Trackday Bangers - fast fun for small money

In the last few years, trackdays have really taken off in Britain.  The basic idea is simple: you get to drive your car flat out around a race circuit all day, without having to worry about speed cameras, traffic jams, Nissan Micras or any of the other things that make road driving so frustrating these days.  Trackdays are hugely addictive, and for many people they are a gateway into motorsport - a chance to get real experience of race circuits without the pressure of competition.

People can - and do - run pretty much anything on trackdays, from motheaten Eighties hot hatches to Porsches, BMW M3s, Caterhams and the purpose-built trackday toys such as the Radical.  However, there is a lot to be said for buying a cheap banger to turn into a trackday tool.  It is most unlikely that your ordinary car insurance will cover you for a trackday (even though it is a non-competitive event) and although you can get trackday insurance, it is horribly expensive.  The general principle is that you drive at your own risk, and that means that if your car gets bent, whether it is your fault or the other driver's, you will not be able to make a claim against anyone else.  So what you really want is a disposable car - something which will be fast and fun enough to be worth taking out onto a track, but cheap enough that if everything goes horribly wrong, you won't stand to lose a fortune.

There is plenty of information out there on the Internet to tell you how track days work, how to get started, what to expect etc, so I will not duplicate that here.  I will just focus on taking a cheap old car and preparing it for a new life on the track. What you do with it then is up to you.

1. Choose your car

Typical trackday mix - Mk2 Golf 16V, Datsun 240Z, Caterham

Although there is nothing to stop you taking a Fiat Uno 45 to a trackday, I wouldn't really recommend it.  You don't want to spend the whole day looking nervously in your rear view mirror.  So stick to something reasonably sporting.  At this price level, that really means old-school hot hatches or sports saloons (BMW 3 series, Cavalier 16V etc).  You might get really lucky and find something like a Nissan Silvia Turbo in usable shape, but parts will be harder to find, so I would probably stick with the common stuff.  Whatever you choose, it needs to meet a few basic requirements, viz:

  • Rock solid bodyshell.  Track day accidents are not especially common, but they do happen.  If you go into the Armco at speed, you do not want to be in something with inner wings and sills made from Isopon P38.  Also a rotting bodyshell will flex in corners and upset the handling.

  • Strong, sound engine and gearbox.  This car will be worked harder on track than it ever has been in its life.

  • Decent handling in standard form.  The better the car is to start with, the less you will have to spend on upgrading it.

  • Tatty interior and paintwork are good, because they keep the price down.  Ditto worn out tyres.  Whatever tyres the car is wearing, they probably won't be good enough for serious track use.

This harmless looking old Datsun has a 2 litre turbo motor.  Love it.

Personally I would be looking at Mk2 Golfs (especially the 16v), Peugeot 205 GTi, Toyota Corolla GTI Twin Cam or for real low budget fun, how about a Citroen AX GT, or even an old K-series Metro GTI?  If you want rear wheel drive, your choice is going to be limited: rear-drive Corollas are like gold dust, and a Mk2 Escort is going to be off the pace unless it has had some serious money spent on it. Bigger cars (BMW 3 series, Alfa 75) will cost more in fuel, get through tyres more quickly and be more expensive to fix when they break. The little old Datsun pictured above probably involved more engineering work than most people want to tackle.

2. Initial preparation - safety first

If you are already thinking about how you are going to get some extra horsepower out of your trackday car, you are going about it the wrong way.  Engine tuning should be right at the bottom of your list.  The amount of work you can do will obviously depend on your budget, but there are a couple of areas where, if you cannot afford to get them right, you cannot really afford to do track days safely. 

Firstly, mechanical condition.  It should be obvious that you car must be fully serviced and mechanically as perfect as possible, but there are plenty of people who overlook this.  You want to do a full, comprehensive service - new plugs, filters, the lot.  Change the gearbox oil, and if your car has a cambelt, fit a new one (and a new tensioner if applicable).  Check every single bush and bearing in the steering and suspension.  Clean, repack and adjust the wheel bearings, and make sure that the exhaust mounts are all in good condition.  Track days break mounting rubbers like nothing else.  Flush the cooling system thoroughly, inspect all the hoses and replace any which are showing signs of old age (especially on Peugeots and Citroens, which seem to suffer a lot from blown hoses).  Then refill with a good quality antifreeze mix.  Don't be tempted to remove the thermostat to "improve" cooling - by changing the pattern of water flow through the head you can sometimes cause localised overheating which will blow the head gasket.  Make sure the cooling fan cuts in when it should.

