Sneed suggests to first-timers who are interested in getting started in this hobby that they connect with others. “The best way to go about it is to either find a shop that can help you or some buddies that are already into it. It really helps to know people before just showing up."
Chris Sneed: Pro Racer, Coach and Owner of Sneed's Speed Shop
by Ziva Allen
For the average track day participant, someone who maybe goes to four events a year, having a track support, coach and specialty shop is probably not necessary. This level of participant can rely on the instruction he receives at events and on her everyday repair shop mechanic. For the more involved enthusiast, who attends an event or more per month, a relationship with a combination racer and shop owner can be a real benefit. Here is an example of someone who not only races at the club and professional levels, but has also owned his own track and racing prep shop since 2003. There are folks like this scattered throughout the country. Ask around at an event and you may be referred to someone or even introduced right then and there. Also, scout around yourself and approach track support providers if you attend a combination HPDE and club race. These race support operations will typically provide support for track day participants as well. It can be comforting to know that you have experts to back you up in case of a mechanical problem. And confidence can go a long way in increasing your performance.
Chris Sneed, owner of Sneed’s Speed Shop Inc., has been tracking since 2004 when he started his first HPDE in his street RX-7 turbo. Since then he has become a race driving instructor for BMW CCA, PCA, NASA and various other track clubs. Sneed currently races in the Pirelli World Challenge in the Sneed4Speed MINI Cooper. He started his racing career with NASA, having won the 2010 TTC championship and the 2011 Overall Enduro championship. Sneed lives in Winston Salem, North Carolina with his black lab Ted.
Sneed has a full service high performance race shop that offers in-house services from mechanical and body repair to engine machining as well as track support and coaching to sports cars and their owners. Need a car? You can rent a race prepared BMW from him for track days and racing anywhere on the east coast. We had a question and answer session with Sneed about his driving career and the types of services you can expect to receive from a full service track support shop.
Sneed’s driving credentials are quite deep with a long history. “My dad taught me how to drive around the same time I was messing around with motorcycles,” says Sneed, who was about 11 or 12 years old when he first got the bug. “I built a V8 for my Chevy S10 pickup, which was my first engine swap. We raced that for a long time. I did some racing at Farmington Drag way. Once I started the shop, we had a customer come in with a Miata wanting more out of it. He knew we did a lot of work with Mazda rotaries. He talked us into coming up to the road course to see how the car did and from then on I was hooked,” says Sneed who, like many of us, became hooked with his very first experience. “We started tracking and never looked back. My first driving event was in 2004 in a 1988 turbo RX-7. I started instructing about a year or so after that. During those two years or so I was at the track all the time and I did at least 60 track events. My first time as an instructor was for PCA at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. I took my instructor check ride with Marty Barrette, , in my R53 MINI Cooper S because the RX-7 didn’t last very long.”
Sneed has driven many diverse cars at as many diverse venues. “I have driven at Virginia International Raceway, Carolina Motorsports Park, Road Atlanta, Barber Motorsports Park, Little Talladega, Summit Point, and Lowes Motor Speedway. I have track driven BMWs and MINIs of all kinds, Z06 Corvettes, Porsche 911s, Mustangs, RX-7s and 8s, Miata, Lotus Exige and Evora, Noble M400, and a Catherham Lotus 7 kit.” Currently, Sneed participates professionally in Pirelli World Challenge, NASA club racing and Chump Car. Sneed’s track experience is quite extensive!
Wondering what level of expertise and services you can expect to receive at a track prep shop? Sneed discusses his career as a mechanic. “As far as the mechanical side, when I was 12 years old I started a bike business in my parent’s garage fixing all the kids’ bikes in the neighborhood. From there I went on to working on motorcycles while I was racing mountain bikes locally. During high school I took some auto tech courses where I rebuilt the engine for my Buick I had at the time. I went on to Western Carolina University after high school, a non car related experience, but dropped out a few years later. My parents were very supportive with my dropping out of Western but still required that I get a college degree so I decided to take the Automotive Race Car Technology degree program at Forsyth Tech Community College, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While there I worked for Roy Hill Drag Racing School. When I graduated Forsyth Tech, I quit working for Roy to try to get a job in Nascar but was unsuccessful and found work at a regular auto repair shop. I worked there for almost a year before I started Sneed’s Speed Shop. I started the shop in May 2003 and have been in business 11 years. For the last 10, it has been nothing but sports car and sports car racing.” Sneed specializes in several popular track cars. “Mostly it’s what I call the big 5 track cars: BMW, MINI, Porsche, Corvette and Mustang.” What is his goal as a business owner? “I want to beat McLaren,” says Sneed of one of the top Formula 1 racing teams. Clearly, Sneed aims high! Sneed started his mechanical and his driving career at an early age and has been fortunate to have melded the two interests.
About his influences, Sneed begins by thanking his parents. “As far as cars, I was into them from the start. My dad was kind of into cars and mom just loves driving fast. They never were really into racing. I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I had an eye injury when I was little and knew I was never going to pass the eye exam. I just wanted to go fast and the next best thing was racing cars. I always thought that Carroll Shelby, Bruce McLaren, and Ferrari were awesome and I knew they were on to something cool.”
