Drag Essentials: Data Acquisition Explained


Drag Essentials: Data Acquisition Explained


Knowledge is power. And that’s especially true in drag racing. No matter what combination you’re running, the surest way to the winner’s circle is by understanding exactly what your car is doing so you can improve it. For most of drag racing’s history, gaining that insight was a hard-earned skill — part scientific method and part black art. It was the domain of savvy veterans who could tell the tune of an engine by the lope of its idle and the soot on the sparkplugs.

But while those time-honored diagnostic skills are still an invaluable part of setting up a car and optimizing it, you need more precise information to be competitive today. That’s why most successful racers now rely on sophisticated digital data acquisition systems. “The old-school ways of reading plugs and checking certain vital signs in a car are still important,” says Donny Cummins of Racepak. “But it just isn’t as consistent as actually looking at data and seeing every bit of information throughout the whole run.”

The key to winning races is making effective setup choices to keep your car as competitive as possible. Intuition and experience are still important for doing so, but winning racers now rely on copious amounts of precise digital data to help make those decisions. Without it, you're essentially guessing what your car really needs.

No Longer a Luxury

Because of data logging’s proven ability to sharpen on-track performance, these systems are becoming a necessity for drag racers. “Fifteen years ago, data-acquisition was important, but a lot of racers didn’t realize they needed it,” says Cummins. “Now it’s a staple in mid-range to upper-end classes. At that level, there isn’t a car out there that doesn’t have some form of data acquisition.”

But it isn’t just heads-up competitors that can benefit from data systems. In fact, index and bracket racers can often see even bigger rewards from such equipment — the tight competition and the demand for perfect-as-possible consistency require exactly the kind of insight data acquisition provides.

“When you’re running indexes or throttle stops, you have to be able to hit your mark every time,” says Cummins. “With a data system, you can review the data and make sure the throttle stops are coming on at the commanded time and going off at the right time. You can see if you’re hitting your 60-foot times correctly. You can look at your wheelspin to make sure it’s not excessive. And then you can decide if maybe you need to take a degree of timing out for a half second and then ramp it back in within the full second. Painting that picture is hard to do when you don’t have something telling you this information.”

On top of that, data acquisition systems can also reveal early signs of potential problems, so you can prevent catastrophic failures. “One racer I worked with had a blown-gas car — a brand-new build,” says Cummins. “He made a pass, and I downloaded the data. Everything looked great except that at the top end of the run, I saw that the oil pressure had gone to zero. He wasn’t looking at the gauge because he was driving the car. He went back to the pits, dropped the pan and rolled the bearings out of it. They were chewed up. It was about ready to send a rod through the block. That one data log saved him 60 grand.”

As race engines grow in cost and complexity, the stakes have gotten much higher when it comes to making car setup decisions. One bad tuning choice can lose a race and instantly consume thousands of dollars in parts. Data acquisition systems allow you to see trouble brewing before it causes catastrophic damage.

How Data Acquisition Systems Work

Although data acquisition systems rely on advanced technologies to operate, the concept is simple: It’s a set of sensors and a digital storage device, with a clock in-between them. The storage device gathers information and saves it to be analyzed later. At the same time, the clock documents at what point in the run that data was recorded, allowing you to see what happened at every moment of the pass.

In terms of actual hardware, the data recorder is typically a small box that receives data from sensors mounted at various points on the car. Along with these components, most drivers also add a dash unit to their data system, so they can see in real-time the same information that’s being recorded as they drive the car. Some systems combine the data recorder and dash into one integrated unit.

Data acquisition systems may seem mysterious at first glance, but the actual configuration can be pretty simple. Our source at Racepak says many racers will do fine with a basic setup that utilizes a handful of well-chosen sensors to monitor the essentials.

With the enormous range of different parameters data systems can monitor, the potential amount of information may seem daunting to new users. But it doesn’t have to be complicated, says Cummins. “Your basic channels for a drag car are engine RPM, driveshaft RPM, and G meter. I like to also put voltage in there, because if you’re running a battery ignition, you’ve got a lot of things in your car controlling timing, fuel pumps, and electronics. If you’ve got a battery problem, you’re not going to see it during the run because you’re watching the track.

