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:
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.
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.
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.