Track Night Preparation

This Tuesday I’m heading to SCCA’s Track Night In America event at Thompson Speedway. I attended their first one in New England in early May and had a wonderful time, so I’m going back for more. Meanwhile, even though my Subaru BRZ is in great shape and had no issues on the track last month, I still needed to change my brake pads, and this was a good opportunity for me to give it a full once over while going through the tech sheet, which must be filled out and turned in before you go on the track. As laid back and chill as Track Night events are, it still requires a higher level of car preparation than an autocross. While strapping in your loose battery with bungee cords or ratchet straps temporarily may get you through tech at an autocross (ask me how I know), that won’t fly on the track – or, more specifically, it will fly, all over your engine bay thanks to the forces generated at higher speeds, and cause who knows what damage. But as long as your car is in good mechanical condition and meets a few basic additional guidelines, you should be good to go.

Autocrossers will find the safety section familiar – a recent Snell rated helmet, seat belts in good shape, interior free of loose items… Convertibles may have a more difficult time getting on track, depending on where you are, due to the increased risk of Very Bad Things (TM) in the event of a rollover. Track Night is rather permissive about convertibles. If you have factory roll hoops or pop-up roll bars, an aftermarket roll bar, or even a hard top, you’re probably good to go at a Track Night event. Other organizations that run HPDE events have tighter restrictions, and a few even ban convertibles entirely. So double check before taking the Miata or S2000 to the track.

IMG_2437aBrakes are the next most important item. Stainless steel lines or a big brake kit aren’t required, but your stock braking system must be in good shape. You will want to change out your stock brake fluid for a more temperature resistant DOT4 rated type, especially if you haven’t changed it in a while (or ever). Stock brakes aren’t designed to handle repeated hard braking from speeds that would send you to jail on the street, and the heat generated by this can cause the fluid to boil, introducing gas into the system and reducing braking power. If you already have good fluid, you’ll still want to bleed them regularly, or if the brake pedal feels any less firm than it did at the beginning of the track event.

IMG_2436Pads are important, too. The Track Night tech sheet says “Pads are less than half worn.” It’s easy to check, even without pulling your caliper. Just look through the handy window cut into the caliper for this purpose, and if all you see is rotor and pad surface, you’re good to go. If any of the backing plate is visible at all, you’ll need to replace your pads before going to the track.

But every HPDE event I go to, I see some people lose braking capability throughout the day, even if they’ve upgraded their fluid correctly. Stock brake pads often can’t handle the extra heat generated by track driving, just like stock fluid. Personally, I recommend investing in some good racing pads before you go to the track, even for your first time. I find myself getting faster and more comfortable as the event goes on, and late in the day is the worst time for your brakes to give out on you, and that’s usually when they go. I want to be confident when I push my braking points later and later that the car will stop reliably, and if I blow a corner it’s my own fault for braking too late, not the car’s fault for fading brakes. I especially don’t want to make a wonderful pass on a friend of mine, only to be unable to slow down in time for the next corner and have an off track excursion right in front of them. (Ask me how I know.)

Exactly what pads you should get depends on your particular car, so ask your friends or search the interwebs to find out what others like best. I invested in Winmax W5 pads for all four corners of my BRZ. They dust a lot and squeak like a city bus, but they stop the car better than stock even when cold, and the heat generated by track driving doesn’t degrade their performance one bit. I use my stock pads on the street, then switch to the Winmax pads shortly before the track event like I did today, and change back to stock soon afterward.

You don’t need special rotors. Slotted, cross drilled, cryogenically treated, doesn’t matter – stock rotors are fine. If you already have fancy rotors, then use them – it won’t hurt them. Though especially if you have cross drilled rotors, check and make sure there are no cracks. They usually start from the holes drilled through them. Stainless brake lines aren’t required, as I mentioned, but they do help improve pedal feel. If you go to the track a lot, especially with an older car with well used rubber lines, they are a nice upgrade.

Tires are the only other item I’d recommend considering replacing before you go to the track for the first time. Obviously they need to have plenty of tread and life left to them. If you have a high performance car that already comes with high performance street tires, then don’t worry about it. My BRZ came with the dreaded Michelin Primacy HP “Prius tires.” I’d already upgraded to Michelin Pilot Super Sports for the street, and these held up perfectly fine at the track last month. Just make sure you don’t go to the track on no-name all-season tires. You could literally melt the outer tread blocks right off. (Ask me how I know.) Also make sure your wheels are in good shape, your hub caps removed if you have them, and that your lug nuts are torqued to spec. In fact, it’s a good idea to bring a torque wrench with you to the track so that you can check and retorque them if necessary.

As for the suspension, it just needs to be in good, solid condition, with no leaky shocks and no excessive wear in your bushings, steering, or wheel bearings. A stock suspension is perfectly fine, especially if you’re just starting out. I’ve even done a couple of track events in bone stock Saturns. As long as it’s in good shape, don’t worry about it.

IMG_2322Make sure all your fluid levels are topped off before you go to the track – coolant, oil, transmission… And make sure to check your oil level between every track session. Even if your car never drinks any oil, the harder, higher revs of the track can make a tight engine consume a little oil. This is normal. So check it frequently, and bring extra oil to top it off, whether you need it or not. And especially don’t forget to check your oil at the track, go home, autocross the next weekend, and spin a rod bearing partway through the day, requiring an engine replacement and losing a tightly contested season trophy as a result. (Ask me how I know.)

Beyond that, make sure your throttle doesn’t stick, your battery is secure and its terminals covered, and that your exhaust is solid. More and more tracks have noise limits these days, and running full throttle at high revs is about as loud as your car is going to get. My Nameless Performance axle-back is louder than stock but shouldn’t be any problem, nor should most street legal performance exhausts. Finally, make sure your windows aren’t cracked, and that your wipers work well. Track events run rain or shine, so if it rains you don’t want to be cursing your three year old wiper blades for streaking up your windshield instead of clearing it. Some people like polishes like Rain-X. Some don’t. I like it, but decide for yourself.

It took me less than an hour to pull my wheels (manually – I forgot to charge my cordless impact wrench), change my brake pads, and check all these other items while my girlfriend and her dog kept me company. It may take longer on an older car from the snow belt, where you may have to fight rusted parts. If this is the case, give yourself enough time to source replacement bolts before the event if you happen to break any parts while trying to remove them. (Ask me how I know.) Most importantly, if you have ANY doubt about your knowledge and ability to check these items, find someone who does. Driving fast on a track is a ton of fun, but don’t take any chances. Make sure the car is up for the task.

Now that my car is all checked out and the brakes grip well and squeak like a city bus, I’m all set for Thompson this Tuesday. Here comes the hard part – waiting…