Author Topic: So you want to build a track car  (Read 2397 times)

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Online Ambystom01

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So you want to build a track car
« on: June 15, 2010, 09:32:56 PM »
Zaider's recent swap thread inspired me to write a short bit on the various aspects of building a track car. Hopefully other more knowledgeable people (I'm looking at you Grant) will chime in as well.
It seems that in the past year, more and more people are looking into trying out motorsports. Whether this is fueled by news that some venues (like Race City) won't be around forever or a sign that racing is becoming more popular in general I don't know but regardless, the issue of what it means and entails to build a car for motorsports purposes does come up quite often. So let's start with the basics, what kinds of things should you consider before you jump into the deep end and buy a race suit?
Please note that motorsports is a dangerous hobby. While some forms are safer than others, there is no way to drive a car 10/10 without there being a risk that something could go wrong. Parts can break and they rarely do so when the car is safely parked.

1. How serious do you want to be?

This should be one of the first two questions you encounter. Do you want to just get your feet wet and try something to see if you like it or are you absolutely sure it's what you want to do and you're willing to go fully monty right away? Most people will likely fit into the first category. If this is the case, you want to start off light and do as little to the car as possible before you actually get some seat time and figure out whether you even like motorsports in the first place (it's OK if you don't, some days I hate it too) and what specific branch you like. You wouldn't buy the most expensive skis in the world if you've never gone skiing before so you don't need the best tires/brakes/wheels/suspension/whatever before you get yourself on track or on gravel or on snow. If anything, these things hurt you and actually make you look even worse, if that's a concern. You can learn plenty with a stock car and scare yourself in the process.
The name of the game is seat time, seat time, seat time.
An offshoot of this question is also how competitive do you want to be. Do you want to try to win trophies or are you just out there to have a good time? Note that this isn't directly related to how modified your car may be, you can be very competitive but do very few upgrades to the car or you can be all about having fun and drive a 1000 WHP Viper.

2. What kind of racing do you want to do?


There is a wide range of options in terms of what kind of racing you do. I'll briefly go over the big ones and mention what I think are the pros and cons (others can mention their own feelings as well). I'll leave out drag racing because that's a whole different ball game.

Autocross

Racing in a parking lot using parking cones to outline the course. Sounds weird but it's a pretty cool form of motorsports and actually the starting point for a lot of professionals. It's cheap, courses are readily available and easily changeable (meaning you don't race the same course over and over again), it's not as hard on the car and it's relatively safe (key word, relatively). It's a great way to learn car control as the focus isn't on all-out speed but how fast you can maneuver your car around the course while incurring as few penalties as possible. The downsides are that the rules are somewhat strict (I've heard a few track people refer it as Nazis racing), the speeds are low and generally speaking, the runs are short. Also, because the focus is on getting your car around a small track as fast as possible, some of the skills and techniques do not instantly transfer over to other forms of motorsports. For someone wanting to start motorsports on the cheap though, it's a fantastic option.

Solo1

Driving on a big track (like Race City or Stratotech) but without any cars close enough to hit you. This is probably how most people first experience driving on track (after they've done a driving school of course). It offers the thrill of driving on a big track (and the speed that it involves) without as high a risk that someone else could hit your car and wreck it. It's a good way to learn how to drive a car fast on track before you potentially make the transition over to door to door racing. Due to the higher speed though, the risk that when something goes wrong, it'll be big goes up. A few cars have been completely written off as a result of Solo1 activities. The rate at which you go through consumables (tires, brakes, gas, etc) will skyrocket as well. To give you an example, when I solo1ed in my WRX, I went through a set of tires by about the half way point in the season and in total 3 set of front brake pads and rotors. If you're modified, expect to use about 1 liter of fuel per lap. It adds up fast. The cost of the events themselves are higher, about 100-200$ a day.

Rallycross

Essentially rallying Jr., you're driving your car rally-style in a dirt, gravel or snow filled parking lot/field. Similar to autocross in that it's relatively cheap and safe to due but the skill sets you learn are different. Your car will get very dirty but you'll have fun doing it.

Once you've picked a style that you like or think you may like, you can move on to the car.
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Online Ambystom01

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #1 on: August 18, 2010, 06:46:42 PM »
3. What car do you use?

This can boil down to what options you have available to you. If you only have one car, that's the car you'll be using. What style of racing you want to do is also a factor, there's no point in rallycrossing something like an S2000 or Miata. The main issue that comes up again and again is whether to use your daily driver or a dedicated autocross/track/rally/weekend racer. One tip that I find pretty useful is

Never drive a car you love or cannot afford to destroy at 10/10.

