The Complete Guide to Brake Upgrades for Improved Performance

Whether you’re a casual driver or an enthusiast pushing your car to its limits on the track, upgrading your brakes is one of the best ways to improve performance, safety and driving enjoyment. This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know about brake upgrades to help you choose the right components for your needs and budget.

Key Takeaways

1. Upgraded brakes improve stopping power, fade resistance, pedal feel and safety.
2. Street/track pads offer a good balance of bite, noise, dust and drivability.
3. Full face or slotted rotors optimize friction and cooling for street/track use.
4. Stainless steel brake lines dramatically improve pedal feel and braking reflexes.
5. Big brake kits are overkill for street use but enable extreme track performance.
6. Quality pads, rotors, lines and fluid provide big improvements without breaking the bank.
7. Matching brake components to your specific goals and budget is key to maximize benefits.

What Does Upgrading Brakes Do?

Upgrading brakes offers significant performance and safety improvements for many types of vehicles. For street cars, trucks, and SUVs used for daily transportation, upgraded brakes provide enhanced stopping power and fade resistance. This allows drivers to brake later when needed while maintaining consistent pedal feel, even in panic situations.

Upgraded street braking systems use advanced materials, multi-piston calipers, and cross-drilled or slotted rotors to dissipate heat faster. The improvements are immediately felt through firmer pedal feel and shorter stopping distances.

For race cars and high-performance vehicles, upgraded brakes take things even further. Big brake kits aimed at track use feature massively oversized rotors paired with huge calipers and exotic cooling technologies. These systems allow late braking when entering corners at high speed and rapid deceleration lap after lap.

Racing brake components are designed as complete packages to withstand incredible heat cycles without brake fade. For the most demanding motorsports applications, upgraded brakes are essential for fast lap times and safety.

Brake Pad Compounds – The Secret Ingredient

The brake pad is the critical contact point where true stopping power is generated. Pad compounds are formulated with different friction characteristics to suit different needs.

OEM and Economy Pads

OEM and other economy brake pads are designed primarily for basic transportation needs. They aim to provide adequate stopping power under normal driving conditions, while minimizing noise, dust, and roughness. These pads feature compounds engineered for relatively low initial bite force and operating temperatures.

While suitable for regular commuting and grocery runs, OEM and economy pads are prone to fading and loss of friction when brake heat builds up from repeated heavy braking. Unless you drive gently all the time, these pads leave a lot to be desired when you need to slow down in a hurry.

Street/Track Combo Pads

Enthusiasts seeking stronger on-demand braking for more aggressive street driving or occasional track days will do well with street/track combo pads.

As their name implies, these compounds offer a combination of characteristics that make them versatile performers on the street and at the track. Key attributes of quality street/track pads include higher initial bite force for strong responsiveness, extended high temperature tolerance to resist fade, and retention of some street manners for daily drivability.

Leading brands like Hawk offer a range of street/track pads like the popular HPS 5.0, which provide an excellent balance between grab, longevity, noise, dust, and the ability to handle elevated temperatures from performance driving. For those who drive hard on weeknights and weekends while keeping their cars street legal, street/track pads are a great match.

Race Pads

At the most extreme end of brake pad compounds are full-on race pads. These track-only pads are formulated with incredibly aggressive compounds that can withstand and operate best at very high temperatures. The trade-off is they have exceptionally high bite forces and very little concern for street drivability.

Race pads require significant heat buildup to work properly, making them unsuitable for regular roads. Unless you drive a designated race car, avoid race-only brake pads, as you will likely find them too grabby and noisy to live with day to day. Save them for the dedicated track beasts.

Understanding these core differences between brake pad compounds will help you narrow down choices appropriate for your specific vehicle usage. While race cars need race pads, the majority of performance-minded enthusiasts will find the right balance of bite, longevity, noise, dust, and drivability with a quality street/track combo pad compound.

Brake Rotor Designs and Materials

The brake rotor is a critical component that forms the other half of the friction pair along with the pads. Rotors dissipate heat generated from high-speed stops and provide a smooth surface for the pads to consistently grip. Various rotor designs cater to different vehicle use cases and brake temperature requirements.

