Pyramid of upgrades
Suprisingly one of the least effective upgrades (within a reasonable budget) is power. What? That’s correct. Sure if you have an unlimited budget and can turn that wheezing 6 cylinder into a 1000 HP monster you’ll pick up some significant time (and a few pairs of soiled underpants) but for the rest of us without a money tree there are more effective upgrades.
Now read that list again. I’ve listed it in order of effectiveness. You’ll notice that YOU are at the top of that list. Remember you’re the first round draft pick for your own track team, so invest your money in yourself first!
So lets get to it:
Everyone will tell you this but it’s hard to believe. I’m going to tell you again. A few track days with a good instructor are going to make you faster than adding 50 HP to your car. Even well seasoned drivers will admit that they still have difficulty with a certain turn, knowing that if they could “get it right” they could pick up some time. Ask a few people how they feel about turn 2 at Gingerman, “The Kink” at Road America, or the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Chances are they’ll frown and say “I know there’s more time in that corner!”
Now imagine you have a LOT of corners like that. If you could pick up just ¼ of a second at 8 corners on a track, you’ve just improved your lap times by 2 full seconds.
Someone asked me a question recently about my “go fast technique”. First and foremost everyone will tell you that the best method is “Seat time”. Get as much practice and time in the car as you possibly can. But that’s a given, and the question was, other than seat time, what can I do?
Here were a few things that work for me:
1. Constant re-evaluation of my line and technique. I try and find just ONE thing every time I’m out to improve. In the first few years of racing, there were so many things that I could improve that I just focused on trying to hit the line in every corner. After 2-3 years of racing I could pretty much hit the same spots on track in a 30 minute session within 6-12 inches.
It was commented to me that during the an enduro last year that I had some people worried because for my first 2.5 hour driving leg, I hit the same apex spot in a tough corner for 60 laps straight varying by no more than 6 inches the entire time. Best compliment I ever got and testament that other drivers are noticing consistency as much as speed.
Every lap, every corner, every time. So the first thing is consistency. Why? Without that, you cannot really MEASURE improvements to your line and technique because your times will be so variable. So now that I can keep my lap times within 2/10ths every lap, I know when a line change has a significant impact. I also have a data acquisition system which helps incrementally. I can section off the track, put together a “virtual best lap” and find out what my improvement would be if I executed perfectly.
So until you’re sure that an experienced driver couldn’t get in your car and improve upon your lap times by a second or more, hold off on the car upgrades.
Weight is the second best upgrade. Initially it’s free. It improves all aspects of your car. Less weight means better braking, acceleration, cornering, HP, cooling, mileage, you name it. It’s free (at least initially) because you can start removing unneeded items from you car at zero cost. Eventually you have to start replacing components with lighter ones and that costs money.
Think on it. With a lighter car:
1. Your brakes work better because they aren’t doing much work.
2. Your suspension works better because it has less to carry and transition
3. You pull harder with less mass to accelerate
4. You turn better with less force on the tires.
I debated on where to put this one for quite some time. Why? Buying better and/or stickier tires will improve your laptimes significantly and since that’s what this article is about, it deserves to be next. HOWEVER the reason for my debate is this: These same sticky tires will also mask your driving mistakes and let you get away with bad technique, bad setup, improper lines, etc.. They are a crutch when you are learning. But this article is about upgrades and going fast.
Tires vs. suspension is a hotly contested area. In all reality they are linked completely. However I must take a stand here. Here's why I chose tires first: Consider a car with super suspension upgrades, but rather underperforming tires.This sort of setup on the track lends itself to over-driven tires. By that I mean your cars tuned suspension is capable of loosing traction and recovering much more gracefully than a relatively stock car. The end result of that being you're now able to push the tires past the point where they are useful because your suspension allows you to catch and release that limit over and over again. The tires then might be overheating and beyond their usable limits wearing them at a much accelerated rate. End result of skirting the pyramid? A higher than normal tire budget that just might have paid for a good set of tires in the first place.
Beyond that there’s not much to say here. The stickier and wider the tire, the faster you can go. (Unless its raining). DO resist the urge to do this if you can. I’ve seen new drivers get away with some pretty unbelievable maneuvers after putting on some stickies that were just frightening. Fortunately they weren’t nearly at the limit of the car. If they ever reached the limit and tried that they might end up in a wall or someone else’s car. Wait until you are ready.
Since tires are one of the better performance upgrades for going faster, keeping the tires on the ground must be close to it. The setup and design of your suspension does two things:
1. It manages the weight of your car (the sprung weight) during transitions from braking to acceleration and corner to corner.
2. It tries to provide a balance between #1 and keeping the tires on the ground at all times. More tire on the ground results in more traction, leading to better lap times.
There are myriads of upgrades that can be done to your suspension. Spring rates, dampers, bushings, coil-over conversions, alignment tools and components, alignment “holding” components, ad naseum. The key to upgrading your suspension is to make sure that it matches both your driving needs (how much tracks vs. street driving) and is balanced. Upgrading to a super heavy spring rate (bigger torsion bars for example) while retaining your clapped out worn down struts will do more harm than good.
Another overlooked component of suspension upgrading is your alignment. I learned what a drastic difference this could make a few years after I started racing. I had upgraded my engine after a blowup and went out on the track at the beginning of the season without seeing a ton of laptime improvement. I noticed that I had some worn suspension bushings and tweaked my rear end alignment to compensate. I got more improvement from the tweaked suspension settings that I did with the horsepower upgrades! It was then that I decided to quit fooling with the engine and focus my energies on setup.
And this is why last in the upgrade list is
Notice that I did not say engine here. The end result of adding power is to get more torque or horsepower to the rear wheels right? Upgrading the 911 motor is very pricey indeed. A somewhat less expensive way of getting more power to the ground is through an optimized gear set. The transmission is a force multiplier. If you optimize your gearing to be within the proper power band of your engine you will get better results. In addition if your gears are all too tall (say supporting a speed you don’t use) then you’re leaving horsepower on the table as well. (ex. Yes, your 4th gear IS capable of doing 120 MPH, but do you ever? It might be better to have a shorter 4th gear that’s more usable and pulls harder.)
So the next time you have that trans out for a “freshening” look into some new gearsets.
Lastly I put engine power on this list. That’s a long conversation and as I mentioned in the beginning, the least effective for the limited budget track junkie. Upgrading your engine can take many forms including displacement upgrades, forced induction, power through increased RPMS and electronics upgrades (chips, ignition, etc..). As I mentioned power seems to be the most expensive upgrade with the least impressive results. Yes this provides us with good bragging rights at the pub, but in the end, a faster lap times puts you even higher on the pedestal and that’s really what it’s all about isn’t it?
Good luck and good times!