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Someone asked how I got into tuning…

April 08, 2018


Here’s an email I received on the 26th of January 2017:

“Hello how are you? I’ve been reading, researching and watching my mentor to learn how to tune he doesn’t have a lot of time to show me what exactly he is doing as most of the time I’m working on the mechanical side of things while he runs to the dyno to do some tuning.. I’ve take hp academy efi101 class and plan on taking efi university efi 101 and dyno tuning workshop. Is there any other advice or anything that you could help me with? It’s been almost 3 years and I haven’t gotten to tune anything myself…. I would love to get some laptop time soon.. any advice or tips would be great..
P.s- how did you first learn to tune?”

I’ve been trying to think how to answer it. I think that there are some points I need to cover about life in general first before I talk about tuning though.

The first is that it’s up to you whether you do something or not. If you’re truly passionate about it, then you’ll be doing it as a hobby. You’ll be doing in your spare time, joining Facebook groups, meeting up with people doing the same thing and learning together. For me I was lucky in that two of my passions; computers and electronics, my father was very much into those so I had access to components and tools from a young age. However he didn’t really teach me actively; most of the time I experimented myself, I read books, I built circuits from magazines and typed in programs from books. I would go to him when I got stuck on something and needed help. I never expected anyone to show me or teach me; I was so passionate that I would work it out. And yes of course I couldn’t work it all out but going to someone and asking for help when you’re stuck, and have a specific question, is a lot more productive to your learning than not actually getting stuck in the first place, and waiting for someone to teach you.

Secondly, learning materials like courses, books, magazines and so on are great (as I said I learned a lot from manuals, books and magazines in computers and electronics) but you still need the experience.

One chapter of a book called “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell looked at the amount of time you need to actively spend practising a skill and honing your craft before you get to be world class at it, looking at history of truly world class people or groups like Bill Gates and the Beatles. He discovered it was about ten thousand hours, which works out to be roughly 5 years fulltime. Gates was able to start Microsoft because he’d been sneaking out of home when he was a teenager and using a computer at the school at night time, practising his programming skills, so by the time he had finished school he was years ahead of all of his peers. How does this relate to dyno tuning? Quite a few tuners I know, looking back, wouldn’t call themselves tuners until they had their own dyno and had spent hours and hours experimenting with one of their own cars, learning what engines liked, what they didn’t like and so on. Getting that seat time is where the learning really starts. I’m not devaluing educational courses; I think they have a lot of value in terms of saving you time; actually teaching you what PID means instead of spending several weeks experimenting with it, but you still need to have the experience. All it will do is save you from barking up the wrong tree for a week. I have a mechatronics engineering degree, I can tell you that we learnt PID in a lot more detail than most tuners ever know (requiring an understanding of complex numbers and Laplace transforms / Fourier analysis), but I bet you every single one of my peers would have got caught on integrator wind-up until they had seen it first hand and had the experience.

Thirdly, I don’t know the relationship you have with your mentor, but my experience with tuners is that generally they want to tune, and they start up their business as a way to make money for them to do the part that they like, which is tuning. Even if they had someone working for them who wanted to learn, the fact is that they would be so far behind the main tuner because they haven’t put all their own hours in over the last five to twenty years to do the learning, so they won’t be nearly as good – so it can’t even really help to lighten the load of the tuner. There’s sometimes also the added effect that the tuner doesn’t want to teach someone else to tune, in case they leave and start up their own competing business. So again like I said before, you have to learn by yourself, not expect someone else to teach you.

Put another way, your education, knowledge and experience is what determines how much value you can add to others, which in a free market economy translates into how much money you can make. So it’s in your interest to take control over your education.

If I were you, I’d try to strike up a deal where you can use your mentor’s dyno, on your own time, on your own car, to gain experience and learn. Dyno time is normally expensive so there’ll need to be something in it for them, eg you’re going to help them out with some of the more boring aspects of the tuning to lighten their load, eg all the steady state stuff and they can do the power stuff. Then gain the experience that way. If you don’t have any questions, do a complete tune on your car and ask your mentor to review it and give you feedback (of course they will need to see the car, feel it on the street for drivability, etc). If you have questions, try to solve them on your own and present the question to the mentor with what you’ve already tried to answer.

Eg, do you have a rough idea of what ignition timing I should run at WOT on an NA engine with 15:1 compression and E85? I found a map for 98 RON and 10:1 compression that was about 30° at peak torque, I figure the E85 will allow more but 15:1 will mean less, so should it still be about 30? Or start at 25 and work up? What would you do?

… as opposed to …

Can you make a base ignition map for this engine for me?

Also, talk to people. You’ll learn new techniques because people will tell you things like “Yeah, you can do it that way, but I’ve started doing it this way and it’s a lot quicker”.

I’m not sure if any of this is useful or not but the initial question was pretty open ended!

How I learnt to tune, well I wouldn’t consider myself a career tuner; I don’t do it fulltime and I doubt I have 10000 hours. But my process was:

  • Started street tuning my own car. I only had a narrowband O2 sensor. Had no idea what I was doing, was trying to get stoich everywhere. Was a low compression engine though and only ran stock boost so I didn’t kill the engine by doing this.
  • Then I did Formula SAE with my university, I met my first mentor (hi Paul!) who helped me do the tuning, told me what AFRs to aim for etc. We had a wideband which I’d roughly used to tune before I got to the dyno so I had a bit of an idea.
  • Then I did my next own car, at first on the street with a wideband, then on the dyno. I found a dyno operator (hi Mark) who had pretty good rates, I asked him if he would hire the dyno out (by this time I had previously operated the dyno in step 2 before so I wasn’t completely green), I said I think I just wanted 2 hours, he said he would drive the car and operate the dyno and I can do whatever I want with the laptop. After that he said “if he didn’t think I was a complete idiot, he might let me operate the car / dyno after the first hour”. When I got there, we talked about what I was trying to do (just constant speed load tuning) and he was satisfied I wasn’t a complete idiot and he just let me do it myself.
  • Later on he let me use his dyno for free to tune my own cars and gain experience but by that time I was helping him out with ECU installation and setup so I had something to offer in exchange.
  • Similarly I have been able to do tuning on my own cars or customers’ cars using other peoples’ dynoes, being able to ask them for some help and advice from time to time, so I’ve gained experience that way.

I’m not sure if this is useful for not, but the main thing is that you have to start; if you’re trying to learn all you can before you start or you’re scared that you’ll damage something then you’ll never start. Yes you will damage things, you’ll need to upgrade them and this will cost money so you need a way to fund that until you’re good enough to make money doing it. Experience and education are not free.

Thank you.