Open track days, demystified
Do you enjoy straightening out curves on the road? Does your significant other smirk when you hit the perfect apex on an on-ramp? Is there a favorite left-right combination on your drive home from work? Are you sick of getting speeding tickets? Maybe you recognize that endangering the lives of the public is a selfish and stupid thing to do.
If you answered yes to any of these questions: Rest assured, you are not alone and there is a cure.
Welcome to the world of Open Track Days (OTD), also known as High-Performance Driving Education (HPDE). Chances are you’ve heard of these events. Your neighbor or a buddy already participates in them, perhaps. It’s that simple solution that has been beneath your schnoz for quite some time.
This article is your road map to successfully navigating your first track day.
Let’s start with the basics. You will need a valid driver’s license. Yours of course. Anything else would be a form of fraud, and that’s a horrible way to start the day. If you don’t have a driver’s license for some reason, there are organizations that will let you on track, but you’ll have some explaining to do in advance. Yes, poor decisions made on public roads may haunt you even on a closed road course.
You’ll need a helmet. No, not your old skateboarding helmet, jet ski helmet or your dad’s ’70s glitter motorcycle helmet, but a certified and safety-rated helmet. There are two basic certifications for helmets. The “DOT” certification is a very basic set of criteria meant to make sure that the cheapest motorcycle helmets are more useful than a leather cap. It’s found at the back base of the helmet. Above that, there is the Snell certification, which can be found inside the helmet. Most groups require a minimum safety rating of Snell M (motorcycling and other motorsports). If you think wheel-to-wheel racing may be in your future or simply want better protection, you should opt to buy a helmet with a Snell SA rating (Competitive Automotive Sports). Each rating also has a year. New Snell ratings are issued every five years. For an OTD, a date code of 2010 is the current minimum standard, but that’s only because of supply issues. Soon the minimum requirement will be 2015, like it currently is for competition track events. So if you’re helmet shopping, make sure you’re looking at M2015 or SA2015.
Next, you’ll need some money for registration. This of course varies per track and OTD administrator, but the cost is generally between $250 and $500. You should also budget for lunch, refreshments, coaching, fuel, and additional maintenance costs for your vehicle. (More on that later.) The world of motorsports is not for the weak of wallet, but with good upfront decision making and mechanical sympathy, you can mitigate your spending. Think smiles per mile!
There’s something I’m forgetting … oh yeah, a track-worthy vehicle.
What is a track-worthy vehicle? It’s up to the race track, and the track-day organization, to decide. Calling out the obvious first, the lower the center of gravity the better. Not much ground clearance needed here. Though some sport trucks and SUVs may be approved, most OTD programs do not allow them. You are better off with a sport sedan, hot-hatch, or coupe. Front, rear, or all-wheel drive is a matter of personal preference. High or low horsepower? That’s once again your choice, but let’s just say it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast, than it is to drive a fast car slow. Ultimately, the former is the more prudent way to learn, but it’s your wallet and neck on the line.
Once you have bought, borrowed, or rented (from a supplier that provides track-day cars, not Hertz. Trust us on this!) your track-day car, it is time to prep it. “Wait, what? I can’t just drive in off the street, pay my money and put my car on track?” Sometimes you can, but you shouldn’t. Taking your car on track involves prep work, or at least the money to pay someone else to prep your vehicle.
Technical inspections are a requirement for all participants at an Open Track Day. The purpose is to mitigate risk. The tech process and form should not be treated as just a paper form that needs to be checked-off to get you on track. Your technical inspection is a genuine assessment of the condition and track-preparedness of your vehicle.
At a minimum, you will probably be asked to verify the following and even have these items verified by the inspection team:
• No leaking fluids and body work in good condition
• Wheel lugs torqued to spec and good wheel bearings
• Tires in good condition (not dry rotted, cords or wear bars showing, or older than 5 years)
• Brake fluid topped off and serviced within the last 6 months
• Brake pads with ample pad to comfortably last through the day
• Battery properly secured
• All loose objects removed from vehicle before entering the course
• Approved roll over protection for convertibles with no acceptable factory roll over protection
It’s worth being careful about all of the above, because there is some risk in this hobby. Not just for you, but everyone at the event. A couple of unchecked wheel lugs can result in a rogue cannonball. One loose nut behind the wheel can lead to clean-up delays, an Uber ride home, and a large repair bill. We should all be thankful for the overly serious tech inspection process. It tends to filter and/or educate the unprepared driver and unworthy track vehicle. By the way, optional track day insurance is available and more affordable than you might think, especially if you end up needing it.
When at the track, think of yourself as an airplane pilot. There is a series of check lists you need to go to through before getting going. The goal is to get on and off track safely, so you can later make up tales about how you were deep into triple digit speeds at the end of the longest straight. Remember: Speed is relative, as will be the tolerance of those to whom you tell your track tales.
