Our earlier post: “First Trackday Checklist” went over some of the maintenance you should address with your car (including fluids, brakes, tires, etc)
Whether you have a roadster, factory built performance car, family sedan, or fuel sipping economy car; this post will discuss why you shouldn’t do any upgrades to it before coming to the track. I don’t want to come off as a jerk saying that you know nothing or are slow, but trust me on this…
1: You won’t be driving your car at its limit at first, so don’t worry about making it faster.
2: You don’t need more horsepower.
3: Modifying safety components creates a domino effect that can quickly and expensively transform your daily driver to a track only car.
4: It may become harder to drive.
5: Save your money for event entries, incidental repairs, and consumables.
6: You will learn what the car actually needs.
1) When you start doing track days you will drive nowhere near the limit of your car, even with years of overly aggressive street driving, test driving your friend’s BMW, and intense video gaming.
Not driving at your car’s limit doesn’t mean you won’t be driving your car hard. People naturally take very different approaches with their first few track days. Some cautiously cruise around the track getting comfortable with lines, others wail around understeering through every corner with overly aggressive steering and gas inputs. If an experienced driver gets in your car you may be shocked at how they go through the same corner much faster than you, but without making all the scary noises it does when you’re driving. Your goal should be to get faster by improving your driving first, then by improving your car.
2) You won’t yet be driving your car to it’s limit so adding power may get you around the track a bit quicker, but it won’t help you learn more. In many cases, horsepower takes away from reliability, which ends up taking away from your time on track. More power also makes your car use up more brakes and tires, taking more of your money and ultimately track time. If Spec Miata can be the most popular class in club racing with cars that make 110-130 horsepower, your car will do just fine!
3) I’ve seen this scenario over and over again: “I’m ready to start doing track days, my car is all ready with harnesses, seats, etc. Where do I sign up?”
Many car modifications gain street cred but actually take away from the safety of a vehicle, and are not allowed on track. Car safety works best as a system. Engineers spend many thousands of hours designing the entire car around passenger safety, if you haphazardly toss in new items like seats and poorly run belts your car can be significantly less safe than it was before you touched it. Even older cars are plenty safe for your first track days
You should never go “half way” with car safety. Much like OEM safety design, aftermarket safety parts are designed to work as a system. If you are upgrading to racing seats, you also need 5 or 6 point harnesses. (4 point harnesses are NOT ALLOWED on track, the exception for some clubs are Schroth brand car specific systems). If you have harnesses, you should have a proper roll bar with harnesses bar (Standalone harness bars don’t work well in many cars and are illegal for track use with many clubs). If you have a harness you should have a HANS etc, etc, etc. Even if you can find a nice cheap used race seat for like $50 you may still be spending well over a thousand dollars on other supporting modifications to make it all work as a safe system. Before you blink, you spent $2,000 and you can’t really drive on the street anymore.
Expect a more detailed *car safety” post in the near future, but I hope this is enough to get the point across. Your best bet is to begin doing track days with a totally stock car. If you have modified anything related to seats, belts, and safety, I highly suggest you email the tech inspector for your club WELL BEFORE you show up for your first track day.
4) Nearly every car comes from the factory with a bit of understeer dialed in. Simply put: it’s safer for the everyday person driving poorly around the street to have a car that will push a bit than one with a tendency with to snap out the tail. People will argue all day at which setup is fastest overall, but for a track car the fastest setup is typically agreed upon to be dead neutral to a bitttt of oversteer. It is quicker, but harder to drive without sliding backwards into a wall.
What all this means: When you modify and upgrade a car’s suspension to “tune it” for track you will likely end up with a much faster, though harder to drive car. When you are just starting out you will already have plenty of challenges and making your car harder to drive in usually not helpful.
5) HPDE entry fees are a lot of money. Quality car modifications are also a lot of money. Will you spend your money on seat time learning to drive better and faster, or will you spend your money making your car capable of going faster? Track use quickly exposes underlying maintenance issues and wears other parts out quicker than driving on the street or sitting in the garage. If you end up with leftover cash after signing up for a pile of track days, consider putting it aside for future repairs, maintenance, brake pads, and tires.
6) As you drive more, gain experience, and go faster you will learn more about what your car actually needs. You may find people there with helpful advice after they did the same thing with the same car. You may even fall out of love with your once dream car and wish to sell it for a more track friendly platform. I have heard from several people who feel “locked-in” to their current cars after spending thousands and thousands of dollars on them. Don’t let that happen to you.
It’s never a bad idea to put fresh DOT4 brake fluid in your car. Likewise, it’s never a bad idea to put on fresh brake pads and good, performance tires… (But do not begin with full race brakes or r-compound “Slicks”). If you haven’t been there yet, check out my “First Trackday Checklist” and “the 15 most common reasons why cars fail tech inspection” for some of the things you should look for and address.
The two major takeaways here:
1) Don’t modify your car (yet): just sign up, show up and have fun.
2) If you already have modified your car (especially if you touched anything with the seats and belts) it is best to reach out to your track organization before you show up for your first day.