By Aaron Waldron
A tuning fork is a two-pronged acoustic resonator made of steel. When struck, they produce a consistent tone - making it possible to tune a musical instrument to proper performance every time. In regards to the RC industry, though, the tuning fork is a metaphor for a large divide between racers who take one of two different approaches to RC racing.
Pit area conversation at many tracks is often dominated by talk of “setup.” Setup is an RC term that has strayed from the dictionary definition of “system, structure, or arrangement,” as well as “trick or trap,” to mean “your current configuration of suspension and equipment settings.” Drivers fill out “setup sheets” to record their specific settings for a given track condition, and racers often adopt someone’s setup. “Are you running (insert driver)’s setup?”
It has been this way for decades.
Sure, there are plenty of drivers at all levels who make their own adjustments - and create their own “setup.” Team drivers may all start at the same point when traveling to an event, and make changes based on driving style or in order to try something on behalf of the team. RC racers are sometimes careful not to share successful setup changes in case the information happens to help another team.
The art of “setup” has become increasingly prevalent in RC racing. On-road racers live and die on finding the perfect setup - and they’ll test endlessly in their quest to find it. Even off-road racers have gone from measuring ride height by “arms level” to actual millimeters, and using setup stations instead of motor spray cans to measure camber. There are more tuning options, tire/foam/wheel combinations, battery size/shape/placement configurations, and body/wing(s) choices than ever. And racers do more pre-race testing, with and without warm-up races, than any time in RC history.
Of course, testing and searching for that ever-elusive, perfect “setup” isn’t always the perfect approach.
Take, for example, this past weekend’s ROAR Electric Off-Road Nationals at SRS Raceway in Phoenix. Despite the addition of a mister system to help maintain an appropriate level of moisture on the racing surface, over 6000 square feet of soil failed to maintain a perfectly consistent amount of traction throughout five days of blasting A/C amid 100+ deg. outside temperatures and thousands of laps turned by hundreds of cars
I hope the sarcasm of that last sentence came through effectively.
The track conditions split attendees between two camps - those who shrugged it off and did the best they could (or even enjoyed the drama the added challenge provided), and those who absolutely hated it. Those whose last name wasn’t “Cavalieri” or “Day” had a greater chance to be in the second group.
It was while thinking about this rift between those who struggled, and those who excelled, in the varying track conditions that I noticed another divergence between the difference approaches to racing.
Among racers who expressed their displeasure with the inconsistent track conditions and preparation (especially those who did so vocally to race management and anyone else who could hear), the most common concern was “how can I determine the proper adjustments to make without knowing what the track is going to be like?”
Contrast this with how Ryan Cavalieri commented in multiple interviews during our broadcast over the weekend, in which he said he wasn’t trying to adjust his cars to chase the track conditions, but rather focused on trying to drive them the best he could. In the case of his 4WD buggy, in which he won all four rounds of qualifying and the first two A-Mains, he simply added thicker shock oil to what he runs at his home track.
Tuning forks provide the same musical tone use after use, in spite of outside conditions. Unfortunately, RC cars are not tuning forks - and sometimes they’re not always set up perfectly.
It’s not the first time that Cavalieri has won a tricky race on the track, rather than lose it on a setup board. The “I just left the car alone and drove it” line wasn’t just repeated through the four post-championship winning interviews on Sunday, but something that has resonated throughout what is quickly turning into one of the best careers ever.
This plays out on a local level, too. There are racers who build their kits with a pro’s setup sheet (or even the standard settings from the manual) and drive the vehicle into the ground. And there are those that constantly tune themselves in and out of contention. Translating the tuning options available on today’s cars into on-track performance can be complicated for those with engineering degrees to completely comprehend.
Sure, there have been many championships won by racers whose mindset toward setup is “on a (indoor/outdoor) track made of (insert surface) that was (insert track condition), my car worked well with these settings.” Ryan Cavalieri just proved that “my car was pretty good last time - so I’ll just drive it” can be successful, too.
Which group are you in?