“Adding sensors from there depends on the vehicle,” continues Cummins. “If, for example, you have a blown alcohol engine, you’ll probably add sensors for exhaust-gas temp, boost, fuel pressure, oil pressure, and then fuel flow — those will be your essentials. If you have a higher end carbureted big-block Chevy with a vacuum pump, for instance, you’ll want sensors for pan vacuum, carb fuel pressure, oil pressure, water temp, and some air/fuel sensors.”

Most racers who run a data acquisition system also use a dash unit that displays the information in real time for the driver to see. The Racepak IQ3 Drag Logger Dash combines a programmable LCD display and built-in data logging, with no need for an external data recorder.

Choosing a Data Acquisition System

When data-acquisition systems were first introduced, they were megabucks setups that were out of reach for all but top-level professional teams. But now there are a wide range of systems available to suit almost any budget.

Racepak has been a leader in data acquisition equipment for more than 30 years. The company has a long history of innovation, having pioneered many of the technologies and design concepts now commonly found on practically all data-logging equipment. Racepak systems are used by everyone from occasional bracket racers to champion NHRA Top-Fuel teams.

One of Racepak’s simplest setups for getting started in data acquisition is their IQ3 Drag Logger Dash. It combines a programmable LCD display and built-in data logging, with no need for an external data recorder. It gives you the ability to monitor engine RPM, driveshaft RPM, trans brake release, water temp, oil pressure, and battery volts. It also includes Racepak’s Datalink II software, which gives you professional-level data analysis capabilities in an easy-to-learn format.

To further expand the capability of the IQ3, Racepak offers the Drag Bracket Bundle. It gives you everything included in the standalone Drag Logger Dash package but adds sensors for carburetor fuel pressure and transmission temperature. Any of the IQ3 packages can accept the recommended Racepak accelerometer, to monitor and record G forces and provide speed data.

See Racepak's IQ3 Drag Logger Dash and Drag Bracket Bundle

Racepak's Drag Bracket Bundle is a great starting point for racers setting up a basic data acquisition system. The kit includes everything that comes with the Drag Logger Dash package, plus sensors for carburetor fuel pressure and transmission temperature.

Beyond the IQ3 packages, most of Racepak’s equipment is sold as individual components, so racers can choose the exact configuration they need. The company has everything necessary to build the ideal customized data-logging setup, including sensors, wiring, mounting brackets, and antennas.

For data recorders, the next step up from the IQ3 is Racepak’s V300SD. It doesn’t have an integrated dash like the IQ3 does, but it offers greater expandability. “It’s a black-box standalone data logger that’s more robust than the IQ3,” says Cummins “And its channel capacity is four times greater. It does a lot more and it can handle more severe environments.”

The V300SD is aimed at classes that typically demand more sensor inputs, such as Pro Mod, Pro Stock, Top Dragster, Top Sportsman, and Comp Eliminator. The company also offers an even more capable data logger, the V500SD. “The V500SD is the same technology, same housing, except a little bit bigger, so it has a bit more capacity for sensors,” says Cummins. “It also has more capacity in there for vehicle power management through the Racepak SmartWire system — a power management control that eliminates fuses and relays. It’s all electronically controlled through a laptop, and it cuts down on wiring and weight in a vehicle.”

Check out Racepak's V300SD and V500SD, along with the SmartWire power management system.

Racepak's SmartWire power management system eliminates relays and fuses, to help reduce vehicle weight and simplify the wiring of data acquisition systems. At the same time, it also provides easier setup of the system via a laptop.

There’s virtually no limit to what can be monitored and recorded by data acquisition systems. To decide which sensors are necessary for your particular setup, Cummins recommends looking carefully at what you feel will help you improve performance and safeguard your car against failures. “Nobody has time to go out there and waste runs,” he says. “So having the right sensors makes everything more efficient. I would start by asking yourself what tools you need to help tune your car and what tools you need to help you diagnose problems.”

No matter what kind of car you’re running or what performance you hope to get out of it, effective data acquisition is essential if you want to be competitive in drag racing today. Fortunately, this equipment is simpler and more affordable than many people think.

Check out the Racepak line of data acquisition equipment today to get going on the ideal setup for your car!


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