Drag racers and road racers are two very different breeds of people. Yeah, they both love to go fast in cars, but that's about where it ends. What kind of guy are you? If you look at a car and all you can think about is more power, you're a straight-line guy at heart--no matter how much chapter and verse you can quote about Trans Am or World Challenge. If you dream about squeezing the binders and setting up for a high-speed sweeper, good brakes are more your cup of tea. Congratulations, you're a road racer.
In fact, highly effective brakes aren't all that different than a powerful engine. While the engine produces horsepower, the brakes produce negative horsepower. Most readers would agree that a 500-horsepower street car is pretty boss, and it wouldn't be unusual for an F-body with that kind of grunt to power its way from 0-to-60 in under 4 seconds with the right tires. But did you know that given the same grip, a good set of brakes can go from 60-to-0 in half that span of time? You don't even need a calculator to figure out that's something north of 1,000 negative horsepower.
In practice, the less time you spend under braking around the track, the more time you can spend accelerating the rest of the time. In the most general terms, for each second less you spend on the binders, that's more time you can spend on the loud pedal--something even drag racers can understand. But it gets better: for every 10 horsepower you buy for your engine, you could buy 100 horsepower for your brakes. Said another way, every dollar you spend on the motor will go ten times as far if spent on the brakes. In this sense, the payoff for highly effective brakes is very much greater than for a powerful engine!
Anybody who has a good grasp of the physics will understand good brakes are a good performance value. But that doesn't necessarily make them an easy sell--especially if you're a motor junkie at heart. Which brings us to the point of Baer Racing and its whole reason for existing: to bring affordable brakes to the masses.
The guys at Baer Racing know they're fighting an uphill battle, as most performance dollars are genetically predisposed to being spent on glamorous powertrain parts. Getting those performance dollars to see the light, however, is a straightforward, if formidable, proposition. Instead of offering ultimate performance for an ultimate price, Baer's philosophy on its bread-and-butter street/track systems is to carefully select components that offer 90 percent of the performance of pure race systems for half the price.
If this sounds like it's smack dab in the center of the F-body radar screen, you'd be right. Our 1988 Firebird project car (Magnum TPI) is typical of many third- and fourth-generation F-bodies in that it possesses lots of power, but marginal braking ability. In our case, "marginal" is an understatement. Over the past three years we have experienced enough close calls on the highway to realize our 15-year-old brakes were downright dangerous. The cause? Our biannual state inspection gave us one big clue: there was so little rear brake force from our factory discs that Magnum failed its inspection.
A call to Baer's Rick Elam set the record straight. "Yeah, the rear disc brakes on early third gens are pretty crappy," he said. Hmm, maybe that's why Baer sells so many kits for third gens, we pondered. "What you need is our Touring system. It upgrades your rears to the LT1 F-body spec." For $785, the rear upgrade includes new 12-inch rotors, fourth-gen LT1 calipers, pads, brackets, new parking brake cables and all mounting hardware. Since you're using off-the-shelf GM hardware, pads are easy to come by and maintenance is easy.
With our most important safety concern addressed, Rick--ever the salesman--pressed on. "Ya know, those front brakes have got to be pretty shot by now, what with the front axle doing what little braking you still have," he added. Rick had a point. We were tired of smelling smoke from the pads in the shutdown area at the drags--and we'd been taking the last turnoff to boot. So we signed on for the front Track system for $995. That's a steal considering it includes dual-piston C4 Corvette-spec PBR calipers, one-piece vented 13-inch rotors, spindles with new bearings, seals, mounting brackets, braided stainless steel brake lines and PBR street pads. Heck, each corner is pre-assembled, all you do is pull the old spindles off, bolt the new assemblies on and send the cores back to Baer for credit. Total cost for front Track and rear Touring systems at press time was $1780. To put that into perspective, that's about the same cost of a front 1LE conversion with an 11.9-inch rotor. (The lowest price we found for the complete collection of parts needed for a 1LE swap was from Scoggin Dickey and totaled $1720.54. See sidebar, "The 1LE Alternative.")
Of course if you're so inclined, other options like cross-drilling, slotting and zinc plating are available for an extra charge. Upgraded racing pads, racing brake fluid, and bump steer kits are also sold by Baer, but you should be cool with the standard kit fare for the street, autocross and occasional track use. One thing you will not want to skimp on, however, is an alignment after you're done. The spindles attach to the struts and swapping either of these changes the alignment.
We took our Baer brake kits over to Ron's Custom Auto in nearby Kenilworth, New Jersey. Ron's specializes in Buick Turbo repair and modification, but they also work on other GM EFI machines, including third-gen F-bodies like ours. On this day, mechanic Mike Wade turned the wrenches and modeled for the camera, but the job was far from glamorous. Fifteen years of grime and corrosion caused enough trouble to warrant the use of some pretty hefty breaker bars and more than one can of rust penetrant. Not wanting to rush things, the job of swapping both front and rear systems took just under two days, keeping in mind we took liberal amounts of time to take photos and write notes.
