Why Things Fail at the Race Track
Wear and tear are expected when pushing a car to its limits. Here's how we can minimize damage to our equipment.
Hitting the track puts major stress on your vehicle. Cars have weight and when weight transfers, it applies loads to components like tie rods, bushings, and anything else that moves. You don’t use 20% of throttle at the track, you use 100% as often as possible. Chucking your machine into left-right transitions and slamming on the brakes all subject a vehicle to extremes that exceed even the most spirited driving done on public roads. Furthermore, curbs at the track can be brutal devices that crack wheels, destroy alignment specs, and compress springs with enough force to break substandard hardware clean in half. Spend enough time at a race track and you will see failures that simply boggle your mind. Anything can fail—and it will.
PRO TIP: Remember that within the realm of track driving two people can subject the same exact car to different levels of force. Keep this in mind as we walk through this article.
1. Hardware Quality
Nuts, bolts, and washers literally hold your car together and the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) has rated them with a set of numbers called “Grades.” These ratings go from grade 2 (weakest) to grade 8 (strongest). One of the simple reasons things fail at the race track is the use of poor quality nuts and bolts. There are a million reasons for why this cheaper hardware is selected, but the point is when you start to subject these parts to the forces seen on a race track, they can fail quickly. Mechanical failures of this type can be avoided by simply spending the money to get quality hardware. You can physically identify a Grade 8 bolt by the 6 raised markings on the head—so don’t be fooled.
PRO TIP: Bolts get expensive, so find a good supplier. Many people forget that hardware is a big part of the sports car equation so sponsorship here is a major life hack. Never skip out on quality, buy grade 8.
2. Assembly Errors
Operator error is, more often than not, the main cause of failure at the track. During my time in race cars, I have seen wheels come off and engines fail due to a mechanic’s fatigue or a driver’s lack of focus. Anything that can go wrong definitely will, so it’s important to triple check your work. Follow torque specs and when in doubt, err on the side of over tightening a bolt as opposed to under tightening it. Studies have shown fatigue in metal comes from the movement of the molecules, so by making a bolt more rigid in its fixture, you are preventing molecules from stretching.
PRO TIP: Connecting rod bolts are a great example of a fastener's physical ability to stretch to the point of failure. Engine builders discard these after they have been torqued just once, as even the smallest amount of stretch will lead to premature failure—not something you want in a race engine at 10,000rpm!
3. Abusive Driving
Many drivers think that a track day is an excuse to aggressively turn in, lock up the brakes and jump every curb so they can “send it for the gram, bro!” This type of careless driving subjects suspension components to unbelievable force and often only results in a tenth or two in lap time improvement. During qualifying where cars only run for a few minutes, this is permissible. But after several hours of racing, you’re going to be losing time in the pits making repairs. Even if you don’t race, you’ll spend more money on everything from tires to tie rods. Not fun.
PRO TIP: Learn to be fast and drive smoothly. If you hear someone at the track say “if you’re not going off you’re not trying” you need to ignore this advice. Plenty of people can go faster than this person without ever putting a wheel wrong. Abusive driving causes parts to fail.
4. Cheap Wheels
I’m the first person to advise people against blowing money on big horsepower, triple adjustable shocks, and a giant aero kit they don’t need. But I’m also the first person to recommend good wheels. Forged wheels can be expensive. However, it only takes a few sets of cast wheels cracking to match the cost. Having tracked on both, I can attest to the confidence you gain from knowing your equipment can take a beating. You might never think about it, but all of this plays into your lap times.
PRO TIP: Provided you have grade 8 hardware and forged wheels, you can get away with slamming into curbs that might have really done damage to your suspension system. Combine this with properly adjusted shocks to open up new driving lines you couldn’t take before.
5. Dive Bombers
You can do everything on this list and pick the best hardware—it only takes one person locking up their brakes to end your day. How do we get around this? By having high levels of situational awareness. Situational awareness is one of the most important things I coach in any student and something everyone needs to practice. You can’t control other people, but you can control your eyes and where they look. Look ahead and do it often, check your mirrors and pay attention and you can mitigate the chance of Mr. Dive Bomber doing what he does best.
PRO TIP: Expect the unexpected at the race track and use all of your senses to take in as much information as possible. A simple scan of the mirrors is all it can take to see a disaster coming and calmly avoid it. Don’t get caught out, think faster than the next guy.
Building a car with the proper hardware and double checking your work will save you time, money, and potential injury in your journey towards the ultimate lap time. While some elements are out of your control, you will find many of them are well within your grasp. All it takes is a little forethought and precaution and you will minimize failures and spend more time driving.
PRO TIP: Working on your own equipment is about more than saving cash, it’s about understanding your machine intimately and making sure the work is done correctly. You will also learn about how tightening various components changes the way the car feels at speed. It’s all a learning process.