Not too long ago, we hit the track in my ’64 Falcon, and a did a bit of a scramble to get it ready for
competition rolling chicane duty. There was a combination of upkeep, upgrades and racetrack specific work that needed to be done.
For once, the scramble wasn’t exactly my fault, as I was all ready to get working when The Day Job sent me to France for the two weeks immediately preceding Track Day. For the record, an international round trip costs about $5,000 when you book it three days in advance.
The cab dropped me off back at home on Wednesday afternoon, the track goes hot 9:00 Friday Morning. Time to get to work.
[Commerce Alert: various links in this post go to relevant eBay searches. If you click them, we make money. If you click them and buy something, we make more money. We'd rather point you to relevant car stuff than do a kickstarter with a stretch goal involving a car wash with Jeff wearing only a bikini made of bacon. - Ed]
In stock configuration, most remotely sporty cars of the last 20 years are ready for a track day. When it comes to upgrades, those that’ll help the car and you survive the experience are the best to add first. There are two caveats to the “stock is good enough” mantra: maintenance and brakes. If anything’s worn or weak, it’ll go from “gotta get to that” to “need a tow home” real quick. When it comes to brakes, manufacturers are smart enough not to design the stoppers around 60 straight minutes repeated 120-40mph pulls. The calipers, pads and rotors up to that task are too expensive, heavy and squeaky for most people. In my case, I had few upgrades, a stack of deferred maintenance, brake work and deferred maintenance on brakes.
First up, some basics: an oil change. We’re trying to be inclusive of newbies in this series, but Rob covered how to change your oil elsewhere. Given that you’re about to a few C-notes on track fees and gas, it’s worth dropping a few extra bucks for good oil. Sustained high revs and high temps are hard on oil, so even though my Falcon predates multi-grade oil, it got a full pan of Mobil1 10-30 synthetic. In retrospect, I probably should’ve bumped up the viscosity to 15-40 or 20-50 (higher numbers = thicker) given the ambient, track and engine temps Buttonwillow in June would produce.
Speaking of oil, it helps if your motor can actually keep pumping it as you turn laps. On a long, high-G corner you can slosh the oil all the way to one side of the pan, leaving the pump pickup sucking air. $$$Crunch$$$. A deep sump, baffled or trap-doored oil pan is a good idea if your car didn’t have one from the factory and/or you’ve upgraded to super-sticky tires. Assuming you’re not running R-comps, a cheap workaround is to overfill the oil by .5-1 quart, giving a little extra buffer. Here’s where I disclaim that statement and tell you to check your manual or model specific enthusiast forum.
If you don’t remember the last time you flushed your coolant, flush your coolant. While coolant has a higher boiling point than water, it’s less effective as a thermal sink. That said, the extra viscosity and surface adhesion provided by coolant can help water do the job better. The upshot? Run something like 75-90% water, the rest coolant or water-wetter.
My Falcon has an upgraded direct driven fan, a stock radiator and no shroud of any kind. Even as I type that, I’m kicking myself for being surprised it overheated on-track. Though, even with some seriously spirited street driving, the temp had never so much as crossed halfway on the gauge. As with brakes, the heat load created by all-out flogging is a cut above your best on-road hoonage. If a multi-hundred dollar radiator upgrade isn’t in cards, flush your coolant, check the health of any viscous or thermal clutch, double-check for leaks and make sure there’s a shroud on that fan.
Aside from my previous “almost a Shelby” front end work, the remainder of my maintenance and upgrades consisted of swapping my battery hold down rope for a ratchet strap, my blown air shocks for new ones and replacing a u-joint on the rear driveshaft. I tried to use a “real” battery hold down, but there was no clearance for it and I didn’t want to break out my welder to fab one. I rust encapsulator-ed the battery tray to make myself feel better. Air shocks blow goats when it comes to actual handling, but at $60 for new ones with new air lines, they’re cheaper than new custom leaf springs and serious business shocks. Good u-joints cost like $20. Why I didn’t swap both on the driveshaft that day escapes me. I ended up doing the other last week.
Onward to Brakes
The standard track day brake upgrade is as follows: fluid, pads and lines. Chances are your brake fluid is old. Old is bad, and good is better. Drain that swill and get some high-temp fluid from Motul or Ate. The intertoobes are rife with debates over which high-temp fluid is the best; for our purposes any is as good as the next. I chose Ate Super Blue because its blue dye showing up in your bleed hose makes it easy to know when you’ve finished a complete system flush (they make a red version for next time). I swapped my Raybestos Or Whatever pads for Hawk HP Plus units (which we also ran on the Uberbird with great results). Like brake fluid, as long as you’re stepping up to a “track day” compound, you’re set. Lastly: brake lines upgrades. Probably not super necessary on a new car, but if you’ve got old rubber lines, new braided stainless lines are better. There are some no-name sketchy units out there, so be sure what you pick up is DOT legal and from a halfway reputable vendor.
In my case, I swapped the useless factory 9″ drums for 11+” vented discs and 4 piston calipers two years ago. That swap kit included new rubber lines, so I didn’t stress too much when the braided stainless kit I ordered had fittings that didn’t fit. The rear was a different story entirely, with a visible chunk missing from the LBJ-era rear rubber line. Luckily it only took a locally available adapter to make that one work. While I was back there, I figured it made sense to use some vice grips and un-flatten the rear hard lines (0_O).
Last but not least: Wheels and Tires
Notice how nothing here spoke about going faster? After tightening the nut behind the wheel, tires can make the biggest difference to your car’s performance on track. Going to some non-DOT approved Hoosiers or just crazy-sticky tires like Falken Azenis will require a dedicated set of wheels for track duty. You may get there some day, but in the mean time I’d recommend seeing if you burn through a budget performance tire like Dunlop Direzza Star Specs, Yokohama S.drives or BFG G-force-whatever-they’re-calling-them-now.
In my case, I was genuinely worried my no-name 195-70-R14 El Cheapos on unilug wheels wouldn’t survive the day. Also, they were too tall, rubbed on the rear fenders and looked like crap. Out with the old, in with Cragar’s new(ish) Eliminator 1-piece aluminum wheels in 15×7, wrapped in 205-55 R15 Yokohama S.drives. I was hoping to go with Direzzas as we’d had great results with them on the Uberbird, but they weren’t available in the size I wanted. The S.drives weren’t far behind, ratings-wise. I’ll go ahead and drop an uncompensated endorsement for Performance Plus Wheel and Tire. They were the only place I could find that had both classic-appropriate wheels (Tire Rack didn’t) and actually good tires (Jegs/Summit didn’t). Pricing includes mounting, balancing and shipping, too.
I’m nowhere near what you’d call a track rat, but this basic list (including the cooling upgrades I didn’t do) is a pretty good starting point if you’re wondering what you need to do for a basic HDPE. Some cars are more vulnerable to failure in certain places than others, so do a little research. The most important thing is to forget about all the typical upgrades a youth spent reading aftermarket-heavy car magazines has trained you to want and focus on the basics to improve survivability.
As always, weigh in an tell me what I’ve left off the list.