend (one for closed wheel and one for open wheel cars). There’s a winner declared but it’s meaningless because you can enter any car without regard for class (I rented my ride). So in other words, you might be in a 100-hp Rabbit competing against somebody in a 500-hp Viper or Corvette. The goal of the Novice race is to provide additional racing experience and to demonstrate that you can be safe and adhere to the rules while in a competition setting. There are no trophies or points awarded. How long you spend in Novice depends on you. Conference will not let you upgrade until they assess that you’re ready. Unless you want to spend a long time in Novice, keep the aforementioned goal in mind for your Novice race(s).

As an Area driver, I entered into an actual race with Senior and other Area drivers. The orange 'day-glow' sticker on the hood of my car with a black 'X' is used to signal to other drivers that I'm an Area driver, which is a nice way of saying inexperience racer. There's also a sticker on the rear of the car and it tells the other drivers to exercise extra caution because I might do something stupid like go off line as a 'favor' to let them pass. The sticker also has the turn workers keeping a close eye on me. They'd have no qualms about punting me back to Novice if a premature upgrade is determined. In this particular race, I'm running in SPM class which mixes with some very fast and powerful cars. It's important to understand the rules of the road else very bad things can happen. Here, I am holding my line thereby making myself predictable. The yellow car will pass me on the outside (or wait until we exit) and then be gone very quickly. My main class is E-Production but it's very common for racers to enter an additional race for fun or practice even if the car is not competitive.

As an Area driver, I entered into an actual race with Senior and other Area drivers. The orange ‘day-glow’ sticker on the hood of my car with a black ‘X’ is used to signal to other drivers that I’m an Area driver, which is a nice way of saying inexperience racer. There’s also a sticker on the rear of the car and it tells the other drivers to exercise extra caution because I might do something stupid like go off line as a ‘favor’ to let them pass. The sticker also has the turn workers keeping a close eye on me. They’d have no qualms about punting me back to Novice if a premature upgrade is determined. In this particular race, I’m running in SPM class which mixes with some very fast and powerful cars. It’s important to understand the rules of the road else very bad things can happen. Here, I am holding my line thereby making myself predictable. The yellow car will pass me on the outside (or wait until we exit) and then be gone very quickly. My main class is E-Production but it’s very common for racers to enter an additional race for fun or practice even if the car is not competitive.

 As a Senior driver, I'm a fully fledged racer and I can compete in all Conference races including the longer running enduros. Even as a Senior driver, you're always under observation by the turn workers. In this particular race I had the race won but was penalized a lap for passing a lapped car under a yellow, which cost me 1st place. That hurt bad. Moral of the story is never let your guard down until the checkered flag. Full video of this race is shown below.


As a Senior driver, I’m a fully fledged racer and I can compete in all Conference races including the longer running enduros. Even as a Senior driver, you’re always under observation by the turn workers. In this particular race I had the race won but was penalized a lap for passing a lapped car under a yellow, which cost me 1st place. That hurt bad. Moral of the story is never let your guard down until the checkered flag. Full video of this race is shown below.

The following video shows a full race from before start to finish. You can see the idle time before the race which I use to mentally prepare myself. Exiting the grid, there’s the splitter and then scrubbing in the tires and getting heat into the brakes on the pace lap. The most exciting moments of any race for me are the start and then the strategy that starts to unfold when first coming upon lapped traffic.

Costs of Racing

“How do you make a small fortune racing? Simple. Start with a large fortune.”

It’s impossible to know how much fun racing can be unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. Anybody calling it a hobby is an outsider and doesn’t get it. It’s highly addictive and it can change your life for the better, or worse if you’re not careful. Racers frequently equate its addictive powers to that of a drug addiction.  It’s like inserting a “needle in the arm” the saying goes.

The most important thing I learned in competition school had nothing to do with the competition part of racing. One of the other students was a gentleman in his early 50s and he had a beautifully prepared Mustang racecar. At one point he commented the car cost him his entire retirement savings. I was stunned. I made myself a promise that wouldn’t me one day.

As mentioned, the costs associated with racing go well beyond purchasing and building a car. If you don’t have experience in racing, then chances are the car you think you can afford to race aren’t what you can actually afford. Go back to the beginning. I started lapping with a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo and by the time I was racing it was in a 15 year-old BMW 3-series. Significant factors contributing to costs include the following:

  • Acquire or build racecar*
  • Tow rig (truck and trailer, plus fuel and maintenance for rig)*
  • Annual and biannual  maintenance for items such as brake calipers, wheel bearings, clutch, and engine rebuild.*
  • Consumables such as tires, brake pads and rotors, fuel, and oil.*
  • Upgrades to car to make and keep you competitive.*
  • Race entry fees
  • Food and lodging fees when traveling to venues far from home
  • Driveline repairs when stuff happens (blow engine, gearbox broke, differential broke, etc.)
  • Bodywork / chassis repairs when stuff happens.

Items marked with asterisk (*) don’t apply if you’re renting a car, but are replaced with the cost to rent. Except for fuel and oil, nearly all costs associated with the racecar itself will vary significantly depending on the car. A newer Porsche 911 is much, much, much more expensive to race than an older BMW E30 racecar when all of the costs are added up. Consider everything before taking the plunge into buying a racecar. Renting gives you an easy out if you find you picked the wrong class or car.

 Racecars cannot be driven to the track. A bad day is being stuck on the side of the road with a broken down truck, trailer, and racecar. Don't cut corners on your tow rig. A diesel makes a huge difference if you can swing it.


Racecars cannot be driven to the track. A bad day is being stuck on the side of the road with a broken down truck, trailer, and racecar. Don’t cut corners on your tow rig. A diesel makes a huge difference if you can swing it.

The other half of your tow rig is a trailer. An enclosed trailer is more expensive and requires a more powerful truck (you won't be towing this with your average SUV), but makes life at the track a lot nicer, especially on bad weather days. You car will also be better secured. Theft is typically not a problem in the race paddocks, but when going to away races and needing to spend the night at hotels it's nice not having to worry about your car.

The other half of your tow rig is a trailer. An enclosed trailer is more expensive and requires a more powerful truck (you won’t be towing this with your average SUV), but makes life at the track a lot nicer, especially on bad weather days. You car will also be better secured. Theft is typically not a problem in the race paddocks, but when going to away races and needing to spend the night at hotels it’s nice not having to worry about your car.

You'll need to build or buy a racecar. I've done both. Building from the ground-up like this is unnecessary but also be weary about buying used racecars. They look great on paper but the quality of workmanship that goes into building racecars varies vastly. Even if well built, another person's setup may not match your liking, or class rules may differ requiring additional modifications to make legal or competitive. I've known people to purchase used racecars to save money and end-up spending more money in the end than it would have cost to build one from scratch.

You’ll need to build or buy a racecar. I’ve done both. Building from the ground-up like this is unnecessary but also be weary about buying used racecars. They look great on paper but the quality of workmanship that goes into building racecars varies vastly. Even if well built, another person’s setup may not match your liking, or class rules may differ requiring additional modifications to make legal or competitive. I’ve known people to purchase used racecars to save money and end-up spending more money in the end than it would have cost to build one from scratch.

Finished product from above. Having a garage and ability to turn a wrench will go a long way towards saving you money, but at the cost of your time. To see the full development of this car, visit click here.

Finished product from above. Having a garage and ability to turn a wrench will go a long way towards saving you money, but at the cost of your time. To see the full development of this car, visit click here.

This racecar had a bad day. The driver was OK thanks to his safety equipment but this is going to be expensive to repair (it takes a lot more damage than this to total a racecar). Racing insurance is sufficiently expensive that most club racers don't have it. It's a good reason to start with an inexpensive car if money a concern for you. Even if somebody else if at fault, you're still responsible for covering the costs of damage to your car (or for reimbursing the owner if renting). 'That's racing!' as the saying goes.

This racecar had a bad day. The driver was OK thanks to his safety equipment but this is going to be expensive to repair (it takes a lot more damage than this to total a racecar). Racing insurance is sufficiently expensive that most club racers don’t have it. It’s a good reason to start with an inexpensive car if money a concern for you. Even if somebody else if at fault, you’re still responsible for covering the costs of damage to your car (or for reimbursing the owner if renting). ‘That’s racing!’ as the saying goes.

Racing (and sport driving) is stressful on the drive line components. As the driver, you play a big role in determining just how stressful but suffice it to say track miles are not 'highway miles.' The BMW 2.5L M20 motor used by the E30 platform is near bullet proof, and relatively cheap to replace / rebuild. This one failed due to oiling starvation in the turns. It only takes a faction of a second at redline without oil getting to the mains to kill an engine, and the lateral g-forces from the turns were causing the oil to walk up the side of the oil pan. A modified oil pan (deeper + windage tray) and Accusump system were later added. Dry sump systems are illegal for the class I was running.

