Thinking about trying out a track day? See what you need to know to get started....
Getting Started at Track Day Driving – Everything You Need to Know to Begin
Introduction to Tracking
I had two students at one track event. One had just bought his second Viper. He had bought one five years earlier. After we were introduced following the morning drivers’ meeting, we had a brief conversation so that I could evaluate where he was at and what his goals were for the day. He told me that he had done one previous track day event five years earlier after buying his first Viper. My other student that day drove an older Mustang Cobra and this was his third event. He was young and on a shoestring budget. In fact, he cooked his brakes by the second session and his day was done.
I knew right away that my two students had very different goals for this event. The Viper guy was smart about his new 600 horsepower convertible. Where else could you go to really run such a car at high speeds safely and legally? At a track day event of course. He was there to fully experience his new ride. He had done it once five years before and that was enough. He would be doing the same today and that was perfectly okay. In fact, I endorsed his decision to use the car to its fullest on a track in case he had any thoughts of driving recklessly on public roads. Understanding his goals, I adjusted our instructing day accordingly. We kept it under control and safe. He had fun. The Viper was a blast to ride along in. It was amazingly powerful and the top was down too. Although slow and tentative in the turns, once we were pointed straight, the car took off like a rocket ship. We probably passed and lapped everyone in the novice group that day. My student seemed satisfied. Hopefully he came back five years later when he bought his third Viper.
Student number two was in it for the long haul. He was young and had an older car. He had done three track days already and told me during our initial interview that he wanted to keep attending and progressing. There were long gaps between his events. He just did not have the money to indulge in track days too often. He also told me he did all his own work on the Cobra. This was a source of pride and also part of his enjoyment of the car. He was a driver and a tinkerer. He made improvements and then saved a part of his budget to test it all out on a track. His purpose and goals were different. Together, we pushed the limits a little more. This driver wanted to progress and we worked on adding to his driving skills. He had the line down pretty well already. We added in some work on the use of the controls of the car. I showed him how to shuffle steer and how to “brake backwards.” That is hitting the brakes hard at top speed when you have the most down force and then feathering off on the pedal pressure as you get slower and slower before a turn. We also worked on the line a little too. Everyone tends to want to turn early to get it over with and so they apex a little too early. Late apex-ing is the thing you want to force yourself to do early on. It is safer in that you don’t run out of track and it gives you a faster shot coming out of the turn. You carry all that speed down the straight. Exit speed is what it is all about. More on that will come in another how to write-up. This driver also had fun. He boiled his brake fluid pretty early in the day. Between sessions he bled his brakes, but the pedal faded quickly and he responsibly told me he needed to come off of the track. We talked about some things he could do to improve his brake performance and he left encouraged about the future of his driving.
So what do these two stories have to do with getting started? Know where you are at and what your goals are. Set reasonable, attainable goals. Do not expect to drive like a pro on your first day. Get used to the feelings and experience of being on a track for the first time and set the stage for future learning and enjoyment. Since you are reading this, you are intrigued by the idea of going fast on a track. But you don’t have a clue how to go about it. Many people don’t even know that it is possible and easily attainable. Well it is, so let’s get started.
I got the idea to try a track day when I found a brochure for a car club in the glove compartment of my new Porsche. As Porsches are commonly used for track day events, all new Porsche glove compartments come stocked with these brochures. I joined the club and checked out the website. There was a range of events planned. I was not so interested in the social events. The track days caught my eye. I read up on them and decided to give it a try. I registered for my first event online and downloaded the necessary forms. I needed to complete a medical history form which included a medical waiver. I needed to download a technical inspection form from the club’s website and then take my car to a shop approved by the club to get a free technical inspection. The final step was to find a store to purchase a helmet.
There are actually many ways now to get to a track day event. There are clubs, companies and tracks offering track days. Very few tracks offer track day experience directly to the public. Most tracks are just not in that business. They have the track and they are in the business of renting the track to racing and track day groups that want to use it for their events. Some do offer their own track day events. Check out our list of tracks under our Tracks tab. There you will find a map showing all the tracks in the U.S. where you can participate in track days. You will notice that most of the famous tracks are available for these events. It is so cool to know that you can actually get on tracks at such hallowed racing venues as Watkins Glen, Lime Rock Park and Sebring International Raceway. Yes you can run the same line that you see the pros using when the in-car cams are on during the 12 Hours of Sebring or the 24 Hours of Daytona, for example. You do not need a racing license. You do not need a racing team or even a race car. Track days are really available for anyone with the interest and a few resources.
