Canyon Carving on a Budget
Top Tips for Making the Most Out of Your Sunday Drive
Let’s get this out of the way right from the beginning: We do not condone operation of a motor vehicle on public roads in an unsafe manner, or the violation of traffic laws. Streets are not a racetrack or dragstrip, and bad things can and do happen with greater frequency and more severe negative outcomes as the result of that kind of behavior.
With that said, however, we understand that one of the major joys of having a car that’s fun to drive is driving it in fun ways, and a relaxing, yet spirited romp down a challenging road is a fine way to spend a Sunday morning. A car that doesn’t get driven is like a stuffed lion in the natural history museum instead of running free in its natural habitat.
Keeping all that in mind, we’ve come up with a short list of ways to get the most out of your safe, socially-responsible leisure time behind the wheel at minimum cost. It’s not comprehensive, but it is all born from experience, and sometimes painfully and expensively learned experience at that.
A car that doesn’t get driven is like a stuffed lion in the natural history museum instead of running free in its natural habitat…
We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again – nothing affects your car’s performance (acceleration, braking, and cornering) more than the four small places where tread meets asphalt. Even stock wheels can benefit from upgraded tires biased toward performance, and the key thing to look for here isn’t necessarily what DOT-approved rubber is the latest and greatest in terms of maximum grip. Instead, you want a tire with approachable limits and forgiving characteristics that provide feedback with plenty of traction left in reserve before breaking free. On a racetrack, another 0.1g might be worth dealing with razor-edged traction, but out in the world, there aren’t many safe runoff areas or gravel traps to let you find out where the limit is without having a really bad day. When choosing tires, the manufacturers’ marketing materials may help a little bit, but the best bet is to look to owners’ groups for your make and model so that you can leverage the experience of others.
When people discuss brake mods, the talk almost always is about big, slotted rotors and six-piston calipers peeking out of large-diameter aftermarket wheels. But like tires, brake pads are another routine consumable that you will have to replace on a regular basis anyway, and spending a little bit of extra money and a few minutes researching your options will pay huge dividends. Even stock calipers and rotors can be inexpensively upgraded with a change to a performance pad compound, and there are multiple companies making drop-in replacements for pretty much every interesting car built in the last 30 years. Characteristics like cold coefficient of friction, initial “bite,” and resistance to fade are all customizable with off-the-shelf pads using different friction material. For optimum results, new stock or stock-replacement rotors properly bedded in using the pad manufacturer’s instructions are the way to go. But even if you forego replacing rotors and just clean and scuff the still-serviceable discs you have now, it will make a world of difference in brake performance.
An honorable mention here goes to flushing the brake system with new fluid, a proper bleed job, and even an upgrade to inexpensive but still DOT-approved braided stainless brake lines that won’t balloon under pressure to replace the worn out factory rubber ones.
Here’s another mod that’s relatively inexpensive but pays big. Proper restraints, fastened and adjusted correctly, eliminate the steering wheel isometrics and knee-wedging that we end up doing unconsciously to remain in position during cornering and braking. Factory seatbelts are designed for comfort (mostly to increase usage) and to work as part of the supplemental restraint system in a crash, with belt pre-tensioners, precise attachment point geometry, and even sections of belt designed to stretch or extend via sacrificial stitching. None of this actually helps you prior to the rapid unplanned deceleration, however. Options here include SFI-style racing harnesses in 4 or 5 point configurations, and aftermarket belts designed specifically for the street, some of which even have DOT approval. Keep in mind, however, that just like removing and replacing a factory airbag-equipped steering wheel, you are defeating a safety device and the potential consequences are on you and you alone.
Here’s a completely free “mod” for cars with seatbelts that have a solid connection at the base of the B-pillar and a belt that passes through a slotted buckle before continuing to a retractor at the shoulder: Push yourself firmly back into the seat in the position you want to be in, run the waist part of the belt across your body while taking out any slack, and put a twist in the belt before clicking the buckle into place. It may take a few tries to get it the way you want it, but ‘free’ is the best price of all, and a snug fit across the waist will get you some of the advantages of costly race harnesses in terms of resisting side g loads with no real downside in safety.
Sway Bars and Bushings
Sure, you might have a full set of double-adjustable coilovers on your wish list, but in terms of making a difference you can really feel, replacing the worn-out bushings in your factory anti-roll bar mounts and end links is incredibly cheap and rewarding. If you can stretch your budget just a little bit, stiffer bars (or even adding a rear bar to a car not factory equipped with one) will also radically improve handling. The best part is that as long as you stick with polyurethane bushings and don’t make the mistake of running solid bearings and heim joints on the street, it’s another mod with no downside to your car’s practicality for daily driving. Just be aware that factory anti-roll bars are calibrated to provide understeer at the limit on purpose, and making wholesale changes with roll stiffness can do unpleasant things to even the tamest car’s cornering balance. Pay attention to what the bar manufacturer recommends to steer clear (pun intended) of this issue.
The Driver Mod
What’s something that only costs a modest amount, never wears out, and will make any car you drive for the rest of your life quicker? The legendary “driver mod,” of course! While this is often talked about in the context of a weekend bombing around the track at a race driving school, it doesn’t have to be that complicated and expensive if you live within reasonable distance of a local autocross venue. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is probably the best-known national group that organizes these parking lot events, but there are plenty of other opportunities as well, from big car shows to brand-specific clubs. For a few bucks, you’ll get to test yourself and your car in a controlled environment and learn where the limits are without worrying about exceeding them. Many events will even provide experienced drivers to coach first-timers from the passenger seat, and if you really want a humbling experience, switch places and let them show you just how much faster your car is with somebody behind the wheel who really knows what they are doing.
Here’s another not-mod that you really shouldn’t skip, for obvious reasons. Before you head out to the twisties, take just a moment to make sure your fluid levels are ok, nothing’s coming out from where it shouldn’t be, tire pressures are correct, and all the random junk in your back seat is left at home just in case. Grab the top of each of your front tires (or as close to it as you can, for those with sick stance and zero fender gap) and give them a nice hard wiggle to check for wheel bearings ready to give out or slop in the steering rack. Yes, it sucks to have to cancel your weekend fun because there’s something that needs attention, but it sucks a lot less than dropping a ball joint mid-corner and having to pay for a tow from way out in the boonies.
Even if the road is one you’ve driven a thousand times before, and you know every apex and straight, conditions change. While it might not be very exciting, prerunning your route at a leisurely pace before returning along it at a more spirited clip will let you find things like oil, coolant, water, rock slides, and even the occasional car on its roof (obviously driven by somebody who hasn’t read this article) with plenty of room to avoid them. It goes without saying that this is also a good way to gauge the current law enforcement level of interest on that road as well. More importantly though, this will significantly reduce the chance that you’ll yeet yourself off a cliff and into the afterlife because you only discovered an obstacle or puddle of oil once you got up close and personal with it.
It goes without saying that this is also a good way to gauge the current law enforcement level of interest on that road as well…
We’ll end with one last thought – keeping a low profile and being respectful of other road users is extremely important. Nobody likes having a car in a ditch in front of their house every weekend, and loud exhausts, screeching tires, and aggressive driving in normal traffic lead to increased traffic enforcement or even nastiness like rumble strips and speed bumps. Enjoy the drive, but don’t be the reason things get ruined for everyone else.