Track Day 101 — So You Want to Drive Fast

HPDE, High Performance Drivers Education, Track Days. Otherwise known as take your car to the track and drive it in a fast, but controlled fashion and environment. But Kevin, why would I want to take my car to the track and drive it fast you might be asking? I could wreck my car you could be thinking. I don’t know what I’m doing you might be thinking. I think I have an answer for each of those questions, and I’m writing this because honestly, I was lucky. I have two good friends I could rely on as I began my journey, but I imagine there’s others out there who aren’t as lucky, so that’s who this is written for. The person who thinks they want to do this, but aside from your average Google searching is looking for that first person perspective at getting started in this hobby. Keep in mind, I only have two weekends worth of time on track, but in those two weekends I’ve experienced and learned a LOT.

Now, you might be wondering, why pay good money to take your car to a track, when you can just drive for free on the roads? Safety. Track days take place in a controlled environment, and in the case of those drivers new to HPDE events, with an instructor in the right seat with you. Regular driving on the street, and driving fast on a track are completely different animals, trust me you’re going to want that instructor next to you talking in your ear; giving you feedback after each session. This doesn’t even get into the problems you’ll create for yourself if you go out on public roads and start ripping around. Just save the Fast and the Furious stuff for the big screen, if you want to drive fast, do it right.

So, let’s get the big one out of the way…doing a track day isn’t cheap, it’s going to cost you real money. My first weekend on track cost me between $900 and $1,000 to go out and drive, my second was roughly half that at about $500 — $600. I (currently) drive in SCCA sanctioned events, a one-day weekend will set you back $275, driving Saturday and Sunday will set you back an extra hundred at $375. I am currently driving my daily driver on track, and as soon as my car enters the track, my regular insurance is null and void while I drive. To make sure I’m covered in case something happens, I purchase track-day insurance which sets me back an additional $250 per event. Thankfully, the coverage I use lasts for three days, so its not a terrible deal. In my case, there was a helmet rental, that was an extra $50. My first weekend out I also took my car to a local shop to have my technical inspection form completed, generally, this would have cost me $110, but since I had my brake fluid and pads replaced, that fee was waived in lieu of the money I spent on that. That ran me about $400, and it was something I did myself for my second weekend, frankly because, well, I put things off the first weekend a bit longer than I should have. This of course is just scratching the surface, and the costs go further than that, but I’ll get to that later in this piece.

Of the key things anyone should know heading into a track event, the above is most likely the most important; ESPECIALLY if you’re married. In my case, there were even a few surprises for me and going in I did my best to give my wife other as close an estimate to exact costs as possible. Aside from the danger to your car and yourself, you need your significant other in the game with you, this isn’t the kind of thing you just up and tell them “you’re going to do”.

Important note number 2, HPDE isn’t racing, it may seem like it, but it isn’t. True racing introduces a whole different set of variables, insuring the event and prepping your car prime among them. Yes, you are driving fast, on a track, and there is passing. Passing at an HPDE event involves point-by’s and in pre-defined passing zones, even in the Time Trial (TT) groups which is the closest to racing you’ll see in HPDE driving. As our region head of instruction says, “passing in HPDE is a two-way transaction, both drivers need to agree and commit to it”. In true racing, it’s a free for all, you think you can pass someone? Commit to it and dive in. Again though, and I’m not kidding. HPDE is not racing. IT…IS…NOT…RACING.

So, what are the things you should know, aside from the above heading into your first track weekend? Know the track line. There’s a saying in driving fast that, smooth is fast and fast is smooth. A big part in that is knowing the track line, the quicker you pick up the line, where your turn in is and the apexes are, the better off you’ll be and the faster you’ll improve. Like anything in life, there is no replacement for the real thing, but ahead of your first weekend on track, find a good video of the track you’re going to be driving on and watch it, watch it multiple times and look for the detailed things that driver is doing. Where are they putting the car on the straights? Where are they braking heading into a corner? Where are they turning in for the corner? Where are they apexing and how are they “tracking out” for a given corner? Important to note, find a video of someone driving the car you plan on taking to the track, or something very similar. While driving lines will vary from driver to driver, and car to car, your instructor will have you drive a line that fits your car. There IS a standard line for every track, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best line for every car and every driver. So, while watching videos of another driver won’t be an exact match, I’ve still found it very helpful in preparing myself for the track.

