GIVE ME A BREAK
This article is aimed mostly at people who are starting racing. However, I think there is something in here for everyone. The information here applies equally well as a reminder to “seasoned racers” or for performance “street” cars. I have a web site www.tgsi.com that may be of interest to readers.
AN "E TICKET RIDE"
About four years ago, I was in a “dog-fight” for the season championship with Ryan Hampton. With two races to go we were only a few points apart. If I could win the next race I would have a few points lead, and then we would have a “shoot-out” in the last race.
The next race
started with Ryan in the lead, and I was in second. A little before half-way in
the race I passed Ryan, and was starting to pull out a lead. Then, going into
“turn 3” my brakes went AWAY!!!! Turn 3
is a 60 MPH left hand turn... the straight before it is 100 MPH! I tried to
make the turn, but there was no chance. I spun off the turn and went up on the
embankment on the outside of the turn. The car went up in the air and the world
went “round-n-round”... an “E Ticket Ride”. (“E Ticket” refers to the coupons
In reality, that “E Ticket Ride” was no fun. As it turned out, the DNF in that race gave Ryan the points lead, and cost me the seasons championship... worse, and the car was bent up. After that, I decided to do everything I could to be sure I had the best brakes I could.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SAFETY
Before I go on to
brakes, I want to use up a little of the editors space to talk about safety.
After that accident I was fine thanks to good “SECONDARY” safety equipment. But
the PRIMARY safety equipment, the brakes, had failed. I read about this concept
of “Primary” and “Secondary” safety in the late ’70s when I was racing in
I suppose that if we really consider it, the driver is the most important “primary safety equipment”. If the driver lets his “butt over-ride his brain” then the secondary safety equipment will come into play. Enough said about the driver... this is a “tech” article.
When it comes to the car, almost everything can be considered primary safety equipment. At one regional race, I had a water pump starting to go bad. I was trying to “nurse” it through the week-end... I needed the points. Going into a high speed turn, the pump “let go” and water went all over my tires. Fortunately, there was nothing but desert on the outside of the turn and everyone else managed to miss me. I was lucky. But I had ignored “primary safety”.
If you are racing, or going to the grocery store for that matter, your brakes are probably the most important “primary safety” equipment. Yet they suffer more “abuse” than almost any other part of your car.
Every time you “haul
your car down” from 100+ MPH to make that hard right hander at the end of a
long straight, the brakes have to use up all of the energy of your car going
100+ MPH. If you have ever watched the NASCAR guys at a track like
Currently, the SCCA restricts brakes in a number of classes including Showroom Stock, Improved Touring, and Production classes. Having had more than one race car “bent” because of marginal “restricted” brakes, I am a firm believer that brakes should be “free” in all classes. Maybe the Comp Board will consider the idea of “primary safety” and allow any modifications to brakes in all classes.
The brakes on “street” cars are adequate at best. If you’re stuck with street, production based brakes, you have to do everything you can to get them to survive. If you’re not restricted by the rules, put on the biggest, ventilated rotors and calipers you can. “Over-kill” is better than not having enough.
DOING IT RIGHT
Start out with everything new... calipers, disks, master cylinder, wheel cylinders, drums... Everything! NEVER try to get by with used stuff... only the best will do. And replace them often... the brake failure I described at the beginning of this article was caused by a caliper seal that had been “cooked” once too often. Re-manufactured calipers are acceptable, but only if they are professionally done. Expense should not be an issue here. Good brakes will be far less expensive than a bent-up car or worse, a stay in the hospital.
Get rid of the rubber hoses that come on production cars. The only good thing that can be said about rubber hoses is that they are cheap. They have no place on a high performance car. Replace them with quality “steel braided” lines like Earls, AeroEquip, etc. Not only will “steel braided” lines be less likely to fail, they will give a much better feel to the brakes.
Racing carbon fiber brake pads and shoes are the single best improvement you can make to your brakes. Both stopping power and reliability will be improved. Don’t be mislead by the advertising on TV that wants you to think you can go to your local parts store and buy the same carbon fiber pads that the race cars use. While these “commercial” pads are a good improvement for “street” use, they are not “race compounds”. Real race compounds last longer and fade far less than any “commercial” pads. I even use “race compounds” in my street car and especially my tow vehicle.
