How Brake Upgrades Work

Performance Brake Upgrades

High-performance brakes help racecar drivers safely enter and exit dangerous turns.
High-performance brakes help racecar drivers safely enter and exit dangerous turns.
Jon Feingersh/Stone/Getty Images

Typical OEM brakes are designed for cars with standard engines, performing routine tasks: the morning and evening commute, grocery shopping, driving the kids to soccer practice, etc.

But if you subject your vehicle to stresses beyond the ordinary, then stock stoppers just won't do. By "beyond ordinary," we mean any power upgrades, such as nitrous oxide, turbochargers or superchargers, engine swaps and driving in particularly steep areas. In other words, your OEM brakes can easily become overwhelmed.

The most common occurrence is what car enthusiasts call brake fade. Under prolonged use on any given drive, your brakes will become less effective the harder they're stressed. That's because car brakes take the kinetic energy of your car's movement and disperse it as thermal energy -- heat -- when the calipers clamp down on the brake disc.

Beyond a certain temperature and loading amount, the stock brakes lose effectiveness. You may have experienced this if you've ever driven down a steep mountain road. After a while, you almost have to stomp on the pedal to get the car to slow down or stop.

If you race, high-performance brakes are a must. Performance brake upgrades are designed to dissipate this heat build-up more efficiently than standard equipment brakes. Let's look a little closer at each performance brake part.

Car enthusiasts go gaga over braided stainless steel brake lines -- the steel-encased Teflon flexes considerably less than ordinary rubber hoses, making for a firmer pedal feel. But controversy surrounds the safety of braided stainless steel hoses, since they can fail if they're not replaced regularly and protected from debris. If braided stainless steel is in your future, buy from a reputable supplier, and look for lines that come with a polyurethane jacket to prevent chafing.

Two more brake upgrades, cross-drilled rotors and slotted rotors, have made their way from the track to the streets. The purpose of both is to increase airflow over and away from the rotor (also known as the brake disc), with the moving air taking heat away with it.

As always with aftermarket parts, quality and safety are concerns. Many enthusiasts report that drilled and slotted rotors wear out more easily than stock or heavy-duty smooth rotors. The reason could be inferior materials or the fact that holes and slots compromise the structural integrity of the rotor. The perforations or gouges make the metal more inclined to warp or crack under duress.

Brake pads and calipers are another way to upgrade your braking system -- and there are plenty of options available. It's easy to overdo it and spend way more money than you'll ever use in performance. Suffice to say, you don't need a full race-spec ensemble, here.

So how do you know which performance brake upgrade is for you? As usual, it depends on the application. For street driving with the occasional spirited driving on curvy back roads, a smooth or slotted rotor with performance pads is more than adequate. For a track-driven car or racecar, a more robust package is desirable. But be warned: racing brake pads can "bite" so aggressively that they quickly wear out your rotors in daily driving. A good place to seek advice on the appropriate upgrade package for your vehicle is an enthusiast Web site or forum.

If you find yourself stuck with rear drum brakes, as opposed to the more effective disc brakes, you may be able to find a rear disc conversion kit for your vehicle. These kits allow you to remove the factory drum brakes and replace them with discs.

­Of course brake upgrades make sense for your tricked out street machine. But should you bother putting better brakes on a truck or SUV?