A while ago, when I was getting involved in my first track events with the Boston Chapter BMW CCA, their Chief Instructor at the time, Steve Fitzgerald, described track prep like this: “Make it safe. Make it stop. Make it handle. Make it go.” I’ll be writing a series of articles addressing each of these areas, what to check, and what to potentially improve before you take your car on the track for the first time.
A track event asks a lot more of your car than your local autocross. The higher speeds of the track take a greater toll on your tires and brakes, and the hour plus duration of such driving can use more fluids and wear parts faster than the few minutes of seat time you get at an autocross. It’s still true that any car in decent condition can likely handle the track, but the standard of “decent” is a bit higher, and the consequences of a failure potentially greater. The Track Night web site has an article on preparation that’s a good overview for any HPDE or lapping event, as well as the tech form specific to Track Night events. Many organizations allow you to perform this check yourself, if you consider yourself qualified, and bring a completed tech form with you to the event. Others may require a professional mechanic or other certified individual to do this check for you. If you have any doubts as to your mechanical ability to check and repair these items, find someone who can.
Safety is not sexy, but it’s necessary for any car that goes on the track, from a modified fire breathing beast to this Saturn SC2 I used for my first few events. Like motorcyclists we try not to think about it, and I don’t intend to scare you, but the truth is that bad things can happen, and we need to minimize the risks as much as we can. That starts with making sure something isn’t going to fail while driving at speeds that would send you to jail (even outside of Virginia).
That’s what the tech sheet is for. All track events will give your car a minimal tech inspection before you’re allowed on track. It’s similar to an autocross, though it may be slightly more strict. For example, while you may be allowed to ratchet strap a loose battery into your engine bay for the day at an autocross, you need to show up with a rigidly mounted battery. Both terminals need to be covered as well. Many cars leave the negative terminal exposed, but that won’t fly here. Liberal amounts of electrical tape may be sufficient if you can’t find or make a cover.
But most of the usual safety items checked at an autocross apply here as well – all fluid caps are tight, no excessive fluid leaks, no sticky throttle, belts and hoses are in good shape. Top off all of your fluids, and check them again after every session. Your car may never use a drop of oil in street or autocross driving, but track driving may cause extra oil consumption anyway, and if you forget to check it, you may spin a rod bearing at the following weekend’s autocross. Not that I’ve ever done that.
Tires are something else to check throughout the day. Getting a flat tire sucks anytime it happens, but it would be dangerous to run one down to the cords and have it burst on the track. Also set and monitor your pressure to try to even out the wear across the whole tire. Aggressively driven cars tend to be hard on the outside edges of the front tires, especially nose heavy front wheel drive cars. I’ve even rotated my tires in the middle of an event just to spread out the wear a bit more evenly. This is less of a concern with performance oriented tires, like the Michelin Pilot Super Sports I’m running on my BRZ. But if you’re taking your BMW 328i on its original tires to a BMW CCA driving school, keep an eye on them.
Between each session you should also retorque your lug nuts, which could loosen under hard cornering and heat cycling under braking.
Personal safety equipment is important too. A helmet is a given. Typically a recently Snell rated motorcycle helmet is adequate. An SA rating for motorsports is not required (but allowed) for this type of event, so if you already have an M2010 rated helmet for autocross or a bike, you can probably use it here. You will also need to remove all loose items from your car at the event. I recommend putting everything into a plastic tub so that if it rains, your stuff doesn’t get soaked. Of course, your seat belts have to be in good shape, and your seats must be bolted in securely.
What about convertibles? Rollover protection is the big concern. Check the rules for the event you want to attend, because they vary wildly between organizations. Some may allow you to attach a factory hard top and away you go. Others may require roll bars, racing harnesses, and/or arm restraints. And others may ban convertibles entirely.
Even Track Night is a little vague with regard to their convertible policy (bottom of the Rules and Regulations page). They are allowed, but must have some kind of rollover protection in place. Your best bet is probably to email them as they suggest and make sure that your particular car will be allowed on track before signing up.
Next time, we’ll talk about the next most important safety and performance related item in your car - brakes.
(Photo credits: Allison Feldhusen, Dan Mull, and Justin Hughes)