Since most tracks do not offer track days directly to the public, you need to go through an intermediary. That brings us to our TrackDay Organizers tab. The tab section is organized by region. Look at your region and you will find all of the track day organizations actively offering events at tracks near where you live. There are enough tracks and organizers that most areas of the country are covered. Just about all of us are within driving distance of a track and a track event. These organizers, whether they be clubs or companies, are gathering a group of drivers together and pooling resources to cover the expenses for the event. It can cost thousands of dollars to rent a track for a weekend. Most tracks fill their schedules this way. How many sanctioned and televised races are there? Not enough to keep the tracks busy every day and every weekend. That is why you and I get to have this experience. Homestead Raceway, for example, has one week a year taken up by NASCAR and maybe a few more minor racing series events. The rest of the time everyday people are driving there with various track day groups. In order to hold a track day event, there are other expenses to be covered and the fees we pay cover them. There is a need for corner workers and emergency crews. Insurance fees need to be covered too. Tracks want to deal with organized groups that have insurance waivers already in place to cover them in addition to the group. Our list of track day organizers has hyperlinks to their websites. Our track map also has links to the tracks’ websites. Find a track or an organizer and off you go. All you have to do is sign up using their online registration process. There will be instructions on what steps to take before the event, as in medical and tech waivers and inspections. A helmet is the only piece of required equipment. Also, depending upon the club, organization and track, you may need to wear long sleeves and long pants.
Questions to Ask
All this talk about insurance and medical waivers and technical inspections and emergency safety crews may have you wondering and asking “what am I getting myself into?” You need to acknowledge that driving fast on a track is not without risks. There can be incidents and accidents on tracks. As you look into the various track day opportunities, have an eye towards safety in mind. The more organized an event, the better. The safety crews and insurance and corner workers are there to protect us and keep us safe. There are loosely run groups that are more for the experienced drivers who want maximum track time. These may have less instruction and everyone is together on the track throughout the day. There will be larger speed variations among participants. Other events have highly structured schedules with separate run groups based upon track experience. Drivers need to be passed on before progressing to more experienced groups. Decide what you want out of a track day. Think about what you would be comfortable with. Some of us like structure and some like to be more free-wheeling. Know what you want and then ask questions. Is there a classroom session before beginners and intermediate drivers are released onto the track? Are there separate run groups for beginners, intermediates, solo drivers and instructors? How are the instructors selected and certified? Some clubs have highly structured programs just for drivers to become instructors. Others appoint instructors based on the buddy system. Will a safety crew be present? Are there corner workers? From my point of view, the more structured groups are the place for beginners to be. You do not want to be overloaded with what you are doing on the track, such as being preoccupied with watching your mirrors and giving point-byes all day.
Prep Three Weeks Out
Okay, so you are signed up. Now what? You may have some forms to fill out and email back or bring with you. You may need to get your car inspected or just sign a form certifying that your car is in good running condition; again, a sign of more structure versus less structure. I would rather be on a track with people who have had to get their cars inspected. The shops that are approved to do certifications do them for free because they are hoping to form a relationship with you should you get hooked by the driving bug. You will become a very good customer. There are costs involved, especially as you progress to higher speeds. In the beginning, all you need is a car in good running condition. No, you don’t need a race car to get onto a track. I have been on tracks with an Audi station wagon. The driver was an instructor and he was pretty quick. Going fast has more to do with the driver than with the car. So don’t think you cannot get involved because of the car you have. There is a relatively new race series Called Spec B. This is for the Mazda 2s, Hyundai Accents, Toyota Yaris; all 100 horsepower cars with little tires. Those drivers can go pretty fast and have lots of fun on the track.
This brings us to the final requirement for participating in a track day event; the helmet. All drivers are required to use a helmet. Some track day companies have them to rent at the event. If not, you will need to buy one. Helmets generally start at about $250 and go up from there depending upon material, weight and features. Carbon fiber helmets are expensive, but light. These contribute less to neck fatigue. Other helmets are set up for communication and cooling systems. Some helmets come head and neck restraint ready. Do not expect to be able to go out to your garage and find that old motocross helmet from when you were 16 and be allowed to use it. All track day helmets need to be Snell rated. Motorcycle helmets are also Snell rated, but these have Snell M ratings. These will not get you on tracks at a car track day event. There are differences in design attributes for motorcycle and car helmets. Car helmets need to be fire proof. Motorcycle helmets do not. Car helmets need to withstand different types of impact than motorcycle helmets. The big helmet suppliers are Bell, Arai, Simpson, Zamp, Stilo and G-Force. Find a racing supply shop in town and try some on. They should fit tight; tight enough so that if you grab the front by your mouth and shake it, you can feel your scalp moving with it. The helmet makers and suppliers will sell online. They have measuring procedures and free exchange policies so that you can go through some trial and error if it is not right. My wife bought a G-Force Eliminator online for $250 and it was fine. Since most of us are in closed cars, you can get an open face design. But most seem to get closed helmets. You can leave the visor up when on the track. The Snell ratings are issued every five years but the track day organizers allow you to use helmets that are 10 years old. If you buy one now, get a Snell 2015. There will be a little metallic tag under the padding with a holograph on it. Find it when you get it. When you get to the track and go through technical inspection, you will need to show your Snell tag. Be prepared and get extra cool points. And be less stressed just before your moment of truth.
