You have a car, a track, and a club picked out. You also have a little bit of money saved up. It’s time for a track day, where do you start?
I often see people post “I’m signing up for my first track day this summer, I plan on doing these upgrades, what else should I do?”
The short answer is, don’t upgrade a thing. Check out this simple list, make sure your maintenance is up to date and save your money for more track days, brakes, and tires.
Pre-Check & Maintenance
There is not a simple answer for the level of inspection and prep your car will require for the track. If you are capable of changing your own oil and doing your brakes, self inspections should be within your wheelhouse. If you are disagree, invite a friend who is more comfortable under a car.
If your car is just a few years old, I would suggest jacking up each corner and giving a side-to-side and up-and-down shake of the wheel… if there are no big clunks, glance under the hood, check the brake fluid, make sure you have material on your brake pads and go.
If your car is 10 years old or more, it is worth taking a closer look. Shake the wheels but also look at the boots and the bushings. Inspect all your control arms and links. Look for cracks or soft spots in your coolant hoses, inspect your brake lines and check for leaks.
I prefer to do all work to my car myself. I have seen multiple cars show up to the track that were signed off by their trusted mechanic only for us to find broken lug nuts or VERY worn bearings and balljoints during tech inspection. If you do decide to get pre-teched at a shop, I highly recommend you ask your club for a recommendation on where to go.
*An illuminated check engine light may not automatically earn you a failure at tech inspection, but know why it is on. A flashing light for a serious issue should obviously be addressed and repaired well before you attempt a full track day
*It is a good idea to repair or replace a chipped or cracked windshield ASAP. It usually won’t get a second glance from tech inspection or corner workers, but would you really want to risk being sent home for it?
*positive battery terminals should be covered with rubber or plastic. If any positively charged metal is exposed, some electrical tape will do in a pinch. Make sure your battery tie-down is present and functioning. (There are a lot of NA miatas around with outward dented quarter panels from loose batteries)
If you found any big issues in your pre-check, fix them.
If your oil is nearly due, change it. I do not subscribe to the mentality of changing oil after every weekend unless you drive a car that sees notoriously high oil temps. I wouldn’t bother with trans or diff fluid yet. Brake fluid should be fine on a newer car, but I recommend you flush it. If your car is older (or you have a lot of horsepower) a flush to fresh DOT4 fluid is highly recommended.
*When filling your brake fluid, extra is not better. Do not fill above the full line, you don’t want that slippery stuff coming out the top.
First, if you are going to the track, it will never hurt to have good track ready pads. The mid-grade parts store pads will usually do fine on the street, even for aggressive driving… but the track is a different animal.
If you have a low powered (<200hp) car and it has good quality brake pads, you should be fine for at least a few days. If you have a modestly powered car (2-300hp) you may be fighting brake fade after a day. If you show up for your first day with a high powered car, (350+hp) you will most likely be fighting some serious brake issues unless you have track or race specific pads.
Once you gain experience and run stickier tires, you will need to regularly flush brake fluid and use more and more aggressive pads to keep up to the rigors of track use. If you are just getting started and stay conscious of your brake pedal, you should be fine.
The first concern with tires is age. If your tires are over 5 years old, seriously consider replacing them. If they are closer to 10 years old, please do not put them on a racetrack. As long as they aren’t too bald or old and don’t have any bubbles, gashes, or dry rot, just use them! For your first days on track, any summer tire will be great, a 3 season tire will do well, and even an all season should get the job done just fine. You don’t really want to show up to your first track day with R(race)-compound tires.
*I’ve run tires with properly installed plugs and patches for thousands of street miles and dozens of track days with no issues.
I have heard some people afraid to destroy their daily driving tires in one day on track. For your first day, you will be totally fine. If you regularly track your car and drive it very hard you will wear through street tires faster, but you won’t go from fine to destroyed in a weekend. High performance summer tires lasted for a season and a half on my Miata with daily commuting and hard track use.
All tires come with a date stamped on the sidewall. Whether you’re deciding if yours are good, buying used, or even new tires, make it a habit to check this before you buy and/or track any tire.
If your car is in decent shape, sign up and get out there! No excuses about “I need to do coilovers, race seats, headers, etc,” allowed, just sign up!
Sort out numbers:
Even if you are doing HPDE and not racing, you will need numbers displayed on your car so you can easily be identified by the corner workers. Feel free to start by making numbers with painter’s tape, check out this post about creating your own vinyl or magnetic numbers, or if you are feeling fancy, buy some.
What to Pack:
Hopefully your car will perform just fine, but even if so, a torque wrench and air pressure gauge are important. Talk with your instructor about what tire pressures may be best for your car and the conditions. For first timers I often suggest only a few psi below where we want to be as pressures will climb with tire temps, but the gains shouldn’t be huge, (I would say start with 28 psi on a street tire Miata). You can bring your own air compressor but all tracks should have one you can use as well.
Make sure your lugs are torqued before you go on track, but I haven’t seen any change with checking them between every session aside from the rare accidentally overtorqued lug nut.
Some simple tools to bring are: Basic wrench set, lug wrench, screwdrivers, zip ties, and duct tape.
You need a helmet to get on track. Clubs should have loaners, but they often come with a fee and a minor scalp infection. A Snell rating is a must, DOT ratings don’t mean much. Specific type and age requirements vary by club and track:
Most areas allow SA and M (car/motorcycle) ratings for HPDE.
The helmet should be one or two rating cycles old (SA2010 or M2010 or SA2026 or M2015). Some clubs allow three ratings and are still allowing SA2005 or M2005.
*The new SNELL ratings seem to come out at least a year behind. I am expecting the SA2020 ratings in late 2021. When shopping for a helmet, don’t be hosed by someone selling a helmet for full price as the newer rated helmets are arriving.
Fluids: I make it a point to pack some extra oil, distilled water (coolant), and brake fluid to the track. They may come in handy.
WATER! Your car will burn a lot of gas and maybe some oil. You will burn a ton of fluids yourself. I often bring two gallon jugs of drinking water to the track, a bottle or to of sports drink, and plenty of beer (for AFTER the track is cold, of course).
As the day approaches:
Clean your car: Finally, clean your car inside and out. Tech inspection will require everything be removed from your car, from three year old burger king receipts, to the pistol in your glovebox. If you clear all the crap out of your car before you get to the track, it can save a lot of time on a busy morning.
*when I was still doing track days in my street car I kept a drawstring bag in my console, when I showed up to the track I tossed everything in the console and glovebox inside so it was kept together and safe.
*Most common items left in cars that tech inspection asks to remove: Floor mats, EZ-Passes and things hanging from mirror.
Show up with a FULL tank of gas:
Over the course of a full day’s sessions you will burn a lot of gas. I’ve had events where I’m nearly out of gas by lunch. Some tracks have affordable gas for sale on site, others charge a HUGE premium (I’m looking at you Watkins Glen) and other don’t sell it at all. With a long drive back to town you will obviously want to minimize trips, even consider bringing a 5 gallon gas can.
That’s basically it. Have any questions? Did I forget anything important?
Are you just dying to modify and upgrade your car? Perhaps you have a car that’s already modified. Make sure you read next week’s post about upgrading your track car.