25 tips to better enjoy motorsports

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Dec 31, 2023 | Motorsports, Shop Work, Tips | Posted in Shop Work , Safety , News and Notes | From the Nov. 2009 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Mark Langello

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Experience is what causes a person to make new mistakes instead of old ones.” We don’t know who first uttered that phrase, but it rings strongly through our heads.

Most of us have learned that painful lesson regarding a hot stove. Searing pain can teach us much: Leave the stove alone.

However, that experience didn’t remove all hazards from our lives. Knowing to stay away from a hot burner doesn’t automatically prevent other potential hazards from popping up, like skateboarding into traffic or attempting to jump seven garbage pails on your BMX bike.

It’s these past experiences that guide future decisions. Knowledge is often the ace in the hole when planning that next move.

We’ve been playing with cars for a long time now—wow, 25 years—and while we admit to sometimes repeating past mistakes, eventually we do figure it out. Here are 25 lessons learned that everyone should know.



Buy a Good Timing Light

Things move pretty quickly inside an engine, and you need to ignite the air/fuel mixture at just the right time. Each degree of ignition plays a critical part in the equation, and a timing light is going to help you properly tune your engine. Our advice: Splurge on one of the more advanced models so you can check your ignition timing at different rpm points. Who cares if your timing is great at idle but totally off at 6000 rpm?

Let There Be Light

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Hey, we love a good Biblical cliché, but in all seriousness a well-lit shop is safer, more productive and just nicer to use than a dark, dank cave. Not being able to see the task at hand is a recipe for frustration. Plus, shop lights don’t have to cost a fortune.

Avoid Rust

We’re going to file this one under the heading “learn from our mistakes”: Unless there’s a really, really compelling reason, don’t start a project with a rusty car. Something solid eventually shows up—but in our case, it’s usually too late because we tend to impatiently tear into rusty tubs. For those of you in the rust belt, how about shopping somewhere south? Sure, you’ll incur some travel expenses, but in the end you may come out ahead.

You Can’t Weld Dirt

Photography Credit: Alan Dalman

Carl Heideman has been beating this one into our heads for years: You can’t weld dirt. You also can’t weld through paint, primer, undercoating, seam sealant, dog hair or any kind of mung. Is there a gap between your parts? Well, you can’t weld air, either. You can only weld metal to metal, so your joints must be clean and tight. 

Know Thy Machine Shop

At some point you’re going to need something milled, machined, honed, decked, welded or just plain fabricated from scratch, and there’s a good chance you won’t have the tools or knowledge to successfully tackle the job. That’s where your handy local machine shop comes in. A good one understands your needs and can meet your target date and budget. Here’s the real trick: Locating that good shop well before your deadline.

If All Else Fails, Read the Directions

Photography Credit: Alan Dalman

Speaking of welders, these can be complex pieces of equipment. It sounds simple, but Carl swears that most problems can be traced to one common fault: operators who didn’t read the directions.

Look Good

Whether or not you’re going to win, at least look good. Our friend Rob Ebersol once taught us a little lesson on race car graphics. He’s a longtime Miata racer who’s a graphic artist by trade. His take-home message: Keep the designs big and simple, and three colors or fewer are usually all that you need—one warm, one cool and one neutral often work well together. Also, don’t forget your sponsors. Sure, the hood may be considered prime real estate, but more often than not the doors act as better billboards in photos.

Always Be Aware of Fire

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Our ancestors spent thousands of years learning how to make fire. Today, ignition can come in an instant, whether intentionally or not. And it’s those unintentional fires that will bite you in the bottom. Some down-and-dirty fire safety tips from your pals at GRM: Properly store oily rags in an approved, airtight container; watch the sparks when welding and grinding; and keep plenty of properly charged fire extinguishers in the shop. Smoke alarms are inexpensive, too, so why not hang one where you wrench?

Watch the Eyes

Harbor Freight has ANSI-rated shop glasses for less than a buck. Robotic eyes cost considerably more than that. That’s probably all we need to say on the topic.


You Can Run Just About Anything

We hear this one a lot: “I can’t possibly get involved in motorsports; I don’t have the right car.” Rubbish. You can run just about any four-wheeled vehicle at an autocross, rallycross or track event. Okay, rides with high centers of gravity are usually excluded, but basically we’re saying that it doesn’t take an Si, STI, Z06 or whatever badge to squeal some tires. Stop making excuses and get out there.

Control Your Hand Speed

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Randy Pobst once wrote a whole article for us about hand speed. High track speeds often require slow inputs from the steering wheel. Slow down your hands and your tires will thank you. Now, when things get a little out of control, that’s when fast hands will save your bacon. Match your hand speed to the situation, and your performance should improve.

Go to School

Even Tiger Woods still regularly works with an instructor. If the world’s best golfer still feels the need for some outside consultation, perhaps the rest of us can check our egos at the door and learn a few things from a good teacher.

