First Event Car Preparation
Published: March 13, 2017; updated: March 30, 2017
Getting ready for your first track day? No car modifications are required, unless your car is a convertible in which case you may need to install a roll bar and appropriate padding. All other cars simply need to be in good mechanical condition. If the organizer of the event you are attending has a pre-event tech form, ensure all items mentioned on that form are OK on your vehicle. Below I will go through the basic car prep process.
First Event Car Inspection
Track driving places more stress on vehicle components than street driving. Especially on older vehicles there may be plenty of parts that are in good enough shape for street driving which are borderline or unsuitable for track driving. For this reason it is important to have a qualified mechanic perform a thorough inspection of your car prior to your first track event - you don't want the event to be cut short due to a mechanical issue.
If you are taking your car to a repair shop for this inspection, I suggest either using the shop you always use or finding a shop that works on track or race cars. The reason for this is you want the mechanic to know what to look for, and actually check your car over instead of just saying "yeah, it looks fine". Your regular shop is likely to put in the effort because they want your continued business, plus they are likely to be familiar with the car. A track prep shop should be familiar with the inspection process as well as parts likely to fail in track use.
Finding a repair shop specializing in your marque is a good idea - for example, Porsche Club of America events require a thorough pre-event inspection, and even if you are not attending a PCA event but own a Porsche it is a great idea to visit a Porsche repair shop which performs inspections for PCA events.
Inspection At The Event
Some organizations have a tech inspection at the event. Some don't. Even if this tech inspection exists, it is really designed to only catch glaring issues - often times the inspector will ensure your brake lights work, the battery is tied down, there are no obvious leaks or unusual smells and send you on your way. The whole process typically takes about one minute. Inspection at the event is in no way a replacement for a pre-event inspection which should take about half an hour, and is much more thorough.
On to what you should check before your first event:
Oil degrades with age as it is used. As oil is critical for engine longevity, showing up to a track day on old oil is not a smart idea.
At one extreme, some people change their oil after every race weekend. As race weekends generally carry less track time than HPDE events, we are talking about oil changes every 100-120 miles, or 1-1.5 hours of track time.
I try to change oil every 500-750 miles in the race car which gets less track time per weekend and every 750-1000 miles in the DE car which gets more track time per weekend. This comes out to once every 1-2 months in the summer.
For your first track event, my suggestion would be to change oil before the event if it has been in the car for more than half of your normal oil change interval. For example, if you change oil every 3500 miles and the oil has spent more than 1750 miles in the car, replace the oil prior to the event.
Check your oil level at least once every morning! High RPM operation tends to use oil. Track driving involves high lateral forces which force oil away from pickup. Being low on oil at the track is Very Bad. You should at a minimum check the oil level each morning after arriving at the track, and if you have time in the afternoon during the lunch break as well.
You should most definitely bring at least a one quart container of the same oil that is in your car to the event.
If you have an older car, coolant passages may be plugged up resulting in poor coolant flow to parts of the engine. This is likely not to present an issue in street driving, but can become an issue on track. For this reason if you have an older vehicle (more than 10 years old let's say) it's not a bad idea to have a repair shop perform a complete flush of the cooling system.
If you have a newer car, ensuring the coolant is full is sufficient for your first track event.
Brake fluid absorbs moisture over time which reduces its boiling point. Generic brake fluids (as opposed to high temperature racing brake fluids) start out with lower boiling points and are more susceptible to boiling when they get older. Hence:
- If your car uses standard DOT 3 brake fluid, and the fluid was flushed (replaced) more than a year ago, you should completely replace, or flush, the brake fluid. At this point a good idea is to put in a high performance brake fluid such as ATE Typ 200.
- If your car uses a high temperature synthetic brake fluid (DOT 4/DOT 5), you may be OK to use older fluid. It won't hurt to flush the brake fluid prior to your first event anyway.
Note: bleeding the brakes is different from flushing the brake fluid. Flushing refers to complete replacement of brake fluid; bleeding can retain some of the old fluid in the system. Repair shops may charge more for flushing the brakes vs bleeding them but the difference should not be very big.
You should find out what type of brake fluid your car requires and bring a spare bottle with you to the track. As brake pads wear down, brake fluid level correspondingly drops - you want to have some extra brake fluid you can add to the system to maintain the appropriate level.
The rule of thumb is to have at least half of brake pad thickness prior to the event. Especially if you have a high power car (over 300 hp), brake pads are likely to be the first wear item on the track.
It is a smart idea to go to your local auto parts store ahead of the event and purchase a spare set of front and rear brake pads. If you don't end up installing them, return them after the event ends. This way if you do run out of brake pads you will already have spares on hand.
Check all other fluids in the car and make sure they are full:
- Transmission fluid
- Differential fluid
- Power steering fluid
For your first event, simply ensuring all fluids are at their full levels should be sufficient. If you decide to continue doing track events and you have an older car and suspect these fluids have not been changed in over 5 years, it is a good idea to replace all of the fluids for the peace of mind.
The car cannot have any fluid leaks to be allowed on track. Fluids used in cars are extremely slippery, and leaking them on track surface is a big no-no.
