Q&A With Our Race Experts: Tuning and Maintenance Tips
As preparation for this years' race season shifts into high gear, we asked a few of our own racers for some tips, tricks, and advice on what it takes to put together a successful season. That means now, during the offseason, as well as throughout the racing season. We sat down with a few of them to learn what it takes to end up at the front of the pack.
First, we asked Zach Woods from Speedway Motors Racing Engines for some best practices on engine storage and maintenance. Here’s what he had to say about keeping your engine running its best and protecting the most expensive part of your race car.
“So I think it would make more sense to explain putting it into hibernation first. On a dirt track engine that runs on gas, I pull the spark plugs out, take the carburetor off, and just spin the motor over spraying WD 40 down the intake to just coat everything. You can leave the oil in it all winter.
Then, remove your entire fuel system. Even on gas, it helps to clean your fuel lines out right away at the beginning of your off season. Clean them all out, then put Marvel Mystery Oil in the fuel pump. It helps keep the diaphragms and everything from drying out, your fittings from getting tight and just everything will shrink up as it dries.
And that's basically all you really need to do. Keep it covered up, keep it in a climate controlled area if possible, you don't want to get hot and cold. While not 100% necessary, it’s not a terrible idea to go out and turn the motor 90 degrees every couple weeks, once a month, or whatever, just to keep the oil on the cylinders. Especially if it’s not in climate-controlled storage. The hot and the cold will cause condensation in the cylinders and rust over time. If you can keep things moving and oiled up, it's a better option.
It used to be widely known to back all the rockers off so the valve springs weren't open. Although that’s not a terrible idea because it has all the valves closed so things aren't getting in, we've learned that it doesn't have an effect on the valve spring. If the valve spring is kept open for an extended period of time, it's not that pressure kills it, it's repetition and heat. So you don’t need to worry if you forgot to back your rockers off.
Then, when you wake it back up come springtime, I would dump all the oil out of it and put fresh oil and a filter on it. Then depending on your oil system, say if it's a wet sump engine, you could go as far as removing the distributor to prime the oil again. Or what a lot of guys do is just spin the motor over with no ignition power, whether that's a switch or removing the coil wire, then just spin it over until you get oil pressure with no spark plugs in it. Then put the spark plugs back in prime the fuel system.
When it starts, get the RPMs up, you know, 2,500 or so right away and let it just sit there with no load on it and build some temperature. Let it get oil everywhere. If it’s a flat tappet, get the lifters spinning with no load on it so everything can just mellow back out. Then, you’re ready to go.”
“The only real differences are that right away after your last race, you need to make sure that all the alcohol is out of everything, including the cylinders. Spin the motor over, blowing air in all the cylinders, to make sure it's out there. It will etch the cylinders terribly if it sits in them. You also need to blow it out of every fuel line. You can put some gas in there to flush it out, but then go back in with some Marvel Mystery Oil. The Marvel really helps stabilize the methanol. Go through the fuel pump, fuel lines, and blow everything dry.
When it’s time to get ready for the season on a sprint car application, I have guys remove the spark plugs, push the car until you have good oil pressure come up, then put your plugs in it again, and fire the motor off as you normally would.
It’s important to check for fuel leaks before you go to the racetrack. Very commonly on a sprint car, any of your bypasses or fuel pump will dry up and you'll have a leak. It’s very common to have an O-ring you need to replace.”
“On any motors that are racing, I would put on a fresh air cleaner nightly. The most damage we see on engines that wear them out are on the intake valves and in the cylinders from the rings being worn out from dirt getting past the air cleaners. If you run a paper filter, just throw it away every night. If you want to run a washable deal, I suggest you have two and you put a clean one on over the weekend, since when you wash them, they need to dry before you oil them again. So, however many times you race in a weekend, you need to at least have a dry, clean air cleaner on every night. Also make sure you keep an eye on the air cleaner bases and tops. Make sure that they're sealing up and no dirt's getting in the motor.
On a car with a solid cam, I run the valves every single night. Check the valve springs and keep a note of what the valve spring pressures are. If I had to adjust lash on any cylinder, intake or exhaust, make a note of that too. That way you can follow it and communicate that with your engine builder.
On a hydraulic cam, it's not a bad idea to go in and just take the valve covers off, check that all the poly locks are tight. Look at the valve springs and check valve spring pressure. Nothing should be moving. It's not like you need to keep up on your adjustments, but you're looking for early stages of a failure before it happens at 8,000 rpm and drops a valve or breaks the spring and causes you the loss of an engine and a DNF in a race that you paid for and didn't get a finish.
