Cover photo by Driver-Photographer Andrew Yoon
Like many of you, I spent much of my childhood dreaming about racing fast cars on big racetracks. And like many of you, I came from a very modest background that couldn't afford to support that dream.
I spent 6 years' worth of money from a part-time job to buy my first car. I spent three years developing my skills at the track in that car on a salary that could barely support your average college graduate. I loved every minute of what felt like a wild, high-stakes adventure and was ecstatic when it led me to getting my competition race license as well as my first dedicated race car.
But looking back, I would do things a little differently. Because as it turns out, there was a smarter way to spend my $40k a year salary. One that would have helped me reach my dream sooner, and without some of the expensive trial and error that I went through.
So here are five tips that I have for you budget-conscious drivers who aspire to become racecar drivers by climbing the track day / HPDE ladder:
1. Buy the best tyres, used (and in a popular size)
As every car magazine on the planet loves to point out, upgrading your tyres make the single biggest difference out of any modification you can make to your car. Unfortunately, they are also the single most expensive modification you can make to your car. Unlike suspension upgrades, brake kits, or even an engine swap, tyres are 100% consumable. So that $1200 US that you spend on new performance tyres isn't going to be a one and done purchase. It's going to come back every year, maybe more often, depending on how much you care about absolute lap times.
Because of this, I spent the early days of my track day career driving on sub-standard summer tyres. They felt mushy at speed, offered relatively little grip, and made the challenge of learning car control techniques unnecessarily difficult. They also wore out quickly because I was driving to work on them in between track days and DE events.
As I later discovered, a better approach is to buy a cheap set of spare wheels and buy used racing tyres (also known as takeoffs). Not only will these dedicated race tyres perform better on track, they will make it easier to get a good, honest feel for what the car is doing. They will also last longer because you won't be using them on the street.
A set of used racing tyres can be had for a tiny fraction of the cost of a set of new high-performance summer tyres: For example, a lightly used Hoosier R7 in 225/40R17 can be had for $125 US per tyre. Compare that to $240 US per tyre for new Continental ExtremeContact Forces in the same size.
There are plenty of deals like that out there from reputable sellers. My favorites (in the US) include:
The reason that these deals are so readily available is that racing tyres are most grippy when they are brand new. Once you put them through a handful of track sessions (measured in heat cycles), the compound hardens and they become slower. It's a difference that is barely noticeable for any of us racers-in-training, but for those at the highest level of professional and club racing, it's often the difference between winning and missing out on the podium. So many of them will spend tons of money buying new tyres every race and selling their old discarded takeoffs to these companies at a fraction of the cost.
One man's trash is another man's treasure. Just make sure to inspect each tyre when you get it. Make sure that the DOT date code (or the date of manufacturing on non-DOT slicks) is less than 3 years ago and that there is no damage on the sidewalls or the shoulders.
I should also mention that it helps to use a popular wheel size. If you can, try to get wheels in one of the following diameters and widths:
- 15" Wheels in 7" or 8" width
- 17" Wheels in 8", 8.5", or 9" width
- 18" Wheels in 8", 8.5", or 9" width
As of December 2021, these wheel sizes are the most common in top-level pro and club racing and will give you the best selection of racing tyres (new or used). If your car came with 16" or 19" wheels, consider running a smaller wheel so you can enjoy a better selection of tyres.
As for which wheels to buy, look for sturdy, undamaged wheels with a JWL or TUV certification. Don't worry about the weight of the wheels. Contrary to popular belief, an ultra-lightweight wheel will make very little difference in your on-track performance. Instead, look for a set of wheels that look like they can handle a bit of kerb-hopping or the occasional off-track excursion. You will have more than a few of those during your high-performance driving career.
2. Skip the cheap coilovers, spend on maintenance
It might be very tempting to spend your hard-earned money on height adjustable coilovers right out of the gate. My recommendation is to resist this temptation for as long as you can. The reality is that decent track-ready coilovers aren't cheap, and they take a surprising amount of setup work in order for them to work well on track. They also need the chassis underneath them to be solid, or they won't work at all.
So before you make any major modifications to your car, spend your time and money on maintenance. This means getting your car on jack stands and checking the condition of your CV joints, ball joints, tie rods, and suspension bushings. Check your wheel bearings for play and make sure that there is no structural damage or heavy rust that might affect the car's handling. Replace any worn-out parts that you find with good OEM replacements (The RockAuto Catalog is your friend here). If you have an older car, consider investing in polyurethane bushings to replace your old OEM bushings.
Do a compression test on your engine to make sure that it is healthy, check your accessory belts, change your filters, and your spark plugs. Check the condition of your fluids (especially the brake fluid) and replace them with high-quality replacements that won't break the bank.
