Preparation is the key. First and foremost, that means making sure your vehicle is in top shape before you set out for your first lap. We’ve put together this handy checklist to help you get your car ready for the track in the days leading up to your initial experience. We will continue to add more tips and tricks to this page—as we guide you through the process.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Coming soon: Stay tuned for new sections to this page about track rules and advanced info regarding aerodynamics and fueling.
Driving fast for a prolonged period of time puts added stress on your car compared to regular commuting. So it’s important to catch up on any deferred or outstanding maintenance that your vehicle might need. This means verifying whether you’re due for an oil change, taking a look at the condition of your coolant, and verifying that your brake fluid is in excellent condition.
Start by popping the cap on the overflow tank—and verify the level and the color of the coolant. If it looks dark or muddy, it’s time to change it. Brake fluid is very similar: check the level, and replace any fluid that seems discolored or smells “burnt.” Remember that replacing brake fluid requires completely bleeding it out of each of your four calipers. If you’re not comfortable doing this, then get it done by a mechanic you trust.
Depending on how old your car is, you might also want to swap in fresh manual transmission oil, which is a somewhat messy but a relatively straight-forward job. Automatic transmissions are more complicated, and if you have any concerns about the life of your fluids, again, it’s worth talking to your mechanic about your options before you hit the track.
Get more info: Regularly Check These Four Car Fluids
Thoroughly Inspect Your Car
It takes more than a quick walk around your car to know that each component is ready for track duty. Consider that you’ll probably be pushing your tires, suspension, and brakes harder than they’ve ever been driven before. It’s well worth taking the extra time to verify the condition each of these components.
Tires warrant your focus. You’re just starting out, so you’ll want to verify a few things:
- Make sure tread depth is within normal wear parameters
- Confirm that there are no cuts, divots, or chunks missing from the tread or sidewalls
- Verify that each tire is properly inflated according to your manual’s specifications
Most suspension problems related to track driving are associated with the weakest links in your car’s chassis. Typically, this means ball joints, bushings, shock mounts, differential mounts, and control arms—parts that are in motion, bear weight, and are stressed by side-to-side transitions. You’ll want to look for cracks, tears, and looseness, and replace any parts that require attention.
Finally, your brake pads—and/or shoes, depending on the age of your car—should have a healthy amount of life in them. The same is true of your discs. If you’re hesitant about the shape of your pads or discs, replace them. They are among the most important pieces of equipment you’ll bring to the track.
Be prepared that your car will go through a technical inspection run by the folks who organized the track day you are attending. The person who goes over your car will of course check on most of what is listed above. But they will also be looking for these things:
- functional brake lights
- seat belts that are in good (not sagging) condition
- a battery that’s properly tied down
- windshields and other glass that are free of cracks or serious chips
Don’t wait until you pull up to the inspection line before fully considering these safety items.
By taking the right steps outlined here, you can rest assured that the risk of your vehicle breaking down on the track — or the possibility of a mishap—is no greater than what you encounter every day on the street. In fact, safety is an integral part of the track experience. Race tracks and road courses are closed environments where you don’t have to worry about many of the hazards of a typical commute—such as distracted drivers. Besides, on the track you’re surrounded by professional staff, safety equipment, and trained medical personnel who are there to make sure you have a great (and safe) time.
We’re just getting started with this guide. Please check back on this page as we get into more details about the essential rules for a great track experience.
Now that you understand the need for basic maintenance before hitting the track, it’s time to drill a little deeper into one of the most important components related to high-speed driving: your brakes.
What are the basics you need to know? All modern cars—with very few, low-end exceptions—feature disc brakes at all four corners. Disc brakes rely on a metal rotor (or disc) that is gripped by a set of pads, activated by fluid transmitted to pistons inside a caliper, in order to generate the requisite amount of friction to slow the vehicle.
Rotors, calipers, and pads come in a variety of sizes and materials, each of which deals with the single most important by-product of braking: heat. The extreme temperatures generated by high-speed stomps on the brake pedal also impact the ability of your car’s brake fluid to function to spec over the course of a session.