Racing (and sport driving) is stressful on the drive line components. As the driver, you play a big role in determining just how stressful but suffice it to say track miles are not ‘highway miles.’ The BMW 2.5L M20 motor used by the E30 platform is near bullet proof, and relatively cheap to replace / rebuild. This one failed due to oiling starvation in the turns. It only takes a faction of a second at redline without oil getting to the mains to kill an engine, and the lateral g-forces from the turns were causing the oil to walk up the side of the oil pan. A modified oil pan (deeper + windage tray) and Accusump system were later added. Dry sump systems are illegal for the class I was running.

Life as a Racer

How much your life changes will depend largely on if you’re an owner driver or just driver. In professional racing, driving spend their time practicing, driving, and preparing to exercise their craft in a car that somebody else owns. In club racing, you don’t get paid to race and the majority of drivers are driver-owners meaning they race and own their own car. If you’re financially fortunate, you can pay somebody to build, prepare, fix, maintain, and tow your car to events for you. However, club racing being what it is, this is not the case for most drivers. There is one alternative path to owning which is renting, which is discussed below.

Racing may take place on Sunday, but anybody watching a race is seeing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the preparation, planning, and time involved. Assuming the car is fully prepared and ready to go racing, a typical Conference race weekend plays out as follows, assuming a local race:

Thursday – Load-up car and equipment into trailer. While at the track, you need more than just your car. Tools, fuel, spare parts, tents, tires (race rubber vs practice / qualifying rubber, and rain tires in case of rain), are just some of the things you’ll need to have on hand in order to get through the weekend. Racers are always helping each other out but you cannot go empty handed. I’d take extra spares just in case somebody else had problems. Sooner or later, people you help out will return the favor. It takes about 6 hours to get everything loaded up and ready to go.

Friday – It’s common for a test-and-tune today to precede the race weekend. The track is open all day long (no run groups) so you can dial in the car. It’s also a great way to get some extra practice time or verify everything is OK and in working order coming of the heels of an upgrade or repair. Before driving, time is spent unloading and setting up your pit for the race weekend. This can take a couple of hours.

Showing up for test-and-tune also lets you secure your space in the paddocks for the weekend. All the other racers will be lined-up late Friday evening awaiting entry or showing up first thing Saturday morning and scrabbling to find a good spot. Getting a nice paddock spot can make your race weekend a lot nicer if you’re close to power, water, friends, and on asphalt as opposed to stuck out in the weeds away from everything and your friends network.

Saturday – Saturday is spent practicing and qualifying. For each race entered, you get a practice session in the morning and then a qualifying session in the afternoon. A lot of racers enter two races (a primary and a secondary), so that results in 2 practice sessions and 2 qualifying sessions. I often entered for 3 races but didn’t participate in all of the practice and qualifying sessions. I just wanted a lot of seat time.

Sunday – Sunday is race day. The day starts with morning qualifying sessions. Qualifying determines your grid position. It puts the fastest cars / driver near the front and slowest at the rear so you don’t have mayhem when the green flag drops. For each race entered, your starting grid position is determined by the best  (lowest) qualifying time from Saturday and Sunday. If it’s raining or the track is otherwise slow on Sunday and the track was fast on Saturday, there’s really no need to go out and qualify again. Save your car. It’s not worth something breaking now that you’ve made it this far.  Also, except for your primary race, consider if you really need to qualify again. Usually, secondary races are races that your car is not competitive in because they’re higher-spec classes so you’re allowed to race because your car [easily] fits within the rules. Unlike your primary race, you’re just racing for fun and practice, not to win.

The afternoon is spent racing. Each race lasts 30 minutes and there are a lot more race classes than there is time to run a race for each class, so multiple classes are combined into a single race. The organizers try to group classes so there’s not a big spread in performance but sometimes there’s no way around it and you can have very fast cars on the track at the same time as slow cars. If you’re in a slower car, you need to be really heads-up because the fast cars seem to appear out of nowhere and the speed deltas are large. Open wheel cars never mix with closed wheel cars. When you’re racing, you’re racing against the cars in your class. There is no overall race winner. Even if you’re the 4th person to cross the finish line, you’re still the winner if you’re the first of the cars to cross the finish line in your race class.

Your day is far from over after the race has ended. The pit needs to be torn down and trailer loaded back-up, then the trip home. You’ll be exhausted by time you get home so everything stays on the trailer and right to bed.

Monday – If you think you’re going to have a productive day at work on Monday, you’re kidding yourself. You’ll be sleeping in and then there’s still that trailer to think about that’s sitting in the driveway. It’s needs to get unloaded at some point and returned to the storage facility (I kept my trailer at a storage log about 15 minutes from home). Unloading can wait until after work if needed, but it needs to happen at some point during the day. Expect a long lunch talking war stories about the race weekend with race buddies.

Between Races – What happens in between races depends on factors often outside of your control. Most often, your time is spent fixing something that broke or an issue with the car that is affecting its performance (and your ability to win). Even if the car had a good race weekend, time spent inspecting the car and replacing wear items will help it stay that way. Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll be spending whatever remaining time you have tinkering and improving the car in whatever way the rules allow room. A big part of racing is reading, understanding, and taking advantage of the rules wherever you can. Understanding and interpreting the rules is a sport in and of itself. Racers who don’t read and understand them are leaving themselves at competitive disadvantage.

Renting versus Owning

When I started asking around what it cost rent a racecar for the weekend my first instinct was to want to go out an buy a used racecar instead, and that’s ultimately what I did. On the surface, it seems like owning might be a lot cheaper but I invite you to refer back to the costs of racing topic from above. At the club level, driver-owners renting their cars are simply looking to help cover their costs and very few, if any, are making a profit.

Advantages of Renting

  • Arrive and drive. The car owner typically handles building, maintaining, fixing, and transporting the car to the race venue, and setting up everything at the paddock. You arrive rested and can  focus on your driving. No need for a tow rig, garage, tools, and mechanical know-how.
  • You’re not committed to a particular car or class. If the class lacks the level of competition you’re looking for, you can easily switch over to a different class. If you like the class but the car is not competitive, you can find another car to rent.
  • Less expensive than owning. When all costs are considered, renting is usually less expensive than owning.

Advantages of Owning

  • If the car breaks, you can fix it on your own terms and timeline. You may even decide to throw in the towel for the season if the damage is really bad. If renting, the owners may need to have the car on the track in time for the next race and grease local shop owners with extra money to expedite it through their shops, and you’re responsible for all costs associated with the car breaking while you’re driving. (There can be some gray area here when it comes to mechanical depending on your business arrangement.)
  • You can drive the car without regard or concern for the owner or other renters who may be driving that weekend. The first time I rented, the parting words from the owner were go have fun and win, but please remember I’m in the running for championship so please don’t break the car.
  • If you’re your own crew as is the case for most driver-owners, there’s an entirely different dimension to racing that renters never get to experience. This includes driving and setting up the car to handle, which can become a competitive advantage once you start to understand the relationship between what the car is doing on the track and how adjustments can improve or worsen a car’s handling.

If you decide to rent, keep in mind that you’re entering into a business relationship between you and the owner. It’s best to agree to terms in writing, which should cover who pays for what, services to be provided at the paddock, what happens in the event of damage to the car (mechanical, racing contact, or off-course impact).

Additional Information

My favorite books about racing are (in no particular order):

  • “Going Faster! Mastering the Art of Race Driving” by Carl Lopez
  • “Drive to Win” by Carroll Smith
  • “Speed Secrets: Professional Race Driving Techniques” by Ross Bentley

Regarding Carroll Smith, he is one of my heroes. His entire set of books is a must have.

If you’re serious about racing, you also owe it to yourself to familiarize yourself with the SCCA General Competition Rules (GCRs). Get the latest version from the SCCA’s website.

How to crimp: Making reliable automotive electrical connections

This post details the proper method for making automotive electrical connections using the crimp method. It is not intended to be an authoritative or comprehensive guide, but rather an introduction to some basic concepts, hardware, and methods that have served me well. The intended audience is enthusiasts who don’t have any formal training in the area but like or prefer to do their own wiring projects, which can range from a simple radar detector installation through full chassis and engine harness fabrication.

In my experience, automotive electrical problems can be amongst the most frustrating to diagnose with loose or faulty connections often being the root cause. However, unlike so many other types of problems that can occur as a result of mechanical stress, driver error, or just plain bad luck, electrical problems can be almost entirely avoided by applying a little bit of knowhow when making connections.

Several years ago, I installed a fuel cell which – amongst other things – involved wiring up an electric fuel pump. For serviceability I incorporated a connector into the design, which involved splicing two wire ends together and applying solder to ensure they didn’t pull apart.

Everything worked well at first but after a while I started experiencing problems with the engine cutting out in the turns (one high speed bumpy turn in particular). My initial hunch was fuel delivery related – which ultimately proved to be true – but the specific cause was time consuming and difficult to diagnose. Random luck helped my find the problem sooner than would have otherwise taken.