Brake fluid is particularly important for us high performance track drivers, so it's worth spending a few extra dollars to fill your brake system with something suited to track use. And if you look carefully enough, there are some very good ones for the price. For example, Bosch ESI6-32N is an excellent DOT 5.1 brake fluid that retails for about half the cost of Motul 5.1.
Why spend all this time (and money) on maintenance items?
The main reason is that you need to. Most street-driven cars are not maintained as well as you might think. It's surprisingly difficult for an average driver to notice a worn-out ball joint or a bad wheel bearing on the street. That is, of course, until you put the car on a racetrack and suddenly realize that your car is exhibiting some catastrophically frightening handling characteristics. Track day entry fees are not cheap, and you shouldn't have to spend any of your hard-earned track time troubleshooting a misbehaving car.
The other reason is that you need to develop some basic mechanical skills if you want to race on a budget. Even with perfect maintenance, things happen. Components wear out, things break, and accidents happen. At minimum, you need to be able to change your brake pads, rotors, fluids, change your oil, do some basic engine troubleshooting, and be comfortable enough to replace a suspension component or two. What better way to learn than in the comfort of your own driveway or garage?
If you do have some extra money to burn, look at suspension upgrades that let you make alignment adjustments. In particular, look for components that will let you dial in more camber. Most high-performance and track-only tyres are designed to work with a certain amount of static camber dialed into the suspension, and these components will help you make the best of them. Just don't throw out or give away your stock suspension components. You never know when you might need to go back to them.
3. Buy the best brake pads you can get
Tyres and maintenance items aside, there's one other place where it's worth spending your hard-earned cash: Your brakes. But don't go out looking for big brake kits and cryo treated rotors. The biggest bang for the buck is in a set of good, track-ready brake pads.
The reality is that most streetable high-performance brake pads won't hold up to track use. This includes the likes of the Hawk HPS, Carbotech 1521s, or anything made by EBC Brakes. As soon as you start using the brakes like you're supposed to (which, surprisingly, is quite aggressively), these pads will fade and crumble away on you.
Look for pads that are designed for track or race use. These pads often cost several times as much as popular high-performance street pads (upwards of $200 US for a front or rear set for most cars) and are well worth the price.
If you can keep a second set of track-specific pads and rotors that you can swap in before track days, you have a plethora of good choices: At the time of writing, Raybestos ST-43s and ST-45s remain our favorite all-round track pads, with Hawk DTC-60s / 70s (depending on your application) and Carbotech's XP lineup being good alternatives. If you are lucky enough to drive a car that they make them for, WinMax's track-specific line of pads are consistently well-liked by track day enthusiasts for their excellent fade resistance and pedal feel.
If you don't have the luxury of storing a second set of brakes, there are a handful of pads that are capable of double duty. Ferrodo DS2500s are still one of the best dual-duty street/track pads that you can buy. Hawk's HP+ produces quite a bit of dust and are noisy on the street but are similarly capable track pads that can be driven on the street. If you do choose to run these dual duty pads, remember to wax and clean your wheels. Both compounds produce sticky, corrosive brake dust that will ruin the paint on your wheels if left unchecked.
The good news is that you don't need to buy expensive rotors to get the best out of these pads. In fact, we recommend that you do the opposite. Buy the cheapest decent quality blank rotors that you can get. A set of OE-replacement Centric, Brembo, Dynamic Friction, or Bendix rotors can be had for surprisingly cheap for cars equipped with cast iron (aka "steel") brakes. Skip the slotted and drilled rotors. If you bed your brakes properly, you will never need those extra holes in your rotors.
The most important thing is to use these pads like they were made to be used: Brake hard and firm when you are on track and keep the pads within their temperature window. If you can do that, they will get you stopped lap after lap and will last a surprisingly long time.
4. Do your own alignments and car setup
The first specialty tools that I bought for my car were a set of Longacre toe plates and a good tyre pressure gauge. A year later, I splurged on a budget-friendly camber gauge and a cheap probe pyrometer. As it turned out, these were some of the best investments I could have made into my on-track career.
It turns out that a good, track-friendly alignment can transform the cheapest econobox, while a bad alignment will ruin a purpose-built track machine. And as many of you know, your car will naturally go out of alignment from regular street and track use. A badly aligned car will not only feel strange to drive, it will also hinder your learning and cause excessive, premature wear on your tyres.
Why spend $100 US per session to correct small issues on an alignment rack when you can buy the tools and do it in your own driveway or garage? It's fun, interesting, will teach you a lot about how your car's suspension system works, and will save you a lot of money in the long run.
A set of simple alignment tools can also help quickly find and diagnose issues before they become problems. For example, a quick check of your car's toe can reveal a bad tie rod or a worn ball joint well before it becomes noticeable in the car. A budget-friendly bubble-type camber gauge can help you spot a bad wheel bearing before you get to the track.
