March 2010 "Tech Talk"

This is the first in our new series of “Tech Talk” columns. We’ll approach these monthly columns in a variety of ways. This month, the column is coming from yours truly, Luke Bogacki. The component that we’re dealing with this month is Data Acquisition systems in general, with the Auto Meter Stack Dash being our highlighted product. In this case, I personally have experience with this particular product; as I was one of the first sportsman competitors to utilize the system in my ThisIsBracketRacing.com American Race Cars dragster. In future columns, we’ll approach Tech Talk in various ways. In some cases, myself or a guest instructor will pen a column similar to what follows; detailing a specific component or product from our own personal experience. In others, we’ll present this column in an interview format: with answers coming directly from prominent manufacturers, racers, and/or tuners. And, we may also use some manufacturer generated material for this column from time to time. Or goal is to not only explore individual facets of the race car and the specific products available, but also to tie in from a sportsman racers standpoint and give an explanation of how these products apply to and benefit our racing on a weekly basis.

Given that last month’s Tutorial column was based around the consistency of our cars and general ideas to make them more repeatable, it’s only fitting that the introductory Tech Talk column is a feature on Data Acquisition.

Up until six months ago, I shared the opinion of a majority of sportsman racers in thinking that a full-fledged data acquisition system would be nice; but it really wasn’t cost effective and I didn’t feel like it was a necessity for sportsman competition. A few things have changed in my mind. First, I encountered a problem that drove me up the wall, cost me several races, and cost me a countless amount of time and money as I attempted to remedy it. Second, the cost of these systems, while still greater than a simple playback tachometer and conventional gauge cluster, has decreased significantly in recent years. And finally, now that I’ve used a data acquisition system (and believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface as to the potential of what this unit can do), I wish I had made the leap years ago. I can literally say that I’ve learned more in three months of using this system than I had in three years of racing with conventional instrumentation.

Let’s start at square one: why I felt the need to purchase a data acquisition system in the first place. Coming into last season, I had experienced some success with my ‘08 American Dragster. I had won an IHRA national event in the car, a points race, and a couple of big dollar bracket races. I started of 2009 on a tear in the 8.90 ranks, with a pair of national event victories (one in NHRA, one in IHRA), and I felt like I had an excellent throttle stop setup, in addition to a great bracket car. I had ordered a new American Car (but not taken delivery of it) before I came to the IHRA national event in Martin, MI last summer. There, a gremlin began to creep up in my combination.

Through time trials and the first day of eliminations, the car was a Xerox machine like I was used to. The 60’ times moved less than .01 over two days, my throttle stop ratio was intact, and I felt comfortable every round knowing that the car was running whatever I set it up for. Sunday started out the same way. I advanced thru the first two rounds with more consistent times and a ton of confidence, which earned me a semi-final bye run. On the bye run I shut off at 1000’, so as not to show my hand, but was bewildered when I got the time slip. The 60’ time picked up .02 from my previous round, and run completion showed I was running .04 fast.

So much for confidence!

My bye run was in the left lane, which I hadn’t run at all on Sunday, so I tried to justify to myself that there was a lane difference (although my reaction time didn’t show it, and I’d not seen a discrepancy earlier in the weekend). I won the coin flip for the final, and went back to the right lane. At that point, I convinced myself I had to throw away the previous run & leave the timer alone. I set up on what I thought was 8.86, knowing it was possible that I was going 8.82. As it ended up; that round the car picks up ANOTHER .04 to 60’ (now it’s .06 faster than every run all weekend), and I was actually going (and this is a guess because I didn’t make it the 1/8th mile under power) roughly 8.75.

I got lucky and won the round and the race, but that’s entirely too much discrepancy to deal with and expect to be competitive. The next week, I ran the car wide open at a big dollar bracket race, and it was incredibly consistent; which confirmed my belief that I had an issue with my throttle stop. I immediately assumed that the only thing that could throw my 60’ times that far out of whack was a problem in the throttle stop or timer itself. So, I ordered a new throttle stop from Sunset Racecraft, and a replacement delay box from K&R just to be sure I had all my bases covered. I was headed on to the NHRA national event in Brainerd, MN the following weekend and I didn’t want to take any chances at an event of that magnitude (especially 20+ hours from home).

I made the changes at Brainerd and went into time trials feeling like I must have cured the issue. My two Thursday runs netted a .04 variance in 60’ times. Keep in mind, that this car was equipped with a playback tachometer and I did record both runs. Sitting in the car in the pits, playing the runs at half speed, I could not tell any difference in the two runs on the playback. The car fell to the same RPM on the stop, at the same time from the cars launch (as best I could tell), and there were no significant dips or spikes in RPM for the two-plus seconds it was on the stop. I was completely at wit’s end. I ended up setting up in the 8.70’s (what else can you do?) and lost a double breakout in round two.

That week, I called a number of people who I trust to seek advice. Among them was John Kyle at APD. I told him about the problem, and he asked what the carburetor was doing on the stop. I said there were no visual spikes, it appeared to be maintaining a constant RPM… In short, I had no idea.

