Taking your car anywhere near its limits on the public highway will almost certainly wind up with negative consequences. Bless those who build race circuits and drag strips. Whether you want to get involved in serious competition, or just put your skills up against your buddies and the blacktop, nothing beats some serious track time. And with hundreds of circuit and ‘Run What Ya Brung’ days aimed at drivers of all abilities, we’ll take you through some of the basics of car setup and what you’ll need to know if you fancy yourself as the next Stephan Papadakis, Ayrton Senna or your choice of driving legend here.
But pushing your car hard in any form of motorsport involves putting both it and yourself under far more stress, and you need to prepare properly to avoid causing major damage to your ride. If it’s your everyday driver as well, this can really screw things up. So, follow this simple guide and make a few wise investments before you leave the pit lane to make the most of your time and take a lot of the fear out your first competition experience.
Track and Circuit Racing
Assuming your car is in good operating condition (a recent service is recommended), the most important things to worry about are the consumables. If you’re a novice, don’t worry too much about the bolt-on, go-faster goodies, the most important thing by far is to learn your lines, braking points and understand your chosen weapon of choice’s limits. As a perfect example, I’ve seen professional drivers in factory stock Ford Fiestas drive around the outside of tuned Imprezas and Evos on track days and make them look like kids on a play day. You can have all the power in the world, but not knowing how to harness it effectively makes it ultimately useless.
Chassis or engine modifications can sometimes prove counter-productive (we covered this in February’s chassis tuning piece) if you don’t spend serious seat time fine tuning and understanding the reasons behind what you’re doing and why. This knowledge comes from learning from more experienced track fiends and a certain amount of trial and error; why else do you think that top race teams spend so much time and hard-earned dollars on R&D and testing? Bearing that in mind, the basics to look at include: Fluids: Make sure these are all filled—oil, fuel, brake fluid, coolant—and that the fluid is reasonably fresh as high temperatures are the enemy for any motor. Also check for leaks that could pose a risk to anyone else on the circuit and that you carry spares to the track if you need to top off between sessions.
Brakes: Your pads, rotors, lines and fluids will be under much greater stresses on track as you are braking harder and more regularly from high speeds, increasing the temperatures involved and consequently the wear.
Starting with the pads, we recommend you have at least three-quarters of your pad material remaining across the full surface of the pad before you place a tire on the track. Changing pads while on a track day is far from ideal, and running on wrecked ones will dramatically reduce your stopping ability and increase wear on your rotors. Uprated pads are always worth considering and a fast road/race pad should be more than up to the gig. Race pads are the ultimate choice, but remember, these aren’t designed for road use. You’re going to end up changing them on the day as chances are they won’t be street legal. For any new pad, a decent bedding-in period of 200-300 miles is essential before you give them maximum death on the track.
The same can be said of your fluid. Higher temperatures increase the risk of it boiling in the lines, so make sure at the very least that the fluid is fresh. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, so it absorbs moisture over time, reducing the boiling point. Another important tip is to always use an unopened container, as something that’s been left in the garage for six months will already have absorbed water, drastically reducing its effectiveness. Decent ‘fast road/track’ fluids include Motul 600, ATE Super Blue and AP550 Racing.
Tires: As the first point of contact between your car and the road surface, they need to be in good shape, so 20,000-mile old rubber isn’t recommended. Ensure you have plenty of tread left (you’ll have to drive home on them after) and that the pressures are at the correct recommended levels by the manufacturer. If you’ve got slightly deeper pockets, a set of specific track wheels and tires are a good investment—lightweight alloys will sharpen the steering and give better braking performance, and slick or semi-slick tires will give you better traction. Remember though that tires can and do go ‘off’ if left for extended periods of time so if you do have track wheels and tires, just make sure you check them over—tread and sidewalls—before you fit them for the circuit. Temperature is also a factor. You want some heat to increase grip, but not so much that the tires deteriorate, so a tire pyrometer is always a handy item for the toolbox for measuring pre and post-session (this will also allow you to dial-in pressures). Lastly, and most obviously, make sure that lug nuts are correctly tightened/torqued—three wheels on your wagon is never the fastest way around any circuit!