SHOP TALK: Data Logging – Old Gearheads Can Learn New Tricks
Simplicity and living in our comfort zone is a way of life for most people today. For whatever reason, “fearing the unknown” has stopped many from achieving their full potential. Before this turns into a self-help, motivational article let’s get straight to the point.
Most of my drag racing friends are between the ages of 45 and 65. I am right in the middle at the spry age of 51. This age group has either progressed with the times and fully modernized their approach to performance, or is still living in the past and holding on to the word “nostalgia.” Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about nostalgic drag cars and race days, in fact I rarely ever miss one in my area. The gearheads in question are not racing in a nostalgia class, though, they are racing in a regular bracket class with those who have evolved with modern technology.
When I was building my Pro-Street Camaro, I labored over the decision to incorporate a data logger or not. I’m an old school tuner who still uses a vacuum gauge, timing light, HVAC thermometer, a stethoscope, and can read a spark plug like a children’s book. I consulted many people and received varied opinions. Most older gearheads would never think of incorporating a data logger simple because they don’t know how to operate a laptop computer. That fact boggled me as it’s 2017 and opening up a laptop in the morning is as routine as getting a cup of coffee for most of us. Those who have actually installed a data logger, surprisingly don’t know how to download the data and read it themselves. They actually bring it to their local tuner to have it assessed. Finally there are those who just simply fear the unknown, and for lack of better words have adapted the “if it aint broke don’t fix it” mentality. This is where I am very different. In my mind, “if it aint broke, it eventually will be, so let’s make it stronger and easier to repair.” I decided the best course of action was to immerse myself in this wonderful new technology and learn everything I possibly could about it.
As with anything new, when you begin learning about it you have many questions. I looked for answers to these new found questions from people at the track, online forums, and tech sites. When my questions never got answered or the answers never satisfied my intellect, I called all of the major data logging companies and had a notebook handy.
Being a good mechanic and tuner, I wasn’t overly concerned about monitoring engine data at first. I was more focused on suspension data and how it could help me launch the car better. Prior to data loggers, the only available means to accomplish this was to either know or hire an old, pro drag racer to watch your burnout and your 60-foot launch. There are some old gurus out there who are suspension whisperers and can tell you exactly what to do based on simply watching you at the track. My research then led me into the wonderful world of engine rpm and driveshaft rpm. I learned how a linear accuator is used to measure shock squat, and the g-force accelerometer is used to help determine how hard the car hits at launch. I was immediately sold on this concept and the thought of being a “one man show.” Asking for favors and dealing with varied opinions has never worked well for me. Everyone has an opinion and knows what works best for them, but EVERY car is different and needs to be treated like that. Data is not an opinion, it is fact!
So now I am sold on the thought of incorporating a data logger into my new build to help with suspension tuning. But before we make any hasty decisions, I figured I’d look at what else could be monitored under the hood. I’ll spare you with the numerous details and questions that arose from that mission and explain what I decided to incorporate and why. If money was not an object, I would have placed a sensor on everything that generates data. The inside of my car would have looked like an F-16 cockpit. Instead, I took a simple approach and went with an O2 sensor on each bank, an EGT sensor for every cylinder, a fuel pressure sensor, engine RPM, and voltage. This went along with the driveshaft RPM sensor, shock travel linnear accuator, and g-force accelerometer that I mentioned above to help with suspension tuning.