He gave me some pointers but basically said I had no way of knowing what the car was doing.

“You can stare at that tach all day, and you’ll never see this discrepancy,” he said. “There is so much that will show up on a graph that you’ll never see on the dial. I guarantee you that you’ve got a rich or a lean condition on the stop and the rpm is fluctuating.”

I ordered a different carburetor from John (do you see how this is adding up: Delay Box + Throttle Stop + Carburetor… not to mention wasted time and money to race with a car that wasn’t competitive). Meanwhile, Marc Erickson at Auto Meter had been trying to talk me into purchasing their new Stack Dash setup for my new dragster. Marc is not only the drag racing specialist at Auto Meter, he’s also a racer. He’s got an S-10 that he runs in Super Gas, and he’s also been very approachable at the track whenever I’ve had questions or needed help. The new Stack setup is a complete race dash (similar in appearance to several of the other self contained dash modules currently on the market). The standard setup comes with 13 channels, so you can monitor up to 13 different functions on the car, and you can configure the actual dash to display whatever values (ie. RPM, Oil Pressure, Water Temp, etc.) you want to see in the car. Plus, the Auto Meter setup also encompasses a complete data recorder, which you can download to a lap top following the run to analyze (in detail) any of the functions you’ve chosen to monitor.

After my discussion with John, and at Marc’s prodding, I decided to go ahead and take the leap to purchase the new system for the dragster I had on order (my current ‘10 American Dragster). My system cost $2085 which isn’t cheap, and I still wasn’t certain that I’d justify the investment. But, as I’ve learned (and I’ll try now to illustrate), you get what you pay for, and then some.

Auto Meter’s Stack Dash setup comes with the in-dash display module, a lap-top connection, and comes standard with hook ups for engine RPM, drive shaft RPM, voltage, and internal G-meters. In my initial order, I added the sensors to monitor oil pressure, water temperature, fuel pressure, and vacuum. I installed the system myself; I still like to wire and assemble all of my personal cars, mainly so that if I have a problem at the race track I’m very familiar with every function and facet of the machine. Installation was a snap. The unit itself really has just two wires, a 12V positive, and a ground. It comes with three buttons that I mounted in the dash to scroll thru different screens and functions; it’s extremely simple. For each sensor, you simply plug in the provided extension cords, mount the sensor, and program the dash (basically telling it what sensor you hooked up to what terminal) using the included software. For those of you a little weary of electronic hookup, this is not complex. I have trouble setting my DVD player, and I pulled this off! Plus, at the few points where I did have questions, Marc and the staff at Auto Meter were very helpful and patient to walk me through what I‘m sure were elementary questions.

Once I got the car finished and running, I immediately fell in love with the in-car display. I like to have all of the information at my finger tips, so I elected to go with a 6 function display so that I could immediately view all of the information I was monitoring. You can set up the visual display to show as many or as few features as you wish. If you don’t want to be distracted by a lot of information, you can program the unit to show just basic necessities, like oil pressure and water temperature (you’ll still have access to your other functions by scrolling thru the menu, and the unit will automatically record the values for every sensor that you have, not just what‘s displayed). The fewer functions you display, the larger they are on the screen, so they’re easier to read. I’m still young, and fortunate to have good eye-sight, so again I went ahead and had it display everything at once. Another feature I really like is that the Auto Meter unit has a built-in needle-type tachometer. This isn’t a huge deal, but the one pet peave I had with similar dash modules was just having a digital tachometer (and bars that light up as you gain RPM). In bracket racing, there’s not a huge need to reference the tachometer, but I don’t use a 3-step for burnouts, and I like to reference the tach to keep the motor at the same RPM coming out of the water. With the digital tach, that’s almost impossible (and it’s difficult to read to determine shift rpm, trap rpm, etc); so I’m a fan of having the standard-style tachometer in front of me as well.

Once I got acquainted with the new car and the functions of the Auto Meter Stack setup, I set out to eliminate my throttle stop issues. I went to the NHRA LODRS in Belle Rose, LA a day early and spent the better part of Thursday testing. By downloading my runs and viewing a graph of all of the functions of the car (You can graph from every sensor you’re monitoring), I could see distinct dips and spikes in the engine RPM on the throttle stop. The discrepancies were more exaggerated as the outside temperature decreased, leading me to believe that I was fighting a lean condition (which I later verified by adding an 02 sensor to the Stack setup) while on the throttle stop. I made a few changes to the carburetor, stop speed, and timer, and immediately fell into a combination that the car absolutely loved. That weekend the car was incredibly consistent, and I made the final of Super Comp before I lit the red light. Two weeks later, I won the NHRA national event in Memphis with the same set up.