Look Ahead

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

We get this advice every time an instructor rides with us: Look ahead—no, really look ahead. The farther ahead you look, the smoother and faster you’ll be. It’s basic science that you can’t argue against.

Run Good Tires

Everything you ask your car to do—accelerate, brake and turn—is eventually carried out by its four tires. You can have the best engine in the business, but if you have junk tires you’re just spinning your wheels—both figuratively and literally. We’d name tires as the single most important part of the car.

Thanks, Workers

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

It takes a small army of people to host an event, and most of the time they’re not being paid. They’re out there—rain, sun, snow or whatever—for the love of the sport. No matter how your session went, why not take a few moments to say thanks to the workers and officials? A friendly gesture during the cool-down lap or even a handshake in the pits can mean a lot.

Spring for Good Shocks, Too

After tires, shock absorbers are paramount to solid, repeatable performance. Worn-out shock absorbers prevent the tires from maintaining proper contact with the pavement, hurting all areas of performance.

Protect Your Neck

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

Driver safety gear is always evolving, and one of the biggest breakthroughs has to be the latest generation of head-and-neck restraints. The prices have come down while the systems have become more comfortable. Even if they’re not required by your rules, we’d strongly recommend using one. After all, it’s hard to race if you’re dead.

Be Safe

Are you 100-percent sure that all of your safety gear is properly installed? You know, having an expert double-check everything may not be a bad idea. Would you rather find out that your harness is improperly installed now or while you’re crashing into something?

Take Good Notes

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Our cars feature a ton of variables: tire pressures, alignment settings, corner weights, damper rates, wing angles, anti-roll bar setups, ignition timing, fuel curves, cam gear position, spark plug gaps and so many more. Unless you’re some kind of freak of nature, there’s no way to keep those facts and figures stored inside your head. The solution? Take good notes. Trust us, one day you’ll look back on that info and find the secret to success.

Read the Rules

Boy, has this one bitten us in the past. Before getting too deep into a racing project, read the rules. Have a reading comprehension problem? Find someone who doesn’t. There’s nothing worse than stitching something together only to find that it’s not quite kosher. Most rule books are available online these days, too, so take a break from playing “Mafia Wars” and check them out.

Use Big, Legible Numbers

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

In today’s age of die-cut vinyl, there’s pretty much no reason to be running around the track with puny, illegible numbers. Make them big and bold so everyone—from the track officials to the magazine editors—can read them. You want us to know who you are, right?

Sort It

A car isn’t complete when the last wrench is turned. That’s when the sorting process can begin. Leave room in your budget—both time and money—for some track testing and sorting before that first big event. And don’t forget the dyno time, either.


Get Out and See the World

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Whether you go as a spectator, participant or worker, check out some of the big events. Come join us at Daytona, enter the Solo Nationals, or plan a trip to an F1 race. The reasons are many: You’ll see how well an event can be run; return home with some awesome memories; and possibly rub elbows with famous folks. Sure, we all have our comfort zones, but sometimes you need to leave them for a bit.

Shoot Your Friends

No, no, not with a gun—photograph them. Sure, it’s fun to take snapshots of all the cool cars, but sometime down the road you’ll be happy that you pointed the camera at your friends, too. We used to say that film was cheap, meaning that each photo only cost a few pennies. With today’s digital media, photos are pretty much free. Go nuts.

Be Excellent to Each Other

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

And finally, one last lesson from our old friends William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. and Theodore “Ted” Logan: Just be nice to each other. Remember, most us play with cars to escape from the day-to-day grind, so don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun.

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motomoron SuperDork
12/3/15 2:47 p.m.

Or, as my wise father says: "Experience is what you get when you were expecting something else".

classicJackets Reader
12/3/15 2:49 p.m.

Thank you for not putting them on individual slides . Good advice with the right amount of fun in it!

Dusterbd13 UberDork
12/3/15 2:58 p.m.

my elcamino is proof that you can weld dirt, air, and rust. don't believe me? look at the drivers side a-pillar. theres a 10lb spool of flux core staring back at you.

12/3/15 3:20 p.m.

Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from a lack of wisdom.

12/3/15 9:40 p.m.

Wisdom is what you get when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get when you don't.

2K4Kcsq Reader
12/9/15 7:46 p.m.

Well put. When you accept that you know little, your free to learn a lot.

Basil Exposition
Basil Exposition Dork
12/9/15 9:58 p.m.

Experience is recognizing a mistake the second time you make it.

dotdotdotPaul New Reader
1/2/16 6:36 p.m.

Wisdom is rolled at creation. Experience is awarded by the Dungeon Master. :)

evildky SuperDork
1/5/16 4:17 p.m.

"Wyld Stallyns Rule!"

mazdeuce PowerDork
1/5/16 4:26 p.m.

In response to fire: months of healing and a lifetime of scars can happen at the speed of flame propagation. That's faster than you can move. Be careful.

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