A little prep goes a long way
by Jake Lingeman, April 11, 2019
A track day is the most fun you can have in your car without racing wheel to wheel. You will be joined by a bunch of like-minded, and mostly like-skilled, enthusiasts all out to have a good time. But before you head to the track, you need to take steps to make sure you and your car come back in one piece. Safety is key, so everything revolves around that. We’ll start with what to do before you leave your garage.
Several days before heading to the track, get the car’s maintenance up to date. Make sure that all fluids--oil, coolant, brake fluid and power steering fluid—are topped off and within manufacturer-recommended age and use. Remember, all fluids combat heat. And heat comes quickly at the track. An oil change before a track day is definitely a must.
It’s also good to upgrade to a high-performance brake fluid, which has a higher boiling point than stock stuff. Think DOT 4 and 5.1. A common cause of brake fade is the fluid boiling and no longer doing its job. In my 2014 Ford Mustang, I use a DOT 4, Motul RBF600, which has a boiling point of just under 600 degrees. A proper flush and fill is in order. For more confidence in the left pedal, high-performance brake pads are the next step.
Next you’ll want to check the condition of the tires, looking for cracks, chunks and punctures. The main thing is making sure they’re aired up properly for the drive to the track and the lug nuts are torqued down to the proper specs. You’ll be doing this often throughout the day.
The best way to make sure nothing goes wrong is to bring as many tools and parts as you can. I pack my trunk, back seat and front passenger seat with jacks, jack stands, toolbox and socket set, breaker bar, torque wrench, air compressor, tire gauge, helmet, duct tape and zip ties (for holding body panels together if you make contact). Side items include a cooler with food—though some tracks have concessions—a chair if it’s a public track day (you’ll be sitting around for a while), sunscreen, sunglasses and aspirin. A few hours in a race helmet in the sun has a way of squishing your melon. A spare tire is important, preferably on a rim. If something does go wrong, at least you’ll be able to get home.
Lap timers: We advise against them. If you’re not a professional racer, chasing lap times only leads to madness. Giving up turn 1 for turn 12 to clock one good lap, driving faster than your skills allow, trying to beat anyone else’s time, is always dangerous. It’s all practice, not qualifying.
Once you get to the track, stake out a spot and empty everything onto the pavement, including your spare tire and anything that can move in the cabin or trunk. On-track, everything not bolted down becomes a projectile.
Rule No. 1: Stay in tune with your car. If you feel something weird, stop; hear something weird, stop; smell something weird, stop. Doing so avoids something minor becoming something major.
Rule No. 2: Re-torque your lug nuts periodically because they can loosen over the session. I vividly remember seeing a Mercedes-Benz CLS tire rolling across the track while the car’s brake disc dug into the runoff area grass.
Rule No. 3: Check tire pressures. You’ll want to go higher than the manufacturer’s recommendation, and the rears should be a bit higher than the fronts. If you can feel them rolling onto the sidewall through turns, they’re too low. Check before you go out and when you come back in to see how much you gain over a session. Experiment a few pounds at a time.
Rule No. 4: Keep an eye on fluids, especially brake fluid. Do not check coolant, only the overflow tank. Releasing the radiator cap with hot coolant in there is bad.
Rule No. 5: Heed the cool-down lap. Go fast enough that air is flowing over hot parts, but slow enough that you can coast through corners without hitting the brakes. They need to cool down the most.
Before you leave the track, check the tires and their pressures, as well as the lug nuts again. Put them all back to the manufacturer’s recommended specifications. Once you get home, check your fluids. Oil, coolant and brake fluid levels can change during a good track session. Fill as necessary. Visually inspect your car’s body and underbody. If you have the time and inclination, change the oil and filter again. It can only help.
And when the next day of hot lapping comes up, do it all over again—hopefully for years to come.