So you’ve got your car. It’s covered in paint and plastic, rimmed, lowered, tinted and flexing. You’re cruising a smooth road somewhere late at night in low traffic. Just enough street lights to show off your shine. But somehow something’s not right. Your butt is getting sore. Your clutch is taking a toll on your left leg. Heel and toeing a corner is damn near impossible (or perhaps you don’t even know what that is?) and you’ve nearly killed yourself twice trying to change lanes through other traffic due to blind spots.
Driving setup is one of the most misunderstood and poorly executed parts of modern tuning. These days people are so concerned about how they look behind the wheel of their car or how many gizmos they have that they fail to ensure they can pilot the damned thing safely. You can look cool and maintain vehicular control! Now, by driving setup, we’re not talking about suspension work or tuning the chassis. We’re talking about tuning the driver and they way they interact with the car. Just because you’ve built yourself a road going missle doesn’t mean you’ve built yourself a cockpit that’s condusive to manuevering it. Even further, some OEM cockpits are so badly engineered that they fit everyone except you. If a car is mass produced to fit 70% of the population, does that mean its right for you when you’re at the limit?
So for starters, let’s cover the obvious. Obstructions and distractions have to go. This means that window tint has to go. Silly little motorcycle mirrors have to go. Hangy things off your rear view mirror have to go. Window banners, stickers decals, signs, unneeded combat wings, louvers, air guides, splitters, shark fins and other things that disrupt your vision have to go. Having a performance car is about having visibility first and foremost! If you can’t see out of it, you can’t steer it around potholes, pedestrians, corners or those pylons known as mustangs. Also, none of the above stuff is 1) cool or 2) useful. This includes the removal of playstations, TV screens, neon, blinking LED’s and other ricer crap. We’re building a performance car to feed our need for speed, not to make it into Max Power monthly. Putting cameras in place of your sideview mirrors might win you points at SEMA, but on the street it gets you killed. Have no illusions about that.
Probably the next most important thing to do is adjust the parts of the car you can adjust so that they fit you, the driver, properly. Sit in your car and pull your seat upright so that your butt is against the seatback. As long as you’re not bashing your head on the ceiling, pull the seat forward until you can comfortably press the clutch, brake and gas all the way to the floor without straightening your legs completely. If you have to make your legs straighten entirely, you’re not close enough. This ensures that you have maximum pedal travel with maximum leg power available in case you have to stop or make some other emergency manuever. You may have electrically adjustable pedals in your car if it is a newer model, which will leave you room to adjust them appropriately. Just make sure you leave enough play in them so that you can still press them all the way down! If you find yourself at the correct steering wheel length (covered next), but your feet can’t press the pedals properly, you can have them bent or adjusted forward accordingly. Make sure you have a pro help you with this. It isn’t hard, but error can be fatal.
At this point, many of you have probably installed an aftermarket seat. This is a great idea because these seats have so much more support than OEM seats (except ae86 seats, voted best OEM seats of all time by S.C.C.) that they will dramatically increase the confidence you have in your own car. It will feel like a rocket ship! Be careful though that you actually fit in the seat, and that the seat actually fits in the car. For starters, many modern cars (the ae86 was one of the first) have air vents running under the seats to heat the rear passengers. These get in the way of installing the new “super low down” buckets because they can’t sit low enough to the floor. Best of all, the floor’s been designed this way, so removing the vents won’t help. Many rails sold with these seats actually (and incorrectly) position the seat on top of the rails, raising the driving height even more! The only options you have at this point are to either a) get low rails that hold the seat on its sides (allowing it to droop between the rails) or b) to literally smash the OEM mounts into the floor. I don’t recommend this, but if it comes to it make sure you leave the bolts in the holes when you do it and that you brace the underside of the car against the impact of a sledgehammer. Driving a Flintstone-mobile is a very expensive repair, and not a lot of fun.
