Preparing Your Car
Now that we have that basic concept out of the way, there are really three key components to going fast on track.
LEARN THE RACE LINE
CONCENTRATE ON WHAT YOU ARE DOING
BE SMOOTH IN ALL INPUTS
MORE TO COME!
On corner exit, you should now be at or near full throttle. It is advisable to use all the road to allow as gentle an arc as possible giving the car the greatest opportunity for maximum acceleration.
REMEMBER! Every time the sterring wheel is turned, it is like dragging your brakes. Every car will ALWAYS accelerate harder when the wheel is straight. Another way of looking at that is that a "flat" car will always accelerate best. Flat meaning that there
is not the slightest cornering being done. The wheel is straight ahead.
What is this apex thing I keep hearing about?
There are a few terms that will be used a lot by your instructor and the illustration below will help you understand what he is talking about.
Essentially, the apex is the innermost "clipping" point in the corner. On the corner shown below, assuming the car is coming from the bottom, the left side tires would hit the left track edge at the "apex".
The various components of driving through the corner are as follows.
BRAKE: Braking is typically done while the car is still in a straight line. In most corners, this will be the best technique as the wheels are straight and the car has 100% of its traction available for braking, as opposed to a "trail braking" situation when a portion of the tire's capability will be needed for cornering. For now, we will assume we are in a corner in which trail braking would not be used. Braking is often occompanied by a down shift or two. So, you will have a lot on your plate at that portion of the turn. Jackie Stewart, three time World Formula One Champion, used to say that it gets very complicated in the braking zone. In race conditions, this tap dance with the gear lever and pedals is often complicated by the fact that the braking zone is also often the passing zone. Most passes are completed in the braking zone if both cars are of similar speeds.
It is important to remember the old adage: "Slow in, fast out!" Some years ago, Stewart was at Ford's proving grounds with a group of journalists and one of the first autos to have data acquisition allowing them to know how fast the car was going at any point on a slalom track. Stewart was driving, as well as the journalists, and at the end of the day, guess what? Stewart had the fastest lap times. Wow, big deal, you say, but guess who had the fastest exit speeds from the corners? Stewart, again. But, here is the fun part. Guess who had the slowest corner entry speeds? Stewart again, he entered the corners completely under control of the car, preparing to begin applying trottle at the earliest possible moment, allowing him to have a maximum exit speed. He carried this speed advantage for the entire following straight. Sure, the journalists were going faster than the World Champion at corner entry, but that was only for about the first third of the corner. From there on, they were eating Jackie's dust!
TURN IN: Ok, you have now completed braking and are now in the proper gear for the corner. The next sequence may vary according to the type car you are driving, but in all cars, you will begin to apply at least some throttle. The slight weight transfer from the front to rear will stabilize the car and get you set to head for the apex. You should gradually increase throttle as you approach the apex. In some cars, you will be near full throttle before the apex. Sometimes, the apex will be marked by a pylon, but don't take it too literally. Your car may have handling characteristics that will make a slightly earlier or later apex more appropriate.
The diagram below shows what happens in a neutral handling car when too early or late an apex is taken. A late (blue) apex is almost always safe, but can be slow as you fail to use all the available track on exit. A too early apex can be HUGE trouble as you will simply run out of track. that is shown in the red line below.
( Naturally, this all comes with the disclaimer that the planets could misalign and you could get killed at a track day.
So, the info below is to be used at your own risk. I'm just trying to help you get started. )
How to Get Started with Track Days!!
Some Basic Theory on Going Fast
Your First Track Day (GASP!)
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Congratulations on considering taking your (probably much loved) street ride onto a (GASP!) racetrack!
I know it is a big step, but it is my hope that this manual will help make that big step as easy as possible.
First, a little background on how I got here myself.
I was fortunate enough in the mid-seventies to be involved with a great car club in Southern California whose members decided to try renting a local racetrack, so we could try out our somewhat dubious driving skills.
