The other day a friend of mine came to me asking about what I thought he should do with his performance boat that was having trouble with.  He said it was “sputtering” and “missing” and that he was going to change his fuel filter.

My first question to him was “Does it do this at full power or partial power?”  His answer was “it runs fine at full power.”
To which I replied, “Leave the fuel filter alone and change the spark plugs!”

When I was younger, a wise old man once told me “90% of your carburetor problems can be found in the distributor”.  At them time I didn’t really understand what he meant, and frankly, didn’t really believe him either, but over the years its turned out that he was rarely wrong in his assessment of troubleshooting engine problems.

You see, I’ve come to realize that what he was really getting at was that if you’ll take the time to truly think through what is going on inside your engine, then troubleshooting becomes more a game of “problem solving” instead of just changing parts until the problems go away.

My logic in telling my buddy to disregard his fuel filter was simple: If the engine runs good at wide open, then it couldn’t be a fuel delivery issue, because the total fuel demand is much higher at full power than anywhere else.  Since the problem only existed at partial power settings, the fuel delivery issue didn’t fit in.  He took my advice, and installed new plugs and it ran like a champ!

That story reminds me of a good illustration I’m always using in our classes at EFI University when I talk about the challenges facing today’s tuners.  I spend a lot time lamenting that “tuning” engines today has become largely a video game by which we strive to make the numbers on a display unit match the ones we’ve somewhat arbitrarily chosen, rather than “listening” to what the engine is trying to tell us, and giving it what it wants.

Sometimes I’ll go to a race and see a guy making changes with his laptop and I’ll stop and ask “whatcha doin?”  Often I’ll get a response along the lines of “Well, yesterday I was on the dyno and the engine had an Air/Fuel Ratio of  12.5 to 1 and I noticed that during my run my data logger shows I was at 12.48 to 1 today so I’m leaning it out a little to make sure everything looks good.”

Making sure everything looks good?  What are they talking about?  Are they serious?  If they had done ANY amount of testing while wasting their money on that dyno session they likely would have found no benefit at all from small to medium changes in Air Fuel ratio, so why the insistence on a particular number then?  Is 12.5 “better” than say 12 or 13?  Do they have any actual test data to back that up, or is it simply because the local guru said that’s the way it is?  I find myself shaking my head.  A lot.

In the long ago days gone by (like 10 years ago) we actually had to pay attention to the way the engines behaved and make changes to achieve results like better trap speeds, faster revving, less smoke, etc.  To do that, we had to learn how to read and interpret spark plugs, evaluate the color of the tailpipe, listen to the way the engine sounded, and so on.  In other words, we didn’t care what the “numbers” were, so long as the engine actually performed.  An engine or a tuner was judged by their actual performance, rather than “how smooth their maps look”.

I find that very few tuners do much based on real data.  Some lack the ability to collect the data, others the ability to interpret the data they have but most people I talk to get a faraway and confused look on their face and need a little time to respond when I ask questions like “why did you choose to do it THAT way?”

The truth is, not many folks ever stop to question the gurus out there.  They said it, their car goes pretty fast, so it must be true!  This scenario is mostly to blame for the idea that making an engine run well, or a car go fast has largely become regarded as “Black Magic” or a secret “ART” form.

Tuning is not Art.  Tuners are not Artists.  Not the good ones, anyway.

Tuning is an exercise in problem solving.  We have a car or an engine that currently does “X” and we want to make it do “Y”.  We need to either be really lucky or use a tried and true process and procedure in order to get good results, every single time.

I like to compare tuning an EFI System to building a bird house and use the concept of “Arts and Crafts” to explain what I mean.

You see, if I wanted to build a bird house, I would need to start with a set of plans.  These plans would include a few important things:

  1. a bill of materials
  2. a list of tools
  3. a step by step procedure starting from A and going to Z
  4. a picture of what its supposed to look like when I get done


If I follow the procedure in order, using the correct tools and materials I should be able to hold up what I built next to the picture and anyone could look at the two items and tell me if I did the job correctly.  It either does, or does not look like the one in the picture.

An artist works on a completely different concept.  He starts with a blank canvas and a palette of colors.  He may choose any size brush and any combination of shapes to begin and no one (not even the artist himself) knows exactly what it will eventually look like until the final brush stroke is made and he exclaims “viola!”

The trouble is that while he sees a beautiful work of art, I might walk up and say something offensive like “hey, whose kid drew on the wall?”

You see…Art, by definition, is subject to the opinion of the viewer.  That means that the artist can express his emotions or feelings in a way that seems obvious to him, but the viewer may interpret that to mean something entirely different because there was no discussion in the beginning about that the end goal should be.

The same thing happens to a lot of tuners.  A guy drops off his pickup truck to be “tuned” thinking that he’ll come back to more low end torque for towing and better gas mileage and when he comes back the tuner is showing him how much Horsepower he gained “on the big end”.  The owner is disappointed and thinks the tuner is a “bad” tuner, and in some ways I’d have to agree with him.

A carpenter wouldn’t start pounding nails into boards on a custom home without a goal or picture of what should be there at the end and a tuner shouldn’t plug in his laptop without first understanding what it is that his customer expects.

Tuning is a craft, just like a bird house.  To do it right, you need the right tools, the right materials, and a master plan with clearly stated goals for the outcome.  That makes you a craftsman, not an Artist!

I can tell you that in 20 years of problem solving and troubleshooting engines using the engine dyno, the chassis dyno the racetrack or the street that I have never once “expressed myself” through an EFI calibration!  Its not art, its problem solving and the idea that only a few select “gurus” can understand that magic of making engines run well is plain and simple hogwash!

Remember that anyone who has the ability to think for themselves, the willingness to ask questions and not accept “because I said so” as an answer, has the ability to be a great tuner and problem solver.  I know…because if I can do it, so can you!