How to tackle your first track day

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Oct 6, 2022 | track day, Track Car | Posted in Features | From the June 2015 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

That first track day can be intimidating: high speeds, looming walls and the variable of traffic. Fear not. Millions before you have successfully tackled their first track days, and your friends at GRM are here to help you do the same. We come bearing lots of advice presented in easy-to-digest, bite-sized chunks.

If you’ve never done a track event before, this is the year you should give it a go. Programs like the SCCA’s new Track Night in America driven by Tire Rack can make taking this leap easier than ever. Track events are a great way to enjoy your car at speed while hanging out with like-minded individuals. Just be warned that they can become an addiction.

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

During your warmup lap, take stock of the emergency crew positions. Should something go wrong–hey, stuff can happen–you’ll want to know where to stop, drop and roll.

Don’t worry about scorching lap times or landing a ride with Red Bull Racing. Your main focus needs be clicking off safe, smooth laps. The speed will come with the smoothness–in fact, in a few pages you’ll see an entire article devoted to the art of track day driving. 

Your car isn’t the only one on track, so situational awareness must become very important. Keep tabs on traffic, including those faster cars coming up behind you. Remember that faster car gridded a few spots back? Where is it going to end up half a lap later? 

Technically the overtaking car is responsible for safely completing the pass, but you still don’t want to get caught off guard–or serve as the session’s jam car as faster drivers line up waiting to be motioned by. So be sure to regularly make quick, concentrated glances at your mirrors.

Photography Credit: Ken Neher

That situational awareness extends to your own car, too. Be aware of noises, smells and vibrations that could signal an impending problem. Trust us, you’d rather deal with those issues on pit lane than out on track. 

Once per lap–usually on the longest straight, when you can relax a bit–take a look at your gauges and warning lights. Anything running warmer than ideal? If so, hit the pits and figure out what’s up. Remember, this isn’t a race, so there’s no need to push a car to–or past–its breaking point.

As the session goes on, tires can get greasy and brakes can go soft. Learn how to sense these changes. You may have to alter your driving, too, by being easier on the car and braking earlier. Or you may need to call the session a few laps early. 

Here’s a common rookie mistake: forgetting to breathe. Periodically remind yourself to take a few deep breaths. While you’re at it, wiggle those fingers, too, and take another glance at the gauges.

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

Keep your eyes on the track, yes, but don’t forget about the flaggers. They’re there to relay information–both commands and advisories–to ensure your safety. As you pass each worker station, make a habit of glancing their way. And on the cooldown lap, don’t forget to give them a thank-you wave.

Communication is a two-way street. A worker throw a flag your way? Acknowledge him with a head nod, finger wave or some other (polite) gesture. Faster car come up behind you when you’re not quite at a passing zone? Again, a nod of the head or wave of the finger in that driver’s general direction can quickly confirm that you’re aware of the situation.

Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

You paid to use the entire track, so use it. The classic line through a turn has you start at the curbing, cross the track to the apex, and then track all the way out to the edge of the track. Know why? It’s usually the fastest way through a turn. Don’t kill your momentum by limiting how far you track out of the turns.

You’re physically comfortable behind the wheel, aren’t you? And your seat posture allows you reach the entire steering wheel? Oh, and you have a good dead pedal, right?

When it’s time to brake for a turn, brake like you mean it. If you’re jumping on and off the brakes, the suspension will become loaded and then unloaded. This is a great way to spin out.

Before going on track, your car must pass an inspection performed by an official, a shop or, in some cases, you. The specifics will be explained when you register, but no matter the exact drill, there are some basics to inspect. Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Get all of the loose junk–yes, all of it–out of the car. This includes cell phones, change, burger wrappers and anything else not securely mounted to the car. 

You don’t need the latest track tires, but yours should be safe and free of defects. The factory-recommended pressures are a fine starting point. 

Brake fluid should be clean, fresh and recently bled. Ideally it’s of a high-temp variety. 

