If the first car race happened as soon as two primitive automobiles lined up next to one another, then the first performance modifications came shortly after that very contest. Most of us have been modifying vehicles for years, changing everything from carburetors to exhausts to steering wheels in search of some perceived performance advantage.
It’s easy to spend money on upgrades, but less so determining which ones – generally speaking, of course – deliver the most bang for the buck. Below are our top six choices.
Tires: Perhaps the most overlooked and misunderstood part of a vehicle, whether contemporary or classic, the right tires will improve acceleration, braking, cornering, and sometimes, ride comfort.
First, it’s necessary to understand that tires are almost always a compromise. Those buying sports cars want superior handling, but when four new tires are needed at 5,000 miles (with perhaps, an accompanying four-digit bill), the tires are blamed for being defective, or the car is called a lemon. No one tire is ideal for every situation, so the trick is to realistically determine how the car will be driven most frequently.
Weekend show-and-shines don’t require race-compound rubber, but conversely don’t expect to have much fun autocrossing on 10-year-old Pep Boys discount tires. If a car is driven in cold temperatures, don’t expect summer-only performance tires to offer much grip below 40-degrees Fahrenheit, but no all-season radial can match the handling of a summer-only tire on the track.
Since there’s no one right answer for every situation, insider knowledge helps quite a bit. Check vehicle-specific message boards to learn from owners what works, what doesn’t, and why. When it comes to tires meant to increase performance, remember that nothing good is cheap, and nothing cheap is good.
Wheels: Unsprung weight is the enemy of handling, so lighter wheels can offer up noticeable performance gains on road and track. Not all lightweight wheels are created equal, and forged wheels are generally stronger than cast wheels (but priced accordingly).
Though larger wheels are the option of choice for today’s car designers, extremely low-profile tires don’t deliver much ride comfort. Likewise, bigger wheels tend to be heavier, which as we’ve already determined, is a bad thing. Research helps here: First, what size wheels were fitted to the car originally, including performance versions? How much did these OEM wheels weigh?
Armed with this information, the next step is finding lighter wheels, large enough to clear things like brake calipers, that look good and fit into the budget.
Brakes: It’s counter-intuitive, but a necessary component of going fast is the ability to effectively scrub off speed. Most brake pads (and shoes) aren’t designed for sustained driving at high speeds, and OEM compounds typically favor long-life over shorter braking distances.
While adding a big-brake kit with six-piston calipers will certainly improve the stopping ability of most production cars, it’s also expensive overkill for most applications. Just swapping to a softer pad or shoe compound from a specialist manufacturer is often enough to shorten braking distances, especially if the rotors or drums are changed at the same time (and the pads properly bedded in).
There are trade-offs here as well. Softer pads usually wear quicker, and generally create more brake dust (and sometimes, noise). Track-focused pads may provide shorter stopping distances under race conditions, but may actually increase stopping distances (versus stock pads) when cold. Research is the key to find which product best suits a particular application.
Driver training: Let’s be honest with one another for a moment and agree that nearly everyone, your humble author included, believes they’re a better driver than they really are. Part of this stems from reinforcement, and since driving is a relatively simple task 99.44-percent of the time, we’re lulled into a false sense of security. It’s how we behave in the other 0.56-pecent of the times, however, that makes the most significant difference.
As someone who has taken numerous performance driving schools, done countless track days and once held an SCCA Competition License, the importance of additional – and ongoing – driver training cannot be over-emphasized. Not only will such instruction make one a better driver on the track, but it will most certainly improve driving skills on the road as well.
Good-quality instruction doesn’t need to break the bank, either. Sure, a Skip Barber or Bob Bondurant School gives one a solid foundation to build from, but so do instructed track days put on by numerous organizations and tracks from coast-to-coast. Such High-Performance Driving Events (HPDE) typically offer up one-on-one coaching with a certified instructor, usually in a student’s own vehicle. For about the cost of a set of tires (and far less than forced induction or a bigger engine), it’s money well-spent.
Suspension: Like tires, suspension components don’t last forever and may be the second-most overlooked component of weekend drivers. Suspension bushings wear with age, as do dampers and even springs. Factory anti-roll bars (if even installed) may be tuned more for ride comfort than handling, but here’s some good news: For popular vehicles, suspension ills are easily remedied. Some aftermarket companies even offer turnkey kits to improve handling in various stages, allowing owners to select whatever balance of performance and ride comfort they desire.
Before haphazardly upgrading components, it’s essential to understand the role each part plays. Again, model-specific message boards are a great place to find information on what works and what doesn’t. Suspension component manufacturers and aftermarket retailers can also provide details to help get things sorted.
As with engine performance, though, improvements to handling come with a downside. Any noticeable handling upgrades will cost some degree of ride comfort, so it’s essential to decide in advance how a car will be enjoyed – and what one is willing to give up for handling gains.
Alignment: Any time suspension geometry is altered, it’s essential to have an alignment carried out by a knowledgeable shop. For sports cars, a variety of alignment specs may be available, ranging from those recommended by the manufacturer (designed to promote even tire wear and reasonable ride comfort) to those used by autocrossers in competition (maximizing lateral grip above all else).
Manufacturers specify a range of values for camber, caster, and toe-in, and some are fairly broad. Likewise, models within a family will often have different alignment specs, depending upon the level of handling buyers expect. Before deviating from a manufacturer’s numbers, it’s necessary to have an understanding of what alignment terms means, as well as how values outside the “normal” range will impact both handling and tire wear. Once again, message boards specific to the model can be great sources of information.