We are blessed to live in America in that there is a road course within a couple of hours from most major cities. It may even benefit you to live in a rural area, which is the natural birthplace of many road courses. The luckiest driving enthusiasts have a road course within an hour of their home.
A simple web search will guide you to your nearest road course. This venue may facilitate its own track days; however, your surest bet is check out motorsportreg.com to find nearby events. MotorsportReg is the world’s largest motorsport event calendar. The majority of tracks in the nation use this platform for event details and registration.
You’ve now registered for an event, prepped your vehicle, and are ready to head to the track. Not so fast … your prep work does not end there. Spending a day or a weekend at the track is an outdoor activity. Pack and dress for the weather. You’ll be outdoors all day, and guess what? Track days run rain or shine. No refunds for fair-weather drivers. So learn to love the cards that mother nature deals you. Here is a short list of items you’ll want to pack to make the track feel like your home away from home.
• portable chair(s)
• pop-up canopy
• large weathertight tote
• extra t-shirt(s) and socks
Your vehicle will need some comfort too. It is recommended to invest in the following for your loyal steed:
• A proper tire pressure gauge. Arguably, this is the single most important tool you can own. Whether behind the wheel or in the paddock, tire pressures provide you with actionable information that should be used to make adjustments
• A torque wrench with the correct size socket for your lugs. Check your lugs to factory specs before every track session. It is not recommended to torque when the lugs/studs are still hot.
• A quart of oil is also a good idea. You may find that driving your car in the higher end of RPM range for a total 2 hours may require the occasional top-off
• As you become more experienced and start pushing the car more, a track toolbox, jack, and jack stands will invaluable
• Fuel. Not everyone can carry additional fuel jugs, so be sure to fill up your tank before you get to the track. You may even need to head out at lunch for a second fill up.
Just like any other activity in life, track days are more fun when you do it with friends or family. Bring one, the other, or both! If you can’t, don’t worry. The track is a great place to meet people and most everyone is super friendly. When have you met a car person who doesn’t like to talk about their car?
Driving up to any track for the first time can be intimidating. I still get butterflies driving up to any track. It’s a sense of excitement and giddiness that I wish you to be comfortable with and never lose. All tracks have their magic and nostalgia about them. They also have their quirks and processes. Knowing where to paddock, register, and tech is a matter of asking a friendly face or following the herd.
There is no track in America you can set foot on without first signing a waiver (and most likely getting a wristband). Once you’ve done that, you’re official, or at least legal, anyway. You may even keep that wristband on for a few hours past the event as a reminder of what you’ve just accomplished. After you’ve signed in, head to the paddock—a fancy word for where to park and claim as your spot for the day. Look for a similar make/model driver to paddock alongside. Who knows, they may have that one part or tool you’ll need and have forgotten to bring.
Before unpacking everything, head over to registration and sort your affairs with them. You may get a second wristband, and now you’re really official. While you’re at registration ask them where “tech” is. Head over to tech and inquire about the process. Some OTD programs will come to you, some simply want your completed paperwork, but all will want to look at least your helmet.
Head back to your paddock spot, unpack, try to be as organized as possible, and follow the required tech process. This should be a breeze for you if you’ve done your homework.
If you’ve given yourself ample time, you’ll have time to make new friends and maybe even walk the track (ask permission first). During your visit to registration, you will have been informed of when and where the driver’s meeting will be. Driver’s meetings are mandatory. They should be taken seriously. Look, even Formula 1 drivers go driver’s meetings. Vital information is provided regarding on-track/off-track processes, course conditions, schedule and perhaps even a free lunch.
During the driver’s meeting they will most likely provide a flagging demonstration. Brightly colored flags are how corner workers communicate with you while on track. They let you know vital information, such as: Is a car that spun out blocking the path in my immediate future? Is there something on track the could affect the available grip of the driving surface? Pay attention, because a missed flag can result in a shortened day for you.
Another valuable tip is to acknowledge corner workers; they are the ones showing you the flags while on course. Make a habit of waving to them as you start your first lap. It’s polite, helps you commit to memory which stations are occupied, and will even help develop your scan pattern.
I like to use driver’s meetings as a reminder that I’m about to strap myself into a bullet and do my best to guide it through a complex series of turns, which takes an inordinate amount of concentration. In other words, get in the zone!
Now comes the part where we review the preparedness of you, the driver.
Assuming you’ve prepped your car to withstand extreme-case forces, have you prepared yourself for you to do the same? The shift that is about to take place, in superhero terms, may transform you from a passive motorist (who has been programmed to drive to the grocery store in a subconscious-like state) to an active driver who should be attuned to every bump in the road, upcoming corner, and surrounding vehicle.