I also cut an oil filter every night. Oil filters are relatively cheap compared to racing and engines in general. So, every night take an oil filter off, cut it, inspect it, make sure everything's good, throw it away, fill a new oil filter with oil, and screw it back on. While it can vary depending on the type of oil you’re running, I like to change the oil every four to five nights on gas engines. On alcohol motors, depending on the oil, change it every two to four nights. The methanol causes the oil to break down faster, and you’re going to have more blow-by with methanol as well.
On a 360 or 410 sprint car or an all-aluminum late model engine, you're talking an expensive engine that's running at high rpm. On these engines, I also do a cylinder leak down every night to make sure we didn't bend a valve, scuff a piston, pinch a ring, or something like that. But that's not something you would do on a crate motor or on a sport mod or stock car type engine. That's just not necessary unless you suspect an issue.
I recommend changing your spark plug wires every year. Spark plugs are a consumable product that I change based on visual inspection. Anytime it's hard to read what is happening to the engine, when they get black or gray and they won't be changing per the tune of the engine anymore and you can't tell what's going on, then it's time to get rid of them and put new plugs in.
One last thing to point out is that if you get in a crash and get upside down or if your motor gets extremely hot, it’s time to change the oil. If the water temperature got to 300 degrees, your oil temperature was probably 350. It's junk. Throw it away. When you get upside down, raw fuel is going to be in your oil when they flip it back over. If you’re in a crash, change the oil. Guys are worried about fixing the race car and forget about the engine, which is the most expensive part on the car.”
Next, we talked to Kyle Vanover, Jake Bubak, and Tyler Perry about putting together a solid car, whether it’s a new car for this season or maintenance and freshening of an older one. While the nut and bolt specifics will vary widely from one type of car to the next, there’s some great wisdom here about diligence and being prepared for anything.
KV: “I've seen too many people kind of halfway start on a task, then move on to something else, then move on to something else, and kind of bounce around. I try to focus on each task. If I'm tightening a bolt or assembling something, I make sure it’s done before moving on. Otherwise, you get to the track and realize that you didn't finish a couple of jobs here and there and it’s too late. In general, I guess I always kind of treat it like I’m building a street rod, try to make it look as nice as possible. Everything's painted and cleaned up. Make it as nice as possible so you can go destroy it later!”
TP: “The most important thing to remember, whether it’s a new car or and old one, is that this is your time to have everything tore down and checked out. Take the rearend out of the car. Take the steering gear out of the car. It's paramount to me that you check your steering gear. Send your power steering pump off to be gone through. If it doesn't need anything, then it doesn't need anything, but I like to start every April knowing every single thing on the car is at 100% of its potential. I'm never going to let a failure that could have been handled beforehand take us out of a race.
This really this is your best time to check over everything on the car. Check every measurement on thecar. Lay it flat on the concrete and make sure it sits nice and that one corner's not bent up or down. There are a lot of things you can run into now before you start your final assembly that could be caught now and fixed before it’s too late."
KV: “My week usually always starts with washing it. I'm pretty particular about washing the car. I'll raise the whole car enough to where I'm rolling around on a creeper underneath of it with a power washer. It's a half a day ordeal and it’s not fun, but how do you notice cracks or notice things that are leaking when that car is all dirty. I can tell you where every spot that anything leaks on my car. It's kind of a maintenance thing before actually doing any maintenance. While you’re underneath it washing it, you might also be able to discover other issues because pieces are cleaned off. It's not covered in dirt or oil. To me it’s hard to maintain a car if it's dirty and nasty. There are some people that don't even look at their cars during the week, but yet they're upset when they don’t run well.”
JB: “The more effort you put into it, the more you're going to get out of it. The people that only get their cars out of the trailer the night before they race, they're not ever going to really compete with you.”
Jake and Kyle both work in the Speedway Motors Racing Shocks shop. That means they know a thing or two about shocks and what they tend to see when shocks arrive for a rebuild. We asked them a few questions specifically related to shocks.
KV: There are two that I can think of. One of them is the oil. The oil in your shocks is no different than oil in your engine. It does need to be changed eventually.
And the second one is that you need to wash them and keep them clean. I'm not saying that you need to put them in a bathtub, but when you're cleaning your car, clean your shocks up too. If you have dried up dirt on the shaft then jam that down into the seals, all you're doing is wearing your shock out. If you race on dirt, your shocks are going to get dirty and you can’t stop every lap and clean your shocks off, but you have to control what you can control.”
JB: On the Sprint car side with gas shocks, I think guys need to know how to properly put gas in them and how often. There are some people that don't ever check it. And then some people that don't know how to do it properly.
In the end, all of our experts agree that preparation and diligence can be the difference maker. Kyle Vanover reminded us of the old saying that “to finish first, on must first finish.” DNF’s are not only disappointing, they’re a waste of time and money. Follow some of these tips and pay attention to your car, spares, and tools now as well as during the season and you may just find yourself having your most successful season ever!