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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Track Day Preparation

Terrorizing my sister at Thunderhill Raceway (2010)
So, you've decided that you try to attend a track day with your (cool) car but you don't know how to go about it.

First, you need to know who hosts track days. There are a bunch of organizations that do so, nothing to worry about, you'll get your shot. For a quick reference you can go here. This is calendar for 2011 which contains a lot of events hosted by a bunch of different people.

Personally, I like Hooked On Driving because while they tend to be more expensive than most, their events are very well organized. They have a pretty big staff and always provide coaching (coaches are either part of the staff or are C group drivers that volunteer to help out). They also provide a decent lunch and free water during the day. They also have group download and classroom sessions for the A & B groups.

Most organizations will split the day in different groups (3 or 4 groups are the most common).

Groups: Well, depending on the host you will have a Group A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 or HPDE1,2,3 etc... Sometimes the A group is the beginner group and the C is experienced, sometimes it's reversed.

But the host will let you know in advance as this is usually described on their web site. If it's your very first time on the track, choosing the beginner group is the best thing to do as it will provide you with invaluable coaching (when available) and experience. Also, those groups tend to run at a much slower pace, which help bringing your car back home in one piece.

Car: Well, not everyone owns a Ferrari. So, you ride what you bring.
I must say that there usually is a large ratio of BMW and Porshe, and since a couple years or so, Nissan GT-R, Audi R8. Occasionally though, you will spot some Ferraris, Lambos, Aston Martin and a few nut cases who bring some Lotus (me included). Actually, there is almost always one or two Elise/Exige  present.

I have also seen a bunch of Minis, Subaru WRX, Evo7, VW Bug, Mustangs, Challengers (seldom) so no matter what your car is, you can attend a track day. Of course, if you bring a Smart car you'll want to slit your wrists before lunch...

The things that are important, regardless of the car are at least those few things:

  • Tires. Make sure yours are in good shape and if you can afford sports tires, do it. I usually run Toyo R888.
  • Oil. You should get an oil change and verify that the drain plug is tight (losing oil on the track is uncool)
  • Tire gauge. Always good to have one even if there's tire service on track.
  • Shape. You car needs to be in good shape, without stuff hanging, flapping, loose, etc.
  • Brakes. It's kind of nice when you can actually brake instead of plowing into a wall.

Gear: You should not need anything really, besides a helmet. Then again, tracks like Thunderhill have skull protectors for rent. It's still better to have your own stuff though. There's a catch, most likely, your lid will have to be on par with the current helmet norms (SA Snell certified).

You can also bring driving gloves which are nice because they prevent potential blisters or having the steering wheel slip out of your sweaty little hands.

Before D-Day: Your track day is on Friday and it's Thursday evening. By now you should be ready to head to the motel for the night (assuming you go to a race track that's two or more hours from your home).

Here's my own checklist as I leave to work in the morning:

  • Good tires
  • Tire gauge
  • Couple tools (just in case)
  • Wheel lock (in case your wheels bolts/nuts have a funky shape or require a lock)
  • Back pack with necessary stuff (tooth brush/paste, clean clothes, make-up if you're into that sort of things)
  • Helmet
  • Gloves
  • ODBII scanner (cos' my Lotus loves to throw some CEL at me every so often, but you won't need that)
  • Ice chest
  • Gatorade (or whatever you want to drink)
  • Cookies (I love cookies!)
  • Car key (in case you're towing your fancy sports car)
  • Phone
  • Wallet

I usually don't bring much more than that because I don't have another vehicle to tow my car to the track. Towing your car is something I would strongly suggest for different reasons:

  • You drive a car that can get uncomfortable after a couple of hours
  • A truck or SUV is easier to drive at the end of the day and you'll feel more relax and not in track mode anymore
  • You could wreck your car and thus, get stuck 3.5 hours from home, which would suck donkey balls.
  • You could puncture a tire on the way there which could ruin your day if you have a car that (like the Elise) doesn't have a spare tire.
  • Your new tires are still brand spanking new when you get to the track
  • You want to put racing slicks or semi-slicks on your car
D-Day: Finally, it's about 7:30AM and you and the love of your life (no, not your spouse...) made it to the race track and you are enjoying the paddocks for the first time in your life. It's a pretty special moment to tell the truth (for you and your baby).

You start starring at some of the other cars in there, Lambos, Porshe, R8, proper race cars, and my Lotus just because it does look really cool ^_^. A lot of people wander in the paddocks and snap pictures of cool cars, I do it from time to time when I spot some fancy cars (Aston Martins for instance).

Usually, there is a drivers meeting at 8:00AM or so that is mandatory. They talk about being safe and also the fact that track days are NOT race days. You don't win anything besides driving your car back home in one piece. They also explain the meaning of the flags that you will see on track (White, Yellow, Black, Meatball, Checkered, Red, etc) and they will also tell you where the corner worker stations are.

The track usually goes hot at 8:30 or 9:00 depending if it's Winter or Summer and will close at about 5PM.
Usually the faster groups go first (pretty sure that they do that to dry the track if it's a little wet :)

People are usually very friendly, drivers, staff, track people, etc. Most likely because we all share the same passion and sometimes drive similar cars. Lotus guys talk to Lotus guys so on so forth. It's nice to mingle because sometimes you get to talk to seasoned drivers that will share tips with you.

Track is hot!: It's finally your turn to go on track.

If you go with HOD, they will assign a coach to you. They are all qualified and very nice. The coach will drive the first two laps at some 40mph with you as a passenger. They do this to show you the track layout and they will point out the turning points, braking zones, etc.

You should use that first session to figure out the way the track goes and try to remember the more difficult turns (for instance, Turn 5 and 9 at Thunderhill as they are blind turns). You can also feel how the car responds to your driving.

As you come out of the track, you should immediately go check with the tire guys (assuming they are there) for your air pressure and temperature of the rubber. They will be able to set you up correctly.

Well, I'm not going to go into details about what happens during the day because this post really is about the preparation for the track day. Hope that you'll give it a try and enjoy it.

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