To say this was a golden period for many of my friends and me is an extreme understatement.
I was a newly licensed architect living in Palm Springs. I was working for a local firm making about $16,000 a year and had just bought my first house for $30,500. It was a big step and even though we still needed furniture, I got the inspiration to sell my worn out XKE roadster as well as an XKE racecar that I couldn’t afford to race, borrow some money from my wife’s boss, take out the biggest loan I could get and buy a used 1968 Ferrari GTB/4 for $15,000.
Back then, the Ferrari Daytona was the current model and anything earlier was just a cool used car. This was decades before these car became virtual works of art going for multimillion dollar prices.
Most of us were clueless on track, but a few seemed to be around a bit quicker than others. I happened to be one of those, so some other drivers would ask what I was doing. I had to admit, I didn’t understand a lot of why I was a bit faster, but would tell them to hop in and I’d take them around for a few laps.
I didn’t realize it then, but that was when I started instructing and I enjoyed it a lot.
Four decades and thousands of track miles later, I am still instructing and still love it.
Tools you are going to need
Inspecting Your Car
The first items to focus on should be safety items instead of performance enhancements. They can come later.
Here’s a checklist of things that you absolutely want to inspect before considering putting your car on track. In addition, most cars have certain areas that need a little extra attention. As you move further into the track day sport, start visiting some of the forums related to your type of car. You’ll find discussions there about strong points and weak points and areas that need attention.
Before you start the inspection process, it is a good idea to check with the track day organizer and see what is on their Tech Inspection sheet. Also, check to see if they will have inspection available at the track. If it has to be done beforehand, see if you can self inspect, or do you have to have it done by a shop.
First Level Inspection (do this EVERY time before a track day)
Level Two Inspection (do this before your first track day, if possible, and then monitor to see how often you need to repeat)
What to Wear
Helmets come in many different configurations and price ranges. The helmet you will need for the event can vary according to the group that is hosting the event.
Generally, there will be several key factors from their side.
There are lots of excellent companies manufacturing helmets. Keep in mind that if an inexpensive helmet is Snell approved and an expensive one has the same approval, they will probably be very similar in the way they protect you. Much of the difference in price between helmets is due to fit and finish elements. Also, you may find that the more expensive helmets offer better sizing options for a more comfortable fit.
When you are trying on a helmet, remember that it will never feel as tight as the first time you put it on. It should be a bit snug.
HelmetCheck.org has some excellent information about helmets with regard to standards and fit. They are motorcycle oriented, but much of information on how to tell if the helmet fits is valid for auto helmets, as well.
Gloves are not required for most track days, but a proper pair of driving gloves is very nice to have. As you advance, you will generally start adding driving gear and gloves should be an early addition. Naturally, it is good to be able to try them on. Be sure to get gloves that have a "grippy" palm and fingers.
Driving shoes for track days, in my opinion, are not critical at first. In general, any sort of running or athletic shoe will work fine, with one area of caution. Many of those types of shoes can be very wide and that is usually a problem, especially in cars with small footwells. Something like an old style sneaker or tennis shoe is better as they tend to be narrower.
The key reason that even I don't wear dedicated driving shoes is that over the course of a typical track day weekend, you are on your feet a LOT and most good driving shoes have fairly thin soles so that you get a better feel of the pedals in a full on race car. I accept a little less pedal feedback in return for a little more comfort.
Very few will show up for their first track day in a full Nomex driving suit. But, you will still need to use a little care in what you wear. In general, it is pretty simple. The following will be accepted by virtually any track day company and I would consider this to be the minimum from a safety standpoint.
Nomex Driving Suits
If you keep doing this, you should consider getting a driving suit. Track days are pretty casual, but there is a reason you are wearing a helmet and taking other precautions. If you do have a bad accident and the car catches fire, the fire burns just as hot in a production car as it does in any full bore racecar. Besides, they look really cool and give a sense of purpose and focus that is good to have.