While testing a new fuel pump in the workshop I bumped the connector and the pump sputtered. Turning my attention to the connector, I discovered that the soldered connection failed leaving me with two wire halves. The heat shrink insulating material hid the problem from view and kept them mostly in contact with each other but all it took was a little bit of force and/or vibration (like driving over a bumpy turn) to open up a gap breaking the flow of current to the pump.

Like most electrical problems, the fix for this problem was easy once diagnosed but a long an painful journey to get there. Ironically, in my effort to sure up the connection with solder I made it less reliable. Realizing this sparked my interest as to the correct way to make reliable electrical connections.

Update: 2/17/2013

The topic of soldering versus crimping is often debated. Already, there have been several responses to this article denouncing crimping as the preferred method to soldering. That crimping is a preferred method is my opinion (a generalization for which exceptions apply) and I am in the good company of aerospace, military, Formula 1, and medical. If performed correctly, both soldering and crimping will produce reliable connections. Likewise, if performed incorrectly, both will result in unreliable connections. Hence, there is an abundance on anecdotal evidence for and against each method available on the Internet.

A key and significant advantage of crimping over soldering is the ease and speed with which a properly formed connection can be consistently performed. I have seen far too many people get soldering wrong (also my opinion, MSME & having worked in aerospace too) and hence my motivation for writing this article. With proper tooling crimping is nearly foolproof. There are a wide variety of connector types and associated tooling that range from inexpensive to very expensive, but even inexpensive connectors can produce good results. The tooling and connectors demonstrated in this article are on the more expensive end of the spectrum but the same principles and techniques apply to other connector types as well.

Why soldering is bad

There was a time when I soldered all of my electrical connections under the misguided belief that I was making them more reliable. I eventually learned otherwise. I should have known better but I hadn’t thought about it deeply and the practice is commonplace, even amongst some automotive professionals. To understand why soldering is bad, entertain the possibility you could purchase ceramic insulated wire for your next automotive electrical project. Would you use it?

Hopefully your answer to the above question is a resounding no. Ceramic has several properties that when viewed independently make it an excellent choice; however,  its low ductility (brittleness) makes it a poor overall choice. Wire must be able to bend freely as it is routed through the car and is subject to constant flex and vibration. When you use solder to make electrical connections you’re also greatly reducing the wires ductility in the solder region and – like a chain – the wire is only as reliable as its weakest link.

If you take the opportunity to inspect the connections made by the manufacturer of your automobile, you’ll discover that most if not all connections do not have any solder applied. The recall cost to an automobile manufacturer for a flawed electrical connection can run hundreds of millions of dollars, so their engineers incorporate only the best practices for forming durable and reliable electrical connections. Think about this the next time you pull out your soldering gun to make your electrical connection super reliable!

The following video illustrates the effects of solder on a wire connection and compares it to a properly formed connection using a crimper.

Thus far the focus has been on reliability as reason to avoid solder but there are other practical considerations as well. Soldering can take significantly more time than crimping (a topic we will get to shortly). For large projects, this can mean added days. It also requires a higher degree of skill to execute properly if used (e.g., not enough heat, wicking past the contact into the insulated area, etc.). For enthusiasts, electrical work is often performed in compromising positions with poor lighting such as under the dashboard, underneath the car, inside the engine bay, etc., which can make applying solder a challenge. Proper ventilation in tight quarters can also be difficult to achieve but is necessary in order to avoid breathing in toxic fumes. Care should also be taken to avoid letting solder (or solder residue) come into contact with the mouth, cuts, and sores. Always wash your hands after handling solder!

I suspect many resort to soldering connections because they perceive crimps as being weak or otherwise insufficient by themselves. A common scenario it to take a crimp-style connector, crimp, and then apply solder to strengthen the connection. However, a properly executed crimp can be as strong as or stronger than the wire itself is properly executed. By adding solder you are ultimately undermining your desire to form a more reliable connection.

You might be wondering why soldering connections is bad when modern cars contain scores of electronic printed circuit boards (PCBs) each having hundreds of soldered connections. Unlike wires being routed throughout your car, the components soldered onto a PCB are not subject to flex and handling because they are mounted to a rigid plan (the PCB board) contained within an enclosure. If vibration is a concern, the PCB it can be mounted on vibration isolators and epoxy can further be used to mechanically secure the components in place. None of this is true for most automotive wiring projects. Furthermore, as with any rule, there are exceptions and the application of solder in forming connections is no exception. Used properly in conjunction with crimping, solder can be used to build a more reliable connection but is unnecessary in most cases and – in my opinion – the risk of getting it wrong does not outweigh the benefits and therefore is not discussed.

If done with care, solder can be applied to a crimp connection as an added measure of reliability by applying only in the area near the very tip of the wire. The solder must not flow into the region below the crimp compression as you want the wire itself to remain flexible so it does not break apart from the connector. In my opinion, the risk of making a mistake is far greater than any improvement in reliability (marginal at best). It also adds a significant amount of time for each connection to be made (2-3 times) and it therefore not advised.

Crimping

The figure below shows a wire properly crimped a solid contact pin. Unlike other connector types, this pin doesn’t lend itself to soldering even if we wanted to. Visual inspection shows 8 compression points (only 4 are visible in the figure). A cross-section view is shown in Table 1.  The stranded wire can freely flex at the base of the connector with little or no fatigue and the wires are held in place by compressive forces that exceed the strength of the wire itself, making for a connection that is strong, durable, and virtually impervious to vibration. It took only a few seconds to form this connection with proper tooling using a foolproof procedure.

A solid contact socket properly crimped to wire takes only a few seconds to achieve. This is a good crimp, but ideally there should be a little bit of uninsulated wire showing before it enters into the connector pin (about 1/2 the diameter of the wire).

Same pin as shown above after applying tension to the point of failure. Visual inspection shows that the wire strands broke before the crimp failed confirming that the crimp is stronger than the wire itself.

Same pin as shown above after applying tension to the point of failure. Visual inspection shows that the wire strands broke before the crimp failed confirming that the crimp is stronger than the wire itself.

IMG_92961

Close-up view of same pin shows the tip of the wire showing through the inspection hole, providing further proof that the crimp is stronger than the wire itself.

The perception that crimping is inadequate may stem from the commonplace crimper available for about $10 at your local hardware, automotive, or electronics store. This tool has no place in forming automotive electrical connections and if used, adding solder probably will serve to better the connection.

The commonplace hardware store crimper has no place in forming reliable automotive electrical connections.

The key to a reliable crimp connection is having the right tool for the job, and knowing how to use it. The right tool depends on the type of connector being used, of which there are many. Even an aerospace quality crimp tool will not work or produce proper results if used on the wrong connector type. Some shops limit themselves to using a small handful of connector types because they don’t want to or cannot afford to purchase tooling for every type. I’m partial to Deutsch DTM style connectors for reasons stated below and which will be illustrated extensively throughout this article. For these connectors, crimp tool like the one illustrated by Figure 5 is required. If you choose a different type of connector, be sure to ask the vendor or do your research as to the proper tooling required and learn how to use it properly.

A proper crimp tool for automotive applications (Astro Tool M22520/1-01) for use with connectors having Amphenol style circular contact pins.

Video Demonstration

Tooling and Connector Hardware

I am going to describe and illustrate how to make a proper connection using a Deutsch DTM style connectors. Again, this is the type of connector type I prefer partly because they are used by Motec in the construction of their ECU harnesses so I needed to become familiar with them have acquire the required tooling. By no means do I attest these to be the only or even the best connectors for making durable automotive connections. There are several good alternatives available such as GM Weatherpack, Metripack, Deutsch Autosport, and many more.

Deutsch DTM Connector

In addition to the reasons stated above, reasons why I like Deutsch DTM connectors and have stayed with them are several:

  • Incorporates circular contact pins facilitating fast and virtually foolproof crimps.
  • Wedgelock insert fixes pins precisely in place for smooth and easy plug / unplug action.
  • Suitable range of wire sizes (16-22 AWG) for most connection needs.
  • Available in 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 12 pin connector arrangements.
  • Inline and flange mount available.
  • Parts readily available from a wide range of suppliers in gold or nickel plated.
  • Pins are easily removed from connector housing and can be purchased separately.
  • Receptacle and plug assembly halves can be purchase separately.

Deutsch DTM connector parts consists of pins or sockets (sockets shown), housing (plug assembly shown), and Wedgelock.

Close-up of 4-pin plug assembly having part number DTM06-4S. Not shown is corresponding receptacle assembly having part number DTM06-4P.

solidpin

DTM solid pin drawing. Source: Deutsch Industrial Product Catalog.

solidsocket

DTM solid pin drawing. Source: Deutsch Industrial Product Catalog.

