By on March 28, 2011

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 [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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46 Comments on “Piston Slap: Extreme Jack Baruth Makeover...”

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    Great advice from Sajeev, but one thing he left out is the possibility that you will grenade your engine with a missed shift.

    It would be nice if all of my students arrived for their first trackday with absolutely perfect heel-and-toe skills. It would also be nice, frankly, if *I* arrived for their first trackday with absolutely perfect heel-and-toe skills. Chances are you won’t, and even if you do, you may find the sensory overload of being on track for the first time makes paying attention to shifting difficult.

    We address this difficulty in two ways. On Day One, I recommend that you simply leave the car in fourth gear for the whole session, every time. Concentrate on other things. Trust me, shifting isn’t what’s keeping you from winning a race.

    On Day Two, move to the “poor man’s heel and toe”: complete your braking into the corner and THEN shift once you’ve reached the appropriate entry speed. Doing so significantly reduces wear and tear on your clutch and transmission, and it reduces the chances that you’ll scatter your engine all over the back straight at VIR.

    Don’t put your parking brake on when you return to the pits. Try to drive around for a few minutes, slowly, to get the heat out of the car.

    Have fun!

    • 0 avatar

      I’d go a step further, rev match every single downshift in your street car leading up to this (should be anyway right?), and heel toe every gear down on your way to complete stops (excepting first unless you are feeling ambitious). I mastered heel toe long before I ever set foot on a track, and while I can count my track exposure moments on one hand, every time I’ve gone it’s given me a huge leg up on other newbies. Hell toe-ing properly takes the stress off that drivetrain, it’s more fun and it makes your street driving smoother, so make it a priority.
      Once brake, throttle and clutch can be manipulated from muscle memory THEN you can properly focus on racing line without worrying about what happens to your drivetrain. I’d agree with the instructors here about doing it the other way around if you weren’t using your own car for this. Doesn’t it seem prudent to sort this stuff out at road speeds first?

    • 0 avatar

      My first HPDE1 (Buttonwillow, Race #1 counter-clockwise) the instructors had us do the “poor man’s heel and toe” I left my car in 4th with an occasional excursion into 3rd. I felt better after a girl in HPDE3 with an Exige told me that she had done the same for her first few track days.

    • 0 avatar

      Jack and Sajeev are spot on.  On your first track day, you don’t want to mess with shifting.  Shifting may seem second nature to you right now, but out on the track, it isn’t.  Leave that for another future session once you get comfortable with the environment – where your eyes need to be, looking for the corner workers, checking that someone isn’t riding up your butt wanting to pass, considering your turn in point, etc etc etc.
      Pick a gear and just stick with it – keep an eye on the tach if you are approaching redline (if you don’t shift at least your car has a rev limiter that will keep you from grenading the engine – if you aren’t shifting – and you haven’t chipped it or done anything to modify the rev limiter).
      The added wear on brakes and tires is minimal.  However, the added expense of not making sure your car is prepped (e.g., fluids, oil topped off or even overfilled as in Sajeev’s example – and mine if you find my previous piston slap, tire pressure up, tires with good tread – balanced and aligned) – can be expensive.

  • avatar

    I prefer not to take my daily driver to the track for more than a lap or two to see how it handles. Brakes, tires, clutch, etc. will suffer. If you are just learning, go to a racing school and learn on their cars. Or, go the rental car route. Just as much fun and a lot less expensive. Keep in mind track driving may void your car (and health) insurance policies — check to be sure.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Yeah I think I’d rather rent something to beat on too.  I wouldn’t want to take my car to the track for anything harder than a top speed run on a giant oval.

  • avatar

    Its not really a big deal, unless you are tough on clutches/brakes/tires on the street. Rental cars suck in general, and the good ones will have monitoring tools to see if you’ve been racing them. Going to a “real” school with their own vehicles is rather spendy, way more than the cost of brakes/tires on your own car. Well, provided your DD isn’t a Corvette ZR1.

    And many driving schools are covered under your car’s insurance plan, because they are, in fact,  schools.

