Building and racing a car is an iterative process. No racer (or team for that matter) goes out with a freshly built car and expects it to perform at its best. Instead, the best to approach to a new build is thinking of it like a rough draft, something that will take refinement to bring out its best.
But how do you go about that? Especially if you aren’t a race car driver with frequent access to a track? Where do you start?
It’s an important question, one I had to think a lot about. Even with 30 years of experience, this is a tough one to answer. Here’s how I think people should go about modifying their cars in pursuit of faster speeds at the track, autocross course, or even for a better car around town.
Where to Start
If you are an enthusiast or hobby driver, the first thing you need to do is spend more time behind the wheel. Drive your Mustang all the time. If it’s a later model, this is fairly easy to do. It might even be your daily driver, which is great! The late-model driver has lower maintenance due to the lack of wear and tear.
But if you have a classic Mustang, you’re likely in for some basic maintenance prior to establishing a baseline. After all those years, the little things add up. That could be engine, cooling, suspension, steering, brakes, etc. Even something as simple as being able to roll the windows up and down can make or break your comfort level, which limits your ability to perform.
When guys want to start modifying, my first question usually focuses on what they think is the biggest pain in the a** part of the car. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about the nuances of shock valving, only to get into the customer’s car and see their steering column flopping around. What the heck?! Fix that first! The reality is a lot of these Mustang are now over 50 years old. Many were neglected for long periods of time. No amount of race parts are going to make them faster until you address the underlying problems.
All these little annoyances are important to address before heading out to the track or for a multi-day cruise. Driving your car as often as possible will make them readily apparent and prevent you from wasting a day at the track or getting stranded out on the street.
More time behind the wheel means more visibility into not only what your car needs, but how it feels and handles around town. Your goal is to drive your car enough to know what it likes and what it needs, even if that’s just a “feeling”. We help many customers turn their feelings into fixes. Things like:
- It feels loose
- It wanders all over the place
- It feels scary at high speeds
- It doesn’t stop without putting all my weight on the brake
None of these things are normal, especially on a car that’s been well maintained. But they give us a good starting point to address each concern.
The Limiting Factor
For the first couple years of driving or racing, I’d encourage most people to simply do it. Do it as much as possible. You won’t win, but you will start to learn more about your car and racing in general. When starting out, the car is rarely the limiting factor – it’s usually the driver. You need to learn how to properly drive a course, where to place the car to pick up time, and how the whole thing works.
We can’t get to the end of the run and say, “I have no idea what I did.” Which happens a lot with inexperienced drivers. The adrenaline takes over and prevents them from understanding what’s going on. They’re just out there wheelin’ the thing.
We need to get to a point where we can be honest with ourselves about how we go faster. Did the car mess up, or did I? This is how we begin to develop proper technique. Proper technique is absolutely essential before we start tuning the car. In essence we’re trying to minimize our variables: First with a well-maintained car, then with a repeatable driver practicing good technique.
Good technique takes a while to learn and a lifetime to master, but start with the basics. Here’s one I learned a long time ago that’s been foundational to my driving. In most cases the best way to drive a turn is to:
- Brake for the turn
- Apply a little throttle
- Start your turn in
It helps me keep my speed up through the turn, enabling a faster exit speed and a quicker lap time. Most people want to jam the brakes later, I want to get off them sooner.
The start of the turn sets up the rest of the turn, so this is where you want to pay attention to what the car’s telling you. Can you let off the brakes sooner? If not, what’s the limiting factor? Too often drivers get comfortable in their car and prefer to stay within its boundaries. But our goal is to drive faster all the time. If your technique is spot on, it’s time to start making changes to the car. Progress is key and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s what chassis changes are all about. Finding a boundary and breaking through it to the next level.
Better Driver, Faster Car
Going faster is less often about making improvements to the car and more often about learning to be a better driver. Sure, spending thousands of dollars on improving your car will make it faster in theory, but if you don’t know how to squeeze out every bit of performance then you won’t go any faster. Adjustments to chassis setup, suspension tweaks, steering, and brakes are often made to fit a particular driving style, a style that encourages the driver to drive the car as fast as they can. Until you understand your driving preferences and have a consistent repeatable technique, throwing money at the car won’t make it any faster.
The right order starts with you. Spend time behind the wheel. Drive the car as much as possible. Knock out the little stuff and keep up with the basic maintenance. Focus on improving your driving or find a coach to help you establish good technique. Then we can focus on how to make the car work for you and not the other way around.