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First Track Experience: Don’t be Scared, Bro

SGC10607.JPGIf the title of this article sounds patronizing, don’t worry, it isn’t. Rather, it is more autobiographical in nature. I recently took my car out to both its and mine first track day, and boy was I nervous. Why shouldn’t you be? We are car people, and we love our cars. Taking them on track opens them up to all sorts of potential harm, not to mention ourselves.

I’m here to help with expectations and lower any nerve levels. On May 5th, 2017, I took the plunge and went out to my first track day. The experience taught me a lot of things to expect, and a lot of things people should know before their first on-track blast. First and foremost, as long as everything stays safe, you are going to have the time of your life, and it will all be worth it.

Before you go to a track, you have to find one. Once you find a track, you are then stuck with finding an accessible on-track event. The first part—finding the closest track—is easy enough: simply Google. Once you find your track—as long as it is close enough, which is all luck-of-the-draw–Google is again your friend. Usually, a track will have a website with an event calendar, but if not, you will have to get creative.

Hopefully the track itself has an event list, but if not there are a few resources available to people who want to get on track. Organizations like NASA, SCCA, and various private clubs all feature lots of track-days, listed on their website. At the end of the day, finding an event isn’t that difficult, but picking an event can be.

Some events are more intimidating than others, and picking the proper one for a novice is key to having a good time. While it is possible to hop directly into a wheel-to-wheel race through some cheaper series like LeMons, this would be a Bad Thing. Instead, finding a track day event is the less-intimidating entrance to on-track driving.

SCCA
I go to the SCCA’s track programs.

Saying that, not all track days were created the same. Organizations like SCCA, NASA, and even some race schools will generally have nicely structured events, while organizations like “Mustang Club of XX Town” might get you on track, that could be the extent of the club’s involvement.

If it isn’t obvious by now, you want to find a more structured event—my first event was a Track Night of America put on by the SCCA. Once you do, signing up is usually as simple as entering in your info and giving them your money. During the signing-up process, if there are separate skill-groups, it is important to be honest to yourself. No matter how many canyons you have carved or Mustangs you have munched on the freeway, if it is your first time, you are a novice. Not only will this let the organizers know to pay more attention to you, both in explaining track rules and policies and in observing you on track—it puts you with other people who are on their first or second track day. This is key: there is comfort to be found in not being the only newbie.

If you have done everything I have said up until this point, then you’ve done it; you are going on-track. But before the day itself rolls around, there are a few key things to be done that are easy to overlook. This pre-track prep is just as important as anything else in the process, and it is important not to skimp on these steps.

 

Track day insurance
Track day insurance keeps a bad day from turning into a terrible day.

 

First thing you should do after completing signing up for the track day, before you even leave your computer, is to find a track-day insurance provider that you are comfortable with. Track day insurance can run anywhere from $80-$200, depending on the declared value of your car and any parts on it. No matter the cost, it is worth it for a number of reasons. Primarily, your normal insurance will not cover any on-track excursions, and as such you are usually responsible for any costs on your own. Most track-day insurances operate on a 10% deductible, before cutting you a check for the pre-declared value of your car. No haggling with insurance agents.

This surety of coverage has a few benefits. Primarily, its simply intelligent to insure something you probably treasure as much as your track car, and secondly, the comforting knowledge of your new policy means that you are more likely to drive your car at 9/10ths or 10/10ths, and get the full experience. If you are still on the fence, stop thinking about it: just go buy track-insurance.

 

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Always check your fluids and tire pressures.

 

The second thing to do before you go to the track is to check your car out for any mechanical problems. If you don’t know what you are doing, find a shop and be very clear why you are having them check your car. The older the car the more important this step is, but don’t let the newness of a car lull you into a false sense of security: always check your car. An often overlooked—or ignored, due to the cost—part of this is tire health. Tires are the most important thing about a track day, due to the stresses they will be under. It is important to ensure your tires can withstand the pressure, or replace them if you need to with ones that can.

Track Box
My track box and chair.

Lastly before you head out to the track, make yourself a track box. This one is pretty simple: make yourself a list of all the junk you will need or may need, put it in a lockable box, and call it a day. Things to include in a box are a chair, a tire pressure checker, an air compressor possibly, and anything else you might need for a few hours at the track. Most tracks do not have very good facilities, so bringing snacks and a cooler for drinks could also be essential: do your research for your individual track. One of the most important things to include in your track box is an approved helmet. I cannot think of any track that will let you on de-helmeted, so this one is required to bring. If you do not have a helmet, do not worry; most tracks or organizers will offer fairly affordable helmets. It is important to also remember any locks, because while you are on track, all your stuff will be sitting in a box off to the side: keep it safe.

You’ve signed up, prepped your car, printed your insurance, and put everything in your box: what now? Head out to the track, and be prepared to ask a lot of questions. When you get there, ask the gate where to go—the gate will be manned—and then go there. Park your car, and first things first; find someone who looks official. Wave them down, ask politely, do whatever it is you do to get their attention, and let them know you are a novice, and ask if there are any special novice groups or preparations. Don’t be nervous or shy or anything else like that: everyone else is there to do what you are, and chances are they will love to help. Then it’s a simple matter of following around the official people, doing what they say, and generally being a good-little novice. Have a question? Always ask it until you understand. Don’t forget to take a look around and talk to your other track-day participants: remember, this is one of the few places in the world where it is ok to totally geek out over cars.

 

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One of my fellow racers, more prepped then me.

 

Eventually, the talking and tire-pressure checking will stop, helmets will go on, and people will start getting into their cars. Keep your ears open and remember any group assignment you received, because chances are not everyone is going out on lap at once. If it’s your turn, follow suit, strap up and in, and head out to the starting grid. At this point, your heart may be racing, palms may be sweaty, and your stomach may be filled with nerves. While you are waiting to start, try running through these important tips. Firstly, if you are at a track day, it isn’t a race. This is key. Chances are passing is strictly limited, so rather than focusing on coming ‘first’ or not being passed, instead focus on learning how your car behaves, improving your skills, and having fun.

Once you get the go-ahead to start, start! Take some time to warm your tires up, while also taking the time to get a feel for your car on that particular track. Keep all of the above in mind, and focus on learning the track. After a few laps, you may start to remember the track, at which point you can begin pushing your car. A simple—if not always correct—thing to remember is you should either be operating your gas or operating your brakes. There isn’t an in-between: on the track you can push your car to its very limits. Finding those limits can lead to some interesting experiences, but remember, as long as it remains safe, chances are it’ll remain fun.

 

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Check your car just as much AFTER your run as before, as track days are hard on cars.

 

You’ve done it; your session is over, you didn’t get any black flags, and you are safely pulling in to the pits. At this point, turn around in your seat, and pat yourself on the back: you’ve been on track and popped the proverbial cherry. What’s next? Wash, rinse, and repeat. As long as you keep going out on track, staying safe, and not breaking in rules, you will very quickly move from novice to…not novice. The most important thing to remember is to balance safety and fun, and to go home with a smile on your face and a few new stories to tell.

Liked the article? Share it with your friends and actually hit that like button! I left out High Performance Driver Education due to the much higher entrance cost, but if you can afford, DO THAT!

 

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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