More importantly, is your seat comfortable? Many of today’s fixed-bucket seats are unbearable wire frames with cloth stretched over them and nothing more. Even worse are the newer generation of plastic-backed moulded seats or steel drag racing seats. They only sit in those for thirty seconds at a time, you’re going to do it for hours so why put up with it in a street car? I wouldn’t splurge on Carbon Kevlar seats eiither, because the same rules apply and the weight you’re going to save doesn’t justify the hit to your wallet or the weak bragging rights you’ll get. If your penis is really so small that you need to have those in a streetable car to make yourself feel better, you should have bought a ‘Vette. If your seat isn’t adjustable, you’re going to have to mount it perfectly in the car or else you’re going to hate driving. I’d much sooner recommend shelling the extra and getting a true, adjustable seat. It adds access to the rear if it’s in a two door, four seat car, and allows you to kick back and relax on long trips.
Two aftermarket parts exist that greatly help with footwork while driving. The first and most popular are aftermarket pedals. Made by companies like Razo and Sparco, these pedal covers have been de-rigeur for most tuner cars. Unfortunately, most of them are cosmetic garbage that do more harm than good. Make sure that when you buy pedals you are buying ones that actually bolt or otherwise fasten through the original pedal foot on your car. No double sided tape or plastic tabs! If your pedals slip or break off during dangerous or panicked manuevers (when they’ll be under the most stress) your foot will too, and then you’ve lost control of your car. Also, these pedal covers tend to come off during car accidents for the same reason, becoming a projectile dancing around your car at lethal speeds. Even worse still, some have sharp edges than can actually remove feet during accidents, no joke. On the lighter side, adding or altering your pedal feet can allow you greater car control as long as it’s done properly. By making the feet wider or closer together, you can more easily conquer tricky manuevers like heel-and-toe or left foot braking that may not be possible with an OEM pedal setup. By the same token, you may find that all you require is bending your pedal arms closer together. It’s not unknown for ae86 drivers to do this, and then remove the plastic pedal feet completely which adds to driving feel.
The second is a foot tray. These are mostly seen in rally cars, and I admit if I saw one in a car on the street I’d probably laugh myself silly at the driver because you just know it would be in some kind of performance beast like a four door Lancer OZ or a Cobalt. Anyway, these trays are designed to locate your feet up against the pedals. That may seem odd at first, but in long hard driving conditions, legs fatigue. These trays support the legs while allowing regular pedal access and motion. Good for the long haul, but overkill for around town in my opinion.
Now, reach out over the steering wheel from the position I put you into in your seat a few moments ago. Idealy, both your entire hands should pass over the top of the wheel, and your wrists should be wresting comfortably on top of the wheel’s rim while still having both your shoulders flat against the back of your seat. If the wheel is too close, you’re going to have to lean your seat back to compensate, though this will rarely be the case. More often than not your wrists aren’t going to come anywhere near the wheel, which will be several inches too far away. You may find that your car is equipped with a telescoping steering wheel from the factory, which is very beneficial for air bag cars. Also, make sure that you adjust the height of the steering wheel so that it gives you a clear view of your gauges and still leaves you enough room to move your legs for heel-and-toe manuevers. If you don’t have a telescoping column, yiou can always buy a steering wheel spacer. At 6’2” tall, I have my seat one click away from all the way back to keep my legs at the correct distance and I’ve had to install a four inch spacer to my steering column to pick up the slack my legs have created. Odds are good you’ll need a spacer too. Most people reading this will have an aftermarket steering wheel like a Nardi or Momo, and extensions are readily available for them in the aftermarket.
You may want to go to a performance steering wheel. OEM steering wheels are designed for the average person who’s manuevering the average car at average speeds in average parking lots. While improving the look of the interior dramatically and adding a personal touch, a performance wheel can change the driving experience by literally altering your steering’s gear ratio. In short, a bigger steering wheel means that turning it is easier but it will require more motion to turn the same distance. A smaller steering wheel is exactly the opposite, turning faster and heavier. Now, it doesn’t take much to dramatically alter the steering of a car, so I wouldn’t dive from a 15” wheel to a 12” wheel because it seemed like a good idea. Going from a 15” wheel to a 14” wheel is usually more than enough of a change to revolutionize your driving. Also, if you’re removed your powersteering and fitted wide, sticky tires like I have, going to a much smaller wheel will make parking lot manuevers nearly impossible. I can’t imagine parallel parking with a 12” wheel. My 14” gives me enough trouble as it is.
