How to make track time both safe and fun

Staff
By Staff Writer
Apr 30, 2022 | track day, race track, track time | Posted in Safety , Features | From the Feb. 2013 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Story by Matt Mullins

It’s a natural progression: You’ve bought a sporty car, attended driving school, and now you’re headed to the track with your pride and joy to drive it as its engineers intended.

The track is one of the last great frontiers for the car enthusiast and the gateway to full-on racing. The allure of the track can be irresistible. To quote driving instructor Jim Davis, aka Jimmy D, “I told the guys who got me into racing that I wish they had gotten me hooked on drugs because at least they have programs to get you off of them.” 

The race track is also a great way to enjoy a car at its limits. Although there are no winners, champions or real restrictions on car prep limits, noncompetitive track days have become a giant part of the sports car scene.

The basics are simple: Run laps upon laps upon laps. Most groups offer both classroom and in-car instruction—often available for both novices and seasoned vets—while also setting run groups based upon driver speed and experience. 

How much? We’ve run world-famous tracks like Daytona and Sebring for less than $100 per day.

Your first track day will be exhilarating and perhaps a little intimidating. It can be one of the most memorable days—in a good or bad way, so let’s take a look at two possible scenarios:

  • Scenario A: You drive fast on the track, learn a lot and bring the car home in one piece.
  • Scenario B: You crash the car and have to call for a ride home.

Most track days end with the first outcome: You conquer the track and triumphantly return home with great memories. A crashed car is always a possibility, however. Let’s hope that with a little preparation, the shiny side will stay up, and a well-exercised car goes back to park in the garage at the end of the weekend. 

Plan Your Trip

Choose the event and plan out everything in advance. This will help you focus on the most important part of the weekend—driving on track. 

There are many great options for getting on track: through car clubs, race sanctioning organizations and tracks themselves. The specifics can vary between groups. For instance, some groups allow convertibles on track while others do not. Spend some time prepping and get answers to questions to avoid frustrations at the track. All will require a helmet, but check their rules for the exact specifications.

After signing up and getting the car prepared, get a good night’s sleep to be ready for the physical and mental challenge of learning a new track. You will be more exhausted than expected at day’s end, so avoid a long drive home immediately following a track day if possible. Besides, there is usually some great bench racing and camaraderie with the fellow drivers, so getting a hotel room near the track is a good plan.

Set Goals

What should be the goal of a track day or weekend? Well, since there are no trophies or prize money involved, the pressure of having to win the event is relieved. 

A great goal is to bring the car back in one piece. Another is just to have fun. Yes, it’s just that simple.

Comparing lap times or shooting for a top speed can get you off track—literally. In fact, some groups frown specifically upon recording lap times during these track sessions. Why? Two words: red mist.

Sure, it’s natural to want to know what the lap times are, but keep in mind that many track conditions change throughout the day, so they can vary by a second or two easily. Trying to accurately compare any other cars to yours is tough to do since any variable—from tire air pressure to suspension tweaks and engine mods—will affect lap times. A range of a few seconds is good enough to benchmark when starting out. Remember this, and it’s much more likely you’ll make good decisions and have a great time. 

Your Car, Your Problem

If it all goes wrong, and your car gets modified from contact with another car, guardrail, concrete wall or other hard object, it’s your problem. While the driving instructors and track day organizers all will say that they feel your pain, they won’t be there to guide you on how to get the car home, repair it and, most difficult, explain to your family, friends and insurance agent what happened. 

This is very important to keep in mind when listening to other drivers and instructors. As a new person on track, it’s easy to look at everyone else as an expert. Don’t make this mistake because here, experience does matter. 

The skill level of driving instructors can run the gamut from racing legend to someone who has just slightly more experience than the average driver, so ask about your instructor’s background. This will help you gauge how much weight to give his or her words. 

Some organizations hire professional drivers to instruct, and others get volunteers by offering free track time. Occasionally, a seasoned expert is among the volunteer group, and there are many great club instructors.

Do the research: Ask around, and don’t be afraid to move on if you hear warning bells ringing. If the instructor yells out from the passenger seat, “Man, I’ve never gone this fast before!” maybe it’s time to ask for a new coach. 

Having both the instructor and coach surpassing their limits is a recipe for an off-track excursion. Bottom line: If you’re not comfortable with the instruction given, let the chief or lead instructor know and ask for a replacement.  A great instructor will provide constant feedback while in the car, especially when a student is starting out. 