In my minimal experience with the new unit, I’ve been able to pick up on so many things that I never would’ve noticed with a conventional gauge cluster; and as I said, I don’t think I’ve begun to scratch the surface of everything this set up can do. As an example: by looking at each run individually on a graph, I immediately noticed an oil pressure discrepancy during the run. During the staging process, and immediately after launch, the engine had 70-80 pounds of oil pressure. Toward the top of low gear, however, the oil pressure would drop steadily, all the way down to around 15 pounds on some runs. Then, once it got into high gear, it would pick back up to 50 pounds or more. I’d like to think that I would’ve picked up on this at some point without the data acquisition system (I do try to monitor gauges at various points on the track--at least in time trials), but the data acquisition system allowed me to pick up on it immediately. The problem was simply too little oil in the engine; and the inertia of the car pushed it all to the back of the oil pan away from the pump pickup. I added a quart and a half and the problem was solved. Was that enough to hurt anything had it gone undetected? Who knows; but I sure feel better knowing it’s not an issue!

As I said, I’m sure I’m at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of learning what all the Auto Meter Stack setup can do, but here are few other things I’ve picked up on so far. As I said, the system automatically records voltage. You can set this to be displayed to the .01 volt, so you can visually see every electrical operation during the run, how much voltage that operation requires, and what effect it has on any other functions of the car. On my dragster, everything is electric (no C02); so I can visually see the transbrake release, the exact time into the run that the throttle stop activates and de-activates (so I can compare it to my timer numbers), where the shift solenoid activates in relation to the actual gear change, etc. And I can see what impact those functions have on the other electrical components (does the shifter draw enough voltage to effect fuel pressure, etc?).

The Auto Meter unit is also equipped with internal G-meters. These basically measure the force against the unit, and serve as activators for the recording cycle. As such, once you plug in the incremental times from your time slip, the unit can compute that information against the G-meter info, and show you very detailed information on the run. The system will break down the run into timing increments: and show you exactly where you were at (in terms of track position) at various points in the run. For example, I can see that the car shifted 1.85 seconds into the run, which was 256 feet down the track. This is a handy feature for tuning and trying to put everything into place. Plus, it’s really beneficial in quarter mile racing, because I’ll often rip the throttle a couple times early in the run, and then back at the trailer I’ll look at the ticket and wonder, “Did I kill some ET before 1000’?” With this system, I can go back and find the answer, and then determine if I can dial off of my 1000’ time for the next round, or if I didn’t make it that far under power.

Obviously, at events where you’re allowed to hook up the driveshaft sensor (that data is not allowed in most bracket events), that’s a huge tuning aid as well. With the driveshaft sensor, you can not only easily pick up on traction issues, but it also gives you the opportunity to view engine rpm vs. driveshaft rpm in high gear. This shows you the slippage of the torque converter (and is actually computed right on the screen for you). Having this information at your disposal and having the ability to graph the two values for the duration of the run takes all of the guess work out of finding the right converter for your combination.

In addition to the basic features that I employ on my personal Auto Meter dash, they have a bevy of other sensors available to monitor essentially any function you wish. As I said, I’ve recently added an 02 sensor, which has been a great tuning aid. You can also add various temperature sensors (for engine oil, trans temp, etc.), and pressure sensors (trans pressure, etc.). Plus, Auto Meter offers shock travel sensors, EGT sensors, wheel speed sensors, rotary travel indicators (for throttle or throttle stops), and much, much more. Basically, there is no function of the racing vehicle that is beyond the monitoring scope of this system. The best part about this is that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can purchase a base system like I did and then add on additional sensors as desired. The concept of the STACK system is just that: At any point, I’m free to add (or “stack”) additional sensors onto my existing system. It’s simple; just plug them into an open port, program the sensor into the unit using the setup software, and I’m ready to record another function.

Keep in mind that as I say this, I had never before dealt with a data acquisition system of any kind, make or model (nothing more than a playback tachometer). So, I’m not one to list the features or user friendliness of the Auto Meter unit versus others on the market; I really don’t know. In my research, the Auto Meter Stack unit is the most affordable “all-in-one” unit (meaning it’s a dash display & data logger). It comes from Auto Meter; a trusted name in race manufacturing, with excellent customer service. And the workmanship of my unit has been exceptional. As I said, I had one of the first to hit the market; so you’d think if the product had some growing pains I’d be one to experience them. Apparently any issues were worked out in the research and development stages, because I haven’t personally had any trouble with any facet of the system.

In closing, I hope that I’ve been able to shed a little light on data acquisition and the Auto Meter Stack dash setup. Is data acquisition an absolute necessity for sportsman racing? No. Is it a tuning aid? It’s been more helpful and pinpointed more problems and potential problems in my combination than I’d ever imagined. Is it cost effective? Means of data acquisition are constantly becoming more affordable. As I said, this particular package sells for $2085. Depending upon your level of competition and your budget, this may or may not be a cost effective investment. Personally, I believe it’s been money well spent on my end, and my race program has benefited exponentially.

For more detailed information on the Auto Meter Stack system, click on their link on ThisIsBracketRacing.com, or e-mail drag racing specialist Marc Erickson directly: Marc_Erickson@autometer.com.

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