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Preparing a Miata for the Track

by Nick Jenkins

There are always many ways to go about doing anything. In the world of amateur motorsports you can enter at almost any level, in any kind
Kaitlyn Lydell in Thunderhill's Turn 10

Kaitlyn Lydell
of event, in any kind of car, and with as much or as little commitment and enthusiasm as you like. Even within the arena of sports car track days, a huge variety of approaches are available to you. This article describes just one of them. We can't begin to tell you everything you'll need to know, but we'll at least try to explain what it takes to prepare you and your NA or NB Miata for your first track day. And maybe encourage you to give it a try.

Back when M.G.s and Triumphs roamed the Earth, the definition of a sports car was a street-legal vehicle you could
Pete Watters (center) in a stock NC

BAMA member Pete Watters
enter in motorsports activities like ralleyes, time trials, gymkhanas, and maybe even a high-performance competition event at your local race track. In the old days that meant taping up the headlights, folding the windscreen, and strapping on a helmet. These days, getting your Miata ready for the track doesnít require a lot more preparation than that. You don't have to have a full-blown race car before your first event. A minimum of safety gear and a thorough inspection of your car are all you need to begin.

What are Track Days?

Track days are non-competitive events that let you take your street car out on a race track and drive it as fast as you like. With plenty of room, no speed limits, and no oncoming traffic, you often feel much safer on a track that you do on public roads.

Many, if not most, track events are billed as schools, also known as HPDEs (for "High Performance Driver
BAMD Webmaster Nick Jenkins

Nick Jenkins
Education"). Track days are generally put on by individuals or small businesses who rent the track, hire workers and instructors, then offer track time to drivers with any type of car, no experience necessary. HPDE events were originally intended to teach drivers with little or no high-performance experience, but theyíve since expanded to include drivers at all levels. Track days typically have three or four run groups, based on driver experience. Each run group will usually get 4-6 lapping sessions of around 20-30 minutes each. Each group will have cars with a wide range of performance, but passing in the less-experienced groups will normally be restricted to straightaways, to keep things safe.

Before you sign up for an event, itís good to know in advance as much as you can
Barry Chafin in a Spec Miata

Barry Chafin
about the group you intend to run with. HPDE organizers vary in their attitudes toward speed, safety, and the type of cars they attract. Some groups are geared toward much faster cars, or to specific marques. A Miata-friendly group is preferred and a recommendation from someone whoís run with the organization before is helpful. Here at BAMD we like Bonnie Parker's TEAM ("Track Events Allota Miatas") for safe, low-cost, and professionally run HPDEs. For your first track event, you can't do better than Dennis and Peggy Hale's Miata Performance Driving School, scheduled every year in the spring.

What Do You Need to Get Started?

If you catch the bug and find yourself running a lot of track days, you'll soon learn what you can do to make your Miata faster. Right now we only want to focus on what you need to get started. At a minimum, most track day
Andrew Wolfe

Andrew Wolfe
organizations will require a helmet and some kind of rollover protection. For the Miata, that means a roll bar bolted to the chassis in four or more places. This excludes the so-called style bars that bolt to the frame in only two places. Some organizations will let you out on the track with only the factory-supplied rollover protection. Some will allow any height of roll bar. Others will be more strict, requiring an approved bar that passes the ďbroomstick testĒ. In this test, a stick is placed across the windshield header and roll bar. The distance between the top of your helmet and the bottom of the stick must be at least two inches. If you donít know whether ot not your propsed rollover protection setup will be approved by your track day organization, donít pose the question on an Internet forumócall or email the organizers and ask them.

Selecting a roll bar isn't easy, but you have several different vendors and styles to choose from. The bars from Hard Dog are popular, as even their SCCA-legal Hard Core bar allows full seat movement and full use of the factory soft top. Aftermarket soft tops may be a problem, however, and the only way to be sure is to find someone who has your top and the roll bar you want (hereís where Internet forums can help). Bars from Boss Frog are also popular, particularly their double-hoop design. Whatever roll bar you get, consider one thatís SCCA-approved. Looks are important, I know, but remember why youíre getting a roll bar in the first place.

Consider getting a harness bar when you order your roll bar. Thereís no good place to attach shoulder straps in the Miata, and you may want to do that at some point. If you have a later Miata, donít plan on using the stock chassis stiffener bar as a harness bar. It wonít hold up in a crash and most track day organizers wonít allow it in any case. Roll bar padding is a good idea for a track car, a better idea for a car that will also be driven on the street, i.e. without a helmet. Itís cheap and may save you some headaches if youíre ever rear-ended. For a few dollars more you can get a vinyl or leather cover that will protect the foam padding from sunlight deterioration.