Preparing Your Car
Your First Track Day (GASP!)
Some Basic Theory
Driving tips 101
The "I think I've got it all figgered out..." Syndrome
Lap Times and Lap Timers
The Next Session
How to Lower Your Lap Times
Big Car/Big Motor vs Little Car/Little Motor
I really mean that. I would like to sincerely congratulate you for making that big step toward your first track day. I admit that there seem to be lots of sometimes frightening unknowns but I hope to help you get rid of much of that anxiety.
For starters, I did my first track day in about 1974 and am still, remarkably, ALIVE! Not only that, I cannot recall ever damaging a car on a track day, unless it was a little gravel rash.
Today, of course, I am completely relaxed as I roll onto the track, but when I started, I had the same misgivings that much of you have.
To put it into perspective for both of us, about ten years ago, one of my closest friends just kept badgering me to do a motorcycle track day at Big Willow, a VERY fast track in Southern California. I had been telling him for years that I had done some crazy things in my life, but there was no way I was ever going to ride a motorcycle on a track day. I'm not THAT crazy!
Well, he finally convinced me to try it and we for a Ducati/Aprilia weekend as I had a 92 Ducati 900SS.
So, we get to the track, unload the bike, tape over the lights, remove the mirrors and put on our leathers.
They had three run groups, so I signd up for the slowest with about twenty riders in each group. They call up my group and I ride up to the starting grid WITH BUTTERFLIES IN MY STOMACH!! I hadn't felt that in decades in a car on a track day.
They flag me out on the track, fortunately a track that I knew well, and I start noticing a number of things almost immediately, as I compared my (sometimes a little too quick) riding on the street.
In other words, it was FAR safer and much more fun than running quickly down a mountain road. It took me a couple of laps to fully absorb that and then I just started to relax and work on my riding.
Sure, there were guys who were rocket ships and really knew what they were doing, but most were just average riders out having a good time. Soon, I even moved into the middle group, as I found I was passing people in the bottom group. Ultimately, I was running in the middle of the middle group. I'll take that!
It was soooo much fun. I clearly remember late Sunday sweeping into a long fairly fast right had corner, looking at about six riders running in a tight pack ahead of me. They had that wonderful fluid presence that only a motorcycle tipped into a corner can have and I just thought to myself how fantastic it was to be a part of it.
And that feeling is really what you should seek.
Don't worry about how fast you are. Nobody there cares except you. We tend to be remarkably self centered creatures and everyone else really is just thinking about themselves.
So here is how you get started.
Who do you run with?
Hooked on Driving is one of our partners and they offer HPDE (High Performance Driving Events) all over the country, so we like to put in a plug for them David Ray, the founder is a great guy, a racer and really loves to promote safe and fun events.
But, HOD may not offer events in your area or you might have heard of some other HPDE organizer that does a nice event.
Regardless, you will need to send in an entry form. There are several items to which you need to pay special attention.
The first is the Tech Inspection form. The requirements will vary a bit between organizers, so please read it carefully. They may require that the inspection be done by a professional mechanic or someone other than you. Whether someone else does it or you do it yourself, really go down the items and carefully check everything on the list. This is for your own good, so be very thorough. You don't want to find out mid corner than your lug nuts are loose!
Second, don't sign up for an upper level run group. Start at the bottom until you gain experience both with the track and your car. As you become quicker, contact someone in authority and ask them what is required to move to a faster group. They will be happy to help. Believe me, it is much more fun to be in a lower group where you are catching and passing cars than a faster group where you have to watch your mirrors all the time to avoid being run over!
YouTube is just great for track day newbies and also those with more experience.
The Night Before
Assuming you are going to be spending a night at a hotel before your first track day, get there in time to get plenty of rest.
Whatever your dining habits are, try to eat something that will not interfere with getting a good nights sleep.
