Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Philosophy, Vol. 1

Here’s the first of several posts. Lacking a better one-word description, I’m calling them “Philosophy”. This series will address non-technical concepts, such as:

-Approaches to problem solving
-How to make decisions
-Common foibles and failures
-Old wives’ tales, Murphy’s law, and the like

If this list sounds too general, be assured the focus will be firmly on racing, not on folksy sermons. My caution to the reader is this – you’ll read this and say “Sure, I already knew that”. I hear you, but I don’t believe you. These are mistakes I’ve made over and over, and that I see others continue to make every day.

I’ll share my thoughts, ideas, approaches, and experience (with the usual qualifier that I’ll leave some things to the reader to figure out, and keep some key advantages for myself). I’m not presenting these as “universal truths”, merely as my outlook. You are free to disagree, in fact I welcome it. Enough blather, here’s today’s topic…

“Just because you think you have a good idea”

Three examples:
1-In “The Unfair Advantage”, Mark Donohue reckoned that he was lucky if half of things he tried on a race car actually turned out good.

2-When I was club racing, my engine guru and I decided, from our readings and musings, that the exhaust system on my car needed to be shorter. Dutifully fabbed up, the new system was a joy to the eye and ear. Several months later, it was found NOT to be a joy to the dyno. Until then, I had firmly believed in my own cleverness, not only about the exhaust system but about everything I did to the car. What an eye opener!

3-An unnamed race car, introduced in the last several years, failed to meet a major performance target. Its design was based, in part, on a fundamental concept that failed on another car some years earlier.

So, you think having the front roll center 1.0” below ground is a good idea. Or, you think qualifying on scuffed tires is a good idea. Or, you think the best aero balance will be 45% front downforce.

Here’s what’s potentially wrong with every idea you have – no matter how broad and deep your know-how and experience, there will always be unexpected and/or unknown factors. Our knowledge of vehicle dynamics and racing will always be flawed and incomplete. Those of us who complete engineering school come away with a cause-and-effect, deterministic outlook on problem solving.

The solution:
-Test new stuff, don’t just throw it on the car and pronounce it an improvement. Testing may be physical, at the track or other (wind tunnel, 7-post, shock dyno, K&C). Testing may also be virtual (CFD, FEA, etc.)
-Sometimes you don’t know if your idea is bad until you try something different.
-Keep an open mind when trying new stuff. Be prepared to give up on it.
-Learn how to recognize which new ideas have a better chance of succeeding.

Techno-junkies, thanks for bearing with me. The next post will be about race cars.


  1. "Be prepared to give up on it" . This is one of the toughest for many people because they have already made up there minds that their mod is going to work.

  2. "there will always be unexpected and/or unknown factors. Our knowledge of vehicle dynamics and racing will always be flawed and incomplete."

    How true! But getting to the next level is so much fun and challenging.

  3. Very interesting post.

    Sometimes mental approach is really more important than a lot of technical improvement.

    Above all in that kind of series where drivers are still young and you need to carefully drive them in the right direction.
    Your way of thinking can have a great influence on their performance.

  4. A very smart friend of mine told me these things and they are SO true.

    - What I am certain is correct can change instantly in the light of what is REALLY correct whether I like it or not.

    - Just because I don’t want to believe it, doesn’t make it wrong.

    - Just because I want to believe it doesn’t make it right either...

    - Knowing what is wrong is every bit as important as knowing what is right.

    - You only KNOW something if you can prove it. Everything else is
    I suspect” or “ I guess” or “ I wonder if” or “ it is my theory

    - The right answer is still the right answer even if you didn’t think of

    - The right answer is still the right answer even if you don’t have any idea of why it works... but find out later for sure because the underlying principles will always apply.

    - Asking other people for answers is perfectly acceptable as you
    never believe them.

  5. Great stuff, Buddy! Thanks for taking the time to help us understand so we can all do better!