Take a trip to your local motorcycle shop and try on a few helmets. Look inside for a Snell Foundation sticker with an SA designation. The latest Snell approval is SA2005, and a lot of organizations won't let you on the track with anything earlier than 2000. If the moto shop doesnít have Snell SA-rated helmets (MA and DOT ratings are sufficient for motorcycles), or you canít find a helmet you like, try at least to figure out what size fits you best and order a helmet online. Cheaper helmets are generally sized in S, M, L, and XL, while more expensive models can be found in traditional hat sizes.

A helmet that fits snugly will be at least ten times more effective than one thatís loose. By snug, I mean as tight as possible without actually being painful. When trying on helmets, consider that they will loosen a bit after a few hours of driving, and that even though a helmet may feel intrusive to the point of distraction in the store, you wonít even notice you have it on once the adrenaline starts to flow.

Helmet style is up to you, as long as it has a Snell sticker. Open face helmets will generally be less expensive, but in a car like the Miata, a full-face model will ward off debris thrown up by the sticky tires of the car in front of you.

Technical Inspection

Before you take your Miata on the track you need to be sure the car is mechanically sound. For the safety of all, it can't be leaking any fluids. The engine must be able to run in the top half of the RPM band for half an hour at a time without over-heating. The clutch should not slip. Check the wheel bearings by grabbing the top of each tire and pulling firmly. You should feel little or no movement.

The carís appearance should inspire confidence that youíve maintained your Miata well. That doesnít mean a concours shine, but the engine bay should be neat and tidy, the interior clean, and the suspension relatively free of gunk and grime. Some organizations will inspect your car before letting you out on the track, and some will leave that task up to you. If you are left to inspect your own car, you will probably be given a checklist to complete. Be sure your Miata meets every item on the list. Youíre not just risking your own car out thereóeveryone else on the track is taking a chance with your car as well.

Your Miataís brakes must be solid and able to haul the car down from 100 mph in a straight line without wobbling. With the wheels off, make sure the pads are not more than 50% worn, keeping in in mind that the inside pad often wears faster than the outer pad. Youíll find OEM brake pads to be adequate at first, but spongy to the point of going nearly to the floor as the day wears on. Upgrading to a high-performance street pad like the Hawk HPS or Porterfield R4S will give you confidence in your late braking points without noticeably raising pedal pressure in street driving. If you prefer, you can switch to full race pads like Hawk Blues or Porterfield R4s for track days, then go back to OEM pads when the racing is done. I would not recommend the use of full race pads on the street. Theyíll work okay when warm, but that first stop will be a real nail-biter, and a freeway exit after a long drive may be a little more excitement than you were looking for.

As you might imagine, brakes are near the top of the list of items you donít want to fail when youíre out on the track. After fresh pads and a thorough check for leaks, fresh brake fluid is your best assurance that the pedal wonít suddenly go to the floor. While itís unlikely that a good DOT-4 brake fluid will boil, all it has to do is absorb a little moisture or air, and the pedal will become soft and uncomfortably low. Flushing the brakes is easy enough to do, and Iíve had good experience with racing-type brake fluids like ATE Super Blue.

Consider replacing your old rusty rotors. I always replace rotors and pads at the same time. This of course means eschewing the fancy machined rotors, because theyíre too expensive to throw away after one set of pads. Drilled or slotted rotors may look cool, but they wear just as fast or faster than cheap rotors from your local Autozone, and theyíre no stronger. Brake fade is rarely an issue for a stock Miata on most tracks, so the added benefit of machined rotors is negligible.

Good brakes are important, but keep in mind that your brakes are only as good as your tires. You cannot make your Miata stop shorter with a different brand of pads or rotors. If you can lock the tires with your current setup, you have all the braking power you need.

Tires

Of all the preparations you make to get your Miata ready for the track, tires will have the single biggest impact on performance. Tires are your only link to the track surface, so careful consideration should be given to what kind of tires you run. Your tires should be relatively new and undamaged. Dry, cracked, or plugged tires should be avoided. The sudden loss of tire pressure in a 90 mph sweeper can take all the fun out of track day. Itís not critical to go out and buy the fastest, stickiest tires you can find. Any good summer tire will work, and even all-season radials will be okay if thatís all you have. But you have a few options.

