Track Records Galore – a Garmin Catalyst Review

I field a ton of private and offline questions about racing, mainly from the iRacing League I started and the B-Spec Facebook page where I used my business strategies to help the community become the fastest growing class in road racing. The number one set of questions over the past few months has been about the new Garmin Catalyst data analysis tool as I was one of the first movers on this technology. A little background – I have always been a data nerd and bought a G-Analyst back in my autocross days in the 80s. Yes I still have it – should probably go in a museum somewhere (the picture here is a full system that sold for $8.50 at a recent estate sale)

Yet even with that, I did not have an AIM system or other data driven device in my race car. Why? Because for me the amount of time spent at a track studying and analyzing the graphs, while certainly valuable, took away from the fun and friendly social time. Certainly part of it came from being color blind, and the other part from needing reading glasses, but the concept of downloading data into my laptop and pouring over the charts in my trailer sounded a lot like my 8-5 job, so I tapped out. I felt the Catalyst had the opportunity to simplify that process and at the urging of my longtime friend Peter Krause, I ordered one immediately after the on sale date (Garmin Press release date 9/3/20) and used it in competition at Gateway on the 19th . Now, after a few months of using it, I decided to do a summary post about my experiences and thoughts.

Garmin® shifts gears with the Garmin Catalyst driving performance optimizer  | Business Wire

Lets start with a rating. The Catalyst is either a 10/10 or a 5/10 depending on who you are and how you want to use it. I know, I know, what a crappy way to rate a product and for someone as opinionated as me, the inability of my experiences to translate into a simple answer is frustrating. Unfortunately the Catalyst does many things so much better than any other product on the market you cannot rate it less than perfect. Yet it also leaves off some other really important things which mean it is a poor replacement for the best systems on the market today. And then there is the price. Even with the recent announcement of a rebate, its a large chunk of money for racers who as a whole, mostly struggle to race as much as they want. For some, the purchase would actually eliminate a weekend of racing, and in that case I cannot recommend it. Data aside, there is NO substitute for seat time. So maybe the best way to help people decide, is to review what I found were the best and worst features and let each individual make their own decision.

The two best parts of the system are clear and readily apparent: the large colorful screen is amazing which means in-car visibility is fantastic. And the fact it is completely self-contained gives the ability to easily remove it from the car to review results. Which is perfect for the 5 minutes after I get out and the sessions is still fresh in mind. Lets cover them one-by-one.

The Screen. Measuring 7 1/4″ diagonally, it is the perfect size to install in a car. Large enough to be scanned quickly for information, yet not so large it is bulky, it is in my opinion the #1 top selling feature. Any smaller and the video reviews of your laps would require an old guy like me to squint (or worse, find my reading glasses). Any larger and you would not be able to hold it in one hand and manage the menus with the other. The graphic design team did an almost perfect job of coloration and setup to make things easy. In car the theoretical lap and relative timing is perfect – again, large enough to be glanced at (you do NOT want to be reading or searching for anything while racing) and easy to comprehend. I am not going to do a screen-by-screen summary of the system. Others have done that already. Only that I come back to a situation that I do not believe is rare. My glasses. I have a pretty bad astigmatism, meaning I need bifocals, but I find they make me nauseous. So I am stuck with a set of glasses for distance and another for reading. Obviously in a race car I wear the distance prescription, which means reading gages is more so guesswork than actually accurate. So having a system I can scan and comprehend quickly is INVALUABLE. PS please excuse the pollen on the picture above from Roebling Road Savannah GA Feb 2021 – it was like racing in a cloud. Score 10/10

Pro Take: Garmin Catalyst™ Driving Performance Optimizer | Garmin

The Portability. As a fully self-contained system, the ability to remove from its magnet base and hold in your hand is awesome. I mentioned earlier my opinion that the best time to review a session on track is IMMEDIATELY after the session. Some people are lucky they have a data person available that pulls the info, uploads to a laptop and reviews the results with them. I am not so lucky. I race alot, which means I have zero crew at half the races I go to (no one has enough vacation – this is not Europe for gosh sakes). So, if I had to do that along with everything else, most data systems would not work. The Catalyst is perfect in this regard. How perfect? Anytime someone comes to my paddock and asks questions about racing line, braking points and things like that, in less than a minute I can pull the Catalyst from the car and show them. Try that with your fancy data systems! (no really, that is my challenge to you). The AI in a Garmin swiftly and fairly accurately identifies areas to improve for the average racer. Important note – many people guard these track secrets with their life. I have a different opinion. If I beat you, I want to beat the best you there is. Which means I share EVERYTHING. No secrets in the Schwartz Paddock. Score 10/10 with HUGE bonus points (see the end about the ability to share a system)

