Crew chief Tom Hughs explains to Nick Patterson how certain adjustments effect the back end of the car on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Crew chief Tom Hughs explains to Nick Patterson how certain adjustments effect the back end of the car on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Non gear head gets crash course in setting up a race car

Herald writer Nick Patterson finds out why ‘setup’ is such a big deal for race-car drivers.

I have a confession.

I’ve been writing about auto racing for years, ever since 2000 when I was working for the Skagit Valley Herald and got conscripted into covering the weekly sprint car races at Skagit Speedway. During that time I’ve quoted many a driver talking about car setup and how it played a key role in victory or defeat.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a car guy. Every time I wrote about setup I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had the vague idea that setup affected performance, that it could impact whether a car was “loose” or “tight.” But I had no idea what all was involved in setting up the car, nor the specific effects a change in setup caused.

Therefore, in advance of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West arriving at Monroe’s Evergreen Speedway on Saturday night for the NAPA K&N 175, I decided it was time to find out.

On Tuesday evening Tom Hughs, the crew chief for driver Doni Wanat, who’s currently in third place in the Evergreen Speedway Super Late Models points standings, was generous enough to have me out to the team’s Woodinville garage to get a crash course in car setup.

What ensued was a 45-minute classroom session during which I pretended to understand what Hughs was saying. There were a lot of nods and affirmative responses from me, while inside my head my brain was performing a perpetual loop of Simone Biles triple-doubles just trying to get some semblance of grasp on the subject.

For his part, Hughs was a kind teacher. He was patient, made things as simple as possible, and although I suspect he recognized that some of my positive responses were less an indication of comprehension than they were panicked posturing, he never let on.

Anyway, the first thing I asked Hughes was to define setup:

“It’s really simple and really complicated,” Hughs replied. “The simple part is on a race car, the only four things that touch the track are the tires. So you have to get the tires to work equally, your whole goal is to get all four tires to carry an equal load. That’s what the setup does.”

That part I understood. Hughs went on to explain that the majority of setup takes place in the garage in the lead-up to the race, rather than at the track itself. He then showed me a laminated sheet of paper that listed all the steps — about 40 total, covering the entire front and back of the sheet — the crew takes to get the car set up. In-season the process typically takes about three hours.

Hughs said the most important aspect of getting the right load on the tires is weight distribution. Because Super Late Models race on ovals, they are always turning left. Therefore, the car needs greater weight on the left side, which is on the track’s inside, with the distribution approaching 58%. There was further discussion about getting the right weight distribution from front to back, as well as diagonally.

Crew chief Tom Hughs explains tire temperature and what kind of wear they look for on the front tires on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Crew chief Tom Hughs explains tire temperature and what kind of wear they look for on the front tires on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

There are several methods for adjusting the weight distribution, from repositioning lead weight blocks attached to the bottom of the chassis, to making adjustments to the car’s shock absorbers.

“You do it, you check the scales, you do it again, you check the scales. It’s just repetitive,” Hughs explained.

“OK, yeah,” I replied. By which I really meant, “Umm, maybe?”

Once the weight is right, I was told the next step is measuring the angles of the mounting points on the car’s suspension. Why?

“As the suspension moves, compression causes the rear end to get longer, and that will actually steer the rear end of the car as it goes through a corner,” Hughs explained.

I nodded my head, not for any particular reason.

Crew chief Tom Hughs (left) identifies different areas of the engine to Nick Patterson on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Crew chief Tom Hughs (left) identifies different areas of the engine to Nick Patterson on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ah, we’d reached the “tight” and “loose” portion of the program. I’ve listened to drivers talk a lot about their car being either tight or loose. Hughs explained that when a car is tight, the front end of the car wants to turn less. When a car is loose, the back end wants to turn more. Different drivers prefer different levels of tightness or looseness, so various bolts and bars are cranked to create the desired amount of tightness or looseness.

What about at the track? I’ve conducted interviews where drivers talked about changing the setup mid-race. Hughs said that while not all aspects of setup can be adjusted at the track, a lot of them can, and the way the crew can determine how things need to be adjusted is based on tire temperature. Hughs asked me if I’d ever seen people taking tire temperatures at the track.

“No,” and this time I was being honest.

Hughs explained how immediately following laps on the track, either for practice or for qualifying, the crew takes the temperature on the surface of each tire in three spots along the width of the tire. For the rear tires, the temperature should be the same in all three spots, indicating equal use on every part of the tire. For the front tires, because the tire is digging into the track while turning left, the left side of the tire should be 20-30 degrees hotter than the outside.

If those temperatures are off, the team can make adjustments to tire pressure, the camber (tilt) of the wheels, or make small wrench adjustments on things like the shocks or the sway bar to get those tires back functioning at optimum efficiency.

Tom Hughs (left) and Nick Patterson talk under on one of the cars in the garage on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tom Hughs (left) and Nick Patterson talk under on one of the cars in the garage on Aug. 13, 2019 in Woodinville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Gotcha.” Well, actually, I don’t.

Throughout the session Hughs regularly referred to the notes, which took up most of the pages in a little black book. Almost all of those notes consisted of numbers, and Hughs explained how setup has changed drastically in the past 15 years. In the past, a lot of setup was about how the car felt to the driver. Now it’s much more about having the correct measurements. Technology improvements allow for more accurate measurements, and that’s taken what used to be an art and turned it more into a science.

Just as we were wrapping up, Wanat walked into the garage, which gave me the opportunity to ask him about the importance of setup from a driver’s perspective:

“It’s huge,” Wanat said. “I came from the world of motorcycles, where it’s maybe 80% rider, 20% machine. This is like the opposite. So many people put stock in, ‘Oh, this guy is such a good driver.’ But if you don’t have a good car, you’re never going to do well. As a driver you may be able to get that last 10% out of the car, but your car has to be set up right.”

When we were done I thanked Hughs and Wanat profusely for their willingness to give a novice a chance to learn more about car setup. While I may not have absorbed many of the details about the mechanics involved, I did feel I came away with a better general understanding of what setup is all about. I may even be able to ask more intelligent questions the next time a driver starts talking about the impact a car’s setup had on the race.

However, I suggest you not allow me to fiddle with your car in any meaningful manner. I may be nodding my head, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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