If you plan to drive to the track and race on the same tires, consider getting something in the ultra-high performance category. Tires in this category will have good grip, they wonít wear out in the first 5000 miles, and they'll typically have a speed rating of V or better. Although opinions vary about which tire is best, no one will criticize your choice of Falken or Kumho ultra-high performance street tires.

You may hear two pieces of advice regarding your first few track days. The first is that you shouldnít boost the engine (turbo or supercharger), and the second that you shouldnít run sticky R-compound tires. While I agree somewhat with the former, I disagree completely with the latter. If only for safetyís sake, your tires should be better than your engineóhigh horsepower and slippery tires are a bad combination. R-compound tires are made for the track. They're essentially racing tires that meet U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements for street tires.

The advice against R-compounds goes something like this: theyíre too forgiving; theyíre not a good learning tool; they hide beginner mistakes, and students will learn faster on street tires. They make it sound like a beginner canít handle the traction. This is, to put it politely, incorrect. Itís more likely a myth concocted by some commercial racing school trying to cut down on its tire budget. Although the difference isnít quite so dramatic, R-compounds are to regular tires what regular tires are to regular tires in the wet. R-compounds are safer. You have more control over the car. If you get loose, you donít slide as far.

As a former SCCA instructor, I taught a great many students whose first time out on the track was on sticky racing slicks. They learned just fine. The fact is, if slippery tires were a better learning tool, students would learn faster on studded snow tires with a 6000 treadwear rating. This isnít to say you canít run track events on all-season radials, but donít be scared away from using R-compound tires because of what a few self-proclaimed track experts tell you.

R-compounds (all tires, actually) will benefit from a break-in period. The primary purpose of the break-in is to remove any mold-release from the tires. This substance is intentionallay very slippery, and while most of it gets washed off by the manufaturer, it takes a few hundred miles of normal driving before the tires can obtain maximum traction. Another purpose of tire break-in is heat-cycling. Tires contain bonding agents to heal microscopic tears that occur during normal use. These agents are released by heat generated whenever the tire is stretched. The same bonding agents can be used to heal imperfections introduced during the tire molding process, and the result will be a stronger, sticker tire.

Some tire vendors will heat-cycle the tires for you on a machine, but you can accomplish the same thing by driving the car for an hour with light braking and cornering. After this drive, let the tires cool undisturbed for a day or two while the bonding agent cures. Some tire makers will insist on an initial heat cycle, and some will say it isnít necessary. In any case itís never critical. Itís one of those racerís edge techniques that might gain you a tenth of a second. But whether or not you heat-cycle the tires, itís always a good idea to put a few hundred miles on them before you hit the track.

Be sure you have enough air in the tires. Start with 34 psi cold. Check the pressure after your first session, and drop them back down to 34. This is a good starting point. Although they may not be optimal, you won't be noticeably faster if you raise or lower the pressure more than that. You can go a few pounds lower if you have tires wider than a 205 section.

Forced Induction

Advice against boosting your engine is a little more justified. Ignoring for the moment the reliability of the turbo or supercharger, two hundred horsepower at the rear wheels will seriously tax your cooling system and brakes, two things you really donít want to worry about when youíre learning the course. More horsepower wonít make you faster where it countsóin the turnsóbut it will make you think youíre cornering faster because you can pour on so much speed at the exit.

Donít be one of those guys who tiptoes around turns and blasts past other cars on the straights. Be one of those guys who points the high-horsepower cars by on the straights, then catches up to them three turns later. I remember seeing some videos floating around the Internet awhile back, taken from a boosted Miata running HPDEs at Thunderhill Raceway. The Miata was passing all kinds of high-dollar cars. No doubt the videos were intended to demonstrate how fast this guy was, but in fact they showed how big chunks of horsepower can make up for sloppy driving and poor lines. Donít be one of those guys.

Racing Seats and Harnesses

Although not required for HPDEs, a racing seat gives you the ultimate in control and safety on the track. However you need to consider a few things before plunking down anywhere from $250 to $1000 or more for new buckets. Many seats advertised as racing seats are more show than go. They may look like racing seats with cool stripes or holes for 6-point harnesses, but if the seats fold forward, or fit someone who weighs 250 pounds, or sport leather inserts, theyíre probably not racing seats. You might be inclined to buy a pair of them on looks alone, and thatís fine, but they wonít be much help on the track.

