Generally speaking, as long as your car is in good condition, you don’t need to make any handling or power modifications to take your car to the track. Sure, there may be some body roll, and a Corvette Z06 can pass you as though you were in reverse, but that’s OK. In fact, it may be better to do your first track event or a few in stock condition so that you can determine what your car’s shortcomings are, and then make a plan to address them. Or you may decide it’s perfectly fine as it is, which is OK too. This isn’t a race, so who cares if the Z06 laps you a few times each session?
Make It Handle
You don’t need to rush right out and buy a set of coilovers to prepare your car for the track. But there are a few things to check, and potentially replace or improve, before you venture out.
Where the rubber meets the road has the most profound effect on your car’s handling. My Subaru BRZ comes from the factory with Michelin Primacy HP tires, “affectionately” referred to as Prius tires since they’re also standard equipment on some models. They’re good for making a lot of noise and drifting, but not for any kind of performance driving. I drove one autocross on them, then gave up autocross until I could put some decent tires on the car because there was no point. The slippery tires seriously held the car back. Since then, I’ve switched to the popular Michelin Pilot Super Sports. They’re popular for good reason – they’ve completely transformed my car. Traction control rarely complains anymore unless I do something stupid. I knew the car had more to offer than the Prius tires could provide, and now I can get that extra performance out of it.
This extra performance, however, made me even more concerned about the brakes. The wider, grippier tires allow me to apply more braking power and stop the car faster, but this generates even more heat. It was all the more reason for me to upgrade my brake pads, as I described in Part 2.
Particularly for your first track event, your stock tires should be able to handle it. As with autocross, you may want to add extra air to them to keep them from rolling over onto the sidewalls in the corners. But if you have cheaper all-season tires, you may want to consider an upgrade before going to the track. My MR2 came with Starfire all-seasons. No, I’d never heard of Starfire either. I took it to an SCCV event at St. Lawrence Motorsport Park that’s basically a time trial on an outdoor go-kart track. By the end of the weekend, I had melted the outer tread blocks off of my tires. So be wary of that if you have cheap tires.
Fortunately, there are many good performance street tires out there these days. You don’t need an R-compound tire, or even one of the popular autocross street tires. Because it’s not a race, you don’t need to squeak that extra half second per lap to beat someone, so you can get tires that will perform well on the track and on the street. Even better, that will make your street driving a lot more fun.
No, not that kind of alignment – I mean wheel alignment. Stock alignment specifications are designed for safety, stability, and long tire life. But deviating from stock specs just a little can improve your car’s handling, and even improve tire life during spirited driving.
I bought my BRZ’s summer wheels used, from another BRZ owner, with a set of worn out Dunlops on them, knowing I’d have to replace them. I could tell just by looking at the tires that the previous owner had autocrossed a lot. While the inner edges were in pretty good shape, the outer edges were all worn out. This is a sign of not only aggressive cornering, but insufficient negative camber. By adding negative camber – tilting the top of the wheel more inward toward the center of the car – the tires won’t roll onto their sidewalls as much, not overuse the outer tread, and have a larger contact patch under hard cornering. This means more cornering traction, which means higher cornering speed.
A popular trick for autocross is to toe out the tires for faster cornering response. That’s all right for autocross speeds, but at track speeds the last thing you want is a car that’s twitchy in the corners. A little toe-in, like the stock specs, or possibly zero toe, is better for track driving, where you want stability at high speeds.
Though not as fancy as springs, shocks, and sway bars, bushings can have a significant effect on your car’s performance. In some cases, worn bushings can even be a major safety concern. For instance, E30, E36, and E46 BMWs are known for the front control arm bushings failing. BMW CCA was particularly concerned about this when I was taking their driving schools due to the loss of control that could occur on the track, and insisted that they be checked thoroughly before every event.
Over the years, rubber bushings break down, wear out, and allow excess play in components that aren’t supposed to have it. Replacing these with urethane bushings not only fixes the problem, but also upgrades the bushing to a stiffer, more durable material. Bushings can be replaced individually, or sometimes it’s easier to buy a part, such as the BMW control arms, with the new bushing already pressed into it. Then you can just swap hard parts instead of having to remove the old bushing and press the new one in, which can be tricky. Tavarish recently wrote about how to do this.
Make It Go
While some handling tweaks could help on the track, you don’t need any extra power. Really. Think about it – Spec Miata is one of the most popular classes for racing, yet they’re running less than 150hp. Anyone can put their foot to the floor and drive in a straight line. But carrying that speed through the turns – that’s the challenge. I’ll never forget the day I got a point-by from a 240hp BMW M Coupe by outdriving him in the corners in my 1.6 Miata with half his horsepower. That’s fun.
That said, if you already have power mods, don’t bother taking them off. Power is fun – there’s no question about that. Just make sure that whatever power enhancements you’ve added can handle extended periods at full throttle. You’ll be using it a lot more than on the street or drag strip. But don’t feel obligated to add power just for the sake of track driving. You may have enough time to smoke an entire cigarette as you go down the front straightaway, but with practice and skill you can hang with much faster cars in the turns.
With all that in mind, you’re ready to head to the track. SCCA’s Track Night In America events are a good place to start. So are marque club events – BMW CCA, PCA, etc. run some excellent events as well. Search the intertubes for track events in your area, head on out, and have fun driving your car like you’ve always wanted to.
(Photo credits: Dan Mull, Allison Feldhusen, Justin Hughes, Retro RPG, BMP Design)