Brakes are THE most important system on your vehicle (Safety gear is a close second). Engines are important, but if yours doesn’t work, you just can’t get moving…. oh well. If you have brake issues, you can’t slow down. However, Brakes don’t need to be a constant worry or colossal money pit. With a little prep, good advice, and some common sense you can have worry free track days.
I’ve compiled 17 of the most common MISTAKES people are making at Track Days, from total rookies to seasoned track veterans. Avoid these and you should do pretty well.
17- Using your E-Brake/Parking Brake/Handbrake.
Most drivers of manual transmission cars (And some with automatics) have a habit of ripping up (or kicking) the e-brake handle when they park, regardless of stopping on a hill or level ground. The #1 thing I tell new track drivers is to NOT use their e-brake from the moment they enter the track until they leave.
When you come off track your brakes are HOT. Generally, it’s fine to let them cool naturally as the car sits. But if you have the ebrake engaged, now you have the hot pads grabbing the ultra hot rotor as they cool. You can destroy the pad and/or melt it to the rotor.
Keep forgetting this and engaging the e-brake anyway? Try putting a piece of tape over the handle, or even just wrapping it around. It won’t be strong enough physically stop you from pulling it, but you hand hitting tape should give you a reminder.
16- Using old (or original) brake fluid
Brake fluid is important, very important. If you are regularly tracking a car, brake fluid should on your shortlist of regular maintenance. As brake fluid ages and is subjected to incredibly harsh conditions (trackdays) it degrades and doesn’t work as well. You get a soft, spongy pedal and eventually could lose all braking ability.
If you are bringing a Miata to your first track day you’ll most likely be fine with what is in the car, but upgrading to a good DOT4 fluid is never a bad idea. If I was bringing a heavy V8 car, I would make sure it had fresh DOT4. Just note, while a DOT4 fluid typically performs much better under harsh track conditions, it also degrades quicker than your standard streetcar DOT3. A good Annual flush with DOT4 is always a good idea.
Many people recommend throwing away opened containers of DOT4 fluid after a few months because once they are opened the fluid will continue to absorb moisture from the atmosphere. While mostly true, I don’t think that a capped can of fluid really soaks in that much. I’ve run fluid from containers open 2+ years with no noticeable issues.
Note: There are all sorts of DOT4 racing brake fluids available. More expensive fluids have better stats on paper, but many of our cars don’t see the most extreme conditions and it gets flushed/refreshed often enough already. I’ve always been happy with ATE fluid, it’s one of (if not the?) cheapest and works just fine for me.
15-Braking hard on cooldown lap
On a typical track day, you will get a checker flag signaling the end of the session either at Start-Finish, or in one of the last few corners. If you get the Start-Finish checker, you will have an entire “Cooldown” lap before entering the pits.
Drivers treat Cooldown laps very differently.
- Continue driving just as hard until you hit pit lane (hey, you paid for the whole session, didn’t you?) and come off track HOT.
- Throw out the anchor and crawl around the track at snail’s pace, waving furiously to each corner worker stand… Often ignoring the line of cars stacking up behind you and making the cars in the next session wait longer to get out. Using the cooldown lap to wave to the corner workers is a great idea as it shows a bit of appreciation to the workers and also helps familiarize yourself with their locations around the track. However, keep in mind that many orgs allow passing (with a pointby) after the checker flag has thrown, so if you choose to drive WAY off pace after the checker, be aware of your mirrors and let faster cars by.
- Driving a lap at slightly reduced pace: continuing to carry speed but making an active effort to brake as little as possible. This helps to naturally cool your drivetrain and brakes, and also helps you gain some insights for corners where braking less may be possible (We’ll talk more about this later).
*James Ray also had an excellent addition: Many drivers like to record hot tire temperatures and pressures immediately after a session. If you are parading around the track at 30mph not giving point-bys, you prevent them from getting any accurate numbers. Another good reason to keep an eye on your mirrors if you choose to take the “Sunday Drive” cooldown lap.
If you have a light car like a Miata, you shouldn’t need to worry about a session’s work being too much for you brakes. But if you are driving a heavy, powerful car with undersized brakes (or non-track/racing pads) you may need to help your car a bit by taking a reasonable Cooldown lap and even some paddock laps. I personally do a mix of 1 and 3 depending how long I’ve been out and how hard I was using the brakes.
A good thing to do on your Cooldown lap is “push” your non-braking a bit. See just how quickly you can get around the track without brakes. This is good practice to help you get around the track with less braking when you are out on hot laps at full pace.
Braking systems are designed to cool down naturally when driving. Simply cruising around the paddock after a session will go a long way to cooling your brakes naturally.
Most cars will be fine going straight to their paddock spot, especially if you got a full cool down lap. But if you are running a heavy car with undersized brakes, a couple low speed paddock “paddock parade laps” are very helpful.
13-Spraying cold water on rotors
One of the WORST things you can do to “help” your brakes cool is artificially cooling them by spraying them with water. I’ve actually seen someone do this to cool their brakes after hard driving. The problem is, it will shock just the outer surface of your disc brake, causing rapid contraction and quite possibly cracking the whole thing.
