Piston Slap: Extreme Jack Baruth Makeover

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap extreme jack baruth makeover

Elorac writes:


Not sure if this is an appropriate Piston Slap question, but here goes. I’m the owner of a 2009 Infiniti G37S coupe, manual trans, approx 30,000 miles. I’m very happy with the car (aside from a touchy clutch that gets tiresome in slow traffic), but ever since I bought it I’ve felt that I won’t really have gotten my money’s worth until I do some real hooning. I recently received a track day package as a gift, consisting of five half-hour sessions, the first with some manner of instructor. I’ll be attending next week, with just about equal parts excitement and trepidation.

Having never done anything of the sort before, and with little experience with truly “enthusiastic” driving, I’d like to ask you (and the B&B) for any advice you might have, in all aspects of the experience but with a particular emphasis on potential damage to my car’s powertrain innards. As laughable as it may seem, given the context, I do actually care about the long term health of this car, and I’d like to avoid doing anything too grievous to it. A fool’s errand?

Sajeev answers:

This is definitely Piston Slap material, it’s a fair question on any automotive forum. And like many good forum answers, members help via personal experience. So here goes.

My first (2006) track day was without an instructor, letting me put 130 miles at Motorsport Ranch at my own pace. The vehicle was my daily driver, a 1988 Mercury Cougar XR-7 with a modest smattering of hi-po Fox Body parts. I was proud of my car, even if clever junkyard interchangeability isn’t the stuff of a track star.

Or, as Farago used to say, not. Turns out my knowledge of the Cougar’s limitations translated into disturbingly quick lap times. The red paint was faded to the point of pinkness and it had a terrible knock from the catalysts’ ongoing self-destruction. Aside from the impressive-looking 5.0 intake manifold and visible chassis bracing, the Cougar looked like an absolutely terrible car. The track staff agreed in their facial expressions.

So much like you, I ran with the rookies. I knew my racing lines from abandoned street experimentation and plenty of time on Gran Tourismo. The Cougar’s oil pan is known to starve lubrication on high lateral loads at high rpms (i.e. fast sweepers at 5000 revs) so I threw in an extra quart, as per forum recommendation. Checked my fluids, tire pressures, torqued the lug nuts to spec and hit the track. Lo and behold, I was the fastest guy in the noob section after 20-ish minutes on track.

Passing my fellow greenhorn in a new C6 Corvette was a special pleasure. Running full throttle post apex, I was right on his ass around the “carousel”, leaving him no choice but to let me pass on the straight. On the last run, I was at least 20 seconds behind the first noob. By the end I was in first place.

I learned a metric ton about car control that day. Plus, I learned my understeer heavy Cougar needed a larger SVT Cobra rear sway bar to flatten things out. And what of the track staff in disbelief of my Cougar’s presence? I saw more than one smile, nods of approval when I rolled down pit row at the end. I won.

My car didn’t break, and neither should yours. I kept the tach in the black, watched my other gauges, and gave the car warm up and cool down laps. Aside from my brake fluid boiling over (never felt a problem in the pedal) in less-than-Baruth exercises of Cougar retardation, the car had zero problems. Even the tires went on to provide another year of service. My car was old enough to vote back then, lacking the factory-issued performance car creds of a new G37: so fear not.

But start brushing up before you hit the track. Read about racing lines, mentioned above. When you walk in your daily routine, choose the racing line. Learn on the fly: your first few laps on the track will be an eye opener, but don’t be afraid to push it. Feel how your car tends to under/oversteer, why its weight shall load on one tire and unload on the other. Be smooth in throttle and steering inputs as you monitor the car’s behavior. At some point you become one with your car, completely in harmony. Your hands are no longer there, your brain is directly connected to the tires. And the harder you push, the faster you’ll go. Until you spin out.

But that ain’t no thang! Perhaps you took the corner too fast, weren’t smooth enough for the pavement/tires/brakes/throttle in question, or simply are too stressed out and need a break in the pits. Good luck to you, listen to your instructors and make sure you’re having fun!

Send your queries to mehta@ttac.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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4 of 46 comments
  • Chaparral Chaparral on Mar 28, 2011

    Karting is much, much cheaper and a lot more fun than driving a street car that you have to worry about. I backed into a wall in my kart doing around 55 MPH once. The damage was a $180 axle, a $40 bearing, and a $30 bearing hanger. I even straightened out the bumper and was able to save it. Do that in a car and it's totalled.

    • Ja-gti Ja-gti on Mar 28, 2011

      For a first-time track day in a very capable G37, all that is needed is a good helmet and the realization that new pads may be needed after the event. Most noobs are not going to be going that fast simply because, like I was, they are worried about spinning out, crashing, rolling over, or wrecking into someone. They are also concerned about damaging their car as they approach redline over and over again, stomping on the brakes like they've never needed to before, etc. My stock GTI on all-seasons did just fine the first time out. Going to your first event stock will make you aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your car, and as you address these in a step-wise fashion, you can observe how modifications, tires, pads, etc. affect the vehicle's performance. Which explains my dedicated pads and rotors, ECU flash, rear sway bar, high performance tires... OP, you'll have a great time, you won't wreck or hurt your car, and you will need to put a new line item in your household budget! PS - don't shuffle steer! Google "shuffle steer Jack Baruth" to understand why it's so very, very wrong.

  • Flatout05 Flatout05 on Mar 29, 2011

    Karting and autox are great - until you try to impress people at cocktail parties. How many of us have had this conversation? YOU: And I'm into auto racing, too. Been doing a lot of that lately. HER (showing interest in you for first time): Really? Now where do you do that? YOU: Oh, the Kroger parking lot, or maybe out at the old air base. HER: Oh. YOU: It's called autocross. It's a timed competition and a great way to learn car-control skills. Many people find it more challenging than roadracing, you see, because every course is ... HER: How fast do you go? YOU: About 50 miles an hour. HER: I think I see my friend over there. YOU (to her back): I race go-carts too!

    • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Mar 29, 2011

      I try to avoid talking about cars at cocktail parties. Just a good rule of thumb.

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