One of the easiest and cheapest modifications a racer can make to his or her vehicle to try to find more performance and speed is by changing alignment settings; simply adjusting camber, caster and toe can radically improve a car’s handling ability. What a normal road car that is traveling down the freeway trying to get 30,000 miles out of a set of tires requires in alignment settings is very different from what a race car trying to get 100 miles out of a set of tires needs.
Conversely, racers understand there is a lot to be gained in alignment so they change their settings quite often. But towing a race car to an alignment shop during business hours and convincing the technicians there to set the car at unorthodox racetrack alignment settings is often a challenge.
What would be much easier for racers is to have a simple portable alignment system that provides repeatable results they can use in their own shop and at the race track. Craig Watkins, working on his own Porsche race car, thought the same thing. Out of necessity he built Smart Strings and Smart Camber so he could align his own car. Then he made these tools available to everyone.
Craig Watkins is not your typical weekend racer. He is an engineer by trade and was formerly the chief engineer for Flying Lizard Motorsports. Using his Watkins Smart Racing Products tools he aligned the Flying Lizard Porsches to be fastest enough to earn a pole position at Le Mans and a victory at Daytona.
Before he was engineering race cars at Le Mans, Craig was a desert racer competing in Baja. There he met fellow Baja racer Robby Gordon. Robby was also racing Indy cars at the time and Craig went to hang out with him at Laguna Seca for an Indy car race. There Craig saw Robby’s team using strings to align the Indy car before the race. Craig said, “It was so simple, it made sense.” Craig went home and designed Smart Strings.
Double Nickel Nine Motorsports uses Craig’s tools exclusively on their National Champion NASA Honda Challenge cars. We are going to go through step by step how to use the tools to set an accurate performance alignment.
Our recommendation is to find a nice flat surface with good lighting to begin your alignment. We like to keep things as accurate as possible so we weight the car as if the driver was sitting inside it. We can either do that by having a driver sit in the seat (a very boring job) or add weight to the seat to replicate the driver.
A Few Extra Items
In addition to what comes in the box, we suggest few other items to help with your alignment: two fishing line reels, sidewalk chalk, a yard stick, a degree wheel, a small aluminum measuring tool (in millimeters), a flat plane, and wheel center caps.
Order of Operations
When doing an alignment one setting usually affects another setting. For example camber and caster can affect toe settings. For this reason when doing alignments there is a specific order of operations:
There have been some really informative articles here at TURNology about what camber is. Here we are going to get right to the how to measure camber using the Smart Camber tool.
Camber settings, in my opinion, are the most beneficial in terms of cornering speed and grip. The next setting to measure and adjust in our order of operations is caster.
What caster is was covered well in TURNology before. Here is how to measure it using the Smart Camber tool.
For our road racing cars we try to dial in as much positive caster as the vehicle will allow us to. With positive caster the steering wheel tends to self-center while going down the track. We were able to get 5.1 degrees of positive caster on the left front (maxed out). The goal then is to get the right front at the same number. If caster is off between the left and right front sides, the car will start to wander under braking. To keep braking nice and straight we work hard to get our caster equal between both sides, even if it means dialing in a little less positive caster, so the two sides are the same.
Once our camber and caster are set it’s time to move on to toe settings. Toe is the direction the tires are pointed from longitudinal center when the steering wheel is centered straight. For a road-racing set-up on a front wheel drive car, we like toe-out (tires turned out) in the front and the rear. For a rear wheel drive car we like toe-out in the front and toe-in (tires turned in) in the rear.
The Smart Strings take a little practice in setting up on a car the first time. But after a while they get easier and easier to use. Using white boards on the wall of the shop is a very simple way to quickly track how your adjustments are changing the whole car.
To see how good Smart Racing Products alignment tools were we decided to align a car and then take it to a reputable alignment shop and compare the strings against the computer.
One of the advantages to using Smart Camber and Smart Strings is you can use them at the track. These tools are very portable (pro tip: buy the carrying bag for the tools –sold separately) and you can make adjustments in the paddock.
For Double Nickel Nine Motorsports not only do we complete our own alignments at the shop with Smart Racing Products tools we verify our settings pre- and post-session at the track. This has proven to be extremely beneficial to our team.
At our last Honda Challenge race I was qualifying and the car suddenly wouldn’t allow me to go full throttle through Riverside corner (a long high speed banked curve at Buttonwillow Raceway). I was radioing in to my spotter the car wasn’t handling right. He confirmed my suspicions based on my qualifying time of 2:04.364 which put me in P4, row two. This was an unacceptable result for our team, who is used to being on the front row. I brought the car in and we immediately set up Smart Strings on the car.
We only had an hour between qualifying and the race. There was no time to put the car on a trailer and tow it to an alignment shop (not that we would find one open on a Sunday). Luckily we brought our Smart Racing Products tools. What we found after we had the car set up with the strings was that my left rear toe was off and my left rear camber was off. This made sense based on the fact I couldn’t go flat through a right hand curve (putting a lot of load on the left rear tire). The setting probably changed after bouncing off of the curbing at Buttonwillow. We made the adjustments we needed and made it to grid just in time for the race. During the race, after just small adjustments to the left rear wheel using our alignment tools, I broke the Honda Challenge 4 class track record at Buttonwillow with a lap time of 2:04.076. I also won the race all thanks to Craig Watkins and his tools.
Long story short, we will never have to rely on an alignment shop again.