Heat Is the Enemy
It’s easy to get distracted by the size of your calipers, pads, and rotors when prepping for a track day. After all, logic suggests that big rotors and equally-large pads will generate more friction and therefore help stop a car more quickly, and that multiple-piston caliper designs will further enhance stopping power.
All of these things are true, but as with most aspects of automotive performance, it’s not a simple matter of bigger is better. The truth is, your car’s braking hardware was designed from the factory to take into account not just the weight of your vehicle, but also the additional mass associated with passengers, cargo, and potentially even a trailer. That means mechanically, at least, it’s got what it takes to get you stopped on the track.
Whether it can handle the heat generated in the process is another story. In highway driving it’s rare that you would call on the full force of your braking system in anything other than an emergency situation—unless you happen to live where deer are always jumping in front of your car. This means that you don’t have to worry about the effect that heat has on your brake components.
Driving on the track is a different story. Full-force braking is something you’ll do several times a lap—if not before every corner—which means that it’s likely your factory components will not be able to take the heat that comes with that level of friction. Trouble will manifest itself in a soft, spongy brake pedal as the fluid begins to boil (dumping air into the system), alongside longer stopping differences due to overheated pads no longer providing enough grip on the discs.
You Have Options
There are easy things you can do to beat the heat. The first, and most important, is:
Swap out your stock brake pads for a set that are made out of a more track-friendly material.
If you already own a high-performance car, there’s a chance your factory pads are capable of dealing with the stress of track driving, but even then it’s never a bad idea to upgrade your stoppers—especially since it’s a cost-effective modification that you can most likely do yourself.
Track pads come in a wide range of materials and price points, with some exclusively oriented towards competition—like these Hawk DTC-30 pads—and others attempting to balance street and track use such as EBC’s Yellowstuff line. They are made from materials that provide a strong initial “bite” into your rotors while minimize any fade in stopping from heat build-up. As a beginner, it’s always better to go with a street and track pad like the EBC option or the Hawk HP+, because these can be safely driven to and from an event—unlike dedicated race pads that require the warmth of racing speed friction to offer safe stopping, something you won’t encounter on the street.
Here’s the next thing you should do:
Replace your brake fluid with a high-temperature fluid that meets the same DOT specifications listed in your vehicle manual.
Affordable options include ATE TYP200 and Motul RBF 600. Essentially, you are looking for any fluid compatible with your car that has a boiling point of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll need to completely replace the fluid that’s already in your car, which means a full bleed from each of your vehicle’s four calipers, and potentially also activating your car’s ABS valves, which might not be possible unless you use a special tool.
If you’re not comfortable doing this, your local mechanic will be able to do it a reasonable cost—but you should become familiar with your vehicle’s general brake bleeding procedure so you can address any air in the lines that might surface after an intense track session.
Finally, directing cold air to your brakes is a great and inexpensive way to keep them from overheating on the track. Some cars come with brake ducting installed already, while others might require you to remove a fog light or run a small length of tubing or hose from under the front bumper to just behind the brake itself. If you run your own cooling, make sure it’s attached tightly enough that it won’t come loose while driving and potentially become a hazard on the track.
Did you notice that we haven’t mentioned anything about brake disc replacement—for a good reason? Yes, you can buy slotted or drilled discs, which have channels carved into them and/or holes punched through them to enhance cooling and help remove the gases that are generated by brake pads at high temperatures. However, you sacrifice strength and longevity for gains that you probably won’t notice when you first start out on the track. Save your money and keep your stock blank rotors on the car.
Unlike brakes, there are a vast number of different changes and setups related to tuning a car’s suspension system for the track. Here’s the good news: These decisions can wait. Your initial forays to the race track should be on your car’s stock suspension so you can focus on getting comfortable in a high-performance driving environment.
You’ve been driving on your original setup for some time, so you already know how it will react in any given situation. That’s a big advantage. While it’s a good idea to keep things familiar and simple, you can still consider making small upgrades. Small changes will help you stay on budget, and keep you from making your car overly stiff—which can be unpleasant when you’re back on the street.