For those who are so inclined, there is some preparation you can do before an event. Once again, go to our tab listing the tracks throughout the country and click the link for the track you are going to. See if there is a track map or track diagram online and available for download. Find out from the organizer if the track is being run clockwise or counterclockwise and which track configuration is being run. Study the track map. Next, go on YouTube and search for track day at [insert track name]. There should be plenty of in-car camera videos of people’s laps. Make sure the person is going in the right direction and running the same track configuration as for your event (as some are run clockwise and then counterclockwise, depending upon the weekend). Watch the videos several times and make reference to the track map. Watch different drivers, since not all have the best line around the track. You will get a sense of who knows what he or she is doing. Do not expect to memorize the line, but just get a feel for the track and how it unwinds. Pick up braking and turn-in points. Look for landmarks in the distance to land your sight on while on the track. Pick up the corner worker stations and where to come on and get off the track. If you have a racing simulation game or access to iRacing, an online subscriber-based simulation, run the track virtually. Many professional racers do this as part of their preparation for new tracks. Formula 1 teams spend millions on simulators. iRacing is a pretty cool item. If you have a decent computer with a good graphics card, consider a subscription to iRacing to fill in those gaps between track events.
Before your first event, there is not a lot you need to do to your car in the way of preparation. Do not be too concerned about modifications at this point. Down the road there will be plenty of time for that. Just be sure your tires have a decent amount of tread and that your brake pads have at least 50% of material left. Check all fluids. You may want to have your car serviced just to be sure all is in working order. Consider changing the oil and the brake fluid before an event. You might want to use a DOT 4 brake fluid, like ATE or Motul. These have higher boiling points than DOT 3 standard fluid.
The Night Before and the Day Of
Do not expect to get a lot of sleep the night before, so go to bed early. Nerves and jitters may get to you in the middle of the night. It is normal to be nervous. What is going to happen? How will I do? What will my instructor and my peers think of me? Will I make a fool of myself? Will I go too slowly? Will I foul up? These are all the common worries before an event. On the one hand we are excited to try it and on the other, we wonder why we are doing this. Moderate levels of anxiety are actually good, since they are a motivator. Practice some relaxation techniques to calm yourself. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and say calm as you inhale and peace as you exhale. Lay there with your eyes closed and use visualization. Imagine the laps you have watched or driven virtually.
Be prepared for a thoroughly engaging experience where you will meet some nice people and get to know some new and good things about yourself. There are very few opportunities to be completely involved in the moment and track driving is one of them. There will be long periods where you will be thinking of nothing but what you are doing. And those kinds of times are peak times. You will lose track of time. The day will be over and it will feel like a blur.
Track day events start early. You will probably be getting up before dawn. If you have a distance to drive to get to the track and if you are able, then think about staying over near the track the night before. Sebring is nice because there is a hotel on site, although pricey. Bring bottled water and a cooler and some healthy high protein snacks. Stay hydrated and fed, but not stuffed, throughout the day.
When you get to the track, there may be a line of cars waiting to be let in. Other drivers may get out and chat. Some organizations hold their drivers meeting on the line before the gates open. When the gates open, proceed to the paddock area. Some tracks have garages and the first arrivers will claim those. Yes you can use the same garages as the ALMS and Rolex teams at places like Homestead and Sebring. If you do not get a garage, there are usually large open grassy areas known as the paddock. Pick a spot and start getting ready. You need to empty your car of anything that can move around. Clean out all the loose objects. I try to do this at home before I even leave for the event. Take out those garage transponders, toll transponders, even the floor mats. Empty the trunk. Some take out the spare tire and jack. The spare tire is controversial. It weighs a lot, but is usually part of the crush zone design. I would leave it in. The difference in weight at this stage is not important. It is good to bring a large trash bag or plastic container with you to store all this stuff that comes out of your car. In case of rain, it is good to have it in something a little water resistant. Bring one of those folding chairs to sit on between run groups. I have two with their own canopies attached. You do not want to be roasting in the sun all day. Some organizations will supply numbers to stick on the sides of the back windows. You usually can request numbers when you register for the event. Eventually, you will get some magnetic numbers to put on the car when needed. Get two separate magnetic number such as 2 and 4. This way you can have number 24, 42, 2 or 4 in case someone else has claimed your lucky number. PBOC in Florida coordinates the numbers of students with instructors. For a first timer, just bring some painters’ tape and put the number on the door. Some people use blue painters’ tape to cover their headlights and other leading edges on their cars. There can be debris kicked up while driving on tracks. Down the road you may get a clear bra protection.