Sneed has instructed with the Porsche Club of America Carolina Region, the BMW Car Club of America Tarheel Chapter, NASA Southeast and Mid-Atlantic and Turn One. When Sneed first begins instructing a new student, he starts by conducting an assessment of that student. “The first thing I do is ask students what their goals are. Some just want to be on track and have fun and others want to move up into racing. So there are two different ways of going about it. From there I move on to their experience level. With beginners I start with safety, spatial awareness and stuff like that. Then I start to work on apexing, and then move onto braking zones and more advance skills like trail braking, compressing brake zones, heel-toe shifting, and offline techniques. For the guys who want to be competitive and move to racing, it’s a lot of the same stuff, but I also teach them to be more aggressive with some off-line passing situations, exit strategies and things that are not totally necessary for track days.” For the ones who want to move into competitive racing, Sneed says that the easiest way to transition from HPDE events is to first transition to Time Trials (TT). Then door-to-door club racing. In case you do not know, TT involves 3 hot laps. You are on the track by yourself. You have one lap to get your tires and brakes hot, one flying lap and one cool down lap. The fastest lap in class wins. You are competing against the clock and so are your peers.
Sneed elaborated on a couple of his teaching points for us. One of the most important skills a driver needs to keep tucked away at all times while on the track is his or her relationship to other drivers. Sneed says that the best practice for spatial awareness is to “constantly scan your view area and then remember the important stuff and leave out the junk. The best place to practice is on the highway. Try scanning your area and then try to remember how close the car beside you is and where it is in relation to your vehicle without looking. Now look in the mirror and see if you were right about their placement. Keep practicing until you can look and get it right then start to work on closing speeds the same way. The real key is to anticipate other cars’ movements so that you can respond as things happen. This way, instead of seeing, thinking, and reacting, you are thinking, seeing, and acting to avoid other cars.
The second point that Sneed highlighted for us is compressing braking zones. He maintains that to get better at recognizing the optimal braking point for each turn at each course, you first need to master three important techniques: "Driving to a mark, car control at braking threshold, and tire control at threshold." Many tracks have either orange cones or signs which indicate the distance to the turning-in point ahead of the apex. These markers are usually set at 100 feet increments. "Start first by driving to a mark you know you can hit," continues Sneed, "like the fourth cone in the brake zone when you know you can go to three. Stay full power until the four and then apply the brakes firmly and quickly to get the tires to threshold. Now, hold the tires there until you have almost slowed to your desired speed. Start to release the brakes as you reach your new desired speed. Release the brake pedal quickly and steadily but not super quickly. Now, complete the turn as you normally would. Continue practicing this until you can threshold brake exactly the same every time. Now move down half a marker in the brake zone and try it again. Repeat on and on until you cannot compress the brake zone any farther because you cannot slow to your desired speed before turn-in."
Sneed believes that drivers, he included, can always improve and progress. “There is always going to be someone out there faster than me,” says Sneed. “Just look at the data and lap times. They never lie. Find what areas need improvement, what details can be changed or if something could be executed differently and then get to work. Also, nothing beats experience. You must keep turning laps.” Sneed believes that looking at data is essential in coaching and improvement. “At some point you need to look at data. It’s not so important at first. But once you get some experience, it is a very helpful tool. By using data, you can look at lap times, work on apexing to get on the gas early and to compress brake zones.” Sneed, a proven champion, maintains that there is always room for improvement and there are always skills to work on.
Sneed suggests to first-timers who are interested in getting started in this hobby that they connect with others. “The best way to go about it is to either find a shop that can help you or some buddies that are already into it. It truly is a club atmosphere; it really helps to know people before just showing up. You want to find a competent shop that can help you get your car prepared and talk you through the process. Nothing beats a solid group of people to go to the track with.” Even if you don’t know anyone when you first get to the track, by the end of the day you will know someone. The atmosphere is very friendly and people want to help.”
Sneed provides many levels of services to his track day clients, depending on their needs. “We do many different levels of track support for racing and driving events. Basically the highest level is where the customer’s car stays at the shop. We will prep, fix or do whatever it needs to get ready for the next event. We also provide a full service crew where all the customer has to do is show up at the event. The driver goes out for the session and when they come back we debrief, make changes and coach if necessary before the next session.”
We asked this race prep shop owner which modifications he suggests for track day drivers and whether there is a step-by-step approach. Sneed tells us that “It is almost the same as instructing. You take on and change different aspects with your experience level. Start with something simple - the basics. Safety: stainless steel brake lines, more performance brake pad compounds. Maybe seats, harnesses and a roll bar. Then you move up to performance and handling with suspension changes like coil overs, exhaust and intakes. From there it’s a more power, bigger wheels, bigger brakes, aero, the list goes on and on. You know the fun stuff that makes you go faster.”
In addition to beating McLaren, Sneed seeks to grow his business and the products he develops. Oh, and he likes to win. Finding a mechanic who is also a racer is a real plus for the consumer! So if you can find a shop owner who races in your local area, you may just reap benefits as a track day driver. And if you’re lucky enough to reside in the Winston Salem, North Carolina area, you’re even luckier! A full service provider can smooth the way to enjoyment at the track.