Friday, May 14, 2010

From Zero to Hero - How to Become a Pro Tuner

Ben Strader from EFI University shares his thoughts on becoming a pro tuner.

There always seems to be something cool, mysterious even, about a professional engine tuner that is hard to put words on. They always know just how much to push the engine, just how to get the last bit of performance out of it and somehow it always takes them way less time than even seems possible to get the job done. So what is it? How does one get from wannabe magazine reader to expert engine tuner? Well a lot of things actually, but none that are impossible for an average Joe to achieve.

Did you know that expert tuners make almost exactly the same number of errors that novice or beginner tuners make? It’s true! After thousands of hours spent messing around with engines of every conceivable combination I find that every time I pick up the laptop and spin the dyno I make several , (if not many) mistakes. So, if that’s the case, then why is it that Pro Tuners seem to blow up a lot less engines than the poor guy just starting out and experimenting with his car?
The main difference is that as an expert tuner goes about the business of engine calibration he will detect and correct these errors before they get out of control and cause a problem. That’s part of what being a pro is all about… It’s having the experience to know when something isn’t just right and knowing where to look for answers.

So what things will a successful tuner candidate need to have? Let’s take a look!

1) Knowledge.

To be a tuner requires a vast knowledge base of a large group of topics such as mechanics, electronics, chemistry, math, science and critical thinking skills. Without this core knowledge a tuner often struggles to understand what is causing a symptom or oddity for the engine. Often, I find myself using basic math to calculate the required injector size for an engine or properly size a turbo and without at least a basic high-school level of education it would be tough to keep everything in line. Stay in school kids!

2) Skill in Dexterity.

This is a tough one because some skills are naturally gifted to a person and others need to be practiced over and over again until they become second nature. A lot of skill is required to properly put an engine on a dyno or strap a car down properly on the rollers to ensure traction without deforming the tires so badly that they overheat.

Or how about the skills required to drive the vehicle with one hand and operate the laptop with the other without losing control?

Luckily, with practice all these skills can be obtained easily enough.
No matter how much knowledge a tuner has from reading books or web sites and forums the skills cannot be gained without practice, even for someone who is naturally gifted.

Think about a professional ballplayer trying to hit a homerun. He could have read every book in the library about the proper way to swing the bat, but without years of practice he’s probably going to strike out.

Bottom line: if you want to turn knowledge into skills…you gotta put in the time on the dyno!

3) The ability to problem Solve.

If one thing is certain, it is that as long as folks have tried to coax an engine in to performing better the engine has tried every trick in the book, (and even some that aren’t) to get away with sloppy or poor performance. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the engine will throw you a curve ball!

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve made my greatest discoveries not by starting with “AH HA!”, but with a scratch of the head and a “what the heck was that?”

What I’m getting at here is that a good tuner always seems to have the ability to look past the complexities and see what is too obvious to notice! We want so badly for the problem to be original and different that we just cannot accept the fact that it just plain old ran out of gas!

One of the most dangerous things a tuner can do is assume anything. Don’t assume it has fuel, air, and spark….go back to the basics and check for sure. You’ll find a lot of creative ways the engine will try to fool you, but a little bit of original thinking outside the box usually gets the job done.

4) Communication Skills

This one is a doozy! I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a tuner and customer at odds over nothing more than a complete failure to communicate.

The problem with “performance” is that it means different things to different folks.
When a drag racer wants all out power for a short period of time, his calibration simply will not be acceptable for a road car owner looking for the utmost in stingy fuel consumption.

If the tuner does not communicate very clearly with the customer before beginning any work as far as what the customer should expect in terms of performance, delivery time and of course, cost then trouble is soon to follow.
Good communication is a rare but valuable skill that if practiced effectively can solve a lot of conflicts long before they ever begin.

In the end, there will always be tuners who have a laptop, are very well read on the internet, and who are willing to travel and sell their services to anyone willing to pay, but without a LOT of practice and experience that can only be gained through actual tuning they will find themselves struggling to make every project go as smoothly as it seems like the pro’s always do.
At our school here at EFI University we see folks come through all the time that want to take some basic training and then go straight to the top of the heap and earn top dollar tuning the highest levels of racing engines out there, and we always encourage them to follow their dreams but along the way, remember that a lot more time and patience and practice is required to run with the big dogs!

Ben Strader - EFI University