Within the small world of car writers—which is a pretty odd job in the first place—is us, the road testers, a tiny, even more specialized subset that takes cars to tracks and gathers performance numbers for stories.
And we’re not proving ground testers, whose job is to develop cars on sprawling test facilities with complex instrumentation, industrial-scale budgets, and that greatest of all assets—time. And despite what you might presume, very few of us are even part-time racing drivers. Some car writers are, and they’re inevitably faster around a racetrack. But speaking for myself, part of that edge comes, I think, from not experiencing cars’ limits as often as we do; ignorance is a risky bliss.
What we are is a guerrilla group that works with what we have and often has to improvise quicker than the Groundings when the breaker for the stage lights blows out. When you look at a parking lot, you see asphalt with paint strips. Me, I’m cocking my head, picturing a figure eight fitting into it and how to orient it so I’ll miss the light stanchions. Our simple, portable test equipment matches our focused missions, too. We’re not developing cars; we’re quick-sketch artists, drawing the outlines of what an existing car is capable of in the language of g’s or seconds or mph, then moving on to the next one without leaving behind a spot of gaffer tape residue. We treat each car—Ferrari or Ford—with an almost alien-like impartiality, playing no favorites, and often machine-gunning through rows of them in a day.
It’s a very different thing than when we’re wearing our other hat—that of the writer. A story that has your name on it is yours alone to either lap up praise or suffer ridicule. It’s a solitary trek. But when I walk to a test car at a track—as corny as this sounds—I honestly don’t feel that it’s just me doing this. There’s the invisible lineage of magazine road testers always looking over my shoulder.
When I started out, it felt like I was getting indoctrinated into a secret society—The Imperial Order of Road Testers—without any funny hats. The guy who trained me, Dennis Simanaitis, had been taught by John Dinkel, and when the guy who’d trained him, Ron Wakefield, would sometimes visit our office, I could sense his curiosity about whether The Kid could be trusted with The Legacy. What I sometimes notice about younger guys who come to the track to help us out is that they follow patterns. They carefully do exactly what we tell them—which is great—but without ever asking why, which is very bad. Ask why! Dennis, John, and indirectly, Ron, taught me that the ritual wasn’t the thing. Understanding why you were doing things was.
A part of the job, which seems kind of ridiculous, is holding off nervous editors during big testing projects. They clock our progress and shift from foot to foot, certain we’re never going finish on time. Hurry up! Actually, to speed up, you have to slow down. So you make the fewest mistakes. The worse the situation—a defiant bug in the instrumentation that has to be diagnosed with 30 people watching at a major event, or rain spots starting to appear on the asphalt—is when you slow down to focus that much more.
Every now and then I discover a mistake I’ve made, or the equipment failed and I didn’t catch it. And it’s midnight and the data is needed the next day. I could fudge it, right? Just a little number. Sure. After all these years, my guesses would be pretty good. Who would ever know?
Dennis and John and Ron. I curse and type, “Not available.”
Always, always, always.
The Tools of the Trade
Our best tool when I started out in 1982 was the “fifth wheel”—an instrumented bicycle wheel that rolled along with the car to measure its acceleration and stopping. Paul Lamar, an aerodynamicist who worked with Jim Hall’s Chaparral, created the first electronic example of these, which was basically a cast BMX bike wheel with a circle of alternating black and white marks around its rim that were counted by an optical sensor. How fast they passed related to the car’s speed. Shallow-angle sunlight reflecting off the black squares sometimes confused it, so Paul switched to a thin, steel “chopper ring” that allowed a sunlight-immune beam to flicker through slots as it rotated. The occasional stone bent it up, but otherwise it was pretty tough. I once I spun a non-ABS Maserati Biturbo with a fifth wheel strapped on back, during a braking test, and it went right off the road backwards at 80 mph into a field (a very twitchy car—be careful if you’re fondly staring at one on Bring-A-Trailer). The wheel just needed some wiping off. Mounting these to the car’s rear was always a puzzle. The scheme I settled on was to thread two fabric straps through slots in tennis balls, slam the balls inside the trunk, cinch the fifth wheel’s mount to the bumper and then hook a rubber bungee cord under the trunk somewhere. Bouncing was a problem, and its weight didn’t help, but it was a nifty mount.