 If you've named your car after an old GF, you won't be too happy if it gets totaled because your brake fluid boiled. If you're still paying a car off, it'll be quite the disappointment if you smash into the wall at the track and end up making payments (and maintaining insurance) on a crumpled up mess in your driveway. This doesn't mean you cannot race, it simply means you cannot expect yourself to drive as hard as you are capable of (and then some). If you're happy doing that and have the self-control to ensure you don't push yourself too hard, great. If not, looking for a second car is probably a good idea.
For most people, buying a second high HP car like a WRX or STI isn't in the cards. Do not get fooled into this idea that you need a lot of HP to have fun on track. You can still scare yourself enough that a little poop will come out in a 100 HP car as you can in a 300 or 400 HP car. Unless you're the best driver in Alberta, it's unlikely you'll be able to jump into a car and drive it to the limit right away.
There are advantages to both options (one car for everything and a dedicated car). In the case of having one car, you're costs can be lower, you gain more experience driving your main car at the limit and you're restricted in what modifications you can do (which is a good thing sometimes). There are disadvantages as well as maybe your main car isn't a good car to learn on, maybe it has expensive parts and there's still the risk that something could go wrong (like a tire blowing out at 160 KPH) that could cause a wreck. You're also restricted in what modifications you can do. I'll discuss that a bit more later. As far as a second car is concerned, the advantages are the ability to drive 10/10 and still get to work the next day in the event of an accident, a chance to drive something different fast, lower cost parts, etc, etc. The disadvantages are the cost of the car, having to switch modes moving from the daily to the second car (e.g. from AWD to RWD, turbo to NA, etc), the frustration of a second car, etc. The lists here could go on forever so it's up to you to weigh the two options for yourself.
What second car you use it up to you. Some things to consider are the cost of the car, the cost of repairs, how easy it is to get parts, how common the car is used for motorsports, drivetrain arrangement, etc. If money was no concern, I'm sure we'd all use Ferraris but for most people, it's not an option. If you're serious about being competitive, you should look to see which cars are competitive in your area and nationally. There's no point in buying a car you like if it stands no chance within its class. What you'll see is that within each class, there are a limited selection of cars that are competitive when built as far as the rules allow. Also be sure to check that the class you want to compete in is financially suitable. It snowballs quickly. A rather humorous example of this is the Spec Miata series. The idea is that if everyone is driving similar cars with similar, spec modifications, costs are kept down and it's the driver that plays the biggest role in determining a winner. In reality this is not the case. Some drivers have the money and the time to buy 10 chassis and build the best car using the best parts from each. They may weigh every single piston to get the most balanced combination allowing them to rev higher or they may flow test every head to see which is best. It still becomes a contest of dollars even if it's to gain fractions of a HP or to shave a few lbs of the total weight.
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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #2 on: August 18, 2010, 06:46:53 PM »
4. What modifications should I do?

Once you've decided what car you want to use, you can start thinking of modifications. If this is your first time taking part in a motorsports event, do as little modifications as you can rationalize. I would suggest at most brake pads and tires. Make sure the fluids in your car are up to par, especially the brake fluid. After that, everything else is just extra stuff to go wrong or for you to tune (like sway bar thickness, ride height, spring rate, etc).
What kind of motorsports you want to do will play a role. This is especially true of autocross, there's no point in doing mods that throw you into a class that you don't stand a chance in if you want to be competitive.
Well lets say you're tired of just having nicer brakes and tires and want more. How you answered number 3 will ultimately dictate what you can change and to what extent. If you're daily driving the car, you likely don't want a roll cage, fixed back seats, harnesses, etc. While those things add at least 10 street-cred points, they suck around town. Trust me, I know. A fixed back seat gets uncomfortable and hot (since they're usually made of a solid piece of CF or plastic), harnesses dig into your flesh and make shoulder checking and other activities difficult and a roll bar/cage adds noise and obstructs your view. You also likely won't want motorsports ready suspension because that means rock hard springs and struts, large sway bars that can cause clearance issues and stiff bushings. Racing quality brakes are loud, touchy and prone to not working when cold. In short, the parts that make a race car go fast make a street car dangerous and unpleasant to drive. If you want to drive this car around town with the wife and kids, and don't want to end up divorced and alone, use a bit of common sense when modifying and always ask yourself which is more important, going fast or driving to and from work with your back in one piece?
If you have a second car, you have a lot of options. If you're doing high speed events, a roll bar/cage, harness and a good quality bucket seat makes sense. This is why I'm a big fan of having a second car, it gives you the freedom to do modifications that would be silly on a daily driver (like those mentioned above).
Regardless of which path you choose, I'd recommend the following priorities.

1. Make the car safer for you to drive.
There's no point in having 700 WHP on tap if the car is going to impale you with the steering column or crush you in the event of a crash. Your safety should always be the most important factor when you decide what modifications you want to do. You don't need to go crazy here, buy the best you can rationalize, not necessarily the best you can afford. If you're just doing an autocross here and there, getting full cage, fire suppression system and a three layer Nomex race suit is overkill.

This article gives a nice explanation why spending money on safety is so important. It's better to have the parts and not need them than need the parts and not have them. Not every car needs a fancy fire suppression system but always make sure that the safety equipment is on par with the go fast bits.

http://grassrootsmotorsports.com/articles/fighting-fire/

2. Make the car more reliable.
While it's impossible to beat OEM reliability under OEM-designed conditions, it's possible to make changes to a car that will make it more reliable than stock when you're flogging on it at the track. This includes things like an oil cooler, transmission cooler, brake ducts, temperature and pressure sensors, etc. Basically you want to keep the car from dying or at the very least know before hand to give the car a break so it won't die. Huge power is great but if you spend most of your time in the shop or in the pits, you'll never get a chance to enjoy it. Don't forget parts that make you as a driver more reliable like cooling vents, pedals that facilitate heel-toe, shifter modifications, etc.