A true racing seat has an aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or Kevlar shell covered with non-slip material and lined with minimal padding. The shell is a true bucket, with high sides and wings that wrap around the torso. A racing seat gets you low enough that your helmeted head sits an inch or two below the roll bar, required by some track groups. Donít try to use the stock Miata sliders with your racing seat unless youíre shorter than about 5í-7Ē. They wonít get you low enough. There really isnít a lot of room in the Miata. If you have a question about whether or not a particular seat will fit, check the comprehensive list of after-market seats at www.flyinmiata.com. Even better, find someone whoís already done the installlation. Be sure to ask if the installation required any modifications to the seat or car.

Most true racing seats are side-mounted, that is, they have bolt holes on each side of the shell. Installing anything but a very narrow side-mount seat in a Miata will be difficult, so you should probably restrict your choice of seat to one that mounts on the bottom. Kirkey Racing makes aluminum-shell seats that can be bottom mounted. Another good choice, similar to the Kirkey, is the Ultrashield Spec Miata seat in a 15Ē or 16Ē width. Theyíre reasonably cheap at around $250, and very popular with the Spec Miata crowd. The downside of these seats is that they're not good street seats. They're difficult to get in and out of, they don't cushion you at all, and they wonít win any beauty contests. That said, you can easily mount either of these seats in a way that makes a swap with the stock seat a ten-minute job.

You may occasionally see disparaging remarks about aluminum-shell racing seats. My favorite article on the subject starts out bashing the FIA seat certification process, then proceeds to bash aluminum-shell seats because they donít have an FIA certification. I donít know why the FIA wonít certify aluminum-shell seats, but the SFI does, and you should look for this certification in any seat you buy. It could be some people object to the fact that aluminum bends, and therefore might bend in a crash. Thousands of very safety-conscious Spec Miata racers donít have a problem with aluminum-shell seats, but if you do, higher-priced options are available.

The lower you sit in your Miata, the faster and safer youíll be. A racing seat will usually do the trick, but if you don't want to go that route you can lower your seating position by removing some of the foam from the stock seats. If you do it carefully, this ďfoamectomyĒ is a completely reversible modification.

While not normally required, a six-point racing harness will make your day at the track a lot more productive and fun, especially if you have slippery leather seats. This is only an option, however, if you can pass the broomstick testóif you canít, you'll have to modify your seating position before installing a harness. If you go with the OEM belts, theyíll be more effective if you give them a sharp jerk to lock the inertia reels just before going out on track.

A six-point harness will give you about 80% of the security and control of a racing seat. Most racing harnesses are not DOT approved, so you'll have to keep your OEM three-point belt in place. Donít try to save money or installation time by going with a four-point harness. Safety considerations aside, a four-point harness will be uncomfortable and wonít hold you in your seat the way a six-point will. Itís also safe to use a five-point harness, but installing a single anti-submarine strap in a Miata will be problematic. So go with the six-point.

For your first couple of events, you'll probably have an instructor ride along with you during a few of the sessions. While most instructors are okay with OEM belts, a concession to their comfort and safety, as well as your own sense of esthetic balance, may prompt you to consider harnesses for both seats, although this is never a requirement.

Your First Event

A few days before the event, give your Miata a good washing and a thorough tech inspection. Make sure your wheel bearings are tight, and the nuts and bolts on your safety equipment are all secure. Check the brake pads. Change the oil and filter. Install any gear that you bought specifically for track days. Donít wait until the last minute to tech your car. You may find you need something you can only get online or over the phone. Overnighting the part may get it to you in time, but it wonít be cheap, and you may not have time to install it. Donít plan to work on your car at the track. You can do it, but youíll almost certainly miss some track time.

The night before the event you may be nervous. Relax. Track day organizers know what itís like to hit the track for the first time, and theyíll make sure your first few sessions are relatively slow and easy, with no passing. Soon enough youíll be chomping at the bit to go faster. Check the five-day weather report for the town near the track. Most HPDEs wonít be cancelled for rain, but the possibility of precipitation may affect your choice of tires and other gear. R-compound tires will work okay in the rain, but in a heavy downpour with standing water, all-season tires with full treads will be faster and safer.

If youíre concerned about driving fast in the wet, youíre not alone. Itís certainly possible to go out there and have fun, and many people say you can learn a great deal about car control in the rain, but thatís because youíre much closer to losing it. If it rains at your first event, consider it a chance to learn where the track goes at a reduced speed.