OE Rotors

OE rotors refer to rotors with the same standard metallurgy and designs as the factory original parts. They offer no special cooling enhancements or weight savings, using plain stark cast iron. OE rotors are perfectly fine for street-only vehicles that will never see a racetrack. However, when purchasing replacements, it is wise to upgrade to an aftermarket rotor made to the same OE spec rather than a cheap economy line rotor for better longevity.

Full Face Rotors

Full face rotors are aftermarket rotors with a smooth face and no holes or slots. They focus instead on directional internal vanes to improve airflow and cooling compared to OE parts. The lack of perforations also enhances the rotor’s resistance to cracking under high heat stress. Full face rotors maximize the pad contact surface area for overall optimal braking friction and power.

Drilled Rotors

Drilled rotors have holes drilled through them to reduce rotational mass and improve cooling as air flows through the holes. Drilled rotors dissipate heat extremely well. They are also less prone to cracking under stress than cross-drilled or slotted alternatives. The tradeoff is that drilled rotors retain less pad contact area than a full face design.

Slotted Rotors

Slotted rotors have tiny slots cut into the contact surface area that create sharp edges or “biting” points to help remove gasses and debris from the pad surface. This aids in providing extra initial bite before braking forces build fully. The slots also provide some extra cooling and gas dissipation benefits versus a stock rotor. However, slotted rotors sacrifice surface area versus most competing designs.

Drilled and Slotted

For maximum weight reduction, cooling airflow, and race-ready looks, some choose drilled and slotted combo rotors. The aggressive appearance comes at the cost of reduced surface area for the pads to contact. Unless you drive on closed courses, drilled and slotted rotors are overkill for street use. They require extreme heat cycles to work best.

Choosing a rotor shape optimized for your needs and temperatures will pay dividends. Full face or slotted designs offer a great compromise for street and occasional track days.

Brake Lines – The Connective Tissue

Brake lines serve as the critical connective tissue that transmits hydraulic pressure from the pedal to the calipers in the brake system. Upgrading brake lines improves pedal feel, response time, and overall braking control.

OEM Rubber Lines

The majority of vehicles come equipped with rubber brake lines from the factory. These OEM rubber lines consist of flexible hoses that route brake fluid through the chassis to each caliper.

While functional, the pliant rubber construction leads to expansion when under pressure. This expansion absorbs some of the hydraulic pressure from the pedal, resulting in a soft, vague pedal feel with unused wasted travel.

Stainless Steel Brake Lines

To combat brake line expansion for better pedal feel, stainless steel brake lines are a popular upgrade. Quality stainless lines replace the spongy rubber hoses with a strong Teflon inner lining wrapped in a braided steel exterior sleeve. This reinforced construction virtually eliminates line expansion, enabling more direct coupling of pedal input to caliper response.

The performance benefits of stainless steel brake lines are significant. Pedal feel firms up with a more precise and responsive dynamic. There is no delay as the lines swell before the caliper pistons engage. This improves overall braking reflexes and control. Because every ounce of pressure is transferred efficiently, braking distances can be shortened as well.

While more difficult to inspect visually, stainless steel brake lines dramatically improve pedal feedback and performance for relatively little cost on most vehicles. Any enthusiast seeking to extract the most from their brakes should consider this worthwhile upgrade. The gains in responsiveness and control can be felt instantly after installation.

Big Brake Kits – The Nuclear Option

Big brake kits represent the pinnacle of braking performance and fundamentally change how a car slows down. For drivers pushing their vehicles to the limit on the track or pursuing no-compromise performance on the street, big brake kits offer braking power far beyond standard equipment.

These kits feature enormous calipers, often with 6 or more pistons, for incredible clamping force. Massive rotors, sometimes over 15 inches in diameter, provide more leverage and heat capacity. Advanced airflow ducts, heat sinks, and insulating technologies keep temperatures under control. It’s a fully integrated system built for the extremes of hard driving.

