Tales of the Testing Director
In the small world of automotive writers – which is a rather odd job in the first place – we, the road testers, a small, even more specialized subset that takes cars to the tracks and collects performance stories.
And we don’t prove the ground testers, whose job it is to develop cars on sprawling test facilities with complex instrumentation, budgets on an industrial scale and the greatest of all assets: time. And despite what you might assume, very few of us are even part-time racing drivers. Some car manufacturers are, and they are inevitably faster on a race track. But for me, part of that advantage comes, I think, from not knowing the limits of cars as often as we do; ignorance is a risky felicity.
What we are is a guerrilla group that works with what we have and often has to improvise faster than the Groundings when the stage lights breaker goes out. When you look at a parking lot, you see asphalt with strips of paint. I tilt my head, I imagine a number eight that fits and how to orient it, so I’m going to miss the light candles. Our simple and portable test equipment also matches our targeted missions. We don’t develop cars; we are quick sketch artists, outlining what an existing car can do in the language of g or seconds or mph, then moving on to the next without leaving behind a patch of tape residue. We treat each car – Ferrari or Ford – with almost extraterrestrial impartiality, playing no favorites, and often strafing across rows of them in a day.
It’s very different from what we wear with our other hat, that of the writer. A story that bears your name is yours to praise or ridicule. It’s a lonely hike. But when I walk to a test car on a track – as cheesy as it sounds – I honestly don’t feel like I’m just doing it. There’s the invisible lineage of magazine testers who always look over my shoulder.
When I started, I felt like I was brainwashed in a secret society – the Imperial Order of Road Testers – without funny hats. The guy who trained me, Dennis Simanaitis, had been taught by John Dinkel, and when the guy who trained him, Ron Wakefield, sometimes visited our office, I could feel his curiosity about whether The Kid could trust The Legacy. What I sometimes notice in young people who come on the track to help us is that they follow patterns. They carefully do what we tell them – which is great – but never wonder why, which is very bad. Ask why! Dennis, John, and indirectly Ron, taught me that ritual was not the thing. Understand why you were doing things was.
Part of the work, which seems a little ridiculous, retains nervous editors during large test projects. They follow our progress and change from foot to foot, certain that we will never finish on time. Hurry up! In fact, to accelerate, you have to slow down. So you make the fewest mistakes. The worst of the situation – a provocative bug in instrumentation that needs to be diagnosed with 30 people watching a major event, or rain patches starting to appear on the asphalt – is when you slow down to focus more.
From time to time, I discover a mistake I made, or the equipment broke down and I did not catch it. And it is midnight and the data is needed the next day. I could fake it, right? Just a few. Sure. After all these years, my assumptions would be pretty good. Who would ever know?
Dennis and John and Ron. I curse and type “Not available”.
Always, always, always.
Tools of the trade
Our best tool when I started in 1982 was the “fifth wheel” – an instrumented bicycle wheel that rolled with the car to measure its acceleration and stop. Paul Lamar, an aerodynamicist who worked with Chaparral of Jim Hall, created the first electronic example of these, which was essentially a molded BMX bicycle wheel with a circle of alternating black and white markings around its rim which were counted by an optical sensor. The speed at which they passed depends on the speed of the car. The low-angle sunlight reflecting off the black squares sometimes confused her, so Paul switched to a thin steel “cutting ring” that allowed a beam immune to sunlight to flicker through the slits during its rotation. The occasional stone bent it, but otherwise it was quite difficult. I once ran a non-ABS Maserati Biturbo with a fifth wheel attached to the rear during a brake test, and it went straight out of the road backwards at 80 mph in a field (a car very nervous – be careful if you are lovingly watching one on Bring-A-Trailer). The wheel just needed to be wiped off. Getting them in the back of the car has always been a headache. The diagram on which I settled consisted of threading two fabric straps in the slots of the tennis balls, to slam the balls inside the trunk, to attach the support of the fifth wheel to the bumper, then to hang an elastic rubber cord under the trunk somewhere. Bounce was an issue, and its weight didn’t help, but it was a clever mount.
Another Paul, Paul Van Valkenburgh, who wrote the books Engineering and mechanics of racing cars, The unfair advantage, and Chevrolet – Racing? (I recommend the three) picked up where Lamar left off, creating his next light step using a 15 inch thin tire, 70 psi (less growth with speed) on an aluminum sandwich wheel that spins a closed rotary digital encoder. A one-way friction damper on the swingarm held the wheel better on the ground. He was ahead of his time using a first Sharp programmable handheld, but his axle was fragile.
These wheels were often attached to the driver’s door where you could monitor them. During an acceleration race of a Ruf (a very fast Porsche 911) on the straight line of the pits of Monza, it broke at high speed. I watched him slowly separate from the car to my left – making a good pace and still like crazy when he hit the railing and flew apart. I got the pieces and brought them to a machinist that I found in a paddock garage. Without speaking a word of Italian, or speaking English, he stared, nodded, took everything on a workbench and soldered everything. And of course, it was also beautiful.
Perhaps the most complicated scheme for measuring acceleration came when I was faced with a Formula One car. A bouncing fifth wheel with a bicycle tire spinning at 3,500 rpm was asking all kinds of problems , even if we could figure out how to mount it. How about attaching nothing?
Using a high precision ALGE timer (used for Olympic skiing events and measuring to the thousandth of a second), I purchased a quarter-mile coil of double-stranded wire and connectors spliced at intervals of the starting line at 1320 feet. The departure was detected by cutting off a beam of light, but everything else was detected by the car passing through pressure-sensitive “ribbon switches” stuck on the road. Not only would we get these time-distances, but knowing the wheelbase and time intervals of the front and rear wheels sending time stamps, we would also get the speeds calculated at these points. A bitch to put up, but cool. I was in Japan when the guys tested the car in England, and I received reports: it works, but … At the quarter mile, the ground effects of the car at 175 mph sucked the last ribbon switch from the ground and threw it in the air. We had to save it again each time, but we got the data.
In the late 1990s, I received a message from a friend specializing in Formula 1 instrumentation, Kurt Bormann, who said, “You know, I think maybe I could measure the performance of a car with GPS. ” What? Satellites? We were in the process of moving from the fifth wheel to the data recording of a radar gun. “No, I’m serious.” We raised $ 10,000 for Kurt to create a prototype – and it worked, although his data management, by today’s Vbox standards, is paramount to Excel. Around the same time, I came across a group from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) that was developing an even more complex GPS system that positioned antennas around the corner of the car and connected to a base station. We tried it at Buttonwillow Raceway, and in the data trace, we noticed the elevation of two antennas rising a few inches at the corner exits. It was the car riding on the curbs. I was sold on GPS to test cars.
Using GPS to measure speed and calculate g and car travel, our “Best Handling Car” feature was probably the most comprehensive test of high performance automotive performance ever made by media. With competitors wired like Christmas tree lights, we recorded pitch and roll data from each car via sensors for ride height, steering angle, ride quality and angle chassis lace. It was a nerd’s paradise for a while, but the editor, Angus MacKenzie, politely suggested that the relationship between car graphics and images could be tilted slightly to attract a wider audience, spawning its descendant, “Best Driver’s” Car. “
But the toy chest for guerrilla testers to measure cars (and drivers) is now in a golden age: analysis of the driver’s emotions from video facial expressions, movement tracking from video, quantification techniques for channel centering and adaptive cruise control. We have come a long way from the fifth wheels.
Although I still do not understand why I am teased to have put a Casio digital wristwatch (stripped of its bracelet) between my teeth to time the slalom races. Biting at the beginning and at the end was damn precise.
Next time – Part 2: Inside the world of a road tester
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