Now that you have yourself nailed in place in your cockpit, it’s time to adjust your mirrors. Your rear view mirror should allow you an unobstructed view through your entire back window. If it doesn’t, you’re going to have to move it. Contrary to popular North American belief, these mirrors are not for applying makeup or checking on the kids, they’re for checking out the back window of the car and that’s it. The same goes for the side mirrors. They should be seat for clear, unobstructed view down the sides of the car. You shouldn’t have to move your head to check your mirrors, just your eyes while facing straight ahead. Some debate exists as to wether or not you should see the side of your own car in these mirrors. I say no, because it’s wasted mirror. Plain and simply put, you use these mirrors to see traffic and what’s in the road around you, not your rear fenders and marker lights (though I’m sure they’re very pretty). Still, you don’t want them so far out into the other lane that you can’t see a car that’s just behind yours in the next lane.
There are many aftermarket mirror add-ons you can get to increase visibility out your car. The most obvious to you, the reader, is probably the glue-on convex mirrors we all see on pickup trucks and semis. Typically 2” across, these are often seen in the corner of an OEM mirror where they’re held on by double sided tape. Because these mirrors have a rounded surface (not flat like regular car mirrors) they give a wider view of what’s going on around you. You can understand how this is beneficial once you go to a drug store and look at one of their half-round security mirrors. You know how you can stand in front of it and see everything going on in the entire store? Same principle applies here to the lanes behind you. While I do not use them on my car, I know many people who have them on their performance cars for this exact reason. Once you’re lowered and tinted, so is your view of the world. Seeing out is hard. As someone who has actually tripped over an NSX in a parking lot, I can tell you just how easy it is to miss the obvious when you’re driving. My daily is a Toyota Echo, which has large C-pillar blind spots. I ran a Miata driver off a local freeway in a no-blindspot area because he decided to sneak up next to me going well over the legal speed limit on an on-ramp and hid in my blind spot so well my side mirrors didn’t pick him up either. Convex’s would have caught him.
The other add-on mirror you should be aware of goes inside. There are two kinds of this mirror. The most obvious is the clip on style mirror extensions that slip over the OEM interior rear view mirror. Made by Broadway and ridiculously popular on the mean streets of Asia, these mirrors also feature the convex trump card, greatly adding to the power and utility of the center mirror location. Put it this way: After attaching one of these to my Echo, I was able to look out my rear passenger windows with it. If that isn’t a commanding view of the road from inside the car I don’t know what is. Better still is the mirror made by Wink. This mirror sits across your entire upper front window and features three, four or five separate mirrors depending on the model. Each of these has their own angle for unparalleled viewing. It’s like being able to see out the back of your head in five different directions. I haven’t installed one because I can’t find one! I know I couldn’t live without the clip-on mirror and I switch it from car to car in winter/summer simply because I can’t find another one.
Probably the last important driving aid you should look into is a shifter. Most people think of short-throw shifters as something that cuts time off acceleration or that the shorter throw adds to the performance “feel” of the car. While these are both true to some extent, a real advantage of replacing your shifter is freedom. Realistically, and with a little ingenuity, you can reposition your shifter so that it helps your driving. The ae86’s shifter position is great right where it is, though the throws are a little long. By the same token, a 1997 Ford Ranger has a brick for a clutch with a shifter that’s worse than rowing a boat. Either way, you may like your shifter a little higher, or even bent slightly towards or away from the driver for maximum comfort and useability. Just remember that you have to be able to use it effectively! Case in point: my Echo. It still has the OEM shifter in it, on which the throws are just a little too long. Just long enough, in fact, that I regularly miss a gear about once month even having owned the car for years. I’d love to find a shorter throw, but I can’t seem to locate one. I’d also like one about an inch taller. Either way, if it really comes down to it I can have one made, which is something I did for years on ae86’s. I even came up with a way to make an ae86 shifter infinitely adjustable for height and/or throw adjustment.
Hopefully you can take this information and put it to good use. “Jinba Ittai” is the term used by the Japanese to describe the pefect meshing of horse and rider, and it is a nice place to be if you can attain it. I can’t help but feel that we’d all be a lot safer on the roads if everyone so much as adjusted their mirrors! If we took all the people who drive in gangster leans in oil rig trucks and forced them to put two hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 and shoulder check and signal when they changed lanes, the world would be a better place.