I order my connectors through Motec USA because they’ve never failed me and they also offer kits that make ordering parts a little easier (housing, pins, and wedge sold packaged together). The kits can be found in the Motec catalog available on their website. For a complete list of distributors in the USA and worldwide, visit the TE distributors webpage. I found the complete Deutsch connector catalog on the LADD Industries website. LADD is a Deutsch distributor.

In addition to complete product line, the Deutsch catalog contains lots of useful information such as produce line overview, tooling, electrical characteristics, operating condition tolerances, and how-to instructions.

You should select the housing configuration that is correct for your application. With the DTM connectors, you also have the option to select pin type. I like and use the solid pins because they’re very easy and virtually foolproof to crimp, so this is what I’ll be going into more detail on when describing the assembly process. Should you choose to also use a Deutsch connector, I recommend reading the catalog sections that describes details regarding assembly, electrical characteristics, and operating condition tolerances.

With the DTM connectors you can choose solid barrel or stamped pin types. I prefer the solid barrel pins because they result in fast and virtually foolproof crimps. This pins seen in the illustrations are the solid barrel type. Stamped pins have wings that curl onto the wire. Either pin type is fine for most applications. Just be aware there are two different types of pins, each requiring a different crimp tool. Refer to the Deutsch catalog for additional details.

Crimp Tool

The correct tool is critical for achieving a proper crimp, else you’re probably better of soldering (as bad as that is). Check with the manufacturer or distributor for your connector of choice for information on tooling requirements. For the Deutsch DTM series connector, Tyco (manufacturer) recommends the DMC MH860 crimper, which is a circular indent style crimper conforming to MilSpec M22520. Its design accommodates a turret that can be removed and replaced by another to accommodate different contact types making it a versatile crimper (I also used this same crimper to crimp connector for MilSpec bayonet connector shown by Figure 8).

The MilSpec M22520 crimper incorporates an interchangeable turret design that can accommodate different connector types such as the MilSpec (MS3116F2041S) bayonet lock bulkhead connector as shown here.

For DTM connectors, I use the M22520/1-01 “large MilSpec crimper” manufactured by Astro Tool (Figure 5), also available from Daniels Manufacturing Corporation (DMC). These cost about US$250 new. You’ll also need to purchase a crimp head (a.k.a., “turret”), which is M22520/1-02 for the large crimper and about US$80 (Figure 9). In all, expect to pay about US$330 new. These are also commonly available on eBay for about ½ the cost, which is how I purchased mine. It sounds like a lot of money for a crimper, but its foolproof design will save you tons of time and you’ll get perfect crimps every time. I’ve used a number of different contact types and associated crimpers and this is by far my favorite, so I seek out connectors incorporating a solid round pin design for all of my wiring projects where applicable.

M22520/1-01 crimper incorporates an interchange crimp head (turret) for accommodating a variety of contact designs. Use M22520/1-02 for the Deutsch DTM solid contact. Each gauge holes shown (12, 16, and 20) actually accommodates a range of gauge sizes, and adjustment for the desired gauge wire is performed using the wire size selection dial shown by Figure 11, and as specified on the turret label (see next photo).

IMG_9226a

The crimp head (turret) specifies the wire size selector setting to use for the gauge wire being crimped to the contact. (Only part of label is visible in photo.) For example, for 24 gauge wire, rotate the red hole (20) into position as shown, and set the wire selector into the 2 position.

The wire size selector wheel configures the crimp tool for the specific wire size (gauge) to be crimped. As shown, the tool is configured for 20 gauge wire.

Wire

Although not required in order to achieve a good crimp, I use Tefzel insulated wire whenever possible. It is military spec (MilSpec 22759) and used by F1 racecar and airframe constructors. Definitely overkill for stereo and radar detector installations, but if building engine or chassis harnesses, or routing wire through harsh environments (temp, oil, moisture, etc.) then I recommend you consider it if long-term, trouble free performance is desired. I indiscriminately use Tefzel wire for all of my jobs given the choice.

Like a quality crimper, you’re not going to find Tefzel wire at your local hardware, electronics, or automotive store. You’ll need to order it online but there are plenty of suppliers. I get mine from Pegasus Auto Racing Supplies.

For automotive use, always use stranded wire for flexibility. Solid core wire has no business being in an automobile.

Wire Stripper

A wire stripper tool is used to strip the insulation from the endpoint of the wire being inserted into the electrical contact to be crimped. When stripping, leave the insulation being stripped from the wire covering the tip of the wire so that it can be easily removed by hand (), but so that it protects wire strands from fraying at the endpoint. This will help to ensure a smooth insertion into the connector housing. You’ll also want the strip length be correct for the contact being crimped. A quality wire strip tool will help you easily achieve these goals.

As described in the illustrations below, I use the Ideal Stripmaster wire stripper. It’s expensive but only absolutely required if using Tefzel wire, else less expensive strippers of similar design can be used with good success.

Use a wire stripper to strip the insulation from the wire. Pull the insulation away from the wire but keep the tip covered until just prior to crimping to protect the wire strands from fraying.

IMG_9251

The Ideal Stripmaster wire stripper for MIL-W-22759/16 Wire (26-16ga). At around US$250, it’s very expensive. Suitable for wire gauges 16-24, but only required if stripping Tefzel insulated wire. Else, lower cost strippers of similar design available at your local hardware store will suffice; however, its small form factor and precision operation will have you appreciating it even if not using Tefzel.

IMG_9260

The Ideal Stripmaster incorporates hardened removable dies that are more precise than your garden variety (cheaper) wire stripper having a similar design. They are required for stripping Tefzel insulated wire. Cheaper strippers do not cut cleanly into Tefzel wire insulation otherwise lack the precision to get a good strip.

Crimping: Step-by-Step

Finally, I’m going to describe how to execute a proper crimp using a solid round contact for a Deutsch DTM connector. Different contact types involve different tooling, but the overall process remains largely unchanged.

Strip the wire end using a strip tool. The strip length depends on the pin type. For the solid barrel pin, you ideally want it so that there’s just a little bit of bare (uninsulated) wire showing when the wire tip bottoms out into the barrel.

It’s best to not pull the strip end all the way off the wire until just before you’re ready to crimp. This will help keep the wire end from fraying, which makes it more difficult to cleanly insert the wire into the pin barrel.

Insert the stripped wire end to be crimped into the barrel end of the connector pin. Ideally you want a little bit of bare (uninsulated) wire showing at the base of the pin so this is OK but not true to spec.

Set he crimp head dial for the pin size being used. I’m using a 20 gauge pin so I set it to 20 here. Note that a 20 gauge pin accommodates gauges 20-26. The selector dial on the tool frame configures the tools for the exact wire gauge as shown below.

A label on the side of the crimp head (turret) specifies the selector setting for the pin size and wire gauge to be crimped. Since I’m using a 20 gauge pin (contact size) and crimping 24 gauge wire, my selector setting should be 2.

Use the dial on the crimp tool to set it for the gauge wire to crimp. I’m crimping 24 gauge wire so I set the tool to selector setting 2 as per the table shown in the previous step.

IMG_9284

Insert pin and wire into tool as shown.

Using the wire, push the contact pin into the tool until is stops. Keep just enough push force applied so that the wire tip stays burred into the barrel socket, then crimp.

IMG_9286

The finished crimp should look something like this. Again, ideally I would have had a little bit of bare wire showing at the base of the connector pin. There’s an inspection hole that can be used to verify that the wire is all the way in. If you cannot see the wire through the inspection hole, snip off the pin and discard then try again. (Inspection hole is not visible here but seen below with wire end showing.)

Perform a pull test to ensure a good crimp. A tester like the one shown here is overkill for the auto enthusiast and I don’t have one, but you should at least give a good tug (harder for higher gauge wires). It only take a second and could save you a lot of headaches down the road. For a sense of how hard to pull, refer to the table below.

MIL-T-7928-01

MIL-T-7928 specifies minimum pull test values. If you’re life depends on a reliable connection, then follow it. If not, then be aware of the values and use your good sense when performing a casual pull test. It would really slow me down if I actually pull tested each and every crimp for spec conformance, so I don’t. A quick and sturdy pull is all I do.

IMG_9289

Shown here is crimped wire pull tested to point of failure. Point here is to illustrate (again) that this was a good crimp because — amongst other things — the wire itself broke before it was able to pull free from the crimp. (Note short amount of bare wire exposed relative to barrel length.)

IMG_92961

Further evidence that crimp was stronger than the wire being crimped. Wire was pull tested to failure but did not pull out as proved by presence of tip end still being seen through inspection hole.

The following steps are DTM connector specific and have nothing to do with crimping. They illustrate pin insertion and connector housing assembly. I’m using different wires (Tefzel insulated) crimped from a previous job so don’t be confused about why not red 24 gauge wires like the ones crimped above.

LADD is a Deutsch distributor.

Insert wires into DTM connector housing, pin head first through the silicone seal.

