Brake Replacement: Choosing the Right Upgrade for Better Stopping Power

Every performance enthusiast should inspect their vehicle’s brake system when making modifications. In fact, many people would argue that this is actually the area to start making modifications. As power and speed increase, so does braking distance. Additionally, those brakes will have to work harder in order to bring the vehicle safely to a stop. When considering brake replacement, it’s important to select the right upgrade. Improved braking will provide better control and cornering for all applications. But a track enthusiast, a trail runner, or just someone looking for better stopping power will all have specific needs.

First, Determine What You’ve Got

When exploring brake replacement, the first step is to determine what kind of braking system is currently present. Modern vehicles will almost always come equipped with factory-installed disc brakes. Older cars and trucks, however, can have drum brake systems. Many readers already know that drum brakes are simply bad news when seeking better performance. For newcomers though, a little education may be necessary.

According to Edmunds, “Under high braking conditions, like descending a steep hill with a heavy load or repeated high-speed slow downs, drum brakes would often fade and lose effectiveness. Usually this fading was the result of too much heat build-up within the drum … Once the brake components themselves become saturated with heat, they lose the ability to halt a vehicle, which can be somewhat disconcerting to the vehicle’s operator.”

Daily driving with drums on all four corners is scary enough; at high speeds, it’s downright life-threatening. So, if you’re working with drum brakes on an older vehicle that you want to take off-road or to the track, you should convert to a disc brake system. Companies like Wilwood Brakes make the conversion a breeze.

For a typical brake replacement, expect a cost in the neighborhood of around $1,000 for either front or rear brakes. If available to the application you are working with, you’ll be looking at roughly $2,000 for discs all around. And while you may choke on that number for a second, it’s actually a reasonable price for performance-level stopping power.

Next, You May Need A Boost

Take a look to make sure the older vehicle has a brake booster. Boosters are an important part of modern braking systems, providing much needed assistance to stopping power. While they do draw vacuum from the engine, boosters ultimately bring the vehicle to a faster stop by sending more pressure through the system. This means you don’t need to exert as much force on the brake pedal—a great safety feature when descending a steep hill or coming to a quick stop. Similarly, if the brake pedal feels particularly stiff in your newer ride, it might be time to upgrade the existing booster.

Disc brake conversions are a very specialized upgrade. So, unless you currently have drums, it’s not a brake replacement you need to worry about. However, if you aren’t rocking a performance model with high- performance brakes straight from the factory, there are still some worthy mods to consider for maximum control.

Consider Performance Pads and Rotors

Traditional pads and rotors work fine for street driving but aren’t intended for track use or any other sort of abusive environment. Like Edmunds explained on the ailments of drum brakes, heat is the enemy. This is why performance rotors come in drilled and/or slotted configurations. These designs work to allow heat to disperse quickly so performance won’t be altered. They also work to allow water to escape in wet environments.

Drilled and Slotted Rotors

Once a track favorite, drilled and slotted rotors are fading away. Drilled rotors may be great for allowing water to escape, but they are susceptible to cracking and can wear unevenly. As for slotted rotors, they work very well both on and off road but tend to have a shorter life span and can be a bit noisy. Drivers can also choose a combination drilled and slotted rotor, which is particularly well suited for towing heavy loads or driving in particularly rainy climates but, again, are susceptible to cracking.

Blank Rotors

Another option are blank (or smooth) rotors, which are common on most new cars. According to R1 Concepts, a leading manufacturer and retailer of award winning automotive braking systems, blank rotors are “a top choice for endurance racers who need a brake pad that can hold up through a long race, as well as an overall inexpensive brake rotor choice.” This makes them suitable for multiple applications.

Brake Pads

Whatever the decision, it’s important that the rotors come from a reputable dealer and are properly installed. Additionally, depending on the intended use of the vehicle, the choice of brake pads will vary as well. Off-roaders may consider larger, more heavy duty brake pads, while a performance enthusiast may look for something specially designed to stand up to high temperatures. Modern brake pad technology has come a long way and with the right pads from brands like EBC or Hawk, many find that the braking of the vehicle is greatly increased.


Even with pads and rotors carefully selected, the factory braking system simply may not have enough bite. For extreme applications, regardless of terrain, consider upgrading the calipers. Increasing the amount of pistons in your calipers means that more pressure applies to the pads and rotors. This in turn brings the vehicle to a safer stop. What makes big brakes so popular is that they increase the number of pistons and the surface area of the rotors. This increased friction then gives the vehicle the ability to stop on a dime. It also provides the driver with maximum control over their car or truck at all times.

There are many reasons to consider brake replacement or upgrading. While control is a major motivator, it shouldn’t be thought of as something that only comes into play on the track or trail. Improved handling will benefit every type of vehicle regardless of application. Improved braking can (and should!) be sought out by anyone who is uncomfortable with the factory brakes, no matter the intended purpose.

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