Likewise, Ive heard about people at track days using fans in the paddock to blow cold air through the car’s wheel and onto the hot brakes. I wouldn’t call it risky like spraying with cold water, but this isn’t as effective as just cruising around for a bit. When stopped, pads are still hovering over one point on the rotor creating a hot-spot that the fan isn’t doing much to help. If you’re that concerned, see above for cooldown or parade laps.
12-Ignoring abrupt changes in the pedal
Full brake system failure is generally rare, but is a real concern because of the obvious implications. One important note about brake failure: It rarely happens without warning. With the people I’ve spoken to and accounts I’ve read, nearly all admit to noticing some pretty big changes in the system shortly before it totally failed. For various reasons they ignored these warning signs. If you notice big new vibrations, abrupt change in pedal feel (either a softening or hardening in the pedal), It may be a good idea to let off and drive cautiously to the pit for a quick inspection.
11-Not “resetting” your pads after knockback
There is one type of abrupt pedal change that is NOT necessarily a signal of an imminent failure: Pad Knockback.
Have you ever been on track behind someone and seen their brake lights flash in the middle of a straightaway? That driver is likely checking or resetting the brake pads. Some cars are especially prone to pad “Knockback”. As a car is cornering, the excessive strain on the hubs can flex the hub/bearing/rotors and push the brake rotor into the pads. This knocks the pistons back into the calipers slightly. Pad Knockback is especially prevalent when driving over washboard curbs.
Pad Knockback presents itself as an empty pedal. You hit the brakes and the first few inches does nothing. How far the dead spot is depends on how far back the pads/caliper got knocked… It’s usually a pretty small change, but is an extremely unnerving feeling. In extreme cases it may warrant a full pump of the brake. If you are waiting for the last possible instant to brake (As you should), it can be especially scary. A quick left-foot tap of the brakes on the straightaway assures the pads are ready for the next brake zone with no surprises. I personally make a note to do this after especially long straights (Like coming to the bus-stop at Watkins Glen), or after hitting lots of curbs (approaching Turn5 at NJMP Thunderbolt after my inevitable curb smashing Turn 2 exit).
*Pad Knockback gets considerably more pronounced as hub bearings begin to wear. Worn hubs allow more lateral movement, creating more severe knockback. If I notice my knockback getting bad quickly, I take that as a sign it’s time to toss on new front hubs.
10-Driving too aggressively with Traction Control on (or some sort of Torque Vectoring Control)
Modern cars come with some fantastically advanced driver aid systems. These systems can make a rookie driver feel like a rockstar, but they do not come without cost. They use all sorts of physical car tech to function… Most use some form of braking (through your ABS system controllers) to help right the car when it gets out of shape. This is fine for aggressive street driving, but presents a unique issue on track.
The larger issue isn’t really with the car saving you from epic slides, it’s with “routine” errors, like not being smooth with throttle or steering inputs. The system will use individual brake calipers to correct these issues, and “smooth” out rough driving or poorly timed inputs. These add up to a double-whammy of making you feel like you’re driving well when you really aren’t, and blasting through consumables at an obscene rate.
Ever driven behind a rookie driver pushing too hard in a E92 M3? You can often start smelling the overworked brakes 2 corners before you catch the actual car. I
see smell it so often in HPDE groups it’s nearly comical.
Another “feature” is Ford’s “Torque Vectoring Control” which uses brake calipers to make the car function as if it has a limited-slip differential (On Vehicles like the Focus and Fiesta ST). It doesn’t quite mask errors as much as it uses software to save manufacturers money on the production line. While this may be a great feature for cornering hard on back roads, if you are driving sustained hard laps on a race track you can quickly melt your brake pads.
9-Not Greasing Components
Most OEM brake systems use a floating caliper. Despite more and more performance cars using Fixed Rotors (IE Brembo/Stoptech): If you are doing Trackdays in a 25 year old beater, you likely have a floating caliper system. The design itself isn’t flawed, they take track abuse just fine as long as you are sure to keep them maintained.
Each caliper has two greased pins that must be maintained. Any time you replace brake pads, remove your pins, clean, re-grease them with high-temp brake part grease, and make sure they move well. Check regularly to make the pins are snug and in good shape.
At a certain power and weight, cars need help from fresh cold air ducted in to cool the brakes. However, not all cars make packaging these ducts easy, especially if you are running an aggressively wide front wheel+tire. You also want to make sure the backing plate that connects the duct to the back of the hub and aims the incoming airflow is designed and works well… there have been cases where dumping all your air on one particular part of the rotor actually creates an imbalance that shortens rotor life.
Get advice from actual people who track the same car before diving into creating your own setup, get pictures of their setups when you are at the track. Sure, there’s always room for designing and creating your own parts, but if you don’t reinvent the wheel you can get back out on track sooner and cheaper.
7-buying crappy rotors
This may not be exactly what you expect. When I say “crappy rotors” I don’t necessarily mean cheap ones. I buy the cheapest rotors I can find for my Spec Miata (Usually somewhere in the $15 each range) and I easily get a full season out of them… It is VERY car dependent.
