Driving your Corvette near its limits on a track or an autocross course is not going to hurt it, unless you do something stupid.
So you have heard the siren call, or perhaps a few of your friends have told you about the joys of driving a Corvette at or near the redline. How do you go about getting your Corvette ready to unleash the beast that lurks within?
There are some differences between getting your Corvette prepared for a track day versus an autocross, but far more similarities. First, let’s eliminate one myth. Driving your Corvette near its limits on a track or an autocross course is not going to hurt it, unless you do something stupid. Corvettes were built to run fast, to corner with agility and to brake hard. You will find that in the great majority of cases, you, not the machine, will be the limiting factor in the lap time equation.
Run What Ya Brung
The Z06, in both C5 and C6 generations, is the Corvette of choice for most autocross and track day participants. You might see a few ZR1s and FRC’s (Fixed Roof Coupes, the lightweight forerunner of the C5 Z06) as well. Coupes are also very common, especially those fitted with the Z51 suspension package and the new Grand Sport. But you can enjoy speed events with any Corvette. Convertibles are rare, but most autocross and track day organizers allow them, as long as they have a rollbar installed.
Go to a track day or autocross and you are sure to see lots of cars with thousands of dollars worth of modifications made to them. It is a hobby that can get very expensive, very quickly. But unlike a lot of other made-for-the-street vehicles, the Corvette can be competitive right out of the box. So at least to start, keep your checkbook in your pocket as much as possible and limit your expenses to making sure that your Vette is in good working condition.
You may see a few very-modified older generation Corvettes like this Sting Ray at the track, but C5s and C6s are far more common.
Ready For The Unexpected
There are a few tools that you should have, in addition to those required for regular maintenance.
- Get a good torque wrench with a socket to fit your Corvette’s lug nuts.
- An accurate tire pressure gauge is also a necessity.
- If you don’t already have them, get a set of jacking “pucks” so that you can lift your Corvette safely. I’ve seen a jack used at the track without one that resulted in a 6-inch gash in the side of an otherwise beautiful Atomic Orange C6.
- Get at least one 2-1/2 pound capacity clean agent (not dry chemical) fire extinguisher and either mount it or keep it in an easily accessible location in your Corvette.
The best place to start prepping your Corvette is with the fluids. Running at high RPM, especially on a warm day, will raise the operating temperatures of all of your Corvette’s fluids. If you have not flushed and replaced the coolant lately, do so. While you’re at it, you may want to consider replacing the thermostat with one rated at 180 degrees. It will allow your engine to run a bit cooler, without significantly affecting the emissions.
Hmm… Might be time for a brake fluid flush!
Before You Go:
- Oil & Filter Change
- Check Brake Fluid and Pad Thickness
- Inspect Tires for Damage
- Remove All Loose Objects
Be sure to change the oil and filter. It is the opinion of some that a heavier weight oil should be used, but unless you’re going to be running unusually long sessions of an hour or more, a good 10w-40 will be fine. If you have not had your differential fluid changed, here is a good excuse to have it done. The same goes for the clutch fluid, if you have a manual transmission. If it’s an automatic, change the fluid and the filter.
Brake fluid is the most critical. You really want to make sure that it is clean and the system is free of air. If the fluid is even a bit dirty, change it. I recommend going to a DOT 4 fluid instead of the stock DOT 3. It is compatible with DOT 3, but has a somewhat higher boiling temperature. Get a set of stainless braided brake lines and replace the factory rubber lines.
Whether you change the brake fluid or not, be sure to check your brake pads. If you have at least an eighth of an inch thickness, you should be good to go. But it never hurts to have an extra set, especially for the front. You may want to consider upgrading to higher performance brake pads after you’ve had a few events under your belt, but if they do not need replacements, stock pads will be fine. Higher performance pads generate more brake dust and can be noisy.
It’s not unusual for the wear on your pads to be somewhat uneven, but if one end of the pad is over one sixteenth of an inch thicker than the other, look into it. Check the rotors for any deep grooves in the face. If they are visible, have the rotors resurfaced or replace them. If you are replacing the pads, resurfacing the rotors is not a bad idea, regardless of their appearance. If there are any cracks visible in the rotors, replace them.
A 2003 Anniversary Edition Coupe takes a right-hander at speed.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road (and Track)
Tires are the greatest bang-for-your-buck improvement that you can make in your Corvette’s handling. There are a number of manufacturers who make a good street legal tire for Corvettes. You will find that in general, the better the tire is for track use, the more quickly it will wear. This is because you get better grip with a soft-compound tire.
