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"It is an opportunity to drive one’s car on a track in a spirited manner and to learn driving skills.  And the cost is reasonable too, making the experience accessible to many who never dreamed that they could do it."

 

So Just What is a Track Day?

by Ziva Allen

 

Fotolia 52860103 XScSomeone asked us what a track day is and we recognized the need to describe one for the completely uninitiated.  We have articles teaching how to get started, explaining how we and others became involved in track days, listing track day terms and definitions, and providing checklists to help prepare for a track day, but nothing covering the definition of a track day.  So here we go!

There have been various terms for this activity over the years.  I think that the earliest one may have been “driver education.”  This term may have arisen out of a desire to make it very clear that people were not racing.  Other education-themed phrases include driving schools and track schools. High performance driving experience is a popular one.  You will often see this abbreviated as HPDE.

A track day involves driving in a car or on a motorcycle around a track.  Motorcycles and cars are not mixed at events.  There are specific track days for motorcycles and specific track days for cars.  Unlike NASCAR or Indy racing, track days take place at road courses as opposed to oval tracks. Generally, the turns are not steeply banked.  Track days take place on the same road courses where sports car racing takes place.  They have straightaways and various series of turns that go both left and right in a sort of meandering way.  There is no set layout for these tracks and their design is often dictated by the terrain upon which they are built.  Some have elevation changes and some are completely flat as a result of where they are located.  Track days take place at many of the famous race tracks throughout the world.  Hence, every day people who are not professional or even amateur racers have the opportunity to experience driving on race tracks.

A track day is an opportunity to take one’s car onto a real race track and experience high performance driving, without the need to worry about speed limits or traffic violations.  Everyday street cars that are in good condition and working order can be taken onto the track.  Many track day sponsors will ensure that your car is in good working order by requiring a pre-event inspection and will also perform a brief inspection at the beginning of the day.  Some of the participants may own and bring their race cars to an event, but one does not need a race car in order to participate at a track day event.  You can bring your everyday street car!

For safety reasons, track days tend to be highly organized and structured and there is an educational component.  There will often be classroom instruction covering the basics of driving on and sharing a track with other drivers as well as teaching car control.  Many beginners will have an instructor riding along in the car with them.  There are usually different run groups, dividing drivers according to experience.  Typical groups will include beginners or novice, intermediate, solo and instructors.  Each group will be on the track together for a session, which lasts about thirty minutes.  The groups rotate throughout the day.  There will generally be about four sessions per day for a total of two hours of track time each.  Two hours of track time is plenty.  Other organizations may have open track time, where all participants are mixed together on the track and the sessions are not as clearly defined.  You may come on and go off the track at your own will, rather than as a group in this format.  Tracks have entrances and exits and coming on and going off are fairly controlled. 

Keep in mind that track days and their purpose differ from competitive racing events in many ways.  For one, racing involves pushing yourself and your car to 100% of your and your car’s capabilities.  In racing, you are using 100% of the grip in the tires, 100% of the speed of the car and 100% of the braking capacity.  As opposed to track days, braking during a racing competition, is done as late as possible, leaving the driver with no room for error or cushion to correct.  Racing is a competition that participants are trying to win.  As a result, the cars are dedicated racers.  They are not street legal and there are no compromises.  Race cars have extensive safety features, the most significant being a full roll cage welded or bolted to the frame of the car.  Now, at a track day, your mindset and purpose for being there should be completely different.  You are not pushing your car or yourself to the limit.  Rather you may be driving at 70% (or 7/10ths) of the car’s capability and even this is a level that you will build up to gradually.  In this way, you have left yourself a cushion for error and if you make a mistake, you will be able to correct it and not go off the track or spin.  Another difference between competitive racing and track days is that your car does not have to be a dedicated track car and it is usually street legal.  The car’s normal safety systems are all that are needed, such as standard seat belts and airbags in good working order.  Remember, track days are not a competition and no one is winning at a track day.  In fact, if someone is racing at a track day, they will be called off the track by the officials and spoken to.  If racing or driving aggressively is continued, they will be asked to leave.  Track days are meant to make track driving accessible, informative and fun for everyone.

In addition to having an instructor in the car in the novice and intermediate run groups, participants are not alone while on the track.  Track day organizers are watching from the side lines, usually in observation towers that allow the entire track to be viewed.  Corner workers are stationed around the track with flags which are used to communicate basic information to drivers on the track.  Prior to a track day, it is a good idea to review and learn your track day organizer’s flags and it will also be reviewed at the track.  The tower and corner workers communicate with each other by radio, so if they spot someone not obeying the rules or driving recklessly, it will be addressed immediately.  If your car stops running, help will be dispatched.  A track official will also be stationed at the entrance to the track.  This person is in charge of allowing drivers to enter the track, while watching for gaps in traffic to ensure controlled blending of fast and slow moving cars.  All of this contributes to the safety of the activity.

There are rules which also make the activity safer and by definition, not a race.  For example, passing is only allowed in certain designated zones, usually straightaways.  Passing is also only allowed when the driver to be overtaken gives a point-by to one side of the car or the other.  The driver being overtaken is expected to lift off the gas and allow the passing driver to get by.  There is no racing into the turns and no blocking.  A track day is not racing.  It is an opportunity to drive one’s car on a track in a spirited manner and to learn driving skills.  And the cost is reasonable too, making the experience accessible to many who never dreamed that they could do it.  

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