    One more point that both Jack and I forgot, which I think is worth mentioning: if you spin, both feet in. (clutch and brake)

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re driving a hi-po machine, mashing the throttle might also yield favourable results;

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      BTW Sajeev, I do love that pic at the top of the page for some reason it makes me smile.  The only thing funnier would be you piloting either your Dad or your Aunt’s Town Cars around the track.

    • 0 avatar

      You have a good memory, Dan.  Now I want another picture taken at that turn, with lowering springs (stock rate) firmer shocks and said SVT rear bar, the Cougar feels much, much flatter.  And would look much better on the track.

  • avatar
    M 1

    It’s likely that your track day will be run under “school rules” which means point-by passing only (nobody passes without the lead-car waving the following-car by), and no lap timing (e.g. nobody “wins” anything). Concentrate on making your free track time useful. That means finding somebody who knows the track and following them — if you can. Talk to the other drivers beforehand, you’ll probably find several who will be glad to help. Some organizations will even require first-timers to make a slow lap following somebody who knows the line.
    Car prep is crucial. Fresh brake fluid. Don’t top it off — change it. New pads, it’s cheap insurance. Good tires. Talk to the other people and set your tire pressure accordingly. Fresh new oil and filter, both before and after.
    When you’re out there, work on your line and work on your braking points. Stay off the brakes in turns. Like heel-toe, trail-braking is something you can worry about later. Get all of your braking done BEFORE you turn.
    Pay attention to your mirrors. If you’re running with school rules, make sure you remember to point the other guy by to let him pass, then stay out of his way so he can pass. Don’t worry what anybody thinks. Forget that beater-Ford/C6 crap. Nobody really cares what you’re driving or who you are. I’ve been to events where the field included both a $200K Ferrari Challenge and a $4K Saturn four-door.
    A great saying to know is, “If you spin, both feet in…” If things get out of control, brakes and clutch in, and hang on.
    It’s likely that you’ll over-drive your tires and they’ll start to feel greasy. You’ll understand why people use this term after it happens to you. It feels like all four tires have suddenly turned to butter. This can tell you a wide variety of things, such as tire-pressure problems, braking too hard, turning too aggressively, and so on — but as a first-timer the best thing to remember is that you can get back out there if you just pull into the hot pits for 30 or 40 seconds and let them cool down.
    Don’t fixate on the guy ahead of you. Watch his line and see whether it works, but remember to pay attention to the track itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen somebody simply follow another car straight off the track.
    Don’t cheap out on your helmet, and buy an SA helmet for car racing, not an M helmet, motorcycle helmets are designed with totally different crash scenarios in mind.
    And start saving up now, because only the first hit is free.

  • avatar

    You’ll be surprised how easy on your car the track is.  The main thing, as Sajeev mentioned, is to flush in high-temp brake fluid, and I highly recommend putting a set of track appropriate brake pads on.

  • avatar

    Darn…I had a whole story typed up and then when I finally posted it the site ate it. Now I find out most of my points are already made voiding me of the satisfaction of sharing my thoughts.

    Anyway, yes, grenading the engine is probably the only thing you can do to mess up the drivetrain with a MT. A journalist once did that too a Carrera GT when it was just launched IIRC…shifted back into 2nd while he was aiming for 4th at the end of a topspeed run…OUCH. I only read that story and wasn’t invloved in any way but that still hurts just thinking about the momentum that must have gone through that drivetrain.

    It’s easy to get carried away if you’re driving on a track so just keep focussing on the obvious things that you might forget like checking the temp gauges once in a while. Should be fine though.

    If you’re going to do this more often (which you probably are if you have the time and means) I’d spend my energy on upgrading the brakes, buying a set of spare wheels and tires for track day use and maybe improving the rigidity of the car (fi, strut bar). This will take care of the things you’re most likey to shorten the life expectancy from by tracking your car. Brakes and wheels are really the most important things; stock brakes won’t cut it (for long) on a track and you can too easily damage your expensive stock alloys. Though pretty these are likely too heavy anyway and they’re cast alloys so better save them for the road and get some seperate lightweight alloys for the track. Maybe forged alloys instead of cast ones if the budget allows it, though I have no personal experience of the incremental gains between a light cast alloy and a forged alloy (maybe if someone can chime in on that…)

    So basically, you can go to this track day with your stock car, or if you already know now that this will be a new hobby, you can go look at some sweet wheels, tires and brakes already. It might be nice to keep it stock this time and gradually improve the car so you can also learn about how it changes the bahaviour of the car.

