Taking your Corvette on the Track - Getting On Track

Life Is Good At 150 Mph

Richard F. Newton Dec 11, 2008 0 Comment(s)
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Once you start down the long slippery slope, you need to watch your budget as closely as you do your tachometer. If you can charge your track days off to your company, you can claim at least part of the total as a tax deduction.

It started with the C5, and it exploded with the introduction of the Z06. Today's track-day events are crowded with Corvettes. When I started running track events sometime in the last century, I was usually the only Corvette. Last month at Sebring, I looked down the tech line behind me and there must have been over a dozen Corvettes. Every last one of them was a stinking C5 or C6. One driver even complimented me for bringing a vintage Corvette out to the track. Hey, it's a C4, for god's sake.

A track event is where a group of people gather together and rent a racetrack for the day. Sure, it's a little more complicated than that, but that's the basic idea. It's not racing, and no times are taken. The emphasis is on driving fast and not wrecking your car. If you're new (and at one time we were all new), the event organizers will provide you with an instructor who will ride around in the car with you and help with the finer points of driving your Corvette. In fact, they will do that until the organization has developed a certain amount of confidence in your ability to handle your Corvette without hurting someone.

The Car
The best car you can have for a track day is a stock Corvette. They run all day and never break. Remember, the goal is seat time, not to see how quickly you can break your Corvette. I see stock Corvettes that run flawlessly for the whole weekend. Then the helmet comes off and they're driven back home on the highway. That's the way it should be. Most modified cars seem to break at some point during the weekend. They get loaded back on the trailer and hauled home with the owner facing another week of work. It's interesting that most of the cars that fail to complete the weekend are the modified ones. The stock ones keep running like an old clock. I don't think I need to elaborate on this point. I'm sure you get the idea.

The Helmet
You're going to need a helmet. This will be one purchase you can't escape. The prices vary widely. So will the fit. This is why I suggest you buy your helmet at a local store. It's sort of like buying clothes. You can save money purchasing them online, but they may not fit as well as they could. The best way to find a good-fitting helmet is to try several of them on. The front of the helmet should be just above your eyebrows when you tighten the chinstrap.

You're going to notice that there are two types of helmets: the SA (Special Application) and the M (Motorcycle). Both types must pass the same series of impact tests, but the SA helmets include an additional rollbar impact test. Also, the SA helmets have a Nomex liner and are more fire resistant.

Most track event organizers will allow you to wear an M helmet, but racing groups will insist on an SA certification. The price difference is significant, so make sure you check with the people who run the track events near you before you show up at the track.

The Checklist
The secret to having fun during the weekend is to spend a little time going over your Corvette the week before. You need to spend at least a day looking over your car to identify potential problems and then eliminate them before you get to the track. I usually spend two days going over my car before a track day. Then again, my car is a modified Corvette, so it takes a little more effort to get it ready.

Here's a list of some things to check before you head to the track.

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Most groups will let you run any type of car. This team uses the HPDE events as a practice session for racing. You can also get one of these tube frame Corvettes at a reasonable price. Remember, loud is fun.

Brakes
Take a good look at your brake rotors. Either measure them or have a shop measure them to see how thick they are. Remember, the braking system is nothing more than an energy conversion system. You need to know that your brake rotors can handle converting all the mechanical energy your engine produces into heat energy as you slow down for the corners. The mass of the brake rotor is critical to this energy-conversion process. An undersized rotor (too thin) simply can't handle the heat you'll produce at the track. The good part is that GM has already figured the minimum thickness that's necessary for your brake rotor, and any competent Corvette technician can measure them.

Brake Hoses
You need to make certain there are no cracks or tears in your brake hoses. In addition, you should check them carefully for swelling. Brake hoses generally go bad from the inside out. That means the first noticeable sign of a problem will be swelling. When the inner line ruptures, a bubble forms on the outside of the brake hoses. You can check for this by running your fingers along the length of the brake hoses. It's easier to feel a swollen hose than to see the problem. You also need to make sure that the hoses aren't twisted. An incompetent shop, or a weekend mechanic, may have installed new brake hoses with a twist in them. Make sure you check to see that the ribbing on the brake hoses is straight.

There are stainless steel hoses on the market that claim to do everything but take a full second off your 0-60 times. The basic idea is that these braided hoses won't expand when brakes are applied. In reality, they're not much better than brand-new factory hoses. The big advantage is that they're generally cheaper than OEM hoses. If your Corvette is five or six years old, you might want to consider them. On a new C6, you'll never notice the difference. The biggest problem is there's no way to inspect a braided-steel hose. They look wonderful-right up to they minute they break. Race teams replace these hoses after so many hours of use. You might consider doing the same, except maybe on an annual basis. It won't be all that expensive, and it gives you another reason to flush the brake fluid.