Years ago, I was doing some testing in a Porsche 911 IMSA racecar. I ate lightly on Friday night, with no alcohol and was fresh and clearheaded on Saturday. After a nice day, I drove about 45 miles back to my home, picked up my girlfriend at the time and went out for a nice dinner. I had a couple of glasses of wine and had a reasonable nights sleep, slightly less than the night before. On Sunday, I didn't feel substantially different than Saturday, but my times in the same car were consistently a couple of seconds slower. I eventually made up the difference, but I had to work at it.
So now, on a track weekend, especially on a fast or dangerous track, I will usually limit my alcohol, for Friday night and Saturday night, to a single beer or glass of wine on Saturday night. Sometimes I skip that also.
Now, that is just what I do. But I truly believe it keeps me a little sharper.
Saturday- arriving at the track
Let's assume this is a two day event. Get to the track much earlier than you think you need to. Virtually everyone coming in tends to come at a similar time and entrance to the track will be restricted by how fast the workers on the gate can have everyone sign releases, pay and get wristbands. Often the track owner will charge a small entrance fee which is in addition to what you paid the group who are hosting the event.
When you clear the gate, start looking for your parking place for the day. This may be influenced by friends in other cars or distance to the track entry or snackbar or who knows?? Just pick a nice clear spot and set out your trackside gear. If you need to have your car teched at the track, asssuming that is offered, get in line right away.
If you need to change into your driving suit, the restrooms are usually the spot, so get that out of the way
Also, I never get into a car going on track without voiding my bladder. A surgeon one told me that bad things happen if you crash with a full bladder. So make that a habit!
Next, check the schedule for two things. When is the drivers meeting and when is your first run group.
Since you are new, there may be a "chalk talk" or van sessions or both before you get to go on track by yourself.
The Drivers Meeting is mandatory for all participants. Don't be late. You will hear a lot of general information such as:
In addition to the above, there will normally be a bit of Q&A, so you can speak up if you don't understand something. This is very much a situation where the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. So, don't be shy.
Toward the end of the Drivers Meeting, there will normaly be some direct info for newcomers. Often, there will be vans or similar vehicles with an experienced instructor at the wheel who can take you out for some orientation laps. Don't miss this! It will be extremely helpful.
After the van sessions, there will typically be a "chalk talk", as well. This will be more focused than the general Drivers Meeting, as all the participants are new to the track
If there is a van session available, the drive will typically be an experienced instructor. Normally, he will do a couple of laps with a running dialog of the correct racing line (the path you should follow), braking/shifting points, potential hazards, corner worker locations, etc. Do more listening than questions at first. He might answer your question in his talk. Don't panic if it seems like waaaaay too much info coming at once. A lot of this is very repetitive, so you will get a lot of bites at the apple.
The chalk talk will be given by one or two of the most experienced instructors and is usually in a classroom setting. The actual content can vay widely depending on the philosophy of the group hosting the event. But, rest assured, it is geared to getting you on track as quickly and safely as possible.
And BE PATIENT! Don't worry if your group is coming up soon and the chalk talk is running a little late. By mid afternoon on Sunday, I have often hear the track announcer asking if ANYBODY wants to run, as the track is two hours from closing and empty. Running a car as speed on track is both mentally and physically demanding. You will get plenty of track time. Be cool.
Your First Session on Track
If possible, see if you can get an instructor to accompany you in your first session. He knows the track well and will be able to get you off on the right foot.
Having an instructor in your car bring up a big question. Should you ask him to take the wheel for a few laps?
That can be a tough decision. Here are my feelings.
I have been instructing for over forty years and I think it is helpful to see someone with experience drive for a few laps.
First, he has been doing this a very long time and has driven LOTS of different cars, some probably nicer than yours and some not so nice. His goal is to help you, not steal some seat time in someone else's pride and joy.
He will know the track like the back of his hand, so he will be able to show the race line to you better than by just describing it.