So where do you learn to do your own track-friendly alignments? There are quite a few good resources that can teach you, but I recommend starting with MotoIQ's Ultimate Guide to Suspension and Handling. It's written by one of the most talented racecar suspension engineers I have met, is very beginner-friendly, and is free.
So how do you use these tools?
The toe plates and tyre pressure gauge will be useful on day 1.
Start by measuring the front toe and rear toe on your car and keep track to make sure that it stays consistent between track days. If it changes, check your tie rods and control arms to make sure that nothing is worn out or damaged. Replace any broken parts and set the alignment back to where it should be.
Look up the ideal operating pressure range for your tyres. Most manufacturers publish these numbers and will provide them if you call or email them. Adjust your tyre pressures so that they are in that ideal range when you are on track. This means that you will need to make your tyre pressure adjustments immediately after you come off track. This will help make sure that you are making the most of your tyres' grip at all times.
As you pick up speed, you will want to adjust the camber on your car to get more grip out of your tyres. This is where the probe pyrometer comes in. Push it deep into the tread of your tyres to measure the temperature of the inner edge, middle, and outer edge of your tyre's tread immediately after you come on track. ideally, you want the inside part of the tread to be the hottest, followed by the middle of the tread, then the outside, with an even spread of temperatures (e.g. a 15 degree F difference) between the inside, middle, and outside. If the inside is significantly hotter, take some negative camber out of that wheel. If the outside is hotter, dial in some negative camber.
Which tools should you buy?
As far as what tools you should buy, I would recommend these budget-friendly options (but durable) options for the budding enthusiast:
- Longacre Toe Plates
- Longacre Basic Tire Gauge (the 0-60 psi model)
- Speedway Economy Camber/Caster gauge
- Longacre AccuTech economy pyrometer
Not only are these tools budget friendly, they are sturdy enough to last years (or decades, as I later found out) as long as you don't abuse them.
If you decide that you really enjoy racecar chassis setup and tuning (as some people do), you can upgrade your tools later on. I happen to be one of those people. So just as an example, here's what I have in my current alignment kit today:
- Longacre QuickToe Setting Tool
- Longacre Liquid Filled Tire Gauge
- Joe's Racing Camber / Caster Gauge
- eTape16 Digital Tape Measures (they really speed up the alignment process)
- Trilancer Elastic Cinch straps (since the QuickToe tool's magnetic arms don't stick to aluminum wheels)
- B-G Racing 4 wheel string alignment kit
Lastly, and most importantly - Remember to write everything down! Adjusting your alignment can be a tricky and time-consuming process, so you will end up making most of your adjustments after you get back home. Good notes are critical to a good alignment, so don't skip that step and put your notes in a place where you won't lose them.
5. Practice car control in (gas) karts
Here's an uncomfortable truth for all of you track rats: Track days and HPDEs suck for practicing car control.
The reality is that the risks of losing control at 100+ mph are high, and the resulting consequences can be expensive. As a result, most track day organizations encourage their drivers to drive conservatively and stay well within their limits. But that makes it all the harder to go faster. After all, how do you know where the limit is if you can't step over it every so often?
Thankfully, there is a cheap and easy answer to this conundrum: Rental racing karts.
Racing karts are light, nimble, and viciously raw. They have no suspension and rely on a single rear brake, actuated solely by the muscles in your left foot. Driving 35 mph in a racing kart feels like you're going 100+ mph in a formula car. And for good reason. It takes a similar level of car control and skill to control a proper racing kart as it does a full-scale open wheel racecar.
The difference is that average speeds are lower, and the consequences of spinning or tapping the wall are nowhere near as serious. Overcook a corner and end up in a massive slide? No problem. Just give it a ton of opposite lock and floor the throttle to power out of it. Brush the plastic barriers on the way out of a corner? That's okay. Just don't do it next time. The lessons that you can learn from rental karts make them the perfect way to learn car control in a safe environment for very little money.
Electric karting places can be good for this kind of car control training, but if you have the choice, look for a place that uses gas powered karts. Gas karts are significantly lighter than their battery powered cousins and are much less forgiving when you make a mistake. This makes for better racing and does a better job of teaching the essentials of car control.
I was fortunate enough to live close enough to Grand Prix New York that I could hone my car control skills on their Sodi RX series gas karts. If you're lucky, there will be something similar near you where you can practice driving at the absolute limit. Trust me, it'll be worth it when you get back on track.
That's all I have for you today. Thank you very much for reading. I will see you at the track.
StudioVRM and Roger Maeda are not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the vendors mentioned above. All of the products mentioned above were bought out of Roger's own pocket with his own money in the span of the last 15+ years.