Brakes can be the most important item on your car. When most people speak about performance, they often talk about horsepower or handling. But brakes are what reigns in all that performance. Without brakes, it doesn’t matter what other upgrades your car has or what condition any other part is, because you can’t drive your car. There is a saying in motorsports, “If you want to go faster, buy better brakes”. This refers to the fact that with a better braking system, one can stay on the power longer and deeper into turns, gaining the driver a significant advantage in a race. But brakes on your street car are very important too. Here we will try to describe the different types of brake systems and what they mean to you.
Let’s start off with the brake system on your daily driver. Most every car now comes with 4 wheel disc brakes and ABS, so we are going to ignore the older style drum brakes for now. 4 wheel disc brakes consist of 4 rotors and 4 calipers. The brake pedal applies pressure through a hydraulic system to the calipers which clamp down on the rotors to slow the car. Modern ABS systems and traction control systems have wheel speed sensors at each rotor and can independently measure the speed of each wheel. By comparing the signals, a computer can calculate if a wheel is locking up or in a tire has lost traction. That computer sends a signal to a hydraulic pump which alters the input to that wheel to help keep the car stable. That may be over simplified, but that consists of the basic layout of almost every car on the road.
All brake components wear. When it comes time to replace them, you will find many choices available on the market. In pictures they all look similar, but in reality, they can be very different. One of the biggest factors in the quality of brakes is the material selection. Some manufacturers use inferior materials to meet a lower price point. We suggest avoiding those at all cost. These products can fail and lead to a dangerous situation. But among the nicer components available you will find many choices still. Some advertise “low dust” or “low noise”. Brakes can be a compromise due to the fact that you can’t have it all. Brakes that stop the best typically make a lot of brake dust and are very noisy, while brakes that are very quiet can find themselves fatigues after a few hard stops. The best street brakes find a balance between these factors. OEM manufacturers spend a lot of time researching and testing various combinations to come up with the right package
When one is talking about performance braking systems, there are many different levels to choose from. For a basic upgrade, you can simply install a set of performance pads on stock rotors and gains in braking power. For those seeking a higher level of braking, big brake kits (such as Brembo) may be the answer. There are a few things that we see happen in the market that one should look out for. There are companies out there that will sell a brake kit because it “fits” the car. Just because a larger caliper physically installs on a vehicle doesn’t mean you will see an improvement in braking. A properly engineered brake system takes into account master cylinder and line size, rotor diameter, heat transference and materials strength.
We get asked a lot about slotted or crossdrilled rotors. And while on the surface that seems like a simple question, the answer is much more complicated. Often times when a customer is looking for a brake upgrade, we will recommend a good set of pad specific to their application and a brake fluid flush with a good brake fluid. The reason that we don’t often recommend one of the multitude of slotted or cross drilled rotors out there isn’t because we don’t think they work, but rather because there are not that many good ones available. Many of those rotors are made using inferior materials and do not hold up long term to serious braking requirements. There are some excellent choices out there. PFC Z-Rated rotors come to mind as a well built piece, that fits and functions properly. When upgrading your brakes, come in a see one of our staff and we can get you setup with not only a “better” braking system, but one that is custom tailored to your needs.
With either street brakes or performance brakes, there will always be maintenance. Pads and rotors wear out and brake fluid needs to be flushed. After installing new pads and rotors, you should bed them in. When a system has both new rotors and pads, there are two different objectives for bedding-in a brake system: heating up the brake rotors and pads in a prescribed manner, so as to transfer pad material evenly onto the rotors; and maturing the pad material, so that resins which are used to bind and form it are ‘cooked’ out of the pad. You can read more about this procedure here in our blog section.
Brake fluid hygroscopic. This means that it can absorb water. Water in your brake system is very bad. This is why performing regular brake fluid flushes is very important. On street car we recommend doing this procedure every two years. On track or race cars, this should be done anywhere from every race to a maximum of every 6 months. The stress of a track environment put added levels of contaminants into the brake fluid and the heat can break it down, so proper maintenance here is of the utmost importance. You can read more about bleeding brakes here. Choosing the right fluid is very important too. For almost all street cars, we recommend Motul 5.1 brake fluid. For track and performance cars, Castrol SRF is the best choice available.
There are of course many often overlooked items in the brake system that need attention. Brake hoses and lines can crack and fail and the complex components an ABS system can stop functioning properly. This is why regular vehicle inspections are important. It is much better to catch these potential problems early so that your brakes always function when you need them.