Brakes deserve a separate paragraph all by themselves.  Braking systems do not age well.  The fluid absorbs water, which lowers its boiling point and causes internal corrosion to wheel cylinders and calipers.  Rubber hoses degrade, split and swell: steel pipes corrode and weaken.  The rubber seals inside the master cylinder, calipers and wheel cylinders wear and crack.  If you go out on track in an old banger which has not had a full brake overhaul, you will run out of brakes within a couple of laps.  If you are going fast enough at the time, this will hurt.  So I would very strongly recommend that, at the very least, you replace all the rubber hoses (preferably with the PTFE type made by Goodridge and others): inspect all the metal lines and replace any suspect sections: replace the front brake discs, preferably with cross drilled or grooved ones, and use uprated 'fast road' brake pads: inspect the brake calipers and wheel cylinders very carefully and change anything which looks remotely suspect:  and fit a new brake master cylinder, or rebuild the old one with new seals.  Rear brakes on a front wheel drive car do very little work, but should be checked for condition nonetheless.  Finally, drain all the old fluid out of the system, and refill with fresh, high quality fluid (I use DOT 5.1) from a sealed container.

3. Improvements

There is no need to go mad on expensive suspension components, but if your existing suspension is a bit tired you might as well upgrade it.  Polyurethane suspension bushes are a good idea, and usually easier to fit than rubber ones.  If you are changing shock absorbers, get a complete handling kit (gas shocks and lowered springs) from Spax, Koni, Bilstein etc.  Adjustable dampers are nice but not critical: adjustable spring platforms are probably overkill for a track day car.

One very good way to go faster is to lose weight.  Rip out the back seat, the stereo, trim and sound deadening, and anything else you don't need.

An even better way to go faster is to hire an instructor.  Most trackdays have ARDS instructors who will go out with you for a session and teach you the correct lines.  The first time I did this, I could not believe just how much I was doing wrong.  Hiring an instructor is the best money you will ever spend on a trackday.

Safety kit - the only item which is compulsory on most track days is a crash helmet, but if you have the money to spend, it is probably worth putting in at least a rear rollcage, a handheld fire extinguisher and proper race type harnesses.  A battery cutout switch, accessible from the driver's seat is also a good and cheap modification to make.

Finally, once you have done all the above, then completed enough trackdays, and had enough tuition, to be sure that you cannot possibly go any faster through the bends than you are doing already, then it is perhaps time to start thinking about more horsepower.  A well driven Mk2 Golf with 112BHP will outpace a badly driven Porsche with three times that power.  (And it is so satisfying, when other drivers ask you what you have done to your engine to make your car so quick, to be able to reply "Nothing, it's absolutely standard".)

4. Tyres

Racetracks have a very grippy, aggressive surface which chews up tyres fast.  For your first trackday you will probably get away with using the standard road tyres already on the car, if they are a reputable make and have plenty of tread.  But make sure they are in perfect condition - no cuts or bulges - you don't want to have a tyre blow out at over the ton. And don't expect them to still be legal by the end of the day, unless the track is wet.  A dry track will destroy road tyres very quickly.

Mk1 Golf makes an excellent track weapon, but getting hard to find at a sensible price.

You will find that having proper track tyres will make a huge difference.  I have had very good results with Yokohama A032R tyres - they are very soft and wear quite quickly, but the grip in dry conditions is phenomenal.  They aren't great in the wet though, and I have a spare set of wheels with Yokohama A539 road tyres for when it rains.  Special track day tyres may seem a bit of an extravagance, but they are well worth the money.  You can normally pick up straight but scruffy alloys cheaply from breakers yards - try to go for a nice strong wheel. 

5. Transport

How to get to the track?  The most obvious way is to drive the car there, but then your car has to be taxed, MOT'd and insured.  Track day organisers require cars to be roadworthy, but do not insist on them being road legal.  So provided your everyday car is suitable for towing, spend the tax and insurance money on a trailer instead.  That way, if you blow up your engine you will still be able to get home.  A towcar also gives you somewhere to put your tools, spare wheels etc, and you don't have to bring a spare set of road tyres with you to put on the car so you can drive home without breaking the law.  Also a trailer is very handy for all sorts of other stuff, from moving furniture to making a few quid shifting old cars for friends. 

Some people use a recovery dolly or A-frame instead of a trailer - handy if you do not have enough space at home to keep a trailer, but the legality of such devices is very questionable, so I wouldn't do it myself.

If you are going to drive the car to the circuit, try to persuade a friend to come along in his own car, and make sure you have a towrope (or rigid tow bar) with you. 

One thing worth remembering - many circuits do not have petrol stations attached to them.  You might think a full tank of fuel will last all day, but once the level drops to around half full, you are likely to start getting fuel starvation on long corners.  So take a five gallon jerry can of petrol with you, and make sure you keep your tank topped up.


So there's your next project sorted out.  See you on-track soon.