3. Make the car fun to drive.
Slapping on a giant turbo when you have stock brakes and suspension isn't a good recipe for fun at the track, it's a good way to end up ruining a nice pair of pants. Unless you're out there to make money (in which case you're driving whatever car is fastest in that particular class or the car your sponsors provided you), having fun should be high on the list of priorities. Getting out of a car white-knuckled is not fun, battling crazy oversteer/understeer behaviour is not fun. Ideally you want to learn something new every time you go out. This won't be easy if it feels like your car is trying to kill you.

4. Make the car faster.
This should be your last priority. Everyone at some point gets the notion that they need to be fast to take part in autocross or solo1 or rallycross. This can't be further from the truth. Sure it's nice to see your name at the top of the times list but if you've done this with your wallet, you really have no reason to boast. Become a fast driver first, then get a fast car to match.

Before you spend any money on a modification, do some research on the various forums out there applicable to your car. If you're racing a Subaru, WSC, NASIOC, IWSTI, etc. are the places to check. What you want to find out is whether your modification is a good idea, how common it is, what the best model/manufacturer is, etc. If an intake is only going to gain you 1 HP, your money is better spent elsewhere. If those dope JDM coilovers you've had your eye on have spring rates and damper behaviour that make them unpredictable and shaky on rough roads, they're probably not a good idea for Race City. Spend the time to do the research so you only have to buy something once.
Related to modifications is where to buy them and who should install them. If you've done your research, you should know where to buy them so I'll focus on the second part. Ideally you want to do as much work yourself as possible. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, it will give you an opportunity to learn about your own car and secondly, you will likely be more anal about torque specs and all that than some mechanic with a full day of work. This can be a scary prospect and if you're anything like me, your mind will be filled with all the things that could go wrong. When I first starting doing brakes, I was paranoid that I'd forget to tighten something down and my brakes would fall apart or my wheels would fly off. This will go away the more you work on your car. For a daily driver that's still under warranty, I wouldn't be as worried about doing all the work yourself. If it's a dedicated track car, you should do as much as you can with the tools you have available to you. It can be fun too, currently I'm designing an oil cooling system which means scanning the net for the various hoses, fittings and other parts I'll need.

Budget

It doesn't matter how much money you make, a budget of some description is a good idea. It doesn't have to be set in stone but it can help prevent frivolous spending. The budget should also be prioritized and should sync up with the above list. Safety should always be first or, ideally, independent of other costs. Try to be as realistic as possible. A 1000$ JDM intake is unlikely to vastly outperform a 300$ USDM intake.

Hopefully someone finds this helpful. Feel free to add your own thoughts on the subject.
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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #3 on: August 23, 2010, 12:10:37 AM »
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Offline GrantC

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #4 on: August 23, 2010, 09:15:36 AM »
I'll expand on some more I've figured out about #3, and it's not all about "not competing in your daily driver".

There's 2 ways to pick what car you want to compete in motorsports with.
  • You can start with whatever car you already own/like/"are a fanboy of" and then decide where it's most competitive, and how much you can spend, and how many mods you can stand to do to it.
  • You can decide what car would be the most competitive, either because it's a good car for the sport right out've the box (like a C6 Corvette for solo-1), because there's a ton of cheap mods and parts for it (or cheap running costs) (like a VW Golf for Rally-x/stage Rally, or a miata for auto-x/solo-1), or because it classes well through some fluke of the rules (like a Mini-cooper in auto-x).


I'll add some pretty pics too.

Auto-x:








TimeAttack/Solo-1:









Offline GrantC

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #5 on: August 23, 2010, 09:15:45 AM »
Great writeup!

This just makes me hate myself even more for selling off my 02 2.5RS.  I would have loved to use that car for a rally-x beater.
*sigh*

Great writeup Amby! Definitely echos a lot of what I've heard at wing meets etc about tracking your car.

Cleaned at the request of Ambystom01 to put all his posts together at the beginning.

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #6 on: August 23, 2010, 09:33:56 AM »
Yay, thanks Grant!
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Offline masterman09

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #7 on: October 03, 2010, 12:36:16 AM »
Good read. Me and my girlfriend have been talking about getting into a motorsport with a car that we can beat on without feeling bad. This was definetely useful to us, thanks!
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Offline 4stAir

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Re: So you want to build a track car
« Reply #8 on: October 03, 2010, 11:43:52 AM »
This is a great source of info, thanks Amby.

One thing I thought I'd add, read the rule book. I'm surprised Grant didn't mention this, he usually does. Once you have your car selected and what form of racing you'd like to participate in, read the rule book for that discipline. It could really suck to drop a couple g's on some nice modifications, only to realize that you've bumped your car up into a tougher class and thereby making it impossible to be competitive.
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