If you have a car that does just fine with smooth rotors, great! Stick with them. Don’t believe the oft-repeated incorrect advice that drilled rotors will make your car stop faster… They won’t, and if you get a cheap set you’ll likely crack rotors and wear pads quicker. If your brakes are working hard enough that smooth rotors aren’t performing as they should, proper slotted rotors may be what you need. Check out the article below for more detail:
Do your homework. Every car and every application is different, do some research and see if you can find out what works best for your car. For many small cars like a Miata making stock power (or anything near it) upgrading anything but pads and fluid is silly. Some cars have options for easy, cheap upgrades that are meaningful improvements, (Corvette calipers on many other cars comes to mind) but not all are actually helpful or necessary for track applications.
When researching, don’t just jump on the first forum opinion you see, try to look actual tried-and-true track applications by skilled drivers.
5 – Not Properly Installing and/or not Inspecting lines regularly
The flexible lines connecting HardLines to calipers are the most vulnerable part of your brake system. They are designed, checked, and tested by committees of engineers for the purpose of street driving for hundreds of thousands of miles. Then we get the car: Slam it to the ground, haphazardly replace those lines with bling-ey braided stainless lines, and add wheels+tires twice as wide as OEM. This isn’t necessarily bad, but you MUST be mindful when installing lines and modifying the car. The lines should be installed so they don’t get pulled or caught on anything with the wheel turned completely in either direction. They must also be routed so they don’t come into any contact with the wheel at any point (straight, steering, unloaded, loaded, etc).
Any time you pull the wheels off, make it a point to check for any wear on the lines, especially right after any modifications. The most common spot for lines to rub is on the inside of the wheel.
4-using cheap pads
Brake pads have the hardest job in the brake system. If you’ve read this far, chances are you are already using good track pads… but I can’t go without saying it.
If you are trying track days for the first time, you’ll likely be fine with whatever is on your car, but you will QUICKLY need to upgrade to some form of track pad.
Asking for brake pad recommendations online is one of my favorite pass times. The debates usually burn to political levels of conflict (Without the word-changing implications, thankfully). If you ask for my opinion, I always recommend Hawk pads. I’ve always run them, from HPS in street cars, HP+ track cars, and DTC’s when I started using slicks.
3-not having an “oh sh*t” plan.
As we said earlier, full brake system failures are very rare, but they do happen. You shouldn’t be on track stressing about the slim possibility of having an issue… but having a plan in the back of your head is good insurance.
Those without Anti-lock brakes most likely already have a “pump” reflex and should definitely be your first move if you have no pedal. As you gain familiarity with your local tracks, make sure you learn where the good runoff areas are. Learn ways you can scrub speed and pitch your car sideways if you need to slow down without good brakes.
Earlier I mentioned driving around the track purposely avoiding brakes for the cooldown lap. This is also something you can try in the middle of a session (provided you have a lot of open, uncrowded track) I recommend starting a bit slow and working your way up to pretty moderate speed. You will quickly learn quite a bit about how to scrub speed with steering input and will see how many corners don’t really require much braking at all.
2- Braking too much.
Here’s a simple one, but it should always be considered when looking to improve laptimes and lower consumable wear. There’s a good chance you are braking too much: Too much, Too early, for Too long. A “No brakes” drill can help build the confidence to use brakes less even when running back at pace. There is plenty of literature all over about braking “Well”, (Such as Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets) read up and always look to improve.
If you are new to performance driving, get a ride with a skilled driver. Tell them you’re specifically looking at how to brake: How hard, when, and how to release. You will be shocked at how late and how hard you can brake. Just remember, slowly work up to braking aggressively. You don’t want to dive right into ultra late braking your first lap.
1 – Doing Track days in a Heavy, Powerful Car –
The #1 thing you can do to destroy brakes on track is get yourself a massive, powerful car. Technology can help heavy cars go fast and turn well, but it can’t change the physics of slowing down a piece of heavy machinery. Want to drive all season on a single set of brake pads? Miata is always the answer.
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5 thoughts on “The 17 BIGGEST mistakes you can make with your brakes on (And off) track”
Excellent points all made in the mistakes with brakes article, one additional point could be made in the #15 cool down lap….. drivers should keep in mind others on track behind them may want to come in hot and get tire temps taken in the hot pits by their crew, if you go slow and hold up others, you destroy any chance of your fellow drivers in getting realistic/accurate tire temps
Ooh, very good point!!
What about the DOT 5.1 fluids I see popping up? They say it is a higher but compatible fluid with DOT 4.
Good question: I didn’t go into incredible detail researching DOT5.1 but my impression was:
5.1 had a higher standard MINIMUM than DOT4. However, the popular DOT4 fluids are rated significantly higher than their minimum, and (at the ones I looked at) actually had a higher boiling point (both wet and dry) than the standard dot5.1’s on the market.
Much of the information online speaks to the minimum ratings, but little touches on the actual product boiling points. When I get a moment, I’ll reach out to some manufacturers and update the post with new info.
For now, I’m sticking with DOT4.
The manually cooling down the Rotors made me laugh but it’s dangerous. Thankfully I haven’t done that but have with some others on the list.