  • avatar

    “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.”
    I’ve had WAY more damage done to my cars by idiot street drivers than at any track days.

  • avatar

    Best advice??  HAVE FUN.  My wife got me an autocross package for my birthday when I first got my GTI, it was my first time “track” driving.  Everyone was really nice, helpful, the instructors were awesome, just a great time.  I had the same worry as you, I had just gotten my car a few months earlier, and I was deathly afraid of breaking something expensive like the DSG.  Everything was fine, even on my supposedly horrible unreliable VW.  :)

    It was sponsored by the local Lotus club, so there were a cpl dozen Elises there along with a lot of other cars.  They ran out of room in the regular noob group, so they put me at the tail end of the newby Elise group.  I know it was supposed to be all fun, no pressure, but running with a bunch of dentists driving Elises brings out the competitor in me!  I wasnt the fastest of my group, but I moved up quite a bit and beat out quite a few of the dentists, in my bone stock GTI with very well worn OEM tires.  Man that was fun.

    But we decided that next time, rather than risk the VW again, we would use the MR2 as our track car in the future.  Paid for, older, and less expensive to fix if anything goes wrong!

  • avatar

    Have you read the “Car & Driver” where they put a Nissan Z into the wall doing hot laps with it?  At least on that one the brake pads were more for quiet and low dust, and less for hi-performance.  Get a set of good performance brake pads, and change the fluid for something hi-temp just to be safe.

    How about a link to the story:

    • 0 avatar

      First time on the track, no way will he overdrive the stock pads – sure, they will get faded some but not like how those guys toasted the Z pads.  I wouldn’t worry about the pads if they are in good shape and have plenty of life left in them.
      If brake fluid is over 3 years old, though, flush with high temp fluid (personally, I use ATE super blue as it is still my street car).

  • avatar

    Boy, would I love to do this but, from everything I have read so far, I can’t.  My daily ride is an E46 with a sunroof.  I am 6’3″ and will not fit behind the wheel if I have to wear a helmet.  My other car is an E30 convertible, with unlimited headroom but it is forbidden from participating in BMWCCA events.  What am I gonna do, bring my minivan?

    • 0 avatar

      There are less strictly sanctioned events that allow convertibles, the one I went to had lots of guys in convertibles or targas without the roof.  Even at the official SCCA events, I think if you have an approved roll bar you can still run a convertible.

    • 0 avatar

      Try to find a seat with a lower cushion? I’m serious. The height difference between you with a helmet and you without a helmet can’t be that much- replacing the OEM driver’s seat with a racing seat might be enough to let you fit with the helmet.

    • 0 avatar

      This my daily driver, a very nice car that I plan to keep for a long time.  It is not a Lemons racer that I cut up on the weekend.  Thanks for the suggestion, though.

    • 0 avatar

      Doesnt your seat adjust lower in the E46?  In my car, if I crank the seat all the way down I cant even see over the steering wheel!  Yea, 6’3″ is tall, but it isnt THAT tall, I find it hard to believe you cant find 2 extra inches in there somewhere, lean back a bit more, whatever…

      Even if not, dropping in a set of nice Sparco racing seats into your BMW isnt exactly cutting the car up.  It would like nice.  Id love a set in either of my cars.

  • avatar

    I’ve been thinking of autocrossing my ’99 Honda with 188k. Marc Feinstein of German Performance Service in Boston didn’t think it would be a problem.

    • 0 avatar

      Do it.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, do it.  I live in the Boston area and have been autocrossing my daily-driver ’03 Mini (168k and counting) for a couple of years now.  You’ll have a lot of fun and improve your car control skills.  Very useful in crummy New England weather as well as track days.

