Racecar Testing Is No Sunday Drive

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
racecar testing is no sunday drive

One of the greatest singers of our generation, a young lady from Mississippi who goes by the name Britney Spears, once posited that if you want a Bugatti, or a Maserati, you better work.

Pure poetry, that.

Sarcastic references to mediocre pop-music lyrics aside, the song does hide a good point under its generic dance beats. Work usually does need to come before success. Like the old cliché says: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

Hard work preceding success is not news, I know, but we can all use a reminder now and then. And there aren’t as many reminders as visceral as watching a pro driver sling a racecar around a track at full speed, sans competition, as he and his co-drivers and crew prep for a race that won’t take place for almost another month.

Even the most casual racing fan knows teams must test their cars in advance of each race. This is done to make sure a car’s settings are dialed in correctly, of course, and to help the driver learn (or relearn) his or her way around the track. That’s not all – testing provides an opportunity for pit crew practice. There’s plenty of other things that may affect performance on race day (weather, for one), and testing is also about finding out what those things are, and how to adjust to them.

While some race testing and practice gets shown on television, much of it takes place away from the prying eye of the camera. With that in mind, Acura invited media to hang out for a day at Road America in Wisconsin as Team Penske racing put its Acura-sponsored DPi (Daytona Prototype International) cars through their paces.

(Full disclosure: Acura fed and housed me for two nights, and took assembled media on a tour of a private collection of historic Honda and Acura products. They also had us ride along during a pace lap with pro drivers behind the wheel, and gave us a brief time on an autocross in a stock Acura NSX. We also got a tour of Road America’s race control room. No flight, as Road America is within driving distance of my home.)

Acura is one of four OEMs with involvement in the DPi class – which is one of four classes racing under the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) banner in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series – with Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan being the others. While the chassis are built to international specs, the engines are modified versions of what these manufacturers sell to the car-buying public.

When we rolled up to the track around 9 a.m., the cars were already out there being put through their paces by the drivers. Team Penske fields two cars under the Acura banner, each driven by two drivers. Two of the four names should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has tuned into the Indianapolis 500 in the past 15-20 years. Failing that, one name will be familiar to those who like network TV dance competitions.

Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ricky Taylor, and Dane Cameron are the four who put on firesuits for Penske and take to the track in the DPi class in the ARX-05 race car.

Team Penske wasn’t the only group prowling around the 4-mile track at Road America on that impossibly pretty July day – one of the Cadillac teams had struck a deal with Penske to share the track for testing. Penske had purchased the track for the day, and for a fee, allowed the crew from Caddy to share the time.

The drivers and at least of one of the chief engineers had been at dinner with us the night before, regaling us with stories about driving a Bugatti Veyron at top speed on the German autobahn and how Indy cars drive “wrong” (meaning they do the opposite of what a driver likes/wants to do).

Outgoing at dinner, sure, but by the time we saw them in the pits, they were all business, ignoring us curious journalists as they went about their day. Crew members, the chief engineer, and the drivers who weren’t actively on track all sat at small tables with laptops open, pouring over data. It looked like a gathering of internet denizens at some online-gaming café, if some of the gamers wore firesuits, two had won the Indy 500 multiple times, and one had appeared on Dancing With The Stars.

At one point, I picked up pair of headphones and listened in on crew communications. Drivers don’t talk much while at speed, but they’ll pop on the radio when they pit, in order to ask for setting changes. In this instance, one of the drivers – it sounded like Castroneves – was matter-of-factly asking for changes to the anti-roll bar settings.

The Acura powerplant located aft of the rear seats is a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, a modified production engine. Power numbers aren’t exact, of course, but it makes just under 600 horsepower at 7,000 rpm with 1.77 bar of boost. The compression ratio is 9.5:1 and IMSA mandates a 7,050 rpm redline. Acura and Team Penske declined to share torque figures.

The engine includes parts that you could find on your street Acura – if you own a 2007-2009 Acura MDX, 2013-2015 Acura RDX, or 2009-2014 Acura TL, you can now tell your neighbors your car has a race-car throttle body in the engine bay, and that would be true.

There are some bespoke parts – the intake plenum and front and rear dampers, for example – and of course the radiators are bigger for better cooling, and the front and rear anti-roll bars are driver-adjustable (try that in your TL). The car also has adjustable ballast.

IMSA has some say in the car’s aerodynamics, and thus its exterior design, and the series also puts the cars on dynos and uses teams’ data to help keep the competition balanced. If Team Penske wants to make major changes, it first needs IMSA’s permission, and team reps told us that the association is more willing to grant permission if the changes are related to cost or safety as opposed to performance. IMSA even uses sensors to ensure that no one is cheating.