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Tape will do a wonderful job of protecting your headlights from stones and track debris. It only takes a few minutes to install and it comes off quickly.

Brake-Pad Thickness
There are two reasons for having at least half of your brake pads in place before you start the day. First, you're going to wear the damn things out. You certainly don't want to drive home with the steel backing plates rubbing into your brakes rotors. Worn-out brake pads can destroy a perfectly good set of brake rotors. The noise you hear will be the sound of your Visa card going through the credit-card machine. You want to make sure that you have enough brake pads to make it through the day and all the way back home. Secondly, your brake pads actually act as a heat insulator. The pad material is actually a piece of insulation between your brake rotor and your brake fluid. When the brake pads get too thin, the heat transfers rather quickly from the pad to the brake fluid. Hot brake fluid is not a good thing.

Many people bring an extra set of brake pads with them to the track, especially if it's a two-day event. Just remember to bring the necessary tools with you so you can change the brake pads in the Holiday Inn parking lot on Saturday night. This might seem a little excessive, but it's not as bad as going home early because you have no friction material left on your brakes.

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This C6 owner added Brembo calipers all the way around. He then made the mistake of using drilled brake rotors-they didn't make it through the first day. Drilled brake rotors are strictly for the street. They simply don't hold up at the track.

Brake-Fluid Condition
This one is simple. Change the damn brake fluid. You should change it annually, but I'm sure you don't. I change my brake fluid before every event. That means I change it five or six times a year. People kid me about my spotlessly clean brake fluid, but I've never lost my brakes in 10 years of running track events. I see other people bleeding their brakes at the track and changing pads in the middle of the day. That's just plain stupid. I don't go to the track to work on cars. I go there to drive. Get the work done before you drive through the gate, not in the middle of the afternoon when your friends are driving around the track.

I'm not going to recommend a brand of brake fluid. Most of it is pretty good. I used Ford fluid for years. It was cheap and available at the local Ford dealership. I've also used Castrol fluid, but not the expensive stuff. Lately I've been using the Wilwood 600 Plus, but the 570 would be just as good for most of your needs.

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I prefer full-face helmets at the track. They're stronger and give you a little more protection should something bad happen. This is generally not a rule, though. At most track events, the age of the helmet is a far bigger concern. Always check the rules before you show up at a new organization. You don't want any surprises on the morning of your big day.

Brake fluids absorb an average of 2 percent or more of water in the first year of usage. In that period, the boiling point can drop from 401 degrees F to 250 degrees F, a reduction of over 150 degrees. It's not uncommon to have caliper temperatures exceed 200 degrees. At 212 degrees, this collected moisture will boil, causing vapor lock and brake-system failure. I'm not real big on the DOT 5 silicone fluids since they're not hygroscopic. That means as the moisture enters the system, it's not absorbed by the fluid, and results in beads of moisture moving through the brake line, collecting in the calipers. Additionally, DOT 5 fluid is highly compressible due to aeration and foaming under normal braking conditions, providing a spongy brake feel. DOT 5 fluid is best suited for show-car applications where it's anticorrosion and paint-friendly characteristics are important.

Racing brake fluid is intended for use in racing-type brake systems that undergo frequent fluid changes, so exceeding federal standards for wet boiling points is of little concern. Racers don't care about the wet boiling point, since they change fluid so often it never contains any moisture. Racing brake fluids always exceed the DOT specifications for dry boiling points. The dry boiling point is more important than the wet boiling point when used in a racing brake system. Just the opposite is true for street cars, where the fluid is seldom changed. If you flush your brake fluid before each event, it won't have time to attract any moisture either.

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In the beginning, you'll spend a lot of time working on hand positions. There is no perfect position, and each instructor will have a slightly different preference. Eventually, you'll develop your own style. Hopefully, it will involve two hands on the wheel.

Brake Lights
This one might seem a little silly until you get on the track. I really want to know when you're slowing down. I would love to see when you're starting to brake. On a lot of tracks, you'll be slowing from 140 mph to below 45 mph. It's a good idea to make sure the driver behind knows you intend to slow down rather quickly. It only takes a few sec-onds to check the operation of your brake lights.

Steering And Suspension
Steering

Here we're talking about excessive play in the steering components. You should put the car up on jackstands and check to see that the tie-rod ends are in good condition. You can also check for bearing play while the car is up in the air. I prefer to check my own tie rods rather than have a shop do it, but you may have found a shop you trust.

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Old race cars are a lot of fun at HPDE events. They're cheap, fast, and noisy. Does it get any better than that? The big problem is you need a trailer and a truck to get them to and from the event.

You should also consider using synthetic power-steering fluid, as it mitigates any possible heat breakdown. It also withstands severe temperatures much better than conventional fluid. The other thing is that, at the track, the steering will work much harder than it might on the street. You're going to create a lot of heat while on the track.

