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Before I had a timer I used the same method of testing modified cars as Mattman. I had a car or 2 that were consistently fast and would test new builds against those cars. Using that method definitely works and is capable of helping you build winning cars. That being said, a timer makes the process so much easier. Not only are you able to immediately know immediately when you stand but it allows you to make small adjustments to the car to find just a bit more speed.
Chaos Canyon has recommended that I post here about a Race Start timer and speed measuring device for Hot Wheels style diecast cars I have made. It uses Arduino microprocessor, some basic electronic components and perspex for the casing.
You can see a short demo of the unit on my YouTube channel, CooksProjects.
Check out more details and videos over on this thread.
There is no question in my mind a timer helps. It can also hurt. What is fast on your track at home doesn't make you fast halfway across the country on someone else's track of different lengths, ramp heights and track surfaces. Even Room temperatures and humidity. Ever get a small piece of hair or debris on your track and see how much it slows your car down in a scale quarter mile? It's significant. Imagine a whole 20 feet of foreign bumps and surfaces. Two of the top drag racers around don't use timers. One doesn't even have a track so there is speed without timers but these guys are the minority and are very good at what they do. I pretty much have the times of my track very well in sync with the tracks at D64 and DCRX because they are similar in size with mine. To the point I can almost tell within a couple thousandths of a second what they will run. RedPill Hill gives me trouble but his track is very unique. If you don't have a timer, race at other tracks often and when you get the cars back. Use them as guides for your next build. D64 has a video where he says what the difference in a car length is on his track. At most places it's somewhere around 100th of a second but if you want to know for sure just watch a past race at a track that you want to race at and look at what the times are for cars that are car length apart. Then take your test car and you'll know every car length you beat it by is about how much your time will come down. It's not foolproof but it will do the trick until you are able to get a timing system.