Lowering Springs First
Your car’s springs were original tuned at the factory for a balance of handling and comfort. That required compromises in both departments. One of the least expensive upgrades you can make to your vehicle’s suspension is to install a set of lowering springs.
By dropping the ride height of your car by one to two inches, you reposition its center of gravity closer to the ground. That helps when it comes time to moving its mass through a corner. The higher spring rate on a set of lowering coils will reduce the amount of body roll, and the pitching and diving that occurs when turning, accelerating, or braking at higher speeds.
Lowering springs are widely available for almost any automobile, and if you stick with a modest drop in ride height, then you don’t have to worry about bottoming out your car in daily driving. These so-called sport springs, such as the kit available from Eibach, are also notable for not overly increasing stiffness, which means the learning curve on the track (and comfort on the street) won’t be adversely affected as harshly as racing springs.
Shock Absorbers to Match
Your car’s suspension is a system, which means changing one aspect of how your car rides has a definite impact on other behaviors. This is particularly true when it comes to handling. With stiffer springs, your car’s stock shock absorbers may no longer adequately dampen the bumps transmitted to the chassis, or deal with quick changes in direction in a track environment.
So it’s a good idea to installs performance shock absorbers when you replace your stock springs with a lowering kit. For starters it’s cheaper and easier to do both at once, since the suspension needs to come apart anyway. More importantly, it gives you the opportunity to match your upgraded springs with shocks tuned to handle a more aggressive character.
Again, there are a multitude of shock absorber options out there—ranging from work-focused heavy-duty shocks intended for towing to fully-adjustable coilover kits that include custom rebound and compression settings. We recommend something in the middle: a sport shock, like the Eibach Sport-System, or Bilstein Sport, that can control vehicle movement without introducing an overly stiff feel.
Yes, you might feel a rougher ride over broken pavements when riding on shocks with performance-oriented rebound and compression tuning. But they will also offer excellent feedback in a track environment without the squishy, vague experience offered by many stock setups. In addition, a sport damper will be less likely to fail when pushed hard, as compared to comfort-oriented designs intended to smooth out the bumps.
Consider Sway Bars
If you already own a high-performance car, you might not need to modify the shocks or springs during your first year of track driving. However, no matter what you’re driving, upgraded sway bars can make a significant difference in handling.
Sway bars are mounted at the front and the rear of your vehicle. They work to reduce body roll when a car is pitched into a corner at high speeds. Also known as anti-sway bars, or stabilizer bars, they are rounded metal bars that connect one side of the suspension to the other, typically just above or below each set of axles (although sometimes mounted to the front or rear).
When a vehicle’s suspension moves, the coil springs compress—but sway bars twist. That means their torsional rigidity is what reduces roll. As with springs, if you go too stiff with a stabilizer bar, you can easily upset your car’s chassis by making it too difficult for each wheel to move independently while cornering. Most of the time, a thicker bar is a stiffer bar, although some aftermarket options may be hollow and instead rely on specific materials to achieve the desired rigidity.
Sway bars are a useful suspension tuning tool, because a stiffer bar at the rear of the car generally helps to reduce under-steer, while a stiffer bar up front can control over-steer. You can also find adjustable bars that allow you to vary their mounting points and adjust vehicle behavior. While getting your start at track driving, we recommend installing a matched set of sway bars that will help reduce body roll without dramatically changing the car’s overall attitude.
Don’t Overlook Bushings
Flashy suspension hardware won’t make a difference if your car’s basic chassis components can’t handle the added stress of track driving. Your vehicle’s rubber bushings are critical to your suspension: They serve as the mounting, adjustment, and rotation points for sway bars, control arms, tie rods, differentials, and nearly every other chassis component.
Over time, rubber bushings can wear out, tear, or dry to the point when they no longer meet their original specifications. This can lead to suspension components feeling loose, because they have too much movement. If it gets bad enough, worn out bushing can reduce stability in high-speed driving.
