Nothing is really inexpensive when it comes to racing (or even just lapping), but getting your car ready for the track can be done in stages, and in the grand scheme of things the first priorities on the list aren’t the hardest on the pocketbook, all considered. You’ll notice that we avoid the power-adders in this list, as we (and countless others) recommend focusing on traction and handling first. As a general rule, adding power without also ensuring your car can handle it and bring it to a stop is a dangerous game, and one we’d strongly suggest avoiding.
Most experts will tell you that when it comes to improving your car’s track performance, tires provide the single biggest bang for your buck. By using a set of dedicated racing tires, you can choose a tire optimized for performance on the track and not worry about wearing them down or puncturing them with a nail during your daily commute. Good tires need not be expensive; do your research and you’ll find plenty of tires that offer excellent grip at a much more moderate price than you might expect.
Racing Brake Pads
It might seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated, but the faster you can stop, the faster you can go. Better brakes resist fading from repeated use and allow you to stay on the power longer before you brake for a curve. Racing brake pads come in different compounds; some work well only when really hot, while others are more tolerant to broader temperature ranges. Don’t just buy the most aggressive pads you can get — they may provide little stopping power when cold. Instead, do some research and then shop for the best price on the type of pad you need.
High-Temperature Brake Fluid
One you start to really use your brakes to their maximum potential, you’re going to start generating very high brake temperatures — high enough, perhaps, to boil the fluid in the lines. Boiling fluid creates air bubbles, which, unlike the fluid itself, can be compressed — and when that happens, thump, your brake pedal goes to the floor (and your car, perhaps, goes into the tire wall). Some brake fluids absorb moisture over time, which lowers the boiling point, so at the very least, you should change your brake fluid before you go to the track, but if you want to do it right, replace your original-equipment fluid with DOT 4 or DOT 5.1 fluid, and be sure to pay attention to the fluid-change intervals for the new formulation.
Most people put new wheels on their car to improve its look, but if you’re going racing you want a wheel that will improve performance, and that means reducing weight. A lighter wheel reduces unsprung mass (the part of the car’s weight that is not supported by the suspension), which allows the wheel to respond more quickly to bumps and other terrain changes, improving the car’s grip. Lightweight rims need not be fancy or expensive, thankfully. There are quite a few options out there for you, and finding weight specifications on wheels isn’t always easy, so we isolated this to a few of our go-to brands in the category.
Adjustable Shock Absorbers/Coilovers
Adjustable shock absorbers (also known as dampers) allow the owner to set the compression and rebound rate — basically, how much the shock resists the upward and downward travel of the wheel. (Don’t confuse them with shocks that allow adjustment of ride height. If you search for the term “adjustable dampers” you’ll get better results.) Some shocks allow individual adjustment of compression and rebound, others tie them together; either way, they allow you to fine-tune the car’s handling and achieve the perfect handling balance or to compensate for conditions at different tracks. This is where things get interesting. Depending on how performance-tuned your car is from the factory, converting to a coilover suspension kit (replacing both your dampers AND your factory springs with something stiffer) might make a fair bit more sense. If you’re starting from a solid base (FR-S, Nissan 370Z, etc) leaving your springs alone is likely passable, and will save you some cash in the process.