One of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve the performance of a vehicle is to optimize the alignment settings. This is an easy and inexpensive process because it doesn’t require the purchase of speedy parts or expensive installation costs. Cars arrive from the factory with various amounts of adjustability when it comes to alignment settings. It is important to note that cars roll off the showroom floor with alignment settings designed for long-term tire wear — not exactly ideal for racing. Cars don’t come with maximum negative camber dialed in to the suspension for racing around corners. But the good news is that adjustment is available, and it is easy to do if you have the proper tools.
Changing alignment settings is not a difficult task, and it can usually be completed with just a few wrenches. Adjusting the alignment is easy. The trick is measuring alignment settings. Many people choose to leave this process to the pros at an alignment shop who use computerized alignment racks. However, you don’t need all of those fancy lasers and computers to measure accurately for a precise alignment. Professional and amateur racing teams do all of their alignment in their race shops and racetrack paddocks using strings. Did I say strings? Yup, strings. You don’t need a computer to align a car. Remember folks, it is just a car. It has four wheels and a chassis. It’s actually not that complicated.
If you are not familiar with the terms camber, caster, or toe when it comes to vehicle alignments, we covered all of that in nerdy detail in a previous article on TURNology titled Inexpensive Do-It-Yourself Vehicle Alignment. In this story, we are going to be using Smart Racing Products’ newest upgraded version of the Smart Strings and Smart Camber tools to add performance alignment settings to our Way of The FiST Fiesta ST. After running a few autocross events in the SCCA H-Street class, we found that the Fiesta could definitely benefit from some negative camber adjustments to the front suspension.
Our Fiesta ST has some pretty soft springs in it and loves to roll over in the corners. The rules in H-Street indicate that we can’t change the springs, but we can change the alignment. We added as much negative camber as we physically could by loosening the three bolts attaching the strut assembly to the unibody under the hood, and pushing the top of the strut toward the center of the car. We then loosened the two bolts attaching the bottom of the strut to the knuckle, and then pulled outward on the bottom of the brake rotor to gain more negative camber prior to torquing the bolts. These adjustments were free, only required three wrenches, and scored us 1.3 degrees of negative camber to the front tires.
If you read our previous article on alignments, you remember the order of operation: camber, caster, then toe settings. Once we adjusted the camber, that automatically changed our toe settings. The next step to aligning the FiST was to use the Smart Strings tool to get the toe settings just right.
Before we used our Smart Strings to try to measure our toe settings, we took the time to talk to the guy who invented this easy-to-use tool, Craig Watkins, who is also the owner of Smart Racing Products. Craig has a lot of years under his belt as a race car engineer for a professional race team, and he used strings to measure car alignments at tracks you may have heard of before (Daytona, Le Mans). If he used Smart Strings to align a Porsche at Le Mans, I guess we can use the same tool to measure the alignment on our Fiesta.
Craig said the reason he invented Smart Strings was because he hated the hassle of having to put his own race car in a trailer and drag it to an alignment shop for adjustments. Oftentimes the technicians at the shops didn’t want to set his alignment setting to what he specifically wanted (a racing setup) because “it wasn’t what the book said.” Craig invented Smart Strings so people (including himself) could measure their toe settings for both the front and the rear of the car, at the same time, on the same plane. This way, a car will go down the road straight, something that isn’t always the case when using toe plates and tape measures for alignment setups.
The concept of the Smart Strings tool is very basic. With a perfect rectangle around the car, you can measure from the strings (along the side of the car) to the edge of the wheels to determine if a wheel is perfectly straight, or if it has toe-in (wheels pointing in), or toe-out (wheels pointing out). Even though the tool is called Smart Strings, we use it as a “smart fishing line” as we utilize two fishing reels that extend the fishing line from a pole on one end of the car to the other. Once we are done with our measurements, we quickly reel the line in and then throw the two fishing reels into our Smart Strings bag.
Using a basic ruler can provide the measurements needed to determine if your car has toe-in or toe-out. Looking at the left front tire, we measured 28 millimeters (mm) from the fishing line to the leading edge of the wheel. We then measured 30mm from the fishing line to the trailing edge of the wheel. With the smaller measurement at the leading edge, that indicated that we had 2mm of toe-out on the left front wheel. Before you take measurements, ensure that the steering wheel is centered, and before you make any adjustments to toe settings, it is important to lock down the steering wheel so it doesn’t move.
We used a set of ratchet straps to hold down our steering wheel before we made any adjustments to the toe settings. Before we got to work on making changes, we needed to decide what settings we wanted. For ideas on racing setups and alignment ideas, check out some advice from different racers at TURNology. For our Fiesta ST, we wanted to add some positive toe (which means toe-in).
Adjusting toe on the front of a vehicle is very easy to do. All you need to do is loosen the jam nuts on the outer tie rod that attaches the steering rack to the knuckle. Rotating the inner tie rod (depending on the direction) will push the knuckle out from the steering rack or bring it closer, allowing you to set toe-out or toe-in.
With our string box around the car and our steering wheel locked down with straps, we got to work making small adjustments to the inner tie rod to get our toe settings just right. We were hunting for 2mm total of toe-in, one millimeter on each side. This would ensure the car would go down the road straight with the steering wheel perfectly centered. We would make a small turn to the inner tie rod, and then measure the leading edge of the wheel and the trailing edge of the wheel to see how close we were to our goal of one millimeter of toe-in on each side.
Once we had our settings perfect, we disassembled our Smart Strings and put them back into the handy storage case. Then it was time to make plans to head back to the track to see if our hard work and tinkering got the job done and made us faster on the track.
The newest edition of Smart Strings is easier to assemble and quicker to work with than previous versions. Craig Watkins has created a number of improvements on his product over the years. The tools replace an entire alignment shop and can be used by your average hot rodder to align any car anywhere.
With the updated alignment settings on the Double Nickel Nine Motorsports Ford Fiesta ST, thanks to the Smart Camber and Smart Strings tools from Smart Racing Products, the car hugged the turns and ripped through the autocross course bringing home another first-place victory in H-Street. The whole process was free, and we didn’t have to waste any time at a tire shop. That is the real victory.