Unless your tires are in need of replacement, I don’t recommend buying a new set for your first autocross or track day. Most tracks require a minimum of 2/32” of tread to be on your tires when you check in. Don’t run anything less than that, especially if there is a chance of rain or standing water on the track or course.
The tires that originally came on your late-model Corvette are a pretty good compromise between the competing goals of grip and wear. If you need new tires, replacing them with their equivalent or something just a bit stickier is usually a good call. Get a 4-wheel alignment done if you’re replacing the tires. You may want to eventually dial in a bit of negative camber, but stay pretty close to the factory settings to start.
Change the air filter. If the one you have isn’t in bad shape, keep it for when you return to the street. But a clean air filter allows more air to travel to your engine, resulting in more horsepower. A cold air intake kit may be in your future, if you fall victim to the need-for-speed addiction. Do all of the regular maintenance checks, including inspecting the condition of the hoses and the serpentine belt. If your Corvette has over 30,000 miles on the odometer, you may want to change the spark plugs and upgrade the wires as well.
Keeping it Clean
Most participants in autocrosses and track days really couldn’t care less about how their Corvette looks, as long as it performs. It may because I’m also a regular participant at car shows, but I think that taking the time to wash, clay, and wax your car has its place in prepping for a speed event. Even on a high-speed track, a clean and waxed car probably is insignificantly less wind resistant. But it will be more protected from bugs, brake dust and miscellaneous fluids. A lot of competitors protect the noses, fenders and other parts of their Corvettes with clear vinyl, blue tape and/or bras.
Speed event organizers may require you to have numbers on the sides and rear of your car, so that it can be easily identified. You can use blue tape for this, unless, of course, your Corvette is blue. But look into getting vinyl numbers. They’re pretty inexpensive and can be ordered online. Eight-inch high numbers are generally acceptable, but check the organizer’s website for their requirements.
Tow rings are required by a few tracks, at least on the front. They give the track operators an attachment point to your Corvette, in the unlikely event that it has to be rescued from an off-track excursion or a mechanical failure. If you plan on attending a lot of track days, tow rings are a good insurance investment. Until then, it’s a good idea to find a spot where a tow strap can be attached or wrapped without causing damage, just in case.
Safety First, Last, and in the Middle
Some track day and autocross organizers require you to go through a tech inspection before competing, while other require you to self-tech your car prior to checking in. Most have a tech checklist that you can download. The majority of items on the check list are safety-oriented. They will want to check the condition of your tires, brakes and hoses and make sure that all loose items are removed from your interior. They may verify that your battery is secure and your gas cap is taped closed. Print out the tech checklist well in advance of the event and use it to double check your preparations.
You will need a helmet to participate in track day or autocross events. Helmets are rated based upon their intended use. Most organizers will require that you have a Snell “M” or “SA” rated helmet, dated 2005 or newer. The main difference between the two ratings is that SA helmets have an additional fire-resistant lining. If you don’t have a helmet, you can find them at a number of websites. You may want to find a performance shop that carries them, especially if you are particular or hard to fit. I recommend a full-face helmet, because it offers a bit more flexibility. I have a 2001 convertible and the full-face helmet allows me to run top-down. Plus, I like to go to a local indoor kart track, and I can use my helmet instead of having to use one of theirs. While it’s possible that the organization may offer “loaner helmets,” if that phrase doesn’t give you cold chills, it should…
Some competitors wear driving gloves. My hands tend to perspire when I’m on the track, so I wear gloves. Most driving gloves are gauntlet type, which I found to be cumbersome. So I bought a good pair of mechanic/crew gloves that work well.
You may want to consider getting a pair of driving shoes. Although they look a lot like tennis shoes, they are designed specifically for driving. There are several manufacturers, but one common feature is a thin, relatively smooth sole. This allows you to have a good feel of the pedals. You can use a court shoe, but forget about using a running shoe. They usually have very textured soles, which can hang up on the pedals, especially when you’re trying to heel/toe downshift.
C5s (and a WRX) in the paddock, ready for the next track session.