Don't worry about this for your first few track days, but as you continue to track your car, using a better synthetic power-steering fluid should be on your list of upgrades.

What About Tires?
Tires are a big deal. In the beginning, though, you just need to have decent tires on your Corvette. Your regular street tires are fine for your first few track events. Don't get overly concerned about having the latest DOT-approved track tires. You're not ready for that step yet. Don't even think about buying new tires until you've completed a few events.

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The C6 Z06 has become the car of choice for track days. They're usually the fastest cars on the course.

Tires are the great divide. There are street tires and there are single-purpose DOT-approved tires that really shouldn't be driven on the street. Kumho and Hoosier both make tires for your Corvette that are incredible on the track, as they will stick to dry pavement extremely well. They also wear incredibly fast, and you shouldn't even think about using them in wet weather. Once you make the decision to use DOT tires, you've crossed over the line into a whole new world. The problem is you can't drive any real distance on the DOT track tires, and the ride quality is non-existent. Take a look at the Kumho and Hoosier tires on some of the cars at the track and then think about being on the expressway during a rainstorm. It's not pretty.

It's not just a matter of buying DOT tires, though. Since you can't use these DOT single-purpose tires during the week, you're going to need a new set of wheels. Now you have to get this extra set of wheels to the track and back. Did you really intend to buy a truck and trailer for your weekend fun? It's a long, slippery slope once you get really serious. Don't start down that slope unless you have extra money in your home-equity account.

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You don't see too many C4s at the track, but they may be the best value. This particular car has a full rollcage, Brembo brake calipers, and who knows what else? None of that is necessary to have fun, but this owner enjoys spending money and going fast as well.

Don't Screw With The Car
The main rule for having fun is to not screw with the car. Run the thing stock. The problem isn't with your Corvette. The problem is with the way you drive. During the first year, and maybe for a few more years, your Corvette will be faster than you are. Spend money on entering more events, not on a bunch of things that won't make you any faster. Too many people get excited about messing with the car and forget that they're the main factor in whether or not the car is fast. I see guys on the Internet forums asking which exhaust system they should purchase for their first track event. Give me a break. It's really all about driving. You shouldn't start making changes until you know that you're a decent driver. You'll know when that time arrives. If you really feel the need to spend money, you might want to hire a driving coach. That investment will probably do more for your lap times than any modification you might add to the car.

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During your first few events, you'll need to learn some very basic rules of the road. This hand signal means you're coming into the pits. Any driver that's behind you now knows exactly what you're about to do. That's a good thing.

Are Track Days Hard On My Corvette?
This is a tough one. You won't put any excessive wear on your car in the first few events. If you do it often enough, though, you'll start running up the numbers on your Visa card. The most common expenditure will be for tires and brakes, as you'll go through both at a fairly good clip. The Corvette drivetrain is almost bulletproof. I can't think of anyone who's had an engine or transmission issue in the past year. The beauty of the Corvette is that it's an industrial-strength car.

Eventually you'll start to pick up some stone chips on your car. You can use something like the 3M InvisibleMask on the front of it. This is basically a roll of self-adhesive clear urethane that you install on the nose of the car. If you walk around the pit area at any track event, you'll see a variety of different techniques for protecting your Corvette's paint. Ask questions.

How Much Do Track Days Cost?
The entry fee for a track day is between $200 and $300 dollars a day. Then you need to add food, motel bills, and gas on top of that. If you budget around $600 a day, you should be in the ballpark. Of course, that number doesn't include the tires, brake pads, and brake rotors you'll wear out over the course of the season.

A realistic number is $1,000 per event. If that seems high, then you should probably stick to car shows. If you're a racer, you're probably asking how track time can be that cheap.

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If your brake fluid is over a year old, flush it out and replace it with a high-quality DOT 3 fluid. If you feel the need to do even more under the hood, change the air filter and spark plugs. Just remember not to purchase any performance-enhancing parts until you have completed at least six events.

Most people have never driven their Corvette flat out for 30 minutes, then gone back out and done it some more. I know a lot of people who have run stock Corvettes four and five hours a day at Sebring or Homestead. I also know some people who have spent thousands of dollars on modifications and have never driven their Corvette flat out for more than 10 seconds. There are also a lot of people who would rather talk about going fast than actually doing it. Track events are for people who want to truly experience the performance of their Corvette without getting involved in all the nonsense of racing. In fact, that's why most groups use the term High Performance Driving Events or HPDEs. It's really not racing, folks.

The best place to find an event near you is to go to www.mytrackschedule.com and look for a track in your area. The list shows 67 race tracks around the country and gives you the names of the organizers of the events. From that point, it's just a few clicks until you're enrolled in one very exciting Corvette experience.

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