While big brake kits are major overkill for ordinary street use, they enable elite supercars, race cars, and highly tuned performance vehicles to brake later and harder without fade. For those with the budget, they represent the pinnacle of stopping power. Retrofit options do exist for older vehicles, but the complexity and cost is quite high.

Overall, big brake kits represent the nuclear option for braking. With their exotic tech and appearance, they rewrite the rulebook and enable incredible deceleration forces for the most hardcore drivers. They are an aspirational upgrade for those seeking the absolute limit in braking.

Matching Components to Your Goals

TypeStreet UseTrack UseCost
PadsStreet/Track ComboTrack/Race Compound$
RotorsOE, Full Face, SlottedFull Face, Drill/Slot$$
LinesStainless SteelStainless Steel$
Brake KitOptionalRecommended$$$

Balance your needs and budget using this handy chart. Focus on pads, rotors and lines first.

Top 5 Brake Upgrade Brands

BrandNotable Features
HawkLeading brake pad compounds for street/track
StopTechTop big brake kits and components
BremboOEM supplier turned aftermarket icon
EBCMassive brake parts selection
WilwoodSpecializes in big brakes

Stick with reputable brands that racers rely on daily. Quality is too critical to cut corners here.

Are Brake Upgrades Worth It?

For many drivers, upgraded brakes can certainly be worth the investment. On street vehicles, better brakes provide much shorter stopping distances along with consistent, fade-free pedal feel even in emergency situations.

This can literally save lives while giving drivers confidence to push harder within the car’s limits. Upgraded pads, rotors, and calipers are relatively affordable ways to modernize an older car’s braking. And for modern high-performance street cars, track-focused brake packages allow enjoying the car’s potential without messy brake fade.

In competitive motorsports settings, upgraded brakes move from nice-to-have to mandatory. The extreme demands of racing require brake systems purpose-built for lap after lap of hard use. Multi-piston calipers, huge cross-drilled rotors, and exotic materials handle the incredible heat and friction of racing conditions.

A complete brake system upgrade with cooling ducts and quality brake fluid is essential for racing safety, lap times, and competitive capability. While certainly an investment, brakes are one area where spending money pays off directly in better performance. For many enthusiasts upgrading brakes is one of the best modifications to improve driving experience.

How Much Does It Cost to Upgrade Car Brakes?

The cost to upgrade brakes can vary widely depending on the components chosen and vehicle application, but typically ranges from a few hundred dollars for basic improvements to thousands for high-end racing hardware.

For most street vehicles, upgraded pads and rotors start around $200-500 per axle. Stepping up to multi-piston calipers, high-performance street pads, and two-piece rotors usually totals $800-2,000. Complete big brake kits with large calipers, exotic rotors, and integrated cooling fall between $3,000-8,000 at the high end. For context, here are example component costs:

Brake ComponentPrice Range
Performance Pads$100-300
Cross-Drilled Rotors$200-500
Multi-Piston Calipers$500-1,500
Big Brake Kit (2 axles)$3,000-8,000
Racing Brake Kit$5,000-$20,000

The wide range demonstrates the options at various budgets. With some research and planning, there are ways to upgrade brakes substantially even on limited funds.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I upgrade my brake fluid when doing other brake upgrades?

Yes! High performance brake fluid like Motul RBF600/660 is cheap brake insurance.

How often should I replace brake pads and rotors?

Follow manufacturer specs, but expect pads yearly and rotors every 2-3 years with performance driving.

Are drilled rotors prone to cracking?

Excessive heat is the main cause of cracking, not holes. Proper bedding helps.

Can I run bigger brakes without modifications?

Larger brakes may require hydraulic adaptations. Consult an expert for right fitment.

Do I need racing brake pads for Track Days?

For casual track and autocross use, street/track pads offer plenty of bite without killing street manners.

In Closing

Improving your brakes is one of the most rewarding ways to enhance performance, safety and fun behind the wheel. Avoid the temptation to overspend on big brake kits that may be overkill. The right pads, rotors, lines and fluid will go a long way on a budget. As always, consult experts and experienced enthusiasts as you plan your next brake upgrade project. The difference in pedal feel and confidence will put a smile on your face, whether commuting or tackling your favorite backroad!

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