Common places to check for fluid leaks are:
- Oil and coolant at the front of the engine (front crank seal, water pump seals)
- Oil and coolant at the rear of the engine (rear crank seal, valve cover gasket, thermostat, oil filter)
- Brake calipers, most commonly around piston seals
- Gas tank
- Axle boots
It is easiest to check for leaks with the car up on a lift, and if you are having a repair shop inspect your car they should look for leaks under the entire car as part of the inspection.
Do not overfill the gas tank prior to entering the track. Track driving heats up everything on the car, including the fuel tank and the fuel in it, and if the fuel expands enough to start coming up through the overflow passages you may find yourself with a fuel leak under the car.
Smells are indicative of fluid leaks, hence if a tech inspector smells a fluid on your car you will likely need to locate and address the underlying problem.
Fuel has a strong odor, hence fuel smells are very obvious. As fuel leaks are extremely dangerous, if your car at all smells of fuel you will not be allowed on track.
A common smell is burning oil if the vehicle just had its oil changed and some spilled on exhaust manifolds. Oil does burn, hence it is best to try to wipe spilled oil off the car during oil changes. If you have a dedicated track car, idle it for some time after oil changes to burn off any spilled oil prior to coming to the track.
Other semi-frequent smoke/smell situations are burning of anti-seize on exhaust fasteners and burning of brake caliper grease. Again this mostly applies to track-only cars; a street car should take care of these combustibles en route to the track.
All track events require operational brake lights. If any of the bulbs are out, be sure to replace them before the event - you want to start the event with a full complement of brake lights, so that if one goes out you still have other lights to continue your track day.
Some track organizations are now using turn signals for passing - if your event falls into this category, be sure all of your turn signals are working.
While headlights are typically not required at track events, some events held early or late in the year (March/November) may require headlight use at dusk.
Battery cannot be leaking and must have a metal bracket holding it down. If your car does not have a battery bracket, you should be able to find an appropriate one at a local auto parts store.
A properly secured battery should not move if you try to yank it in any direction.
Positive battery terminal must be covered to prevent a short (and possible fire) should the battery come loose. Most cars have such a cover from the factory. Coverin both battery terminals is a good idea.
Things to check in the engine bay:
- Engine mounts: rev the engine using the throttle body (or have a friend step on the gas pedal) while you are looking at the engine. The engine should not move excessively. What "excessively" means depends on the car but in most vehicles the engine should not move over an inch in any direction.
- Accessory belts: the belts should be in good condition and not have any cuts, fraying, missing teeth, etc.
- Hoses: hoses should not have any swelling, cracks, wet spots or leaks. Check for hoses rubbing on the engine, chassis, etc.
- Wiring: all wires should be secured using factory brackets, clips or wire ties. A rule of thumb is unsupported wire runs should not exceed six inches in length - a wire longer than six inches should be attached in some way to fixed objects in the middle to prevent the wire from swinging around and wearing itself down on neighboring parts.
Cars with 100% OEM wiring are generally OK. Often times when wiring is modified, for example for installing sensors, gauges or aftermarket anti-theft systems, the wires are not attached sufficiently securely for track duty though they are fine in street driving. Pay particular attention to wires around exhaust components - these are generally the first ones to go as exhaust makes the insulation hotter hence more flexible, leading to the wires moving around and eventually rubbing against said exhaust parts.
Suspension And Steering
There should generally be no slack/slop-type movement in any of the suspension and steering parts. To check, raise each corner of the car in the air and pull on each wheel in all directions. Try to rock each wheel left to right as if turning into a corner and do the same motion vertically.
Vertical movement of the wheel commonly indicates worn wheel bearings.
Horizontal movement of the front wheel commonly indicates worn tie rods or ball joints.
While some slop is acceptable in certain vehicles, any worn suspension parts need to be replaced.
Seats And Seatbelts
If you have OEM seats and seatbelts, you are probably OK for this section.
Seats must be securely mounted. Pulling or pushing on each seat in any direction should generally not make the seat move. Some slack due to sliders in seat mounts is acceptable. Seats must be mounted using all mounting holes.
Most organizations require driver and passenger seats and seatbelts to be equivalent. This means if the driver has a race bucket seat with a harness, the passenger seat must also be a race bucket with a harness.
Generally speaking, an OEM seat should be used with the OEM 3 point seatbelt and a fixed bucket racing seat should be used with a 5 or 6 point racing harness. A 3 point seatbelt over a fixed bucket racing seat will not restrain the occupant and is thus not acceptable. Racing harnesses with OEM reclining seats are sometimes accepted but virtually guarantee an extended inspection of the entire system at the track to make sure it is sufficiently safe.
A 4 point harness (lacking an anti-submarine strap) is also going to be closely scrutinized and may not be allowed if it tends to ride up on the occupant(s).
Convertibles And Roll Bars
Most organizations require that convertibles have some form of a roll bar for roll over protection. Many organizations and some tracks require a fixed roll bar - one which always extends above the occupants' helmets. The alternative design is a pop-up roll bar which deploys during a rollover. As it takes time for a pop-up bar to deploy, and the deployment system may malfunction resulting in no roll over protection, many organizations do not accept pop-up roll bars for track events. Some organizations allow novice drivers to drive cars with reduced roll over protection on the assumption that novice drivers are going to be driving slower and, being less aggressive than more experienced drivers, are less likely to find themselves in a rollover. This is often a case by case determination; if you have a convertible, you should contact the event organizer before your first event to ensure your roll over protection is adequate.
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