If you’re a member of the one percent and you’re reading this and wondering what it costs to get involved in DPi racing, figure somewhere short of a million bucks for car and engine, and $6-$12 million for the year for all other costs if you have a one-car team.

Each test session was relatively short, about 15-20 minutes or so. The cars from both teams were spaced well apart by race control, giving them clean air and little chance of collision.

The teams pore over a lot of data – between sensors on the car and the channels in the engine-control unit, there are over 300 channels of data to go through. Engine health is monitored via temperatures and pressures for fuel, water, and oil. IMSA’s regulations mean that the teams must also keep an eye on air/fuel ratio and boost pressure. The engine-control unit also provides data on transmission gear shifts and traction control.

Other things that get looked at include ride height, pushrod load, damper travel, and tire pressures. Also on the list: Toe and camber angles, damper settings, spring rates, and aerodynamics (such as wing angles).

It’s not all about the data that can be measured via sensor or engine computer – the driver’s feedback matters to the teams, too. Acura folks reminded me that the data only paints a partial picture of what’s happening on track, and the driver’s observations fill in the rest of the metaphorical photograph.

Weather is a factor, as mentioned above. As Castroneves said: “These cars are so sensitive to the weather … it’s all about aerodynamics. When you have a five-degree temperature difference, it affects the race car.”

Race day ended up being slightly cooler, at least according to the team’s engineers (it felt just as hot to me), than test day. So it’s no surprise that when I talked to Castroneves after the race, he told me the car’s setup didn’t change drastically between the two days.

Even a veteran driver like Castroneves learns “a lot” on a test day. Drivers do have access to extremely realistic simulators these days, but there’s still no substitute for the real thing.

“‘Let’s go to the sim’ … it’s not the same. Having to actually drive the racecar, oh my God, this has been actually a great last two and a half weeks, because we’ve been to three different tracks [Watkins Glen, Mosport, and Road America] so that’s very unusual. So this for us is extremely great to have those back-to-backs. Especially for me, it’s the second year, you’re always learning every time you’re in the racecar. Every time, you learn something. That’s why it’s good for even a veteran like me.”

Given how modern racing cars are usually very different from production cars (far more so than in decades past), and given the fact that racing doesn’t draw quite the audience of the so-called stick-and-ball sports, I am always skeptical that “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is still a thing that happens. Still, Castroneves points out that Acura’s investment in the racecar helps the brand, especially since the car uses many stock parts.

Not shocking that a driver would say things that are favorable to the OEM sponsoring and providing the race car, of course, but here’s what Castroneves said on the subject: “For any manufacturer, especially Acura, when you put in that much effort, that much resource, into a race team, that always helps. Helps the brand. We’re all here today because of that. Yes, it might not be marketing in terms of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’, however it’s still pretty much in the back of people’s mind, it would be great to associate that.”

How does it all play out on race day? How did what Team Penske learned during testing translate to success or failure on race day in early August? Check back in a few days for part two of the story.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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2 of 6 comments
  • Fred Fred on Aug 21, 2019

    As a race fan I'd want my performance car to be racing. If for no other reason than to discount tickets.

  • SoCalMikester SoCalMikester on Aug 21, 2019

    i thought her, and her sister (who has a kid by dan schneider, nickelodeon pedo producer) were from louisiana?

  • Tassos Government cheese for millionaires, while idiot Joe biden adds trillions to the debt.What a country (IT ONCE WAS!)
  • Tassos screw the fat cat incompetents. Let them rot. No deal.
  • MaintenanceCosts I think if there's one thing we can be sure of given Toyota's recent decisions it's that the strongest version of the next Camry will be a hybrid. Sadly, the buttery V6 is toast.A Camry with the Highlander/Sienna PSD powertrain would be basically competitive in the sedan market, with the slow death of V6 and big-turbo options. But for whatever reason it seems like that powertrain is capacity challenged. Not sure why, as there's nothing exotic in it.A Camry with the Hybrid Max powertrain would be bonkers, easily the fastest thing in segment. It would likewise be easy to build; again, there's nothing exotic in the Hybrid Max powertrain. (And Hybrid Max products don't seem to be all that constrained, so far.)
  • Analoggrotto The readers of TTAC deserve better than a bunch of Kia shills posing as journalists.
  • Lou_BC How do they work covered in snow, ice, mud, dust and water? Vibration?