Any time you have your car up on a lift, it’s worth checking on your bushings. Bushing replacement kits are relatively affordable, and are made of either rubber or stiffer materials, such as longer-lasting polyurethane. The latter is recommended for track use, although you might notice additional squeaks and noises from your suspension (as well as a stiffer ride) after they are installed.
With any adjustments to your suspension, you should verify that your car is still properly aligned. Let’s go one step farther: We recommend discarding the factory alignment spec when taking your vehicle on a road course. Actually, alignment could be the first and the last thing you do to your suspension system—because a more aggressive track alignment matched with factory settings will surprisingly unlock new handling capabilities.
Factory wheel alignments are designed to do three things:
- Introduce understeer to prevent a loss of control in normal driving
- Reduce pulling from one side to the other on highways
- Extend tire life
Each of these concepts, while fine for the street, work against you on a race track. When getting started in the world of performance driving, you want to dial in the most neutral handling characteristics, which means eliminating factory understeer and keeping as much of the tire’s contact patch in contact with the tarmac while cornering.
We won’t cover the full details of how wheel alignment affects driving, but in basic terms, you will want to add:
- Negative camber (the angle at which the wheel stands as compared to a vertical line drawn through the center)
- Negative caster (the position of the center of the wheel as compared to the front of the car, with negative changes moving it closer)
Exploring these settings with a qualified alignment technician will help improve corner turn-in, as well as improve neutrality at speed. You’ll probably find information about the best alignment characteristics for your car’s stock chassis in an online forum dedicated to your particular model. Use that as your starting point to creating a balance between a track setup and a street setup.
It’s easy for a track novice to get overwhelmed by the many different types of track-oriented tires. So we’ll start by looking at the tires that are best suited to your first few trips to the track. Then we can examine how you can build towards a more aggressive rubber compound once the basics are mastered.
Safe, Stock Tires for First-Timers
On your first visit to a high-performance setting, you should be riding on the same tires that you drove to the track. Of course, you should inspect those tires beforehand to make sure that they have the following:
- A safe amount of tread. A good rule of thumb is 4/32 of an inch of tread depth, which can be quickly verified by inserting a quarter upside-down between the tread blocks. George Washington’s head should be at least partially obscured by a tire with a safe amount of tread.
- No bulges, gashes in the sidewall, or bumps. Verify that you don’t have any chunking in the tread, especially along the side of the tire.
- Sufficient remaining shelf-life. The last four digits of the Department of Transportation code on the tire’s sidewall indicates when it was built. For example, 0715 indicates that the tire was produced in the seventh week of 2015. If your tire is nearing the fifth year of its lifespan, there’s a chance it might not perform as well as it could, and may wear more quickly on the track. If it’s older than five years, you should consider replacing it, even if the tread looks fine and the tire is otherwise undamaged.
Why are we recommending your car’s stock tires, whether all-season or basic summer, for your first few track days? For starters, you are familiar with these tires. You’ve probably driven on them for a decent period of time, and you probably already know what your car feels like when they start to lose traction, or get to the edge of their grip. Comfort and familiarity is a big part of being safe and having fun on a track.
Compared to a high-performance tire, a standard street tire is going to give you a lot more warning before it breaks loose—both audibly with a high-pitched squeal and in terms of lateral movement, as the tire slowly begins to move sideways while it loses its grip on the tarmac.
Both of these cues are important teaching tools. By starting off with the relatively low limits imposed by a standard street tire, when you do spin out—it’s going to happen—it will be at a reasonable speed.
The Next Step: R Compounds or High-Performance Summer Tires
Eventually, you will want to take the next step towards better grip. That means purchasing either a set of R-compound tires mounted on dedicated rims that you bring to the track with you and swap out in the pits, or a high-performance summer street tire that you can still drive to and from the event.
We strongly recommend the latter approach. Obviously, a single set of tires is going to be cheaper than buying one set for the track and another for the road.