For all of you old-school gearhead readers out there, allow me to tell you what ultimately convinced me to monitor engine data. If you read this column regularly you’re aware I’ve shoved ten pounds of “stuff” into a one pound bag. Specifically a 572 cubic inch Merlin big block into the tiny engine bay of a 4th gen Camaro. Custom making my set of 2 ⅛ inch primary headers into a 3 ½ inch collector and fitting them into that leftover space was a monumental task that took every bit of ingenuity, skill, and patience I had. It has become an all day job to change spark plugs on my car. I even had to make my own socket to remove 5 of the 8 spark plugs. Cylinder 2 is the only accessible one and takes all of a few minutes to change. To add insult to injury, the engine cannot be removed from the top side. The k-member has to be unbolted and the entire car lifted off the k-member. This is the price you have to pay to remain as street as possible using the stock front frame rails and an after market tubular k-member. So back to the point, if I had a misfire during a pass and needed to locate the cause, it would take a full day of investigating to find and fix the problem. Something as simple as an O2 sensor will tell me which side of the engine is not running to spec and the EGT sensor will tell me EXACTLY which cylinder is at fault. My friends that is priceless! The ability to see the fuel pressure at every increment of the pass is also priceless. There is simply no time, nor is it safe, to watch your fuel pressure gauge, oil pressure gauge, tach and shift light, while driving your car during the 9 seconds of fun or whatever your time may be. If you’re an already accomplished mechanic, having this data is like having your own dyno. You can tune your car to absolute precision and leave all of the guesswork back in the 1960s.
When I decided to pull the plug and purchase my new addiction, I went with RPM Performance Products. I had the pleasure of talking with Randy who is the owner and engineer/developer of the product. His outstanding customer service and answers to the many questions I had, made the whole process of learning this new technology feel a lot better. RPM Performance Products, like all of the other companies out there, offer many different kits that cater to specific needs and/or budgets. Besides purchasing the data logger and the necessary sensors, I decided to add their digital dash to the mix and bring my car into modern times. The digital dash is programmed at the factory to work with the system you designed and components that you select. I also like that it has three programmable warning lights that you can assign wherever you wish. This will help keep your eyes focused on shift points and keep the car straight instead of looking around at an assortment of gauges. The system came complete with RPM’s own software program that was simple to install on my laptop. The software has a very easy to read instruction manual to help coach you along the way.
My first attempt at logging some data came from a 3 second test pass in my driveway. I could not wait to plug the laptop in and download my first group of data. I have to be completely honest with you, I spent so much time researching what, why, and how to monitor all of the different vitals of a car, I neglected to do any research on what the data actually looked like. So I opened my first file and saw a really cool graph with multi-colored lines all over it. I may have looked like I knew what I was doing, but this was all Chinese to me. So back to school I went and took a deep dive into the operations manual to learn how to read and make some sense out of the data. It took me a while to find out what style graph I preferred and where/what all of my sensors looked like on the screen. Like anything new, with repetition comes skill.
My quest to modernize didn’t end with that alone, I decided to incorporate the MSD Power Grid and have the ability to customize my timing curve to meet the demands of a specific street or track. I remember when I was 18, and a mechanic at a Cadillac dealership in Maryland, there was an amazing street racing scene that happened every weekend. Cars would gather at a local mall, callouts were made, and we drove to a different spot every weekend. Thanks to my genius dad teaching me very young, I was ahead of the tuning game for my age and the time. I had two fuel cells in my car and drove around with what we called “high test” back in the day. It’s what we call “super” today. The small cell I had in the trunk was filled with 112 octane race gas. I brought a vacuum gauge and a timing light with me and set the timing to the ragged edge of detonation for my night of racing for beer money. This proved itself to be a winning trick but also had its downside as I had to remember to reset the timing and switch over the fuel in order to head back home. In the event I had to leave in a hurry, which happened quite often, I was left overheated or out of gas. Having the ability to control timing based on an rpm curve is the answer to that problem.
I am proud to say that “old gearheads can learn new tricks.” When the young guys see me with my laptop at the track, they smile and give me the head nod of approval. To all old-school gearheads out there who are contemplating making the leap into the land of data logging, I say go for it. Forget about the unknown and the fear of not knowing. Fear is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real, or Failure Expected Action Required. Take the action and first learn how to use a laptop. Ask your children or even grandchildren to teach you. Then do your own research and see what you want and need to monitor on your car. I had the ability to make my own brackets, mounts, and installed/wired the complete system myself. If that’s not in your wheelhouse, there are a ton of places that not only offer this service but are experts in the area and can coach you along the way.
It’s time to modernize and step up your game. Do yourself a favor and at least look into it. The time it will save you and the factual data you’ll obtain will become one the best decisions you ever made with your car.
Until next time…