Seating position, I can’t tell you how many drivers I see on the road with absolutely horrendous seating positions. While I can’t say my daily driving position is horrendous, I don’t exactly drive with a recommended seating position either. Your seat back should be straight, and you should be well positioned so you can see over your dash, and have a good view of the front of your car. In terms of your distance from the wheel, if you can stick your arms out straight, and rest both of your wrists on top of the steering wheel without stretching your arms forward, you are good to go. With a good seating position, you should now have good vision out of the car, as well as be in position to feel the balance and movement of the car, which is something that’s incredibly important on track.

Finally, a couple nice to knows, or things you can work on driving on the road to get prepared. Use your eyes, don’t just look directly in front of you, look down track (or down road), scan the area and make sure you’re seeing everything around you. This is not an easy thing to pick up, especially during your first sessions on track. Speaking as a new HPDE driver, you will find yourselves looking at the cars in front of you, looking for your apexes (especially blind ones). Keep your eyes up and forward, if a car is in front of you, look just past it but keep it in your periphery. Focusing on another car is only going to take you off your driving; remember, they might be driving a different line, with different braking points, etc. Don’t get caught up in what they’re doing, focus on what YOU’RE doing. In corners, especially ones with blind apexes you may find yourself looking for that apex, don’t, keep your eyes up and looking forward. “Trust your hands” that you have the correct steering input and focus on what is coming up next. Things tend to happen fast on track, and if you’re focused locally, and not globally, you may become part of whatever is happening in front of you. Keep your eyes up!

The one thing I made a VERY conscious effort to work on in the days and weeks leading up to my first track event, was my hand placement on the wheel. Let’s just leave it at, before I started attending track-days, I had very bad habits in this area. Just like your driving instructor and parents taught you, “hands at nine and three”. On the road, we often encounter turns that cause us to lift a hand to rotate the wheel through the turn (shuffle steering), on track this isn’t needed. Unless you’re driving the Lowes Hairpin at Circuit de Monaco, you likely won’t be using the full steering lock of your car. Keeping your hands at the standard nine and three position will allow you to comfortably steer through any turn.

Going back to cost again quickly, I want to highlight again, this isn’t a cheap hobby. Beyond the prices I listed above, remember that you’re paying for consumables too. Brake pads and rotors, brake fluid, oil, clutches. When you track your car, you’re putting increased stress on these items, you’re going to go through them faster than you would on the road. As you get better, you also start buying new bits for your car too; suspension, bigger brakes, ECU upgrades, forced induction, the list goes on. Let me say it again just to get the point across. Driving fast isn’t cheap.

My last recommendation is, prepare in advance for these events. You should be getting your tech form completed by a trusted and competent mechanic two weeks to a week and a half out of the event. If you’re going to tech your own car, set aside the time the weekend before to get that done. Block out the time, commit to it and knock it out. If you’re renting a helmet, my recommendation is to get it picked up by the Tuesday before the event at the latest. The week of the event come Friday, you’re printing off all the paperwork you need to print off, unloading your car of all loose items (no floor mats!) and if you’re numbers are vinyl stick on, getting them on the car. The point is, be prepared well ahead of time, don’t be rushing to fix something like moving your upper and lower swing arms from one car to the other less than a week before the next event (this situation is completely made up BTW). Don’t go into a track weekend stressed out, and worried you forgot something. Give yourself plenty of time to get done what you need to in order to get ready. Then it’s simply time to enjoy the weekend.

So, how do you get started? Well, there’s plenty of organizers who run track events;

Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)

Trackdaze

National Auto Sport Association (NASA)

Many of your marque specific car clubs run track day events as well, owning a marquee specific car not required;

Mercedes Benz Club America (MBCA)

Porsche Club of America (PCA)

BMW Car Club of America (BMW CCA)

All that is to say, there are plenty of ways, and opportunities to get started on track. If you have a local track, take a look at their calendar and see which clubs meet there and when. Your first outing doesn’t even have to be to drive. My first trip to Summit Point was to watch my two friends drive. A little under a year later I was out on track for the first time. I hope this article has pushed those of you giving serious thought to getting on track to make the decision to do so…I promise you; you won’t regret it. Also, if there’s anyone out there who’d like to sponsor a young(ish) up and coming driver, give a holler! 😉

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