IMG_9302

Continuing from previous step, push the wires all the way in until they click into place. If the wire is very thin (18 gauge or higher) you might need to use an insertion tool to help push the pin in from behind. (I just use a small flat blade jewelers screw driver but be careful not to push on the wire if you do the same.) Once clicked in you will not be able to pull the wire back out using pull force alone, so give a quick tug to verify.

IMG_9311

After all of the pins are locked in, insert the wedgelock. It pushes straight in to the housing and snaps when flush. The wedgelock is what I love about the DTM connectors over some other types. They keep the pins perfectly aligned and from moving around when mating the two halves so there’s no need to nurse them together like cheaper connectors.

IMG_9314

Connector fully assembled. A quality job that will provide years of reliable service even under harsh operating conditions.

Be sure to document your pin assignments and save them someplace safe.

Document and save your pin assignments as I did here for a recent job. You’ll thank yourself down the road.

Wire Labeling

I am going to additionally discuss wire labeling. It contributes nothing to reliable electrical connections but is something that goes hand-in-hand with it and therefore worth discussing.

It’s important to label your wires for future reference if not using color coded wire. A label like the one shown here reads all the way around the wire making it easy to read from any angle.

IMG_9320

I use a Brady BMP21 label maker as shown here. It produces labels like the one shown above. It has a lot of nice features including lighted display, symbols, different font sizes, small and large cap characters, and much more. You set the wire gauges size and it’ll spit out more rows of text so you can get a full wrap of the wire so text goes all the way around the wire. I highly recommend it and I used it for all my electrical jobs, not just automotive (home networking, home automation, etc.)

The BMP21 incorporates a removable tape cartridge, which is available in different tape widths. Label itself is durable nylon cloth which does not smudge, even after being printed.

Label shown hot off the printer. Simply enter in the text (WYSIWYG), press print, and then shear off the label using a button.

Label is very easy to peel off from backing which is wider than the label part. No time is wasted trying to get the label and backing pulled apart like some other label makers I’ve used.

To attach label to wire, start by placing it on wire as shown. I try to get the top edge of the wire to align with the wire run so when I start wrapping there’s no overlapping edges. If this doesn’t make sense it will after you’ve tried it a few times. Not critical. Just depends on how OCD you are.

Continuing on from the previous step, wrap the label around the wire. If you specified a larger gauge wire than you actually have you may get an extra wrap or two than needed. No harm in doing so but you’re throwing money out the window by doing so by wasting label material on something you cannot see.

Optionally add some clear shrink wrap to keep the label protected from dirt and chemicals that could make them otherwise difficult to read after years of service. Be sure to plan ahead if you want to go this route by slipping the shrink on before your attaching your connector ends, else you will not be able to get the shrink onto the wire.

Apply heat to shrink wrap for final labeled product. If only all the connections in my car were as good as the one created here for a couple of microphone line inputs. Seems like overkill but I know no other way when it comes to electrical.

About Feature Image

E30 racecar that I built. I incorporated a Motec M600 ECU and I adapted car from wasted spark to coil over ignition. Note custom coil frame mounts that I milled from aluminum. All techniques described in this article where used in building the ECU and chassis harness.

Video VBOX installation

I just finished installing a Video VBOX Lite system in my car and am happy be driving my car again! It’s been 3 weeks since I started the project with 3-4 days of actual time spent. The biggest time sink was routing a microphone to the rear bumper which isn’t necessary but should make for a great sound track. I also lost a week to a wrong part being sent. If not for these two factors, install would have easily taken under a day.

Below is a video showing the output of my initial drive with the system recording just after completing the install, so minimal configuration. It’s not intended to be exciting (it’s not), but potentially informative for anybody considering a VBOX or evaluating similar systems.

Edit (07.25.14): The following video shows a VBOX recorded session from a recent lapping day with the system fully customized for my car and configured for the track. There’s an issue with the speed ‘sticking’ that I need to look into and I didn’t have my audio plugged in for this session. I also cooled down the colors in Final Cut for this video.

VBOX is an in-car video and data acquisition system targeted at motorsports enthusiasts and racers who want to improve their driving by analyzing their driving after each session or event. I researched several different systems and opted for Racelogic’s Video VBOX system because it had most of the features I was looking for, was priced competitively, pre-sales support was responsive (which is a gauge for what I can expect post-sale), worldwide distributor network including two distributors in North America, good support site with monitored forums and regular updates, and an impressive product line.

The feature that attracted me to Video VBOX are:

  • Multiple video inputs.
  • Fully customizable video output.
  • External stereo microphone input.
  • CAN bus integration for getting at ECU data.
  • High-resolution GPS and track mapping feature.
  • Data stored to inexpensive, standardized SD card.
  • Start/stop recording triggered by speed.

The one feature I wish VBOX had is HD video. There are other systems available with HD I opted for VBOX anyway because HD was a like-to-have for me, not must have. I purchased the VBOX lite, which is Racelogic’s least expensive system, as shown here:

vbox_lite_and_oled__30604_zoom

Layout Schematic

I gave careful consideration to the installation prior to starting and opted as follows:

  • VBOX stored inside glove box.
  • 1-externally mounted microphone at rear of car (mono).
  • 1-internally mounted microphone inside passenger cabin.
  • 1 video extension cable routed back to roll bar.
  • 1 CAN bus clip-on interface routed to driver-side foot well area.
  • All other accessories, incl. power & GPS routed from glove box.

Layout schematic for all of the above is illustrated below.

vbox-layout-schematic

VBOX Mounting Location

I considered two (2) locations for mounting the VBOX unit: Somewhere in the front trunk area and in the glove box. The biggest advantage of the front trunk is retaining full use of the glove box storage area, which the VBOX and all of its cabling pretty much fully occupy. However, I opted for the glove box for several reasons:

  • Status LEDs able to be viewed without needing to get out of car.
  • Easy access to record button if manual start / stop desired.
  • No need to pop trunk to add / remove SD card.
  • Easy to route cables in and out of glove box if needed.
  • Close proximity to 12v power outlet (under dash).
  • No need to route through wires through front bulkhead.
  • Simply remove and store for safekeeping during offseason.

My overall goal was to minimize or eliminate need to make any modifications to the car in order to accommodate the system. By using the 12v power outlet I didn’t need to splice into any wires or tie into the fuse box. Racelogic also makes a clip-on interface that reads signals off of the CAN wires without needing to splice into them so I went this route as well. (More on the CAN interface below.)

Microphone Locations

The VBOX has a stereo microphone input and includes a splitter and two single channel condenser microphones so that left and right channels can be picked up at different points. I ran wires for mounting as follows:

  • Inside cabin facing driver to pick up conversation and sounds hear by driver such as tires working. Also hoping that by pointing at driver from dash, wind buffeting will be kept to a minimum.
  • External to car and hidden behind rear license plate facing downward. Not coincidentally, this also happens to be right over the exhaust tips.

I expect (hope) that this should make for some great audio tracks. Will probably require lowering exhaust channel level relative to cabin channel during editing in order to get a good balance.

Camera Locations

My system accepts 2 camera inputs (more expensive models accept up to 4). Both are mounted from inside the vehicle:

  • A high-resolution camera is attached to the windshield using a suction mount and faces forward across the hood of the car. This will provide an unobstructed view of the track and is the main video displayed.
  • A low resolution camera is attached to the roll bar aiming at the driver from behind. This will be shown as an video inlay (picture-in-picture) and will be useful for accessing factors such as driver smoothness.

CAN Interface

CAN bus signals are captured using Racelogic’s clip-on interface. This is nice for at least three (3) reasons:

  • No need to alter the cars wiring harness.
  • I was fairly confident I had the wires but not 100%. With the clip-on interface, no need to worry about hacking-up the electrical in search of the correct pair. Fortunately I got it right the first time thanks in-part to some thoughtful Internet posts.
  • Non-physical interface for measuring signals means no chance of measurement affecting the signal and possibly causing CAN bus errors, which could in-turn affect vehicle operation.

The most obvious place to hook into the CAN signal was near the ECU since the pin-out schematic clearly identifies high and low CAN signals. However, it can also be picked-up of these same wires as they route up through the drivers foot well area near the fuse box. I opted for the latter because in the event of issues down the road, less stuff to need to tear into to diagnose and repair. (I apply this philosophy to all wire placement and routing considerations.)

The CAN bus interface is shown in the figure below and will be discussed in more detail with installation.

CAN bus access can be achieved on the Porsche 997.2 by attaching the VBOX CAN bus interface to the CAN wires routed up near the fuse box. They’re a twisted pair comprised of yellow-white (CAN high) and black-white (CAN low). The clip-on interface clips over the wires so no splicing is required. After closing the shell, I took the added step of securing with two small zip ties to make sure it doesn’t come undone. More details on the CAN bus clip-on interface below so read-on if this is of interest to you.