    • 0 avatar

      If your car is checked out by a mechanic, definitely go for it.  At that age, additional issues that could be a problem include suspension bushings, wheel bearings, loose rack.  But those would be problems on the street too – and noticeable.  Most important is that you go out and have fun.  You will learn tons about your car and how to control it in everyday situations (I know I have avoided a few potential accidents due to my ability to control my car – or whatever I was driving, such as a rental I was unfamiliar with).

  • avatar

    Any thoughts on kart racing as a way to improve driving skill? My daily driver isn’t suited to the track and the budget for running a Spec Miata is well into the double-digit thousands. Single-gear and shifter karts, despite the hard axle and nonexistent suspension, seem like they’d be a lot of useful fun. Or am I misled?

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t been on a Kart in years, but they do accomplish the same thing. Race against the clock, use what’s presented here and you’ll get the same workout. Things get more complicated with a passenger car (size, power to weight, multiple gears, etc) for better or worse.

    • 0 avatar

      Karting is a good way to improve racing skill, don’t know if it’s necessarily a good way to improve driving skill cause a kart is much more sensitive to your input than a roadcar or even a racecar.

      Of course it’s always great fun though and arguably more sensational than driving most spec series if you’re driving shifter karts (also a bit more dangerous I would say).

      It can be quite spendy though, eventhough much depends on the level you’re aiming at. Here in the Netherlands there has been some effort by the national autosport federation to make the sport more accesible to more people by limiting the work you can do on the kart (engine tuning etc). Still…a season sets you back at least 5-6K Euro’s if you’re not very demanding. Especially tires are expensive and need to be replaced a lot and the engines need revision quite often as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Do it.  I race dirt oval karts in the summer @ Thunderlake Speedway in KC.  10 horse briggs & stratton ftw!

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the thoughts. The impetus for this was a guy I met at a car show down here in Georgia. He had a couple karts on display and suggested the 4-strokes, with something like 6 HP and a top speed of around 60 MPH, had very little maintenance beyond filling them with gas and oil. The shifter karts were something else: 40 HP, 125 MPH, and with a 2-stroke engine block that required a new top end every three or four races, plus the other consumables. Sounded intriguing, and he was very pleasant. This, as opposed to the Skip Barber guy, who was so arrogant I didn’t care to learn anything else about his company.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      How bout lawn mower racing?

  • avatar

    “less-than-Baruth exercises of Cougar retardation”.
    How many drinks do you have to buy her to effect Baruth levels of retardation on said Cougar?

  • avatar

    I don’t mean to be a downer, but I’d like to remind everyone that your car insurance will NOT cover any damages that occur on a racetrack / autocross course.

    • 0 avatar

      Bull… my friend had a $15k repair paid for fully by his insurance company on his Z06 as a result of going off track into the wall at a Sebring event.  No fraud, he explained exactly what he was doing and what happened to the agent.  He wasnt in a competition, just a track day.  Even got to use his “accident forgiveness” on it so no rise in premiums… this time… :)

      The rule about insurance generally applied to being “in competition”, not just “on a track”, but of course that may depend on your ins company too.  Mine covers me too, I checked it before my autocross.

    • 0 avatar

      I checked with my insurance co (Geico) and they told me that anything on a ‘racing surface’ was not covered.  I paid up for a day’s trackday insurance for peace of mind.

    • 0 avatar

      Well thats not surprising, Gieco barely covers on-road accidents.  As I said in my post, obviously YMMV when it comes to insurance.

      If you wanna play, you better be able to pay…

    • 0 avatar

      Last time I checked, racing schools with an instructor in your car were covered by State Farm.

    • 0 avatar

      My State Farm policy explicitly added something like ‘any track surface, not just racing’ a couple years ago.  Read your policy _and_ its recent addendum closely.

      That said, single day policies can be purchased for individual events.  This company started doing so in 2008 and seems pretty reputable.  Were I to have time to do it in the near future I would probably use them as my State Farm policy will no longer cover me at a HDPE.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

  • avatar

    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!

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