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Wrenching Tips: How to Prep for a Track Day (in a Day and a Half)

Tim Odell August 23, 2012 Wrenching Tips 20 Comments

Falcon cragar wheels tires

In our last Wrenching Tips, we covered…well, a bit of everything. As always, the comments were as good as the article.

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.

falcon disc brake upgrade

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).

falcon steel brake lines

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.

  • Fuel.

    Nothing is more embarrassing than running out of fuel on the track you drove the car to. Didn't happen to me but a friend of mine. Was scrambling at SCCA Solo meet to check-in, go out to gas up car and get back in time for tech.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    <img src="http://www.photigy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/lighting-setup-using-shooting-box-lesson-tutorial.jpg&quot; width="600"> I came-up with a good one yesterday. I was working in the dark and usually it's pretty annoying moving hanging lights around and the cords get in the way. Well my wife has five lights like those above. They are intended for studio photography. She has two for setting on the ground, like in the back in the image above, two like in the sides, and one like the one hanging above. You can get FIVE really bright CFL lights into each. Really only one was enough though for me last night, it was spectacular 😀 Anyway there are okay kits online for like $200 that come with three in a set, it might be worth it.

    edit- Doh might be good to know they are called box lights or umbrella lights.

  • OA5599

    Air shocks: The kits might come with a "T" fitting so that you fill both shocks at the same time. Don't use it. You want to fill each air shock independently.

    Why? As you corner, air pressure from the outside shock in a "T" setup will shift to the inside shock, which increases body roll instead of decreasing it.

    • <img src="http://s3.amazonaws.com/rapgenius/mind-blown.jpg"&gt;

      Damn…I need to do that.

      • OA5599

        Oh. I figured you already knew that. I just wanted to toss it out there for the newbies reading this series.

        At any rate, you might be interested to know that this method also lets you stagger your left and right side pressures–good for accounting for the weight of the driver on the left side, or increasing on the right side if your track is an oval.

  • Stu_Rock

    If the car has an automatic transmission, add a transmission fluid cooler.

    • OA5599

      Or replace it with a manual.

    • chrystlubitshi

      not just "a tranny cooler" add a BIG tranny cooler

      amazing how many 1/4 mile runs one can win because the other guy overheats.

      good advice

  • jeepjeff

    High Driving Performance Experience? I thought that was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    Obersturmführer Jeep Jeff
    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8f/Grammar_Nazi_Icon_Text.svg/200px-Grammar_Nazi_Icon_Text.svg.png&quot; width=150>

    • jeepjeff

      Also, Tim, awesome post. Definitely useful information.

  • domino_vitali

    thanks for the tips! a noob like me really appreciates it! i don't have a track car yet, but when i do, i'll have you guys and girls to thank for preparing me. 🙂

    • B72

      My son has lots of track cars. The track is orange, and plugs together.

      Is it wrong to live vicariously through your 3 year old?

      • OA5599

        No, but 3 is plenty old enough for Power Wheels, probably old enough to pull out the governing screw, and nearly old enough for some speed mods.

        • chrystlubitshi

          dude… I cannot wait until my boy is old enough for power-wheels/go-karts (he is 3 months from being born so far)…

          I have plans, and am saving "found" lawnmower engines for him already…

        • B72

          Alas, we lack a suitable track for power wheels. But for future reference, where is this governing screw of which you speak?

          • OA5599

            If you live someplace with no yard, and the streets and sidewalks have too much traffic to be safe, what about a nearby park, or perhaps the school parking lot on a weekend?

            The screw is actually a lockout that prevents the shifter from going into position for high speed. With the screw in place, the shifter can only be shifted into reverse and low, but with the screw removed, a third option, high, becomes available. The screw location varies from one shifter design to another (lever vs. pushbutton, for example), but should be fairly obvious once you're looking at it.

            <img src="http://i55.tinypic.com/53pqgw.jpg"&gt;

            • Vairship

              This Tuning Secrets for Power Wheels segment was brought to you exclusively by Hooniverse – the source for all your Power Wheels go-faster parts!

  • RichardKopf

    Good call. I usually try to get to the track with as little gas as possible in my 24 gallon tank. This can be troublesome when leaving the track with no gas stations around. Not to mention that on-track the wagon consumes fuel at levels unseen by man before.

  • P.Melvin Shyturtle

    Years ago I did a conversion that included a reinforcement plate and an aluminum wedge. With 14″ BF Goodrich T/A radials, the stock front sway bar, and no rear sway bar, the improvement was dramatic. It cornered very flat and I could control oversteer very nicely. The alignment guy moaned and groaned about doing the alignment job though.