High- performance summer tires such as the Michelin Pilot Super Sport, the Pirelli P Zero, the Toyota Proxes, the Hankook Ventus V12 evo2, and the Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar significantly boost grip and improve heat resistance while offering the recommended auditory feedback and progressive loss of traction.
R-compound tires, on the other hand, can be so sticky that their grip sometimes feels like an on/off switch. This means you’ll be doing fine mid-corner until all of a sudden you aren’t—quickly putting you into a no-warning slide, spin, or fishtail. The “R” refers to race, which means the rubber compound in these tires wears out much quicker than a street tire. That’s because it’s softer and stickier when it warms up, trading lifespan for the ability to maintain traction during high-temperature track conditions.
There are many R-compound tires that are sold as DOT-approved street tires—including popular models like the Hankook Ventus R-S3, the Toyo Proxes R1R, and the Dunlop Direzza ZII Star Spec. But daily driving R-comps will significantly shorten their lifespan as the number of heat cycles, a term defined as a tire heating up to full operating temperature and then cooling back down again. Each heat cycle gradually wears out the rubber. Their tread patterns are also not all that conducive to channeling water in a safe manner, meaning they can be risky to drive in a rain storm.
Tire Care at the Track: Inflation and Temperature
Regardless of the kind of rubber you bring to the track, you’ll need to follow some basic tire care and inspection guidelines to maximize their lifespan, figure out how your car is performing during a session, and try to improve performance over the course of the day.
During high-speed track driving, a stiff sidewall will help a car change directions. You’ll want to use the largest possible contact patch—the part of the tread that touches the pavement. The level of inflation plays an important role.
There are three basic tools to achieve proper tire pressure:
A tire pyrometer measures the rubber temperature. Make sure you get one that has an actual probe that makes contact with the tire itself, not a laser thermometer, which simply reads the surface temperature of the tire (not the internal temperature of the rubber).
Inflate your tires to your car’s factory rating when the tires are cold. Typically, this is between 30 and 45 psi, depending on what’s printed on the door jamb or in your vehicle’s manual. Make sure you have an even pressure in all four tires, because you want a firm baseline for starting out. Once you come back in from your first session, measure the temperature and air pressure in each tire as quickly as possible, because they’ll start to cool down almost immediately. Take those temperature readings in three positions: the inside, middle, and outside of the tire’s tread.
Those three temperatures will immediately show you whether the tire is over-inflated or under-inflated by revealing which parts of the contact patch are working the hardest.
- If the outside temperatures are higher than the inside, that indicates that the tire is under-inflated—because the middle of the tire isn’t making as much contact as it should.
- If the inside temperature is higher than the outside, then the tires are over-inflated—because the middle is doing all the work and the outsides are staying cool.
Ideally, you’ll have an even temperature across all three parts of the tire, and throughout the day you can incrementally adjust the air pressure to achieve that goal. Remember to jot down all of these readings in your notebook so you can refer to them in the future.
You can also adjust tire pressures front and rear, and side to side, to compensate for understeer, oversteer, and braking behavior. However, that’s beyond what a beginner should be worrying about on first few times on the track. Just concentrate on proper inflation for each tire.
Also, don’t be concerned if one tire shows a different temperature than the others. Some tracks might have more right-hand turns than left-hand turns, for example, which means that one side of the car will be working harder than the other on any given lap. The idea is to get each tire to show even temperatures across its own surface, not compared to the other wheels.
No one likes to think about the worst-case scenario on the track. But safety is the most important aspect of any motorsports activity—whether you’re at a driving school, running in a time trial, or racing door-to-door.
Fortunately, novice track drivers can rely on well-established rules and guidelines provided by the club or group in charge of the racing experience. Let’s look at how to stay safe by meeting track regulations.
Without exception, you will be required to wear a helmet while driving on the track. This is not only for your safety, but it’s written in stone in the insurance policy of every road course facility, dirt oval, and racing club. Helmets are just common sense. They protect the most important organ in your body: your brain.
eBay has a big selection of auto-racing helmets. But what type of helmet you should buy? How much should you pay? Choosing the right helmet is more complicated than just maxing out your credit card on the most expensive helmet. A lightweight comfortable design is desirable, but you should also consider visibility, style, club rules, and the manufacturing date.