These are the most important words with regard to driving: Look where you want to go. Keeping your eyes up and looking far ahead will do wonders for smoothing out steering inputs and throttle application. Initial brake pressure should be firm, while the brake release should be slow and smooth to keep the car balanced. The in-car instruction should consist of simple directives and phrases to help the driver stay ahead of the car. Fine detail and explanations are best saved for after the completion of each driving session.

Be a great student of driving by not taking offense to criticism. For some reason, many of us expect to be great race car drivers immediately. Very few drivers just naturally know what to do right away, and many champions started out pretty rough—then improved with more and more laps. 

Seat time is truly the only way to learn, and a great instructor will help get the most of the instructional time behind the steering wheel. Having realistic expectations puts the driver in the best frame of mind to learn and improve. 

Checkered Flag

At the end of your first track experience, you may become hooked on this great hobby. The chance to drive historic circuits around the country and even the world offers a lifetime of adventure and the chance to form some great friendships. 

Track days pull together everyone in the automobile industry, from vintage car collectors to engineers, designers and professional racers. Access to race tracks has never been better, and the cars available today offer performance that was reserved for dedicated race cars only a few years ago. So make a bucket list of tracks and start checking them off.

In the words of our instructor friend Jim Davis, “There are no programs to get you off of this addiction, so just embrace it and clear out some space in your garage. There may be a dedicated track car in your future.”

Matt Mullins is the chief driving instructor for the BMW Performance Driving School in Greer, South Carolina. Learn more about the school at bmwperformancecenter.com.

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Comments
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fatallightning
fatallightning Reader
1/4/22 1:02 p.m.

I just wanted to say I like that S-Type R. That is all.

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/4/22 1:28 p.m.

All I'll add is:

Many people may be familiar with Myers Briggs (DiSC) personality study / training.  Getting an instructor that works for you is no different; some personality types mesh better than others.

I'm very  much a Chatty Cathy, despite having the word analyst in my job title, I always ask the student what they do for a living. If they tell me they are an engineer I forewarn them about my being chatty and tell them if it get's to be to much to let me know right away.

I let students know that I'm going to observe them for two laps then start giving feedback. The point being so that I can see what we need to work on. At the end of every debrief I let them know what we are going to do for the next session. 

With that said some people will be overwhelmed by to much planning as they already may be stressing. For those folks I still have a plan but I keep that to myself and work on getting them relaxed. I try to casually introduce a subject just before we go out "let's work on your looking ahead" etc.I've mentioned it before. 

My one red flag is instructors who are coaching people to go faster. New drivers are still working on fundamentals and having them try to go faster is a recipe for an off. It may seem obvious but I've seen guys do it.

 

 

fatallightning
fatallightning Reader
1/4/22 1:54 p.m.

Well now you changed the lede photo and I look like a dummy.

adam525i
adam525i GRM+ Memberand Dork
1/4/22 2:02 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

You sound like a pretty good instructor, your students are lucky to have you.

I've had a couple of bads ones but have been lucky to work with more really great instructors. My first instructor with our club was in the twilight of his career and was only there for the Saturday (fortunately), he was so nervous in the passenger seat of my car at any speed  and the feedback was barked and yelled but not clear at all. I went out for a ride with him in his car after lunch and quickly realized he was no different when he was driving being very nervous and frustrated driving in the instructor group (WHY'S EVERYONE DRIVING SO HARD, PEOPLE NEED TO SLOW DOWN! as another car goes by after being held up waiting for a point by). I don't think he had any fun that weekend and I have not seen him since. The following day I had the opposite experience and it saved the weekend for me. He was the perfect follow up, calm, relaxed and encouraging, it felt like we were flying around the track. Since then they have all been excellent and I look forward to working with some new ones this year.

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/4/22 4:37 p.m.

In reply to adam525i :

Thank you; maybe an add to this is ask the instructor why they became an instructor?

In my case it's mostly because I hate to see people struggle. I see people thrashing around and I know they're getting frustrated and not having fun. I love motorsports and just want to share the passion and fun.  

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/4/22 4:39 p.m.
fatallightning said:

Well now you changed the lede photo and I look like a dummy.

Like those of us who spend large sums of our money chasing our friends round in circles are complete geniuses.............you're in good company here.

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