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How To Race At The Road Course Or Autocross

Don't Just Stand There. Get The Basics And Learn . . .

What you Need
Much like ensuring a successful day at the dragstrip, a little preparation before heading to the track can pay dividends that far exceed the investment. To begin with, don't bother to show up unless your car's suspension is in excellent condition. Expired ball joints, rattling suspension bushings, worn tie-rod ends, and shipped-out shocks have no place on a road course or autocross. Road course racing places great strain on all suspension and steering pieces, so it's best to start with good parts. After all, the point of going to the track is to have fun, right?

You'll also need a small assortment of tools in case a bolt loosens up or a leak appears that needs attention. A portable air tank, a small compressor, and a quality air pressure gauge are essential trackside tools that give you the opportunity to make pressure changes to the tires. Most track days that emphasize cars on the course with minimal passing don't require rollbars unless the car is a convertible, but you will need quality seatbelts and a good helmet. NASA's High Performance Driving Experience (HPDE) requires an SA1990, M1990, or newer helmet.

Also bring a cooler with plenty of water, nonsugary snacks or a light lunch, fold-up chairs, and perhaps an expandable tent for some shade during the day. All this might be tough to pack into a '69 Camaro trunk, so you might consider having a friend accompany you to the track with his/her vehicle that can carry the extra gear.

Track Day Setup
Now that you've signed up for a track day excursion, there are some critical mods that must be done so you have a good time, the car doesn't break, and you don't look like a rookie doing it. An easily overlooked area is the brakes. While open track running takes its toll on tires and the drivetrain, the brakes are easily the place where the abuse is the greatest. This means you should spend a some time giving those binders a little love. Even if this is all you do, always bleed the brakes before any serious shot at a road course. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water right out of the atmosphere. Water reduces brake fluid's boiling point and the brake heat will turn that water into steam, which will make the pedal spongy-or worse-fall right to the floor. So completely bleed the entire brake system before you head to the track. And don't use fluid that's been sitting around the shop in an open container for a year. Buy new fluid and bring extra fluid with you-it gives the appearance that you know what you're doing.

If you intend to upgrade to a performance brake pad (which is a great idea), be aware that new pads must be properly bedded before going to the track. Bedding procedures vary by manufacturer, but the critical point is that you don't have time to bed the brakes at the track. The best time to do this would be a couple of days before the event, since bedding requires allowing the pads to completely cool to ambient temperature at least once and preferably several times.

Alignment is another important issue. If your car has an improved suspension that has an aggressive front camber curve, then the car can maintain its street alignment and give up very little handling performance. As an example, our mule Chevelle is equipped with a very aggressive Global West front upper control arm that allows us to run 1.5 degrees of static negative camber and 6 degrees of positive caster. The car enters the corners very nicely without the need for additional static negative camber. However, back when the car was equipped with stock upper control arms and spindles, it needed roughly 4 degrees of negative camber to plant the tires. With camber, the goal is to produce even tire temperatures across the face of the tire.

Running a car at an autocross is a relatively quick event, much like a drag race, so heat management isn't quite as important an issue as it is on a road course. If you plan on abusing your car on an open track day at a big road course, spend a little time beforehand ensuring the cooling system is in excellent shape. Also remember that at a big track, you are going to be on the throttle for an extended period of time, which will also significantly elevate transmission and rear axle oil temperatures. Consider changing the gear oil in the rearend and in the manual trans with a high-quality synthetic that will handle the temperature. If your car is running an automatic, a large aftermarket trans cooler is essential. It is best to keep the trans temperature less than 225 degrees F, which may limit the number of laps you can run without a cool down. You should also consider running a power steering cooler. We've seen multiple power steering pump failures at big tracks due to cooked fluid.

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