Some folks enjoy their sporty rides by polishing them up and visiting a car-show on a Sunday evening, to show off and socialize with other car fanatics sharing similar interests. Others enjoy their rides in a more solitary fashion, with a Sunday drive down their favourite winding backroad. Others still enjoy visiting their local road course track, driving fast, pushing their cars hard, and polishing up their driving skills in the process.
Maybe you’ll soon become one of thousands of Canadians who will visit a track day in their ride this summer for the first time, to take in some weekend lapping. If you’re contemplating your first summertime track-day, here’s a look at a few things you should know.
Choose a Track Day
Look for a track day that works for you, considering pricing, driving distance, nearby overnight accommodations if you don’t live nearby (track days are very exhausting!), distance to nearby fuel, distance to nearby shops and garages in the not-so-unlikely event of a mechanical problem, and the track day format in general.
Some track days are open, operated like a free-for-all, with unlimited track access. Other track days allow drivers to register in ‘novice’ or ‘advanced’ categories, keeping skill levels separated. This reduces the likelihood of novice drivers being intimidated, while forcing a rest for you and your ride between track sessions. Be aware of the nature of the group you’ll be lapping with, their expectations, and any segregation into groups.
Check the Rules and Conditions
How is passing handled? Are there exhaust sound restrictions? Is there a mandatory driver’s meeting? Are apexes and braking zones marked? Are open-topped convertibles allowed? What’s the policy regarding helmet use? What happens if you spin off of the track? Does the track-day in question require participants to have completed a training course? If detailed rules aren’t available on the website or calendar of the track-day you’re considering, a quick email or phone call can set you up in quick order. It’s always a good idea to be aware of the rules and regulations before heading out.
Make your First Track Day a Track School
It’s highly advisable to make your first track visit one that includes some quality instruction, so you can learn the track, driving basics, and other pointers from a qualified instructor. Rather than self-teaching, an instructed track day experience will set you up with skills and knowledge vital to safety and satisfaction at future track days. Untrained track-day novices are more likely to slow down experienced drivers, become stressed, stress out event officials, make mistakes, and have accidents.
A quality instructional course will make your first track day easier on you and easier on your ride, while laying the foundation for a happy future of track day success.
Rick Morelli, an instructor with Driveteq, says “if you are not a seasoned track driver, look for a group that can provide theoretical and practical in-car instruction to build a good foundation. This will help drivers operate within their limits, and the limits of their car, because failure to do so can have consequences”.
What to Bring? What to do?
A little advice on how to prep for your first track day can help things go more smoothly. First, plan to arrive early, and leave ample time to stop and fully fuel your ride as close to the track facility as possible. For summer track days, a cooler with beverages, a fold-out chair, and an umbrella (for shade) are great to have, if space allows. Bring plenty of water and Gatorade, as well as light and nutritious snacks that won’t cause tiredness or a grease-coma. Clif Bars and Trail Mix are some examples. Keep an eye on your fuel level during the day, topping up at any available breaks (lunch, for instance).
Further, the evening before leaving, remove any unneeded objects from your ride’s cabin and trunk. The less junk on board, the better. In fact, many track days require your ride to be all but empty before you hit the track surface, as unsecured objects can be a safety hazard.
Prepping your Ride
Anybody can lap anything they like, and the vehicle itself isn’t nearly as important for track day success as the way the driver operates it. Whether you drive a WRX, a Corvette, a Genesis, a Civic, or even a Pontiac Aztec (this is rare, but not unheard of), a few simple preparation tips ahead of track day are highly advised.
First, ensure your tires and brakes are up to snuff – newer brake pads, newer rotors, and fresh new brake fluid are all a fantastic idea ahead of a track day. A quick inspection of your tires, suspension, driveline, and cooling system by a mechanic before the first track day of the season is a good idea, too. Remember: you can’t overchange fluids, and fresh fluids can help ensure your ride will successfully and consistently handle the added heat and stress of fast driving.
A final note: remember that, especially in a performance car, a skilled driver (or a novice driver with an instructor) won’t rapidly wear brake pads and tires down, but also, remember that the hard driving characteristic of a track day can tend to make un-maintained parts or poorly-installed modifications show themselves. Translation? You and / or your mechanic should confirm that your ride is in tip-top shape before hitting the track. An alignment is a fantastic idea, too.
