Up On the Wheel

Flying has always been on the list of things I would rather avoid. Of course, any dream destination becomes possible due to the miracle of modern flight. The travel aversion is derived from being in a cramped space that always seems to have the amenities a finger tip out of reach. Control is taken and as passengers, the drink cart is either too far away or bashing into the back of your already cramped elbow. Cocktail please!

While traveling from Seattle to Orlando for the 2011 Performance Racing Industry Tradeshow, I had a bucket load of time to experience the choices made by the engineers of the new Boeing 737 that was to carry us from point A to point B. Throw in the point C detour through New Jersey and internal debate time allowed me an eternity to wonder what engineers consider as the definition of “comfortable”. Plane engineers are forced to make compromises as their stock market driven corporations need to squeeze in extra seats striving for every penny that can pour into the profit column. The cramped space is an issue. But, the real problem is the loss of control. Somehow, my plane seat clarified my understanding that drivers must feel in control in order to win. I will say the plane engineers did a bang up job making sure the jet engines were attached securely to the wings.

My bonus Jersey Shore extended travel time provided ample opportunity for me to think about how to help drivers feel in control of their in car surroundings. Being bolted down to the seat like the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island certainly defines a loss of control. Lady Liberty has been strapped down a long time – I hope she is happy with her position. Like airline travel, race driver amenities are predetermined and comfort choices are decided as soon as the belts are pulled tight and the engine roars to life.

The glare off my in flight TV was accentuated by the screaming 4 year old in front of me that made sure to shake the headrest TV screen straining my ability to absorb the commands of Captain Kirk yelling at Scotty that he needed “More Power”. Kirk must have been a crew chief in a former life. My poorly positioned in flight TV can easily be compared to gauges in a racecar. Mounting gauges so they can be seen at 150 MPH with an intuitive glance is a little more important that watching reruns of overly dramatic actors in Hollywood. Then again, drivers do sign autographs and smile for the camera while saying how much they love everyone. So, perhaps the red carpet at driver introductions is about the same as the content on American Idol where Ryan Seacrest waited in fear of the Simon ambush that came every week. The comparisons are endless – Bush race competitors attacking doctor’s makes for racing’s version of reality TV. Long live the “E” network.

All race team members are backyard engineers. Lucky teams are graced with college educated engineers. When building a car, are you just placing the gauges where they look good or are you considering the viewing angles and importance of each gauge?

Prioritizing gauge position is a choice that goes beyond centering them on the sheet metal dash.

An easy gauge mounting tip is to strap the driver’s helmet to the seat in race position. Needed safety devices prevent drivers from moving their heads from side to side. With the helmet strapped in place, tape a string to the center of the visor or tear off and tape the other string end to the dash. Place the dash side string where it runs straight from the helmet shield field of vision making sure the line of site is maintained throughout the steering radius. The most important gauge goes in the priority position and is located so a steering wheel spoke never blocks the drivers’ view of the gauge. Make sure the string stays straight through the turning path of the steering wheel. Follow the same routine with a second string for gauge 2 and mount the priority 2 gauge in a fashion that allows clear vision with an instant glance. If compromises must be made, make the required compromises on priority gauge 3 and 4. Running a string from the helmet location to the dash will show you, in advance, the line of site obstacles that you must overcome – and the string method can save you from drilling 2.5” holes in the wrong spot potentially destroying new sheet metal due to short cutting the planning process.

To keep your diver in control, switch panels need to be within easy reach. With the driver strapped in, all switches need to be ergonomically placed so the driver can instinctively activate all switches instantaneously. Red Flip Up Aircraft covers are mighty handy if your team is hit with the misfortune of a stuck throttle. Sudden losses of oil pressure benefits from a Flip Up switch cover potentially saving you thousands in repair costs. Even a 1/10th of a second time savings can save a pile of money if the driver can hit that switch cover quickly when the oil pressure drops. In the event of an on track mishap, ignition switches and start buttons need to be located for quick and natural operation. All switches need to be well marked. Often, drivers get into multiple types of cars and well marked switches are a must. Knowing, instinctively, the function of each switch falls in the safety category and mounting switches within easy reach is an area where compromise is a flagrant foul that is easily remedied by any backyard engineer.

Go Forward – Move Ahead
Jeff Butcher
Courtesy of JOES Racing Products
12/01/11