Safety-related structure and paraphernalia aside, when it comes to the cockpit of a track car there are few more important bits for the driver than the gauges. In fact, at speed or in competition, they're likely the only things a driver will ever see inside the car.
That's because when you're driving all-out, everything that matters happens in the direction that the car is traveling. At the very limit, a driver's mind cannot be on things like mph, rpm, temp, pressure, volts, and so on. Even a brief glance at vital systems must be used sparingly. And the higher the performance potential, the more reliable, accurate, and easy to interpret the gauges need to be.
That's why true competition gauges tend to differ a bit from street gauges. In real-world stop and go, there is a lot more time to consider those dials, and early warning systems aren't nearly as critical. Along the same vein, accuracy and response time has to be a notch above as well. Also, the level of abuse track cars see is much higher, so race gauges have to be much more robust. And they need to be easily serviceable. For our barely street-legal '67 Mercury Cougar known as Max Effort, we knew we wanted to delve into what pro racers rely upon, so we touched base with Auto Meter regarding their Spek-Pro brand of competition gauges.
Spek actually comes straight from the NASCAR ranks. Pro Parts was started by a small group of engineers outside of Baltimore with the specific goal of creating top-tier racing gauges. Now a part of the Auto Meter family, Pro Parts' Spek-Pro gauges have unique features, such as a wide-angle dial design, which provides a 15 percent larger viewable area than traditional 21/16-inch gauges, making them easier to read. And they're available with antiglare lenses too. Each Spek-Pro gauge comes with a Control Output, which can be used to allow the instrument to switch on or off other devices. For example, you can use the water temperature gauge to control the electric cooling fans, have the oil-pressure gauge cut the fuel pump or ignition power if pressure drops to a dangerous level, or have a boost pressure gauge trigger a water/methanol injection system. This allows the driver to focus his efforts on the track while minimizing redundant systems, sensors, and wiring.
One thing worth noting is unlike a lot of "racing products" out there, the Spek-Pro gauges that you can buy off the shelf are no different internally than what the NASCAR and pro road race teams use. Actually, let us qualify that statement a bit; the only difference is Auto Meter has to disable the Pro Control features on the gauges Cup teams use to conform with NASCAR rules. Technically, the off-the shelf Spek gauges are better than what the Cup teams can buy.
Rather than craft a new dash panel from scratch, we decided to use Max's original XR7 dash since it had the look we wanted already. We just needed to figure out how to get the Spek-Pro gauges in and make them look like the dash was actually built for them. For that, we turned to Shannon Hudson at Redline Gaugeworks. Hudson has decades of experience and only hires people for his team that have artistic vision as well as fabrication know-how, and it shows in Redline's final products. While they often create high-end retrofits for vintage cars, we decided to take the simple approach with this project. (While our project is a little outside Redline's normal work, they can do custom gauge and instrument panel jobs, which they charge $80 an hour for. This job, for instance, would cost about $680, not including the gauges.) Since Max is about function first, we used the opportunity to show you that with the right approach it doesn't have to be complex or pricey to create an engaging dash.
Here’s Max Effort’s factory dash before we began. The ’67 XR7 Cougar has a dash that looks like aftermarket gauges dropped into a flat Trans-Am–style panel. Sadly, they are terribly inaccurate, but the style makes it ideal since the gauges are a standard size with no bezels in the way. By the way, the ’67-68 Cougar dash is a drop-in for ’67-68 Mustangs.
XR7s even have an oil pressure gauge located on the passenger side, though the flush mount makes it fairly difficult for the driver to read. We’ll show you how to fix that.
Spek-Pro gauges are competition bred, so they’re extremely light, as evidenced by their ultrathin profile. They also have a unique mounting style; all gauges regardless of face diameter use the same 21/16 mounting pedestal with a screw-on mount cup. This simplifies installation and makes the gauges easily serviced, replaced, relocated, or swapped.