Today is a great day to be an automotive enthusiast. Perhaps more than ever before, road courses across the country are opening their gates to any and all drivers looking to experience the thrill of driving on a track. Combine this level of access with the increased performance of today's vehicles and it's possible to have more fun than ever before for less money than you might think.
Before embarking on your first track quest with your local SCCA chapter or car club, it is a good idea to keep a few things in mind and run through a checklist to make sure you and your car are properly prepared. Having tested products for the Tire Rack for several years, graduated from several schools and also participated in many open track events on my own time, I suggest the following:
#1 Brakes! Brakes! Brakes!
There is no higher failure rate for any vehicle system on a road course than the braking system. Factory brakes pads and fluid are not up to the task of providing stops from triple digit speeds repeatedly during a common 20-30 minute session. This is especially true for heavy, high horsepower vehicles such as many modern muscle car offerings. In short, a 4,200 lbs. Chevy Camaro SS trying to stop from 120mph will require much more braking force than a 2,500 lbs. Mazda Miata stopping from 100mph on the same straightaway. Keep in mind the braking needs of your specific vehicle when selecting aftermarket replacement products. Take a look at the offerings from Hawk, as they have a very broad market coverage.
For your first track session, I do not recommend using full-on competition tires. While competition tires are key to going fast and being competitive in class structured series racing, they aren't something I like to see used by first-time or novice track drivers. Not only are R-compound tires expensive and short on life, they also tend to have less progressive breakaway points than street tires. At the limit, these tires are more difficult to manage and can be less predictable if you find yourself in trouble. Furthermore, the high grip level of R-compound tires can easily mask weak driving fundamentals. For an introductory track driver, choose a tire from the Extreme Performance Summer category. These tires are more competitive than most Original Equipment tires and also feature compounds and patterns that hold up far better to the high heat levels generated on the track.
#3 Understand Your Vehicle and the Way it Behaves
Most vehicles produced today are set up to understeer. This is done so that when the casual driver finds themselves in trouble, they can simply let off the gas and bring the vehicle back into a neutral state rather than fight tailout antics common with oversteer. While your tires should be making some noise if you're driving properly and quickly on a road course, it is important to listen to what they are telling you. A brief chirp or bark is to be expected under cornering or heavy braking, but if the tires are howling and begging for mercy you are wasting money and time. If you find that the car is understeering into a corner, simply have patience, relax off the gas a bit and unwind your hands gradually. If the car is not wanting to turn, turning the wheel more will not help, but rather chew away at the outside edge of your tires. Having the ability to listen to your vehicle and understand what consequences your inputs have will make your experience more enjoyable and keep your cost of consumables lower.
#4 Go Out and Enjoy Yourself
Other than the tire and brake upgrades suggested above, there is not much that needs to be done to enjoy your street car on track provided that it is in good mechanical condition. Try not to over think suspension and a whole host of other aftermarket upgrades. These items may prove useful in time, but aren't necessary for your immediate enjoyment. Learning how your car behaves in stock form also helps you plan for modifications ahead and understand the difference they will make. Try to remember that you aren't racing for a trophy or podium spot and simply enjoy the atmosphere and thrill of being on track with other cars at speed. Be competitive if possible, but safe!
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