Dress For Success
It is possible to go a little overboard on what you bring to the track…
Things to Bring:
- Folding Chair
- Drinking Water
- Electrical & Duct Tape
- Zip Ties
- Utility Knife
- Flashlight (with Batteries)
- Spare Oil, Brake Fluid, Coolant, and a Funnel
Recommended attire is a cotton long-sleeve shirt and jeans or cotton pants. The hard core invest in a driving suit. Be sure to take a hat and sunglasses, because you will likely be spending a lot of time out in the elements between sessions. Take a folding chair, sunscreen and lots of water. If the track or course is isolated, you may also want to take food. Most organizers make arrangements for lunch, but there can be long lines. And you really don’t want to be gulping down a burger just before you get back onto the track. I have a small soft-sided cooler that’s just the right size for everything I need for the day.
Get a travel bag or a plastic storage container and keep all of your track day gear in it. It will minimize the possibility of forgetting items. Throw in a roll of electrical tape, duct tape, tie wraps, a utility knife, a flashlight, batteries, glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels. Also bring an extra quart of oil, brake fluid, distilled water or coolant and a funnel. Now you know why a lot of guys use trailers! It’s not a bad idea to get to know those guys. You might need to borrow a floor jack and some jack stands.
If you are attending a track day, learn as much as you can about the track before you go. Most have websites that include a track layout. Many have multiple configurations, so be sure to find out which will be used. Some websites have You Tube links to videos of the various configurations, taken with onboard cameras. It’s not necessary to spend a lot of time studying, but the more you know about the track, the more comfortable you will feel once you arrive.
Get to the venue in plenty of time. There is always a last-minute rush to check in, get a transponder (for open track days) and to try to get through tech inspection. In most cases, you will have pre-registered, so checking in should not take long. You should receive a schedule of the day’s sessions, which usually begins with the drivers meeting. You will also be assigned to a run group.
If you don’t have to go through a tech inspection, take the time before the meeting to do a few last minute checks. Take one more peek at your fluid levels. Use the torque wrench to tighten your lug nuts to the recommended torque, just in case. Apply your car numbers. And check the air pressure in your tires. There are various schools of thought when it comes to tire pressures. You can get a bigger contact patch and better grip with lower pressures until the tires begin to roll onto their sidewalls under hard cornering. You will see some competitors applying a dab of white shoe polish to each tire, near where the tread and sidewall meet. This gives them a good visual check of just how close the edge they are running. To start out, you are safe running right at your tires’ recommended air pressure, generally around 30-35 PSI. Check the pressure before every session. You may have to bleed air off throughout the day, especially if it is a warm one.
Knowing is Half the Battle
Drivers’ meetings are usually pretty informal, but pay attention. There will often be a discussion of the different flags or signal lights that will be used. If you are at a track, the rules on passing, blending onto the track, warm-up and cool-down laps will also be discussed. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We were all first-timers once, and most of the other drivers will be happy to help you out and avoid noobie mistakes.
Before most autocrosses begin, the competitors are given the chance to walk the course. Do it! Unlike a permanent track, this will probably be the first time you will see the course layout. Pay attention to what other competitors are saying. Often, they will discuss the proper line as you are walking. Here is another opportunity to ask questions.
A silver C6 Z06 lines up the next corner
Most autocrosses are run/work events. That means that you will spend at least as much time as a course worker as you will as a driver.
Beginners may be required to attend a classroom session prior to getting on the track. Again, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you are lucky, you will be assigned a ride-along instructor. This can be intimidating, but the good ones will make you feel comfortable right away. Instructors are a valuable resource. They will show you the correct line through the course and give you pointers on seating position, footwork, vision and all of the elements that will make you a better driver.
Most autocrosses are run/work events. That means that you will spend at least as much time as a course worker as you will as a driver. Listen to the instructions you are given. This is where the hat, sunscreen and sunglasses can be lifesavers. And be sure to take water with you! Take the opportunity to watch the run group on the course and see what seems to work for them.
Once you do get out on the track, leave your ego behind. Everyone thinks they’re a great driver, but it’s not an attribute that comes at birth. Take the attitude that you are there to have fun and to learn. Respect the others on the track with you. Don’t be known as the guy who never checks his mirrors or rides others’ bumpers.
At an autocross, your first session may be an untimed “practice” while later sessions will be timed. At a track, you can usually rent a transponder. If you do so, the organizers will post your lap times along with those of the others in your run session. I always recommend that first-timers save their money and skip on the rental. Don’t worry about your lap times – just work on learning the track, getting smooth and yes, having fun. Speed comes with seat time.
Participating in autocrosses or track days is an incredibly fun and addictive activity. Have a blast!