Just like being a well functioning adult, getting actual performance out of your car isn’t always a glamorous or exciting affair. You know, stuff like filing your taxes or clipping your toe nails. It’s not exactly the kind of thing going on your Instagram, but it’s all necessary to arrive at a reasonably competent final product.
So while it’s not all superchargers and coilovers, there are plenty of things you can do to get a little more out of your car — whether it’s for the occasional track day, autocross, or just enjoying a canyon road or two on the weekends. As a bonus, most of these things ended up being pretty affordable as well. That wasn’t the original goal of the list, but it’s a nice coincidence.
Change out Your Brake Fluid:
Ah yes, brake fluid; possibly the only thing ignored more than that warning on the Q-tip boxes about not using them in your ears. However, if you ask anyone who has done a lot of performance driving on what you should do first to prep your car for a track day, they’ll say brake fluid and good track pads.
There are two main issues here. The first is that most cars come with low-rated DOT 3 brake fluid, which is fine for normal driving, but can easily boil at the kind of temperatures that track driving can create. The second is that brake fluid is very hygroscopic, which means it has a tendency to absorb water. Higher water content lowers the boiling point of your brake fluid.
Changing out your brake fluid to the higher rated DOT 4 can easily be done at home, and bleeding brakes is a straight forward process with a little help from a friend (and a great task for your kid to help with). If you do need to do it solo, we’ve got a guide for you here. Your old brake fluid can be recycled, most auto parts stores will accept your fluid for disposal.
Boiling your brake fluid introduces air bubbles to the fluid — and while the fluid itself is incompressible, air definitely is. That gives you a squishy brake pedal feel and greatly reduces the amount of pressure you can put on the brakes, to the point of being dangerous.
Stainless Steel Braided Brake Lines:
While we’re on the topic of brakes, did you know that your regular old rubber brake lines swell under pressure? Some of the force that should be going to your calipers is sapped by the brake lines expanding, also giving you squishy brake pedal that gets worse over time as the rubber ages. Stainless steel braided brake lines remove that potential for swelling, giving you a firm and predictable brake pedal feel each time.
You will need to change your brake fluid at the same time in order to do this install, so this should be paired with #1 on this list. The fittings can be a pain to get off, but otherwise the install is pretty simple, and handling the brake fluid is probably the biggest pain of it all. I recommend StopTech’s excellent lines, I’ve run them in the past.
Bushings, Bushings, and Also Bushings:
The rubber bushings your car came from the factory with eventually wear out, and as they do, you’ll gradually get more slop in your steering and handling. Everything you feel through the steering wheel and is communicated through the road, as well as your suspension’s ability to keep your tires well planted on the road. Worn out bushings aren’t doing you or your track times any favors, and can even be a hazard at speed.
Factory bushings are made with NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) and a comfortable ride in mind, even in sports cars. While this makes your morning commute nicer, this doesn’t translate to the best handling. Polyurethane bushings don’t have the give that the OEM rubber does, and they can hold up against much more abuse. The trade-off there is if you swap all your bushings, you can end up with a pretty harsh ride, and they do have the potential to be a little noisy.
Installing them can definitely be a pain, but they are definitely doable at home. You may need some specialty tools, like a tie rod puller or bushing removal set, but they can be had cheap or even rented from your local auto parts store. Pedders, Whiteline, and Nolathane are some good brands to check out.
Weight Reduction and Distribution:
SCC Magazine did a fantastic piece back in the day, dropping a base Nissan Sentra’s 0-60 time by 3-seconds by adding no performance parts whatsoever. It was done purely through weight reduction… to the extreme. Sadly SCC is no longer around, but you can find an archive of the article here, which I highly recommend as it’s a very entertaining read.
Even without going to such extreme measures, they managed to pull half a second out of their 0-60 time just by swapping out to lighter wheels alone. This has the effect of not only reducing the weight you haul around, but by reducing the rotational mass that your engine has to fight to turn just to get you moving. This is why wheels like Enkei’s RPF1 are so popular, as the 17″ models only weigh 16lbs each, which is literally half the weight of some factory wheels — especially large diameter wheels.
Stripping out unneeded weight where you can makes a surprising difference. Of course it’s not practical for a daily driver, but pulling out extra seats, carpeting, unneeded trim pieces, trunk lining, and so on can make a big difference on the track. Ever notice your car feels significantly slower when you have 2-3 extra people in your car? That weight makes a big difference!
Good Ol’ Fashioned Maintenance:
Honestly before you even think about going to a track, you better make sure everything is tip-top. Of course things like changing your oil and taking care of check engine light issues, but it’s important to have every system of the car dialed in and working its best — both for maximum performance and helping the longevity of your car.
- When’s the last time you changed your diff fluid? Have a limited slip? Check that diff oil for metal shavings.
- How are your spark plugs looking? They can tell a larger story about how your engine is running. Also be sure to gap them properly.
- Have an automatic? Might want to look into a transmission cooler if yours doesn’t have one. Too much heat = transmission death.
- Any idea how your fuel filter is doing?
- How do your belts and hoses look?
- What’s your car’s recommended service interval for the timing belt or chain guides? That can mean catastrophic failure if ignored (see the image above).
Have any questions or comments on this guide? Anything I left out? Have any ideas for what DIY projects we should cover next? Drop a comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com!