What Alignment Should I Get?

Something I hear often from newer track drivers, “what alignment should I get?” I did the same when I started. There is no perfect alignment you can plug-and-play. Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different alignment sets. That’s because the settings depend on your car’s height, suspension, driving style, type of driving, and on and on. I used what Flyin Miata suggested when I started. That will get you further down the road but at some point, you have to be able to determine the best alignment for your car, tires, setup, and driving style. That takes time and tweaking.

The Settings

A lot of cars can only be adjusted in the front but the MX5, being a true sports car, allows for both front and rear adjustments. This means you can adjust the camber and toe in the front and rear, and caster in the front. I’m not going to get into the details of what caster, camber and toe are. There are plenty of articles about the specifics elsewhere.

The Goal

Going faster on track is the goal! To do that, we adjust the camber to get the optimum amount of rubber on the road when cornering. The tire rolls over when you corner and without enough camber, the outside edge of your tire will wear out, perhaps all the way to the cords, while the inside of the tire still has plenty of rubber.

We add negative camber to get more rubber on the road when cornering. This makes us faster around the corners. A lot of camber can have a negative effect on braking, however, as now less of the tire is making contact with the road when braking in a straight line. There is no single set of alignment values that will work equally well for every car and driver.  It’s all a balancing act and working out what works best for you is half the fun. Driving is the other half!

The following are my experiences with alignment settings.

My First Alignment

When I got my first “performance alignment”, I wasn’t tracking the car. I knew an alignment could help the car feel better on the back roads so, like most, I asked other people what they were using for an alignment. I ended up going with the settings Flyin Miata recommended. As a basic street setup, this is pretty darn good. It will work for those that drive on the street primarily with the occasional track day. The car will be more responsive but it won’t chew up the inside edges of the tires horribly. This is an excellent place to start.

Front
Camber: 1.8 degrees negative
Toe-in: 1/32″, 0.075° or 4.5 minutes per side
Caster: 8.0 degrees

Rear
Camber: 1.8 degrees negative
Toe-in: 1/32″, 0.075° or 4.5 minutes per side

The Right Shop Matters

My first alignment was done by the car repair shop down the street. Not a good choice.

A run-of-the-mill alignment shop rarely, if ever, does a performance alignment. We want exact numbers that match from side to side. A manufacturer’s spec alignment doesn’t have to match and has a bit of variance built in. For instance, the ND manual states that a variation of ±1° is fine on the camber setting. With that, it would be okay to have -1.8° on one corner and -2.8° on another corner. Having that kind of variance makes the alignment much easier for an alignment shop but the car doesn’t perform nearly as well as it could. And isn’t that the goal, getting the car to perform better?

I gave my “down the street” alignment shop my preferred numbers and off they went with the car. After a long time, they said it was done. I asked to see the final numbers before I paid. I could immediately see they didn’t touch the back of the car and the numbers didn’t match side to side. Back it went into their alignment void. Once again, it took a long time and when they brought out the final numbers, it didn’t match side to side and the numbers weren’t exactly what I wanted. But I was done with it at this point.

Even with the less than perfect alignment, the car did perform better. It was immediately noticeable.

My First Track Alignment

My initial settings worked fine when I first started track driving. As a beginner, I wasn’t pushing the car or its tires especially hard. Oh, it felt plenty fast at first, but with experience comes more speed. As I got faster, I noticed my tires weren’t wearing evenly across the surface of the tire. I needed to fix that get even faster and make my tires last longer. Tires aren’t cheap so the longer they last, the better.

For my next alignment, I found a track-oriented alignment shop. They knew all about exact settings. It was more expensive than the standard alignment shop but the results were much better. If you don’t have a track-focused shop nearby, talk to others at the track to see where they take their cars.

Since the car was lowered via coilovers to 12.5″, I could get more negative camber than before (a lower car allows for more negative camber). Since every ND is slightly different, you may find you can’t get to these numbers.

Front
Camber: -3.0°
Toe-in: 0.0° per side
Caster: 6.6°

Rear
Camber: -2.6°
Toe-in: 1/32″, 0.075° or 4.5 minutes per side

I went with 0° toe in the front because my track has some very long straights and I thought this might help with tire wear. Plus it will reduce scrubbing a bit which increases speed.

This particular alignment was used for about a year. It was the most camber I could get in the front and my tires were wearing pretty well. But once again, as I got more experienced, I was pushing the tires harder. I started noticing the outside edge wearing more and knew I had to do something to get more camber.

A Bit on Caster/Camber Interplay

Caster is what centers the wheel in the wheel well. Larger caster numbers make the steering slightly heavier but can add more camber dynamically. That’s a good thing. Smaller caster numbers make for a lighter feel at turn-in. We are back to that balancing act.

Caster and Camber affect each other. Once you reach the limits, adding more caster reduces camber, and vice-versa. To get the most camber in the front, reduce the caster to 6° or so, then set the max camber. Now, if desired, increase the caster until it starts affecting the camber. This will give you the maximum camber without aftermarket bushings or A-arms.

Adding More Camber

Tire WearWith more speed came more tire wear. Visually inspecting your tires is one of the simplest ways to see if your alignment settings are working. A pyrometer is a more scientific method. I started using one to measure the heat across my tires. There are articles on other sites to explain the use of a pyrometer if you are interested. I will say I’m back to doing it via tire wear. It’s easier than the pyrometer and, well, I can be lazy at times.

With my lowered ND, I could only get to a maximum of -3.0° camber. But I needed more so I installed the Karcepts ND Front Camber Bushings which allow more negative camber in the front. My settings on the next alignment:

Front
Camber: -3.5°
Toe-in: 0.0° per side
Caster: 6.0°

Rear
Camber: -2.8°
Toe-in: 0.0° per side

I like this setup. The lower caster gives a lighter feeling on turn-in. Not everyone likes this but I do. The other thing it does is center the front wheels in the wheel well. With this, I get very little liner rub. The 0.0° toe-in also works for me but again, not everyone will like the feel. In my particular car, with my setup and driving style, I get good rotation through the corners and the car feels very balanced.

Constant Tweaking

Don’t assume my alignment settings will work as well for you. I’m constantly tweaking my camber. With one brand of tires, I found that if I lowered the camber to -3.0° in front, they wore better. Now I’m on a different brand and they look like they want more camber, so I’m going back to -3.5° in front and probably -3.0° in the rear. I’m sticking with the 0.0° toe and 6.0° caster. Be willing to experiment. Keep good notes and take photos of your tires every now and then. This helps dial in the best alignment for your needs.

SIDE NOTE: At one point I got so interested in alignment changes, I decided to do my own. I bought the necessary equipment and went for it. IT WAS HORRIBLE!! I spent all friggin day trying to get my alignment just right. Alignments are an art in my opinion and I am not an artist. I did one alignment and immediately sold the equipment so I’d never be tempted to try again.

If you want to know more about the effects camber, caster and toe have on the race track, this is a good article.

Let me know if you have questions in the comments below.

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