A few pointers to prep yourself for your first track day include ensuring you arrive rested and alert, avoiding TV the night before (which can strain your eyes into the next day), avoiding excessive caffeine, and remembering that track-day folk are typically an enthusiastic bunch, happy to meet newcomers and show them the ropes. Watching YouTube videos of other cars driving the track in question, to virtually familiarize yourself with the course, is a great idea, too. Arrive fresh, willing to learn, and with the understanding that you’re not at a race.
Some basic principles are vital to a comfortable, safe and enjoyable track day, and if you choose an instructed course, your instructor will cover many of them. First is driving position. When driving on the track, you’ll want to sit as upright and erect in your seat as possible, which makes it easier to keep your head up and eyes forward, for safety. Generally, you should be able to rest your wrists on the top of the steering wheel, while your shoulders are still in contact with the seatback. Practice keeping your eyes as far up the way as possible, letting your peripheral vision place your ride width-wise on the track, while your eyes look to the next corner.
You’ll also need to keep your left foot planted firmly on the dead-pedal at virtually all times when you aren’t using it for the clutch. In most cases, drivers are advised to give the vehicle one job at a time: do all of your pre-corner braking before you steer, and all of your steering before getting back on the throttle. Hollywood driving is bad – so don’t get thrashy at the controls. Smooth and steady is easier on you, easier on your ride’s parts, safer, and generally faster.
Finally, keep alert to your surroundings – scanning the area near you for signs of hazards or a track-mate who wants to pass.
Are your ride’s brakes getting soft and squishy, and performing poorly? Is your transmission or differential getting louder? Is your coolant temperature gauge slowly rising? These are some signs of heat buildup, and that it’s time to consider a cool-down lap or two, to give your ride a rest. In some vehicles, added noise from the transmission and differential can be considered normal in hard use, as fluids become hot, and their cushioning properties change. Remember: the cool-down lap is vitally important to help keep your rides tires, brakes and fluids in tip-top shape.
Before you exit the track after a few laps, or whenever you notice signs of heat building up, simply allow your fellow track-mates to pass you, and then do a lap at Sunday-drive speeds. If possible, two cool-down laps are even better. Activate your hazard lights, pull off of the racing line (consult your track marshal for cool-down lap rules), and let air flow over and through your ride, to bring temperatures back to normal, slowly.
If you’re uncomfortable doing a slower cool-down lap on the track, a few-minute drive on public roads nearby is just as good. Never pit off and park your ride immediately after a hot-lap. Many drivers, and especially those drivers of turbocharged cars, allow their rides to idle a minute or two after exiting the track, before shutting the engine off.
Listen to Yourself
Your own mind and body can exhibit warning signs of fatigue and exhaustion as you progress through track day. Corners that begin surprising you, trouble being smooth at the controls, or a feeling of disorientation are all good signs that you’re getting worn out. Track day driving is exhausting, and pushing any further can result in an accident.
Pull off, assess your alertness, and remember that you needn’t run your ride until the very end of the day. Call it quits when you’re done, not when the track day is done.
Additional Pro Tips
Here are a few additional Pro Tips for maximum track day success and enjoyment.
It’s Not a Race
You’re not at track day to set a lap record, to win a prize, or to impress anyone, so don’t overdrive yourself, or your car. Keep within your limits, know when to stop or slow down, and watch what’s happening on the track during your breaks.
Let People Pass
At countless track-days across the country, drivers show poor sportsmanship by holding up a line of faster drivers from passing them. Letting a faster driver pass you isn’t embarrassing, no matter what they drive. Being a good novice involves letting people pass you, and doing so makes you a champ, and earns respect from your fellow track-goers. Holding them up does not. Rick Morelli adds “checking your ego at the door is a good idea – and so is staying humble, and within your personal limits”.
Your fellow track-goers aren’t your rivals, or your competitors. Make friends with them – you may even be able to jump in with a more experienced driver to learn tips and tricks, or to get some advice or help.
When it’s time to leave for the day, give your ride a quick once-over to confirm it’s still safe for use on public roads. Check your tires for signs of excessive damage (especially if you’ve exited the track surface or had a spin), confirm your brakes feel strong and bite hard, and check all fluid levels and tire pressures.
Tire damage, like that pictured here, should be addressed immediately. In this photo, the tire likely became damaged when the wheel dipped off of the track surface.