With your car prepared, now you will proceed to a technical inspection. They will check to make sure your car is free of any loose objects. Your lug nuts will be torqued down for you. If you are particular about lug nut torque, let them know what the proper torque value is and ensure the inspector that you took care of this yourself before coming to tech inspection. Bring your helmet with you to tech. They will look at the little holographic label under the padding. It needs to be Snell 2005 or newer. The inspector will place a sticker on the corner of your windshield so that the person who lets you onto the track at pit out (entering the track) will know you passed tech inspection.
The morning proceeds along quickly. There is not a lot of down time at this stage. Right after tech inspection there will be an announcement to gather for that drivers’ meeting. The schedule will be reviewed and the ground rules discussed. The passing zones will be delineated. These are usually the long straights. The point-by procedure will be reviewed. Passes can only be made after a point-by. This is basically what makes a track day not racing. A corner worker will review the flags and what they mean. You should study this before the event. See our flag review, but check your event organizer site. They will usually have the flags defined for their event. These are universal, but some groups use more of the flags than others. At the end of the meeting, students will be paired with instructors. This will be done by calling off a roster of names. Instructor assignments are usually done by car. The organizers will try to pair up instructors and students driving similar cars. My first instructor was a Boxster driver and I was a Boxster driver. About convertibles: most track day organizers will allow convertibles if they have some kind of built in or added roll over protection. The Porsche Boxster and the BMW Z4 are okay. There will be a very brief introduction. Your instructor will ask about your experience and what your goals are for the day. Most often they will tell you that you are going to learn some things and have fun and they will tell you where to meet them after the classroom session. Then they will rush off. You are going to the classroom and they are going out on the track for their first run group.
There will be a half hour classroom session in a conference room with the sounds of engines in the background. Those are your instructors out on the track. The chief instructor usually presides over the class. There will be a discussion of vehicle and driving dynamics and the importance of learning the line and the right way to steer. The rules will be reviewed again along with the flags. Again, I would lean towards a club or group that does things the way that is being described here. If there is no classroom and no in-car instructors, you may want to pass on the group. But that is me. Others may like the idea of learning on their own and with less structure. Small events with low car counts are more appropriate for looser structures. You will have more chance to be on the track alone and away from other drivers. Large events will tend to need more structure. Small events can have as few as fifteen cars. Large events can have hundreds.
After class it is time to saddle up. Get back to your car and put on the helmet and get in. Go pick up your instructor where he or she is parked. Your instructor may want to drive your car for a lap or two. This is to ensure that it is in good running condition and to see if there are any peculiarities in its handling that need to be accounted for on the track. I never minded this and found it reassuring. You can voice your reluctance, but your instructor may opt not to work with you. The organizers will attempt to find another instructor for you. Your instructor will be in the car with you during all of your track sessions. They are usually volunteers who are getting to drive for free or a nominal fee for the day in return for instructing. Some clubs have extensive training and certification programs for instructors. For example, The Porsche Club of America (PCA) holds instructor days in each region each year. During these events, would-be instructors roll play instructing experienced instructors who act as students. This goes on for a two day event and instructors are reviewed by multiple evaluators for their ability to teach and to drive. Most people have to try twice to be signed off as an instructor in the PCA. Again, this is what I would like to think my instructor had to do to get to be one.
We have included a couple of helpful documents on this getting started tab. There is a flag definition page which you can study ahead of time. My first instructor used to quiz his students while waiting in the car before a run group. “Tell me what a yellow flag furled means.” “What should you do if there is a red flag?” There is also a Track Driver Log provided. Feel free to print these out for each track day. Use these to record information about the day. Ask your instructor to write comments about your performance. Most will give constructive feedback and be happy to do it. This log can become part of a track day journal to commemorate and document your experiences. It will be useful at times when you may be signed off to drive in the intermediate or solo group with one club or company and sign up for that group with another track day organization. You may need to provide proof that you have reached that experience level. Your track day driving journal will be that proof you may need.
I will leave you in the hands of your trusty instructor at this point. Be prepared to learn a lot and have a blast. You will have four half hour sessions throughout the day. Most are two day events. I would recommend two day events when you are first starting. It is good to go out on that second day to consolidate what you learned the first day. You will have the same instructor for the entire event. If there is a personality clash, you can approach the chief instructor for a reassignment. The instructors and organizers want you to be happy. You are the lifeblood of their club or their company and without you, there would be no event. Expect to be treated with respect and expect to meet some new friends. There is a tailgating atmosphere in the paddock between run groups. A bond is formed among participants. People are friendly and helpful. I blew an engine due to oil starvation at Homestead and there were many people who offered to help me. I had three different ways to get my car and myself home from that event. The track driving community tends to be a tight one. Hopefully you will become a part of the community and we will meet at the track one day.