Another Paul, Paul Van Valkenburgh, who wrote the books Race Car Engineering & Mechanics, The Unfair Advantage, and Chevrolet—Racing? (I recommend all three) picked up where Lamar left off, crafting its lightweight next step using a thin, 15-in, 70 psi tire (less growth with speed) on an aluminum sandwich wheel which spin an enclosed rotary digital encoder. A one-way friction damper on the swing arm better kept the wheel on the ground. It was ahead of its time by using an early handheld programmable Sharp computer, but its axle was fragile.
These wheels were often strapped to the driver’s door where you could keep an eye on them. During an acceleration run of a Ruf (a very fast Porsche 911) on Monza’s pit straight, it snapped at a high speed. I watched it slowly separate from the car to my left—nicely pacing me and still going like crazy when it hit the guardrail and flew into pieces. I collected the bits and took them to a machinist I found in a paddock garage. Without me speaking a word of Italian, or he any English, he stared, nodded, took everything to a workbench, and welded it all back together. And of course, it looked beautiful, too.
Perhaps the most complicated scheme for measuring acceleration came when I was confronted with a Formula One car. A bouncing fifth wheel with a bike tire spinning at 3,500 rpm was asking for all kinds of trouble, even if we could figure out how to mount it. How about attaching nothing?
Using a high-precision, ALGE timer (used for Olympic ski events, and measuring to one-thousandth of a second), I bought a quarter-mile reel of two-strand wire and spliced connectors at intervals from the starting line to 1,320 feet. The start was detected by breaking a light beam, but all the rest was sensed by the car driving over pressure-sensitive “tape switches” duct-taped to the road. We’d not only get those time-to-distances, but knowing the wheelbase and the time intervals of the front and rear wheels sending time stamps, we’d get the calculated speeds at those points, too. A bitch to set up, but cool. I was in Japan when the guys were testing the car in England, and I was getting reports: It’s working, but … At the quarter mile, the car’s ground effects at 175 mph was suctioning the last tape switch off the ground and throwing it in the air. It had to be re-taped every run, but we got the data.
In the late 1990s, I got a message from a Formula One instrumentation specialist friend, Kurt Bormann, who said, “Ya know, I think I might be able to measure a car’s performance with GPS.” What? Satellites? We were just transitioning from fifth wheels to logging a radar gun’s data. “No, I’m serious.” We rounded up $10,000 for Kurt to create a prototype—and it worked, although its data handling, by today’s Vbox standards, was primordial Excel. About the same time, I came across a group from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) who were developing an even more complex GPS system that positioned antennas on all four corners of the car, and keyed to a base station. We tried it out at Buttonwillow Raceway, and in the data trace, noticed the elevation of two antennas rising a few inches at the corner exits. It was the car ramping up on the curbs. I was sold on GPS for testing cars.
Using GPS to measure speed and calculate g’s and car path, our “Best Handling Car” feature was probably the most extensive testing of automotive high performance ever done by a media outlet. With the contestants wired like strings of Christmas tree lights, we data-logged each car’s pitch and roll via ride-height sensors, steering angle, ride quality, and chassis yaw angle. It was nerd heaven for a while, but then editor-in-chief, Angus MacKenzie, politely suggested that the feature’s ratio of graphs to car pictures could be un-tilted a bit to attract a wider audience, spawning its descendant, “Best Driver’s Car.”
But the toybox for the guerrilla testers to measure cars (and drivers) is now in a golden age—driver emotion analysis from videoed facial expressions, motion tracking from video, techniques for quantifying lane-centering and adaptive cruise control. We’ve come a long way since fifth wheels.
Though I still don’t understand why I’m teased for putting a Casio digital wristwatch (stripped of its band) between my teeth to time slalom runs. Biting it at the start and finish was pretty darn accurate.
Next Time – Part 2: Inside the World of a Road Tester