CAN bus access can be achieved on the Porsche 997.2 by attaching the VBOX CAN bus interface to the CAN wires routed up near the fuse box. They’re a twisted pair comprised of yellow-white (CAN high) and black-white (CAN low). The clip-on interface clips over the wires so no splicing is required. After closing the shell, I took the added step of securing with two small zip ties to make sure it doesn’t come undone. More details on the CAN bus clip-on interface below so read-on if this is of interest to you.

Installation

The bulk of the work involved with the install involved routing a microphone to the rear of the car. It’s a lot of work for just one (1) cable, but worth the effort in my opinion because it’ll return glorious audio tracks as opposed to the all too common wind-buffeting filled tracks heard on the Internet.

This is not a step-by-step guide so I’m only showing the basic flow. If you want to follow similar approach for your specific car, you can get detailed disassembly instructions on the Internet. Installing on a 2011 Porsche 911 GT3RS (997.2) and there was ample amounts of information on forums like Rennlist and Renntech that detailed anything I needed to know. For any Porsche 997 owners reading this, I’ll provide any 997 specific details that are not already amply posted about such as center console removal DIY.

Battery disconnected to prevent drain and shorting while working on the car.

Battery disconnected to prevent drain and shorting while working on the car.

Rear bumper removed for routing microphone to rear of car.

Rear bumper removed for routing microphone to rear of car.

Interior partially gutted (rear-half) to make room for cleanly routing wires to rear of car.

Interior partially gutted (rear-half) to make room for cleanly routing wires to rear of car.

Glove box removed for routing wires in cleanly from behind and into it.

Glove box removed for routing wires in cleanly from behind and into it.

Getting to the back requiring punching through the rear bulkhead. I removed the rubber plug seen at far left by the reflection from rear window which is being shot through. Then I ran some coat hanger into the engine bay to be used for pulling the microphone cable into the car. Observant person may notice rear shock dropped, which is because I also needed to remove the roll bar to gain access.

Getting to the back requiring punching through the rear bulkhead. I removed the rubber plug seen at far left by the reflection from rear window which is being shot through. Then I ran some coat hanger into the engine bay to be used for pulling the microphone cable into the car. Observant person may notice rear shock dropped, which is because I also needed to remove the roll bar to gain access.

Here’s the other end of the coat hanger, which I tape microphone cable to and route it back through the hole shown in previous. If you’re following, don’t forget to re-insert rubber plug and you’ll want to pass the wire through it by cutting a small hole and applying a small amount of Vaseline, wire pull gel, or similar. You can also see my brake pads are getting low.

Here’s the other end of the coat hanger, which I tape microphone cable to and route it back through the hole shown in previous. If you’re following, don’t forget to re-insert rubber plug and you’ll want to pass the wire through it by cutting a small hole and applying a small amount of Vaseline, wire pull gel, or similar. You can also see my brake pads are getting low.

Since the microphone gets routed through the rear bumper, I wanted to guard against the possibility it or its wiring getting damaged by an unsuspecting person working on my car during service, etc. If damaged during bumper removal I only need to replace the small run from the connector back. I used a 6-pin Deutsch DTM connector. For details on this connector and how to crimp, see my Reliable Connections post. Also visible is a stereo microphone input which is in addition to the mono cable. This will allow me to record audio with my Zoom H1 if desired without needing to attach it to the rear bumper as I’ve done in the past. The extra wire will also serve as a spare in the unlikely event the mono cable is damaged.

Since the microphone gets routed through the rear bumper, I wanted to guard against the possibility it or its wiring getting damaged by an unsuspecting person working on my car during service, etc. If damaged during bumper removal I only need to replace the small run from the connector back. I used a 6-pin Deutsch DTM connector. For details on this connector and how to crimp, see my Reliable Connections post. Also visible is a stereo microphone input which is in addition to the mono cable. This will allow me to record audio with my Zoom H1 if desired without needing to attach it to the rear bumper as I’ve done in the past. The extra wire will also serve as a spare in the unlikely event the mono cable is damaged.

Microphone is routed through rear bumper and exits out from behind the license plate support (mount surface). It stays positioned as shown and sandwiched between the bumper cover and support pointing downward towards the exhaust. There'll be no wind noise issues because it's protected from any turbulent flows. I also place it in a plastic Ziploc bag to protect the condenser from any water that might splash in. Microphone is routed through rear bumper and exits out from behind the license plate support (mount surface). It stays positioned as shown and sandwiched between the bumper cover and support pointing downward towards the exhaust. There’ll be no wind noise issues because it’s protected from any turbulent flows. I also place it in a plastic Ziploc bag to protect the condenser from any water that might splash in.

Microphone is routed through rear bumper and exits out from behind the license plate support (mount surface). It stays positioned as shown and sandwiched between the bumper cover and support pointing downward towards the exhaust. There’ll be no wind noise issues because it’s protected from any turbulent flows. I also place it in a plastic Ziploc bag to protect the condenser from any water that might splash in.
Microphone is routed through rear bumper and exits out from behind the license plate support (mount surface). It stays positioned as shown and sandwiched between the bumper cover and support pointing downward towards the exhaust. There’ll be no wind noise issues because it’s protected from any turbulent flows. I also place it in a plastic Ziploc bag to protect the condenser from any water that might splash in.

Wires seen being neatly routed over top of left-rear wheel arc with some racers tape applied. They continue along the doorsill with the rest of the harness and up into the driver’s side foot well area exiting by the fuse box. In addition to the one wire for the VBOX rear mono channel, I also routed a stereo microphone cable to have as a spare and / or for recording using a higher-quality stereo microphone and audio recorder. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Wires seen being neatly routed over top of left-rear wheel arc with some racers tape applied. They continue along the doorsill with the rest of the harness and up into the driver’s side foot well area exiting by the fuse box. In addition to the one wire for the VBOX rear mono channel, I also routed a stereo microphone cable to have as a spare and / or for recording using a higher-quality stereo microphone and audio recorder. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Microphone wires continue their journey alongside factory harness into the dash area. You can see them just to the right of the CAN bus clip-on connector. I wrapped the mono and stereo cables together with some electrical tape to keep them together while routing through behind dash area.

Microphone wires continue their journey alongside factory harness into the dash area. You can see them just to the right of the CAN bus clip-on connector. I wrapped the mono and stereo cables together with some electrical tape to keep them together while routing through behind dash area.

I opted to mount route the wires externally in the pedal box area (microphone wires plus CAN bus clip-on feed wire). I didn’t want to pull the entire dash to get a clean route and ensure out of the way of moving parts (pedals, steering, etc.). You cannot see these unless you get down on your hands and knees to look under. I removed the three screws and routed the zip ties through the gaps in their respective speed nuts. No drilling required.

I opted to mount route the wires externally in the pedal box area (microphone wires plus CAN bus clip-on feed wire). I didn’t want to pull the entire dash to get a clean route and ensure out of the way of moving parts (pedals, steering, etc.). You cannot see these unless you get down on your hands and knees to look under. I removed the three screws and routed the zip ties through the gaps in their respective speed nuts. No drilling required.

After a bit of strategizing about the best route, I opted to go into the glove box through the top. The hole is not visible unless on hands and knees again, and the route selected provides a clean route for the wires with no physical interference. I needed to remove the useless CD storage tray. There are just two screws holding the CD try in place so it can be replaced at a later date if needed. (Does anybody listen to CDs anymore?) I cleanly removed a strip of felt for where the grommet is going to go.

After a bit of strategizing about the best route, I opted to go into the glove box through the top. The hole is not visible unless on hands and knees again, and the route selected provides a clean route for the wires with no physical interference. I needed to remove the useless CD storage tray. There are just two screws holding the CD try in place so it can be replaced at a later date if needed. (Does anybody listen to CDs anymore?) I cleanly removed a strip of felt for where the grommet is going to go.

The grommet ensures that the wires will not get cut on the rough / sharp edges from the hole cut. Probably not necessary since this hole is through plastic, but a good practice and always necessary when going through thin gauge metal.

The grommet ensures that the wires will not get cut on the rough / sharp edges from the hole cut. Probably not necessary since this hole is through plastic, but a good practice and always necessary when going through thin gauge metal.

VBOX shown laying in glove box. Microphone, CAN bus, and rear cameral inputs are routed in through the top. These are fixed inputs that will always stay with the car. The remaining inputs are routed into the box by closing the door on them as they are only used for track days. Photos below illustrate and discuss rational for externally routed inputs.

VBOX shown laying in glove box. Microphone, CAN bus, and rear camera inputs are routed in through the top. These are fixed inputs that will always stay with the car. The remaining inputs are routed into the box by closing the door on them as they are only used for track days. Photos below illustrate and discuss rational for externally routed inputs.