Performance driving is an intense activity. Compound the high level of concentration require with shots of adrenaline from velocity, horsepower, and the occasional “am I going to make it” moment, and it evokes emotion—lots of it! Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “When emotions are high, intelligence is low”? Performance drivers learn to manage themselves. The goal is to be relaxed, not strained, when behind the wheel. There are a handful of techniques you can easily implement to manage your mental and emotional state.
• Breathe. Novice drivers tend to hold their breath; pro drivers develop a rhythm specific to courses and corners. Try to keep your lungs and heart oxygenated.
• Relax your grip. Power steering or not, your hands get tired from a white-knuckle, death grip. Like loosely holding a bat or a golf club before striking the ball, keep a relaxed grip on the wheel during the straightaways and on the corners, where it matters, firm with purpose. One technique is to wiggle your fingers on straightaways as it will soften your grip.
• Smile. You are out here to have fun. If you’re not smiling at the rack, perhaps this activity isn’t for you. Also, it is scientifically proven that smiling decreases stress-enhancing hormones.
It feels like there is a lot going on while you’re on track, because there is. You are in the early stages of programming your brain to handle this new environment. Be a sport and remember that you are not on track by yourself. You are sharing the track with a dozen plus drivers. Assuming the OTD group you’ve chosen is doing their job, they will have grouped you with like-skill drivers. Which means you need to watch out, because you’re not the only rookie on the course. While it may feel like you’re racing, these sessions are not “open passing”. Instead, they are “point to pass”. During the driver’s meeting, they will have explained passing zones and point by procedures.
Your first few track sessions can feel overwhelming. You and your track mates are out there managing “the driver”, the car, the track, and you must reserve some brain processing power for situational awareness. Who is around you? Coming up on you? Approaching? Checking your mirrors is part of developing that scan pattern. Every few seconds in strategic areas, your eyes need to be moving from the windshield to all mirrors. After a while, it becomes like reading. You’ll be training your eyes to read the track and your surroundings.
Typically, Open Track Days are an all-day event. There are approximately five 20-minute sessions. What to do in between those sessions? For starters, stay hydrated! Dehydration can fog your brain and concentration.
Also, take your tire pressures. Tires are the only part of the car that actually make contact with the track. That ever-expanding and contracting contact patch is your lowest-hanging fruit to calibrate your vehicle’s performance. A good starting point is to set your pressures to what the manufacturer has recommended. As soon as you’re back to your paddock, take your pressures and make adjustments on from there. Do not exceed the recommended maximum pressures on the side wall, and shoot to have all 4 pressures equal when your tires are hot. You may need to remove air from some and add air to others. Be methodical and studious about tire pressures, it can save you a lot of money and will help you advance quicker.
In taking care of that beautiful brain of yours, further support it by bringing a notepad, track map or simply make notes in your phone. After every session, post tire checks and develop the habit of spending quiet time reflecting on the track and your driving.
Start with the basics; note the number of corners and straightaways. Write down the number of lefts, rights, plus their relative length and radius. Add elevation changes, stationary landmarks to reference brake, turn-in, apex and track-out points. Note your gear selections and where the gear changes are occurring. A funny thing about gearing is that it affects your perception of speed. Take a certain corner in third gear near the redline and it feels like you’re at the absolute limit. The engine is screaming! No way you could go faster. Take the same corner in fourth, and maybe you’ve gained 7 mph in a more relaxed manner with a more stable vehicle.
Your level of comfort through the various sections is also worth noting. Dig deep into what you like or gives you a sense of discomfort about a corner. The answer to finding comfort and speed may be as simply as knowing where to look upon corner exit. It’s human nature to feel uncomfortable with the unknown. Every track is different, and it is up to you to dissect and comprehend them. Be patient with yourself, it takes time. I like to think of tracks being like a series of puzzles. Every corner is its own puzzle and I’m constantly looking for all of the pieces to put it all together.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll “master” performance driving. You never will. There is no such thing as a perfect lap. Only the opportunity to register for another OTD to keep searching for knowledge and practicing good habits.
A couple last tips to help successfully navigate your next track day escapade:
• Pick a corner you’re having trouble with and watch another run group from a safe, approved place. Note things like how far off the apex they are, where the brake or when they are on-throttle.
• Ask if there are instructors who can work with you. Some programs include coaching, others charge extra, but either option is highly recommended.
• Make friends, ask questions, and listen. Those hidden puzzle pieces will come out in conversation and as a bonus, the camaraderie forged at the track will go beyond the paddock walls.
Feel free to comment below on your favorite tracks and recommended OTD programs. Have fun, be safe, and go fast!