Brake fluid is not as simple as getting some from the local parts store, pouring it in, and forgetting about it . At the risk of boring you, I’ll go into some detail here... it’s important.
Take a look at the label on the back of any can of brake fluid. As a minimum, the label will give you the minimum “wet boiling point” the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires for the type of fluid. For example, DOT 3 is 284 degrees F. Some labels will also give you the “dry” boiling point. The “dry” boiling point is the temperature that the “pure” brake fluid will start to boil. The “wet” boiling point is the temperature that the fluid will boil if it has some moisture in it. The “dry” point is always much higher than the “wet” point. With me so far?
All brake fluids absorb moisture from the air starting the minute the can is opened. You’ve probably read that you should always use a fresh can when filling or adding brake fluid... that’s why. But even once you’ve filled and bled the system, it will continue to absorb moisture through the vent holes for the reservoirs. Although the absorption is slow it still happens.
OK, I’ve bored you enough... I’ll jump to the bottom line. You have to replace the brake fluid often since it absorbs moisture and that will lower the boiling point. The heat generated from the brake pads will be transferred through the calipers and/or wheel cylinders to the brake fluid. If the boiling point has becomes low enough, started out low or if the brakes get hot enough, the fluid will boil. While this won’t give total brake failure, the brakes will become “mushy”, less effective, and you will have to slow down... not the way to win races.
Choosing the right brake fluid is not as easy as it used to be. In the “olden days” it was a simple matter of buying racing brake fluid since it has a high boiling point. The problem was (is) that you have to keep plenty of spare bottles around. And you always run out at the worst time... and you couldn’t (can’t) just run down to the local parts store and buy some more. More recently, I have been seeing Valvoline Synthetic brake fluid in a lot of the parts stores. It’s “dry” boiling point is 513 degrees F. and “wet” point is 333 degrees F. If you change fluid before every race, then this may not be a bad alternative to “racing fluid”. I’m using this in my street car and tow vehicle. However, since the racing fluid I use has a “dry” point of 585 degrees F. and an “wet” point of 421 degrees F, I’ll stay with it for now.... Yea, I know it’s expensive, but what else is new.
One last thought on brake fluid. Don’t mix fluids. I know that most of the bottles say that they can be mixed. This is because the “Feds” require it. But to have an optimum system, you should always use the same brand and “grade” in your brakes... even on your street car.
There’s one last thing to do to the brakes before you’re ready to go. Get rid of the heat! Disc and drum brakes live in the worst possible place... buried inside the wheel rim, and inside the fender where very little cooling air can get to it. Even with the best system and brake fluid you can buy, the heat build-up will cause your brakes to deteriorate. The best way to avoid this is to duct some cooling air to the brakes.
To duct the air, you will probably have to fabricate the pieces needed to scoop in the air, route the air to the brakes, and properly distribute the air around the brakes. Most important here is the way you distribute the air around the brakes. On disc brakes, don’t just route a hose into the vicinity of the disc from one side. If you do this, one side of the disc will be cooler than the other and the disc will warp. The proper way to do this is to fabricate a “housing” that wraps around the disc and puts even amounts of air on both sides of the disc. There is a diagram of how to make a proper “housing” in the Carrol Smith book “Prepare to Win”.
The same principal for even distribution of cooling air should apply if you have to run drum brakes... only it’s more difficult. For safety reasons I can’t recommend a modification. You would have to modify the backing plate by cutting holes in it and then some how reinforce the backing plate. It would be better to have “fading”, “mushy” brakes than to have a backing plate failure. Maybe the Comp Board would consider allowing rear disc brakes on all cars.
Some people who know me think I have become almost “anal” about my brakes... and they’re probably right. But I think it’s worth it. Since I lost that regional championship because of brakes (and becoming “anal” about it), I have gone on to win both regional and National division championships. I’ve still had a couple of problems since I have to run “production brakes”, but the improvement in my car’s brakes is worth the money and effort. I now have the confidence to drive harder into corners, or to try to “out-break” some one without the fear that my brakes are going to send me on an “E Ticket Ride”.