Although he may not have experience in your exact car, there are some constants from car to car and even without using 100% of the car's capabilities, he will be able to show you something about how high the cornering capabilities of your car are. This will give you confidence that you are not "on the edge", but are well within the performance envelope of your car.
He will also be able to show how important smoothness and consistancy are to learnng to drive fast. This is extremely important.
There is always the question of what happens if he does some damage to your car. In almost all cases, he will not assume responsibility as you gave him permission. The good news is that most instructors will have perfect records on that issue. And if there is a mechanical issue like a blown tire, I would imagine you would prefer to have an instructor at the wheel rather than yourself.
But, ultimately, do what is most comfortable for yourself.
If you cannot get an instructor for your first session, concentrate on learning the correct line. Don't worry about being fast, try to be as smooth as possible.
Don't use maximum redline RPM. If your car has a 7500 redline, shift around 6500. It reduces stress on both you and your car. It will also make little difference in your lap times. You are probably losing so much time in the corners that speed on the straights won't matter much.
WATCH YOUR MIRRORS! You need to glance up fairly often just so you know what is unfolding around you.
Passing, and being passed.
The organizer of the event will set the method of passing to be used. In the upper classes, often "open" passing is used, which essentially means it is like real racing. You can pass or be passed anywhere on the track and don't need any sort of wave by.
Most classes will do one of two types or combine the two.
The first is called "point by" passing, which means the passing car cannot proceed until the driving being passed puts his hand up and points which side he wants to be passed on. One the passing driver gets the signal, he can proceed to make the pass. Normally, if multiple cars are passing, each will need to see the signal.
The second method it to designate certain areas, usually the main straights, where passing is allowed. A point by may or may not be required. If no point by is required, there will normally be a rule designating on which side the pass is to be made.
Some groups may require both that passing is only in certain areas and that a point by signal is given.
Even in areas where no point by is required, it is a nice courtesy and the overtaking driver will appreciate it. With my experience level, I pass a lot of cars and always feel MUCH better if I know the other driver sees me, especially if I am closing at a high level of speed.
Checkered flag and the cool down lap.
First, let's hope you are not THE GUY who didn't see the checkered flag ending your session. That guy slows up everything while everyone waits for him to make one more lap than he should.
On the front straight, take a look at your gauges and check the starters stand for flags. Sometimes, a checker will also be displayed at some of the corner workers stations. Regardless of where you see the checker, exit the track as soon as you come to the pit entry. Don't take another lap.
As soon as you see the checker, slow down and let your car cool off. Your brakes may be the only component that really needs cooling, but some cars will have elevated oil and water temperatures, as well. Also, it gives you an opportunity to drive the race line more slowly and really see what is happening with the track.
If you have an instructor with you, it is an excellent opportunity for him to give you more feedback on what is going on with you, the car and the track.
BE CAREFUL!!! You would be surprised how many new drivers spin out or even crash on the cool down lap. It is very easy to have such a large drop in concentration because it SEEMS the session is over, that you can suddenly be caught off guard by the fact that you are still going pretty fast! So, remember, that session is not over until you car is safely parked in the paddock.
One more run down the hill!
Almost everyone knows a story about a skier who, at the end of a long day, decides to make the classic "one more run" and then falls down and injures himself.
This is something you need to be very careful about on track days. If it has been a long day and there is one last session coming up, be sure you really can go out safely (and come back!). Think back about the last session you drove. Did you feel as smooth as you did earlier in the day or were you making some little mistakes. As you tire, your concentration suffers and you just don't drive as well.
When you combine that with tires that may be deteriorating and a very low sun angle, you could very easily come into a fast corner with the sun directly in your eyes and less traction than you thought you would have.
So the bottom line is you will have many, many more opportunities to get track time and there is nothing wrong with just saying that you have had a long day and maybe it's time to just go grab a beer and brag about how great you were doing.