Watkins Glen poses unique challenges.

This week at Watkins Glen we step into unfamiliar territory for most oval drivers, as road courses present a particular set of challenges for both the driver and the crew chief. The NASCAR course at Watkins consists of nine turns (eleven counting each turn in the Inner Loop) varying in altitude, banking and sharpness. The crew chief will have to be prepared to setup the car allowing for a balance between stability and acceleration while the driver will have to maintain consistency, practice patience and be mindful of gear selection.

The method for setting up your car for road courses may seem to be completely different from the thinking used to setup a car for ovals; however the laws of physics and how they relate to making changes in the chassis remain somewhat similar.  When setting up a car for ovals you are tuning the chassis to be biased towards the left side in an effort to assist the car through the turns. Whereas this week we are working with an almost “neutral” setup designed to deal with multiple types of corners. While the thinking is different, there are similar adjustments that will provide predictable results in both cases.

Adjustments which normally affect the cross weight evenly from back to front will have the typical effects you might normally expect. For example: moving the weight forward will still tighten the car, while moving it back will loosen the car. Lowering or increasing the stagger of the springs towards the front of the car will tighten the car on exit and loosen the car on entry, while increasing the stagger towards the rear will have the opposite effect.

A strategy commonly used when setting up a car for a road course is to tailor the setup for what are considered the “critical” turns.  While the common thought would be to make adjustments equally in an effort to maintain close to a neutral setup, small changes can be made to give us an edge rotating through our most critical corners and providing a little extra speed coming off the exit of the turns approaching the straights.

“Practice promotes consistency, consistency promotes perfection and being consistent . . .”

The stock setup attempts to accomplish this task by adding toe-in to the left front. While only 1/32nd of an inch difference this causes the car to plow on the straights and makes the car unpredictably loose through the Inner Loop. Evening the toe to 1/32nd on both sides reduces the feeling of misalignment and allows us to use other adjustments such as weight distribution and chassis adjustments, combined with proper gear selection, to control the rear of the car to our liking.

Normally on an oval track we would select a rear gear ratio that allows us to operate within the optimal operating rpms of the engine without reaching a point where damage might occur. On road courses, being overly aggressive on the rear gear can produce a large amount of torque to the rear wheels, increasing the chance of spinning the tires and making the car feel loose under acceleration. Some drivers can use this to their advantage “throttling” through the turns, on the edge of drifting the car, while others may find that selecting a lower gear ratio may help the car feel more stable under acceleration.

On the topic of gear selection, another common practice for road course drivers who are new to a track will be to print out a “track map” of the course, using a pen or highlighter to actually write their preferred gear for each turn on their map. This reinforces not only the visual memory of the gear for each turn but after a few laps will combine with muscle memory to assist the driver subconsciously, especially in a crowd.

Perhaps the most important spot you may can work on to improve your finish this week will be in the driver’s seat. Practice promotes consistency, consistency promotes perfection and being consistent, or as close as possible over all eleven turns for forty-five laps of sim racing will more than likely be the difference between a top ten and a trip on the back of a tow truck.

Good Luck and God Speed!

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