I routed a video extension cable from the rear of the car on through the top of the glove box (grommet from previous photo). This gives me plenty of flexibility in terms of where I mount the rear camera without needing to worry about cable length. Also, should the camera go bad, I don’t need to reroute cable. If you’re reading all this, are you staring to see a theme? This was a fairly big job and I don’t want to have to do it again. If you look closely, you can see the camera input just below the diagonal brace on the roll bar’s main hoop. That it’s hard to see because I can remove the camera on the off season and no visible wires. (Another theme for this install.)

I routed a video extension cable from the rear of the car on through the top of the glove box (grommet from previous photo). This gives me plenty of flexibility in terms of where I mount the rear camera without needing to worry about cable length. Also, should the camera go bad, I don’t need to reroute cable. If you’re reading all this, are you staring to see a theme? This was a fairly big job and I don’t want to have to do it again. If you look closely, you can see the camera input just below the diagonal brace on the roll bar’s main hoop. That it’s hard to see because I can remove the camera on the off season and no visible wires. (Another theme for this install.)

I mounted the rear camera to the roll bar so that it’s position over driver’s right shoulder and aimed down towards driver’s footwell. This will give a clear view of my inputs while driving. I really like the camera mount (yellow). It’s plastic so it does not scratch the bar and can be easily slid and rotated into position. I’m probably going to paint it black so it blends in with the bar and interior, although it’s hard to see from outside the car.

I mounted the rear camera to the roll bar so that it’s position over driver’s right shoulder and aimed down towards driver’s footwell. This will give a clear view of my inputs while driving. I really like the camera mount (yellow). It’s plastic so it does not scratch the bar and can be easily slid and rotated into position. I’m probably going to paint it black so it blends in with the bar and interior, although it’s hard to see from outside the car.

Cabin microphone is routed through top of glove box (grommet) and behind dash area, exiting as shown sandwiched between the trim pieces. You can see the front of the condenser microphone at the lower left corner of the air vent. Since the microphone is facing aftward I expect minimal wind buffeting. You can see small section of wire also showing though which I easily pushed back out of view after taking this photo.

Cabin microphone is routed through top of glove box (grommet) and behind dash area, exiting as shown sandwiched between the trim pieces. You can see the front of the condenser microphone at the lower left corner of the air vent. Since the microphone is facing aftward I expect minimal wind buffeting. You can see small section of wire also showing though which I easily pushed back out of view after taking this photo.

Forward facing camera is mounted to the inside of the front windshield. I chose to route this wire externally because I will only keep this camera mounted on track days. It also affords me a lot of flexibility in terms of placement (e.g., perhaps outside the car instead). I recommend mounting behind windshield because I lost 4 or 5 sessions worth of video last year due to bugs going splat on my externally mounted Go Pro. If a bug goes splat in front of the camera behind the windshield at least you’ll see it and clean your windshield.

Forward facing camera is mounted to the inside of the front windshield. I chose to route this wire externally because I will only keep this camera mounted on track days. It also affords me a lot of flexibility in terms of placement (e.g., perhaps outside the car instead). I recommend mounting behind windshield because I lost 4 or 5 sessions worth of video last year due to bugs going splat on my externally mounted Go Pro. If a bug goes splat in front of the camera behind the windshield at least you’ll see it and clean your windshield.

The bullet camera is attached to the front windshield using three suction mounts. The mount feels very secure and the bullet camera is very light so I’m confident that there’s be no issues with the mound coming loose.

The bullet camera is attached to the front windshield using three suction mounts. The mount feels very secure and the bullet camera is very light so I’m confident that there’s be no issues with the mound coming loose.

One more photo of front facing camera with wire routed into glove box. I just close the box on the wire. At the end of the track day, just release camera from windshield and store in the glove box with cable alongside the other equipment.

One more photo of front facing camera with wire routed into glove box. I just close the box on the wire. At the end of the track day, just release camera from windshield and store in the glove box with cable alongside the other equipment.

I mounted the GPS antenna on the rooftop as shown. It has a magnetic base but I also secure with racers tape which also serves to keep the cable neat as it routes to the front of the car. I mounted toward the back where the roofline is lowest to minimize aero forces wanting to push it off. The combo of magnetic base with cable acting as opposing force should keep the antenna fixed in place. For the tracks I visit top speeds approach 160MPH so acting forces needed to be considered.

I mounted the GPS antenna on the rooftop as shown. It has a magnetic base but I also secure with racers tape which also serves to keep the cable neat as it routes to the front of the car. I mounted toward the back where the roofline is lowest to minimize aero forces wanting to push it off. The combo of magnetic base with cable acting as opposing force should keep the antenna fixed in place. For the tracks I visit top speeds approach 160MPH so acting forces needed to be considered.

The GPS antenna cable enters into car a top of A-pillar and is tucked into weather stripping on its journey downward.

The GPS antenna cable enters into car a top of A-pillar and is tucked into weather stripping on its journey downward.

Finally, the GPS antenna cable is routed into the glove box. Just like the front facing camera, it’s only for track days so wrap-up and stow in glove box when using car for daily driving. Also, I expect that the antenna will get lost or damaged occasionally since it’s an external mount so I didn’t want to get fancy with how the wire was routed like I did with the microphone and other fixed inputs.

Finally, the GPS antenna cable is routed into the glove box. Just like the front facing camera, it’s only for track days so wrap-up and stow in glove box when using car for daily driving. Also, I expect that the antenna will get lost or damaged occasionally since it’s an external mount so I didn’t want to get fancy with how the wire was routed like I did with the microphone and other fixed inputs.

Finally, power is supplied using the 12v auxiliary power receptacle located in the passenger footwell area. It’s also right underneath the glove box where the VBOX unit is located so it’s a super short run. This receptacle is always powered (even while ignition is off) so I don’t need to worry about cutting power while VBOX is still saving data. I wanted to minimize any modification to the car so I chose not to tie into the fusebox or splice into wires. I’m probably going to add an inline on/off switch so I can reach over to power on / off the unit without needing to get out of the car.

Finally, power is supplied using the 12v auxiliary power receptacle located in the passenger footwell area. It’s also right underneath the glove box where the VBOX unit is located so it’s a super short run. This receptacle is always powered (even while ignition is off) so I don’t need to worry about cutting power while VBOX is still saving data. I wanted to minimize any modification to the car so I chose not to tie into the fusebox or splice into wires. I’m probably going to add an inline on/off switch so I can reach over to power on / off the unit without needing to get out of the car.

CAN bus interface

A CAN interface is optional. Without it you’ll get the basics like video, audio, vehicle speed, g-forces, track mapping, lap timing. With it you can get a whole lot more data. What you get depends on your car. For my car (997.2 Porsche), I can get at:

  • Lights on / off
  • Reverse engagement
  • Engine RPM
  • Throttle position
  • Parking brake engagement
  • Road speed
  • Brake position
  • Steering direction
  • Steering angle
  • Wheel speed (RR)
  • Wheel speed (RL)
  • Wheel speed (FR)
  • Wheel speed (FL)
  • Clutch engagement
  • Water temperature 1
  • Water temperature 2
  • Oil pressure
  • Oil temperature
  • Boost (my car is NA so does not apply)
  • Gear selection

The VBOX lite only allows up to 4 CAN channels at a time, with the option to purchase up to 4 more for a total of 8 (purchased individually). I’m going to start with throttle position, steering angle, brake position, and gear selection. I’ll probably also purchase 1 extra for oil pressure.

With the VBOX unit you can get an unterminated CAN cable and wire directly into your system. But they also sell a clip-on interface that eliminates the need for splicing. It also guards against the VBOX system incidentally introducing any CAN signals onto your system’s CAN bus. I opted for the clip-on interface.

CAN bus clip-on interface and installation

If you’re using the CAN bus clip-on interface or if you have a Porsche 997 you may find this section useful if interfacing with your vehicle’s CAN bus.

I opted to access the CAN bus wires located in the driver’s side footwell area. This is not the only location but it’s an easy location to get at and therefore a good choice. Here’s the loom (forefront) containing the CAN wires. You can see the fusebox in the background. Just remove the three screws behind the fusebox cover and the left trim panel exposes these wires comes right out.

I opted to access the CAN bus wires located in the driver’s side footwell area. This is not the only location but it’s an easy location to get at and therefore a good choice. Here’s the loom (forefront) containing the CAN wires. You can see the fusebox in the background. Just remove the three screws behind the fusebox cover and the left trim panel exposes these wires comes right out.

CAN transmits data in an electrically noisy environment, so the wires are a twisted pair to reduce signal noise just like Ethernet cable. For my car, CAN high is yellow-white, and CAN low is black white, so the combination of these colors plus twisted means these are almost certainly our wires. Thanks goes out to others who posted similar details elsewhere which helped me zero in quickly. I pulled back some of the loom wrap to clear the path for the clip-on interface.

CAN transmits data in an electrically noisy environment, so the wires are a twisted pair to reduce signal noise just like Ethernet cable. For my car, CAN high is yellow-white, and CAN low is black white, so the combination of these colors plus twisted means these are almost certainly our wires. Thanks goes out to others who posted similar details elsewhere which helped me zero in quickly. I pulled back some of the loom wrap to clear the path for the clip-on interface.