When the job was completed, we noticed the difference immediately. As the days wore on, the rotors became seasoned and the pads bedded in. With every drive, performance became better. We should note that it's important to follow Baer's specific instructions on seasoning the rotors. This consists of gradually bringing the rotors up to temperature with successive stops of increasing speed and pedal pressure. This gives the rotors increased durability and longevity--an important factor if your car is going to see any kind of open track use or autocrossing. Likewise, proper bedding of the pads will improve brake performance under all conditions, so follow Baer's instructions as closely as possible.
We had originally planned on performing brake testing before and after the brake swap. Prior to the swap, we headed out to Englishtown, NJ with our Stalker ATS radar apparatus. We got some solid data from that experience that showed us how badly our stock brakes had deteriorated. By comparison, a period magazine test of a new 350 IROC Z-28 averaged 159 feet stopping from 60 mph. Magnum averaged 190 feet stopping from the same speed. We're guessing that's pretty typical of other third-gens this age.
As a point of interest, we're attributing most of the loss in performance to a nearly total failure of the rear brakes. As we've found in conversations with other third-gen owners, this is not uncommon on pre-1989 cars with rear disc brakes. (Starting in 1989, some third-gens came with what became the fourth-gen LT1 rear brake system--the basis for Baer's rear Touring kit. It's not exactly clear to us whether all 1989-92 rear disc brake cars came with this system, but we're pretty confident that they did. Now it's obvious to us why the factory changed!)
When we completed our install and break-in period, we intended to go back for a follow up, but it snowed. Then it snowed again. Then it snowed yet again, and so on. Deadline looming, we had to call it quits amidst the worst winter we've had in seven years. Three years ago, we installed a similar Baer GT-Plus system (a 13-inch two-piece rotor with a slightly larger C5 PBR caliper) on our 1993 Firebird Formula and got fabulous results. In that test, we improved our average stopping distance from 70 mph (note the higher speed) from 188 feet to an astounding 148 feet. We've found this to be typical of Baer's street systems. At least from the seat of our pants, the 13-inch Track system on our 1988 Formula has performed on par with our earlier GT-P system on our fourth-gen project car.
Qualitatively, we can say Magnum TPI is not only stopping shorter, but doing so with a pedal feel that is easy to modulate and that provides excellent feedback. That's easily just as important as pure stopping power on a car without ABS. This makes the Baer Track and Touring combo the best brake system we've sampled on a third-gen F-body, and at a price that is quite affordable. Watch now as the folks at Ron's Custom Auto show us how to install these great pieces.
The 1LE Alternative
During the late '80s, GM was aggressive in pursuing the crown in SCCA Showroom Stock and IMSA Firehawk. In order to be competitive, GM needed to not only improve many key parts on the F-body, they needed to homologate them to stay legal. (The gist of homologation is that a manufacturer, such as GM, needs to build enough saleable production cars--equipped with the upgraded equipment--to satisfy the applicable sanctioning body.)
The first official 1LE package was available on 1989 IROCs through the end of the third generation in 1992. To get 1LE during its four-year production run, one first had to special-order an IROC in Level 1 trim with any TPI motor. This wasn't easy, as no mention of any 1LE option was mentioned in dealer ordering packages, let alone customer brochures! The optional G92 axle ratio was a requirement, as was, unfortunately, the C41 air conditioning delete option. What many younger third-gen enthusiasts don't realize is that the 1LE option was more than a brake upgrade. When you got the 1LE, you also got fog lamps deletes, an aluminum driveshaft (JG1), a performance exhaust system (N10, dual catalytic converters), special deflected disc shocks, an aluminum spare wheel with smaller spare tire (N64), unique lower control arms, special swinging fuel pickup and special 18-gallon baffled fuel tank (allowing a useable reserve down to .5 gallons). Some cars even came with special 16 x 8-inch light alloy mesh wheels (XWL).
Its brake package, however, was perhaps the most important reason for ordering a 1LE. This was a hodgepodge of Chevy parts with the most important bits being larger 11.9-inch Caprice rotors (redrilled for a smaller F-body bolt circle) and dual-piston PBR calipers from the Corvette. The spindles were Camaro units that were machined to take the larger pieces; special 1LE-specific mounting brackets were fabricated to mount everything up.
It was a great system, forged in the crucible of competition by GM development engineers. To this day, the 1LE brake package is still widely used in SCCA competition and is the system by which all other aftermarket third-gen systems are measured.
Upgrading to 1LE brakes in a car that didn't come with them, however, can be daunting. Providing you can locate a GM parts dealer with sufficient knowledge of the 1LE system and with enough time to spend digging around for all the parts, it is nearly cost prohibitive to do so. In our search, we found parts for a complete 1LE system ranging in price from $1720 (our thanks go out to Brandon at Scoggin Dickey for his impressive research skills) on up to $2164. Moreover, the system cannot be ordered as such--each part must be ordered individually and may not always be in stock.
Our advice: just order the Baer Track system. Like the original 1LE, it too has been forged in the crucible of competition, but is a whole lot more affordable and easy to order. With 13-inch rotors, it's even more effective at stopping than a 1LE!