Make sure you can get comfortable in the car while wearing a helmet.

Check the security of your front seats. Are all of the bolts tight?

Wheels can experience some pushing forces. Do they have any cracks or defects? Are there any missing lug nuts?

Track time puts way more stress on the brakes than autocross, so we’d recommend running circuit-friendly pads. All-out race pads are probably a bit much–and can be very dusty–but most companies offer a street-friendly compound that’s suited to the temperatures reached on track.

We’re fans of braided-steel brake lines. They provide a solid feel and also fend off rocks and debris. 

Check the fluids. Oil fresh? Coolant topped off? You’re not low on differential fluid, are you?

Anything leaking? And we’ll assume you have a secure battery tie-down.

The throttle return spring works, right? If your car is older, how close is the timing belt to its expiration date? What about the clutch? If anything is clunking, fix it now.

Notice that we haven’t recommended or suggested any speed parts.

The track isn’t a ribbon of perfectly smooth, perfectly consistent asphalt. Bumps, ridges, rises, crests, pavement changes and oil spots can all limit traction. Learn how to read the pavement. Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

Off-camber turns will offer less grip than banked ones. 

Bumps can bounce tires from the pavement; in a braking zone, for example, this can extend braking distances. 

Ridges, crests, humps and road crown can cause a car to become light on its feet, again limiting traction.

Curbs can upset the chassis.

Concrete usually offers more grip than asphalt, but of course the opposite can be true. As the sun sets, the quickly cooling track can become slippery with dew.

Marbles–bits of balled-up rubber mixed with gravel–often collect outside of the racing line. Get off-line, and you may be in for a ride. Fluids and dirt on track can, obviously, limit traction, too. 

Painted curbs and markings may be slippery, especially when wet. 

The patches found at the turn-in and apex points may offer more or less traction than the rest of the track. The locals will know.  

Photography Credit: Photosbyjuha.com

Not comfortable with the driver or drivers around you? Maybe they’re new and still coming up to speed, or perhaps they’re rocketing down the straights and parking it in the turns? Either way, try taking a trip down pit lane to create some distance from them on track. And remember, stay slow and safe through the pits.

Over the years we’ve seen plenty of incidents occur at pit-in and pit-out. Don’t be that driver. Take it easy when entering and leaving the track, especially when you’re faced with narrow, winding pit lanes. Remember, the Formula 1 teams probably aren’t scouting that day. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

This is supposed to be social, too. Make new friends. And why not bring some of your own to the track?

Show up with a full load of fuel, as running a partially filled tank in order to save a few pounds isn’t going to really affect performance. There’s not much worse than running out of fuel on track.

Remember to feed the driver. Don’t skip breakfast that morning.

Between sessions, stay hydrated, clean the windshield, check fluids, monitor tire pressures, and torque the lug nuts. And remember what Mom said: Before you get in the car, visit the bathroom.

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Comments
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ericstewart
ericstewart GRM+ Member
1/14/22 1:32 p.m.

Make sure your lugs are cool before you re-torque them unless you want them to twist off in your hands :-)

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/14/22 4:07 p.m.

We’re fans of braided-steel brake lines. They provide a solid feel and also fend off rocks and debris. 

Not sure I would recommend these, especially to someone new, they tend to fail from the inside-out while rubber lines tend to fail from the outside-in, braided steel lines also don't tend to warn of impending failure due to wear or damage with a squishy pedal like rubber lines do. They're also relatively expensive and are more difficult to route because they're much less flexible. Uncoated ones are also more vulnerable to self-damage from dirt getting on them and will saw away at anything they touch (general problems with uncoated braided steel lines of any kind).

And after all that, the difference in pedal feel vs. rubber lines in good shape is quite minor - some on this board would argue that it's nonexistent and demand blind testing to be convinced otherwise. I've put them on one of my cars before but I think I'll stick to rubber lines in the future.

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