In order to route the CAN wires through the CAN clip-on interface, I needed to untwist a section of the wire. Don’t untwist more than you need to because they’re twisted for a reason (as discussed above). CAN bus spec allows for up to appox. 2″ untwisted (I forget where I read exact length but I’m close). Cutting the wire to untwist obviously negates the primary benefit of using the clip-on interface so don’t do that. It requires a little bit of finesse to push the twists back. Just use your common sense and exercise some patience.

In order to route the CAN wires through the CAN clip-on interface, I needed to untwist a section of the wire. Don’t untwist more than you need to because they’re twisted for a reason (as discussed above). CAN bus spec allows for up to appox. 2″ untwisted (I forget where I read exact length but I’m close). Cutting the wire to untwist obviously negates the primary benefit of using the clip-on interface so don’t do that. It requires a little bit of finesse to push the twists back. Just use your common sense and exercise some patience.

Shown here is the clip-on interface with wires positioned incorrectly to make sure anybody reading this gets it right. See discussion that follows directly below for details. This wires run along the circuit board where the signals are sensed and reported back to the VBOX unit. It’s a clamshell design with the two-halves snapping into place. I used zip ties as shown earlier in the post to secure shut. Again, probably not necessary but it cost me nothing.

Shown here is the clip-on interface with wires positioned incorrectly to make sure anybody reading this gets it right. See discussion that follows directly below for details. This wires run along the circuit board where the signals are sensed and reported back to the VBOX unit. It’s a clamshell design with the two-halves snapping into place. I used zip ties as shown earlier in the post to secure shut. Again, probably not necessary but it cost me nothing.

The clip-on interface came with no instructions and it was immediately ambiguous to me regarding how to position the wires. The correct way in my non-humble opinion is to position the wires so that the surface area labeled CAN_H comes into contact with the CAN high wire when the shell halves are snapped together. However, some companies in an effort to make things easier for people outsmart themselves and just end-up making things more confusing. So I wondered did they mean for the upper half to read like a map for positioning the wires into the bottom as viewed during installation? Certainly, I’m thinking too hard about this but I did some checking after finding no documentation online and came across the promotion video for the interface showing the latter (reads like a map). Turns out the promotion video gets it wrong. (For BMW, which is the car used, CAN high is red-blue, and CAN low is red).

I contacted Racelogic support for clarification and they responded as follows (option1 is having the CAN high wire in contact with the surface area labeled CAN_H):

As for the ambiguity issue you are correct in thinking option 1 is correct. As we have had this question before I have contacted the developers of this and they are aware of this issue and are working on a new version that can be used either way round. Although we will have to make do with sticking to option 1 for now.

Also my opinion, I think they could save themselves some engineering investment and simply include a small piece of paper with the clip-on interface showing proper usage since it’s otherwise self-explanatory.

Also complicating my install was that VBOX sent me a clip-in interface for one of their higher-end (not VBOX Lite) which accepts a different style connector. Shown below is the other end of the cable for the interface I received, where as it should look like a PS2 connector from the outside. This added 1 week to my install while I waited on the part because it needed to be shipped from the UK. (Would have been longer if I didn’t foot the bill for overnight express which VBOXUSA was unwilling to do, so make sure you emphasize having them fulfill the order correctly for your system if ordering a VBOX CAN interface.)

Shown here is the connector end for the clip-on interface sent, which was incorrect for my model (VBOX Lite). VBOX uses a higher-end, more expensive connector style on their higher-end products as shown here. Make sure VBOX sends your the correct connector for your system when ordering to avoid the added delays and costs that I ran into.

Shown here is the connector end for the clip-on interface sent, which was incorrect for my model (VBOX Lite). VBOX uses a higher-end, more expensive connector style on their higher-end products as shown here. Make sure VBOX sends your the correct connector for your system when ordering to avoid the added delays and costs that I ran into.

Setup and Configuration

I’ve only just started to play with configuring my VBOX system. Except for reading the CAN data, everything was plug-and-play simple. Getting to where I could read the CAN data for my car took a little help from VBOX. Not getting anything at first begged the question if installation error or software configuration issue. I was very confident I had correct CAN wires and support clarified proper usage of the clip-on interface so either an issue with the clip-on interface itself or software configuration was my thought.

The issue turned out to be software configuration. VBOXUSA sent me a scene file for my car which had VBOX reading the CAN data; something I was unable to do using the CAN database file for the 997.2 Porsche. Different cars differ in how they use CAN to send data so you need  model specific information which VBOX provides via their online vehicle CAN database. The database returns a file that gets read into the scene file loaded onto the VBOX telling it how to interpret the CAN signals.

The only other thing I needed to do to get the system ready for my initial (and successful) road test was aim the cameras. I purchased a small display that plugs into the AUX port on the VBOX and shows video in read-time. This makes setting up the cameras super easy. Just hold display in hand while adjusting each camera to desired position. The following figure is a photograph of the display screen:

I purchased a small external display so I can easily configure cameras at the track. The display shows video output in real-time and incudes a long cable so you can move about and see changes to cameras as they’re made. This can be achieved with software configuration app running on laptop as well, so this is a nice-to-have and not a must.

I purchased a small external display so I can easily configure cameras at the track. The display shows video output in real-time and incudes a long cable so you can move about and see changes to cameras as they’re made. This can be achieved with software configuration app running on laptop as well, so this is a nice-to-have and not a must.

Shakedown Cruise

Video showing trial run of system. This is with only minimal configuration so only minimal data is displayed and the brake pressure gauge needs reconfiguration. Goal of this drive was to simply check out video quality, confirm GPS working, etc. Just the basics.

Powder coating versus painting aluminum wheels

I recently purchased a car that came with factory painted red wheels. Not my taste but I wasn’t going to let that stand between me and an otherwise perfect car. The Internet told me I should powder coat the wheels because it results in a more durable finish, but I did some research — and thinking — and arrived at least two potential pitfalls of powder coating.

  1. It’s difficult to get an exact color match with powder coating and consistency in color from wheel-to-wheel can also be difficult to achieve. Something to consider in the wheel color is part of a larger color scheme, as was the case for me.
  2. The process requires that heat be applied to the wheels when applied in order to make the powder flow. This can affect the heat-treatment process used to strengthen the wheel by the manufacture if care is not exercised in conjunction with knowledge of the wheels metallurgical properties and heat treatment process. In other words, by powder coating wheels you run the risk of weakening your wheels.

Still not 100% convinced that painting was the way to go, I called a powder coater in my area who specializes in wheels. I expected them to defend powder coating making thereby making my decision more difficult, but the opposite was true. Below are some quotes from the person I spoke to:

“I’ve heard from different people that powder is not good. I have heard from more people that it is fine. We have powder coated tens of thousands of wheels and have never had any issue with integrity.”

This was hardly a confidence inspiring answer. No engineering and he’s basically saying he doesn’t know.

“Color is the other challenge. Powder silver is usually darker than painted silver. We have tried a number of silvers and have yet to find one that duplicates factory paint.”

My issue with the first comment is that like any structural component, engineers design in safety factor (often a factor of 2x). Thus, I can accept that he has powder coated thousands of wheels with nary an issue. But this is only as observed or reported. If all or most of his customers are unaware that power coating could affect wheel strength (not obvious) then they’d be unlikely to report it in the event of failure. Moreover, the wheel may never fail but if made weaker the customer would never know it.

That none of the local power coaters I contacted were able instill confidence that they had an adequate handle on the engineering consequences of powder coating an aluminum wheel, or at least acknowledge its implications and offer a manufacturer approved process was enough for me to paint. The power coat option simply left too much to chance.

Regarding durability of paint, the shop that did my wheels (Queen City Auto Rebuild, Redmond, WA) claims excellent durability of finish and resistance to chips. Also, my wheels came painted from the factory so if good enough for Porsche, good enough for me. (Ed. note: after over 1 year, paint continues to hold up very well w/ no issues in discoloration or chipping.)

Finally, while not required, I had my wheels stripped down as opposed to having the red painted over. It cost a little extra, but in case of a chip or curbed wheel I didn’t want red showing through. Getting the red paint removed proved to be stubborn so Queen City needed to send them out for a mild bead blast. The stated issues with wheels pitting badly when bead blasted in the past so first attempted chemical only. When that was not sufficient, they sought out a blaster when a more wheel-friendly media so that they didn’t pit. Workmanship was excellent and the wheels looks factory quality.

End result, after having wheels painted silver.

End result, after having wheels painted silver. [Ed. After 4 years, the paint has held up well, even with track use. I’m glad I opted to have the original red paint stripped off as opposed to painted over because there are some chips in areas, which would have resulted in red bleeding through. Instead the aluminum material shows through which only slightly contrasts with the silver paint.]