Tech Talk #65 – The Right Tool for the Job

DavidTechArticlesBy David Reher, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines

“There are several tools that I consider absolutely essential for racing.”

I can’t remember how many cars, trailers, and trucks I’ve owned since I started racing. Most of them are long gone, but I still have many of tools that I used in the back room at Mansfield Auto Parts when I first started to mess with engines some 40 years ago. Good tools are an investment that lasts a lifetime.

Along with all of the hammers, sockets, wrenches and ratchets in my toolbox, there are several tools that I consider absolutely essential for racing. Other racers may choose other items for their race track survival kits, but these are the ones that I use frequently.

The first indispensable tool is a 1-inch travel dial indicator mounted on an adjustable magnetic stand. We use dial indicators daily in the Reher-Morrison shop to degree camshafts, check deck heights, and set up rearends and transmissions. They’re just as useful at the track to check any dimension that’s in question, from the valvetrain to the crankshaft thrust bearing.

If the car suddenly slows down, you can set up the indicator on the front pulley and pry the flywheel forward and backward to make sure the thrust clearance hasn’t increased. Burning out a thrust bearing isn’t uncommon even in race cars with automatic transmissions. If the converter wasn’t fully engaged on the front pump or if it isn’t matched to the motor plate thickness, the resulting pressure can overload the thrust bearing.

An accurate torque wrench is another necessity. The key word here is “accurate.” If you use a click-type torque wrench, it’s important to check its accuracy frequently. A click-type torque wrench that’s been dropped or banged around can produce erroneous readings, and the result is usually a fastener that’s either too tight or too loose. We have a torque wrench checker in our shop, and we calibrate our torque wrenches religiously.

If you use a torque wrench infrequently, a beam-style wrench is hard to beat. The needle can easily to adjusted to zero, and as long as the beam was heat treated correctly, its accuracy will never change. A beam-type wrench certainly takes more time and patience to use than a click-type torque wrench, but it’s less expensive and as reliable as an anvil.

I’ve often preached about the importance of inspecting valve springs, so I’ll add a valve spring checker to my list of must-have tools. A valve spring is like a canary in a coal mine – if it breaks or loses pressure prematurely, that’s an early warning sign of valvetrain trouble ahead. An engine with an aggressive, high-lift camshaft should have its springs checked frequently, and even a weekend warrior’s valve springs should be checked as part of routine maintenance.

I wouldn’t go to the race track without a good timing light. Maybe I’m just a natural skeptic, but I like to confirm that the spark timing is what it’s supposed to be. Modern electronic ignition systems are marvels of electronic engineering, with the ability to change ignition timing and advance curves with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer. But I have a lingering suspicion of electronics, so I want to see the timing mark on the balancer light up whenever I make an adjustment to the ignition system on the computer.

Checking the timing with a light will eliminate common problems such as hooking up the transducer with reversed polarity or triggering the ignition with something other than the timing wheel magnets. I’ve seen racers chase ignition problems for weeks before finding that a pickup was hooked up backwards or a connection was bad. A timing light is a great diagnostic tool for solving these common problems.

I don’t like adjustable timing lights, and I recommend that you never use one. I prefer a simple, nonadjustable timing light that can’t inadvertently be set with an incorrect ignition offset. I’ve seen smart racers get totally lost by checking the spark timing with an incorrectly adjusted timing light. This is definitely an instance where simple is better.

Another electrical necessity is an ohmmeter. I use mine to check the continuity of circuits and to track down shorts, poor connections and bad grounds. When we were racing in Pro Stock, I never screwed a spark plug into our race engine without first checking it for an open electrode with an ohmmeter. Bad plugs are rare, but it only takes one bad one to ruin a run, so I thought that was time well spent.

An infrared heat gun, or remote thermometer, has more uses than just checking the track temperature. We use them to check for a cold header that indicates a dead cylinder and to verify whether a water temperature gauge is working. Monitoring changes in track temperature with a heat gun is important for racers running fast bracket and Super-type cars because the starting line traction can affect elapsed times. Track temperature is an important factor in knowing how much to raise or lower the dial-in or change the starting line rpm limiter.

The final item in my trackside tool kit is an accurate tire pressure gauge. As with a torque wrench, the emphasis is on accuracy. Small changes in tire pressure can produce big changes in track performance, so it’s important to have a consistent reference point when making adjustments.

Some people get excited when a new catalog of fishing gear or motorcycle accessories arrives in the mailbox. I think the sign of a serious racer is a dog-eared tool catalog on the workbench. After playing with cars for 40 years, I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for the right tool for the job.