What to Bring

If the track is far enough away, you may want to stay in a local motel. Make reservations early, as other drivers will have the same idea. Before you leave for the track or motel, be sure you have everything packed:

  • Helmet and clothes
  • A good-sized toolkit with wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers and pliers
  • Any special toolsówheel lock nut key, shock adjuster, etc.
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Jack and jack stands (the OEM jack is okay if thatís all you have)
  • Duct tape
  • Oil, brake fluid, Windex, hand cleaner, and plenty of rags
  • Moneyócash for incidentals, plastic for emergencies
  • Any credentials you need to get into the track
  • Numbers (if you have them)

Donít forget your tires if youíre planning to swap at the track. If your track wheels use different lug nuts (mine do), donít forget them either. Also nice to have are:

  • Air tank
  • Folding chair
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera
  • Cooler

Choosing spare parts to bring can be tricky. Generally, you wonít need any part you brought and any part you need will have been left at home. Parts you can usually justify bringing along are brake pads, ignition wires, spark plugs, belts, and other maintenance-type items. You wonít likley need any of these either, but you can at least let people know youíre serious.

Arrival

Arrive early to get a good paddock spot. Someone will likely check your credentials at the gate and make you sign something. If it's not obvious, ask that person where to park. After you find a place to pit, unpack your car completely, including spare tire and jack. If your tires need air, add it now. Pop the hood and check the oil, and inspect the engine bay for any problems. Stick your numbers on, if you brought any, and tape your headlights. When youíre satisfied your car is ready for the track, find the registration area and let them know youíve arrived. They should have a schedule of sessions and may have assigned you an instructor. Get as much info as you can, but donít hold everyone up behind you.

With the car and paperwork out of the way, stroll around the pits and familiarize yourself with the location of the restrooms, false grid, track entrance, and hot pits. If youíve been assigned an instructor, you might want to locate him or her and introduce yourself. If you brought clothes or shoes to drive in and didnít put them on in the motel, get them on a good half hour before your first session.

The question is often asked whether to drive the track with the top up or down. If youíve got a hard top, you can be much faster leaving it on, as much as 3-4 seconds a lap. Even a soft top will help the aerodynamics a little, though the improvement wonít be as dramatic. A bigger factor than performance is the extra visibility afforded by a topless Miata. Add to that the fun factor, and youíll find most Miatas at track events running with the top down.

There will likely be a drivers meeting before the first session of the day. Meetings may be split up by run group, with the advanced drivers given simple warnings about over-aggressive driving, and the beginner group getting the full lecture on track etiquette, flags, and racing lines. Drivers meetings are never optional. At drivers meetings itís okay to be the person who asks the question everyone else is wondering about. Even the best HPDE organizers can forget to mention something important, or be unclear on a particular point. One thing to be sure to learn at the drivers meeting is how youíre expected to enter and exit the track. This should be covered, but if it isnít, ask. Itís not only embarrassing to miss the pit entrance or cross a line youíre not supposed to, it can also be dangerous.

About five minutes before your session begins youíll be called to the pregrid. This could be a formal parking area somewhere near the pit entrance or it could just be a line in the hot pits. If youíre worried about driving too slowly and holding up other cars, wait until the grid is nearly full before you line up. If you want to go fast and not have other drivers hold you up, try to be first in line when the grid opens.

On the Track

When the track has been cleared from the previous session you will be unceremoniously led or directed from the pregrid onto the track, single file. Be sure your helmet visor is down, and get moving. If an instructor car is sent out in the lead, cars will be probably be released as a group. If not, cars may be spaced out a few seconds apart.

One of the first things youíll notice on the track is how much room you have to maneuveróby comparison, an autocross course is tight and confining. This is unlike any sort of driving youíve done before. The road is wide and you get to use all of it. No one is coming at you from the opposite direction. Left turns are as easy as right turns. Apexes are clearly marked and have no drop-offs. The track surface is smooth and predictable. You soon discover that this is way more fun than a spirited drive through the countryside.

Enjoy it. You have a lot to learn yet about high-performance driving, and all of it will be fun. One thing you'll learn in your first few sessions is that the Miata is not one of the faster cars out there, and you may soon start to wonder what you could do with another 20 or 30 horsepower. Give it time. Appreciate the fact that while your Miata may not be the fastest, it's sturdy, reliable, ready for the track, and by far the most fun to drive.