All helmets legal for use in an amateur motorsports environment are certified by the Snell Foundation. The standards are updated every five years, so a helmet with an official SA2010 sticker was certified to the 2010 standard, while a SA2015 sticker meets the 2015 standard.
Snell standards apply for a 10-year period. In other words, a SA2010 helmet will be accepted by most organizations until 2020, but SA2005 helmets would no longer be allowed. We highly recommend buying a helmet with the most recent certification to ensure that you get the most use out of the safest helmet.
Open Face vs. Closed Face vs. Motorcycle Helmets
Some track clubs require a closed-face design with a full visor. If that’s not the case, then you have choices. We recommend trying on a variety of designs for comfort and visibility. Open face helmets are not as hot and can offer better visibility, but they don’t protect your chin from impact.
While you might be tempted to use a closed-face motorcycle helmet, which is often less expensive, most organizations will not allow motorcycle helmets to be used in an automobile. Even though motorcycle helmets are certified (with the M sticker) by the Snell Foundation, the safety specifications are completely different. The bottom line: Motorcycle helmets are not safe in a track car.
Do I Need A HANS Device?
A HANS (Head and Neck Support) device is a piece of safety equipment that is designed to reduce injuries by immobilizing your head in a crash and preventing whiplash or extreme rotation. Traditionally, HANS devices required the use of more elaborate restraints built into a vehicle’s belt system, but portable hybrid units are now available. If you can afford one, it’s a worthwhile investment, even though you most clubs don’t require them.
Multi-Point Belts and Harnesses
Racing harnesses using four, five, and even six points of attachment are popular on the track.
- Harnesses do a great job of keeping your body locked to the seat while driving, even if the car has smooth leather or vinyl seats.
- They will hold you firmly to seat in the event of a crash.
- They are unnecessary for beginners.
Here’s the issue: Multi-point harnesses are only helpful if installed in conjunction with a harness bar, roll bar or cage, and specific racing seats that can accommodate them. Without these other components, harness belts can harm you.
Harness shoulder straps have to be perfectly level with the anchored bar—not bolted to the floor or the seatbelt receptors of a car’s back seat. If the straps are angled down, then an impact or rollover could put additional strain on your spine. In fact, if there’s no roll bar in your vehicle, some clubs won’t let you use harnesses at all. In addition, in the event of an accident, you can’t slouch or roll your body to avoid a collapsing roof.
As a beginner, you should be using your car’s three-point seat belt. That system has been rigorously tested and is very safe. If you want to enhance the three-point system, consider gear like the CG Lock, which will tighten its hold through the corners. Don’t worry about what other people think about stock seatbelts: You’re there to have fun and be safe, not meet a vague idea about what constitutes a “serious” track car.
Roll Bars for Convertibles
If you own an open-top car, such as the Mazda Miata, then you should verify that your track club doesn’t preclude roadsters or ragtops for insurance reasons. Some clubs might accept an open-top car, but require a fixed roll bar, wrapped in FIA or SFI-approved safety foam, rather than the vehicle’s stock rollover protection equipment.
Safety marshals might deploy the so-called broomstick test—running a broomstick handle or measuring stick from the top of the roll bar to the top of your vehicle’s front fender. To pass the test, your seat must be low enough in the car for your head to fit under the stick at that angle. You may even be required to use arm restraints that keep your limbs from reaching outside the automobile in a rollover.
Snapping on a removable hardtop might not be allowed by your track. Most of those tops aren’t made of materials that will protect you from anything more than the sun and rain.
Every track club has its own rules. Take the time to find out, in advance, whether convertibles are welcome at all, or if you will need special safety allowances. It’s a good general safety rule to look up your track’s rules or give a call to confirm all the guidelines before showing up for your first day at the track.
Next topics to be added to this page: track rules and advanced info regarding aerodynamics and fueling.