So, now that we have reviewed the 2 best points, lets review the 2 worst points and one somewhat bad one. First, the videos that are saved have no overlay functions. So while you can review the video with data in a Catalyst, you cannot export the files and review outside. Second, along with many other people across the internet, I have started having data saving issues on numerous occasions which has resulted in lost videos. To be fair, I have used the system almost weekly so finding down time to chase the problems with Garmin tech has not been possible. I will update the results when we get there. But this video is an easy demonstration of these two issues. Thus the score on these issues is pretty low. For $1,000 retail price, the ability to not have data overlays is unconscionable. SCORE 2/10

I am going to reserve a score on the video issues until I give Garmin a chance to help me determine root cause (could be me – who am I kidding? its usually me). SCORE – TBD

Garmin Catalyst™ Driving Performance Optimizer | Racing

The one “somewhat” bad point is the data analysis itself. To be honest, even after 6 months of use, I am struggling with what the Garmin is telling me to do to be faster. On a local track I know well (>100 races) the line it is telling me to try in Turn 1 is not just wrong, it is dangerous. And yes, I am aware that sometimes something that looks wrong should be tried to just see if you have NIH syndrome. In this case I have run that line before while passing someone – it was scary to say the least and not recommended for anyone except the most experienced driver. In many other cases, the optimal lap versus the average lap is questionable because the average lap was run while behind a slower car while being held up and not indicative of my lap time. The result for me so far? I pretty much ignore the 3 opportunities it tells me and make my own decisions based on the data it provides. Have I found time? Absolutely. Have I found more time than I would with a more detailed data acquisition system? NOPE. Will a less experienced driver have a better result than me? Most likely. Score is thus based on how fast you are and if you are chasing the first second or the last tenth. Fast driver searching for every last tenth SCORE 3/10. Average driving just trying to go faster SCORE 9/10

Support: Pairing Garmin Catalyst with Bluetooth® Audio - YouTube

There is one more point about the system before I summarize. The Catalyst has a supposedly awesome live audio coaching ability that even after 8 full weekends of racing I have not tried. Why? I am in the minority that I absolutely hate in car radios. Not that I do not understand their benefit – I have used them in several endurance races I have run and they make everything better. But for some reason I am easily distracted by chatter. Even in my online sim racing I have been known to spin during the pace lap while making league announcements. In a race car I find it difficult to manage and have been known to slow down to push to talk. So for me this is a no score but be aware others rave about this ability.

Garmin Catalyst Driving Performance Optimizer 010-02345-00 B&H

So now that we have the basics covered, what has the Catalyst meant to me personally. Well for one, I have set numerous track records since purchasing the Catalyst. That is not to say I did not set them before, but the rate has certainly ramped up (5 track records in 9 weekends). I believe the root cause is simply the ability to maintain a focus in a race no matter if I am alone on track or someone is following me. I have never had a problem maintaining focus when I am chasing someone. In fact the majority of my previous 20 track records in 16 years of racing (in other words my rate is now 3x what it was) came when I was not leading the race, but had to chase someone down. Now, with the easily scannable screen, that focus is maintained full race, regardless if it is already won or I have someone on my tail. That said, there are other systems that have this feature for less money. Unfortunately many have cell phone sized screens which can be hard to read for older people like myself.

Second, I have started doing a fair amount of coaching in addition to the rentals race cars (more on that soon). I already described how the Catalyst is super easy to show people a different line or braking point. So what can be better than that? Two Catalysts. At Sebring this year I tried this approach with a fellow racer where I purchased a second Catalysts and installed in his car. Then after the session I took both Catalysts out and went through corner by corner and showed him the differences. It made such a difference to him he went out and bought his own Catalyst. Which brings me to the Bonus I mentioned earlier.

The way the Catalyst system is setup is perfect for 2 people to share – provided they are not on track at the same time of course. Each can have their own profile, which means data can be kept isolated (your optimal lap is kept separate from theirs). And since they are easy to install and the extra harness are easy to buy, multiple cars can have the wiring harnesses and then you can just swap the main unit back and forth. And this can cut the cost of a system by almost half – which suddenly changes the decision process.

So in the end, if you value the things I mentioned such as a super easy to read screen for maintaining focus and theoretical laps or saving data analysis time because of its simple and easy to use analysis of where to find time, without requiring a laptop or an engineering degree, or are a less experienced driving trying to learn how to go faster, the results are 10/10. If however, you want to have a history of data overlaid video and/or, are an experienced driver interested in finding every last tenth on the track, the best I can give it is a 5/10.

May be an image of Peter Krause

My final recommendation? Do not go out an buy the Garmin from their website. Get in touch with a data expert like Peter, who reps and sells multiple data systems, describe your use case and let him help you find the best data system for you. Or better yet, rent one of our cars and get personalized coaching with a Garmin and make your own mind up.

About Frank Schwartz

Frank Schwartz is the founder of and Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, partner in The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment and serial entrepeneur. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank started reading car magazines at the age of 8 and has spent 30+ years working inside the automotive industry. In his spare time Frank races with the Sports Car Club of America, spends time working on his numerous project cars and supports many local charities.
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