track day beginners: a FAQ
I often see (on various Internet forums) beginners asking the same questions regarding their first track day, so I thought I’d put together a beginner's FAQ. What follows is not intended to teach anyone how to drive fast (I could do with that myself), but more how to get through your first track day without making a prat of yourself.
For your information: I did my first track day at Silverstone in 1996 and came away thinking I was pretty fast. How little did I know. Since then I’ve done dozens of track and airfield days, but now leave tracks feeling there is always more to learn about my driving technique (or lack thereof) and the performance of my cars (or immense amounts thereof).
Through the time I've had on track, I’ve realised that no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise, there will always be much quicker and more naturally gifted drivers out there, not to mention quicker cars. But this realisation has actually made track driving much less stressful and EVEN more enjoyable
If I have one tip, it's to drive your own 'race' - ultimately, it's the most rewarding drive you'll have.
The bonus: In the paddock, you get to meet some really fine people.
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Will my car be up to a track day?
First up - nobody cares what car you drive. O.K. you'll get more attention if you have a prancing horse on your bonnet (rather than a dancing donkey), but it is always how you drive that gains respect (or not). On your first time out, don't be a hero and give it death. get some instruction, build your speed up gradually and let faster cars/drivers pass. If you are in what you consider to be a fast car, don't assume that you'll get round the track quicker than cars you consider 'slower'. You don't know what modifications cars have, or how experienced the drivers are. Even though we would wish it otherwise, a Formula 1 driver would probably lap quicker in a bog standard road car than we would in a 911 or an R500.
Tip >> It should be pointed out that your car must be road legal to attend some track days (not all), but you MUST hold a full driver's licence to drive any track or airfield event. 'Race Cars' are not allowed on many events, and racing is allowed on none! - It's you, the car, and the track (and sometimes the underwear
As for whether your road car will be up to a track day. well, probably not - but don't panic.
First of all, It’s not a power thing. Most first timers seem to think the problem will be lack of power from the engine, but power is one of the last things that needs to be addressed to achieve quick lap times.
On track, one is either accelerating, braking or cornering. Most time is gained, not by how fast one accelerates, or the top speed of the car, but how late one can brake and what speed one exits a corner. The 'g' forces one creates by braking so hard and cornering so fast will put a huge strain on any vehicle.
Tip >> Don't make the BIG mistake of trying to follow others around the track. Braking points vary for each car (as do the experience levels of each driver) - Take things at your own speed. If you don't, you WILL end up on the grass or in the gravel (or worse!
Will my brakes be up to a track day?
The brakes will generally suffer worst. If you are due for your first track day, then make sure your brake pads are new (but bedded in), for you can easily trash a set in a single day (depending on your driving style and the weight of your car). It is said that one track mile is equal to ten road miles, but it is generally accepted that for the brakes the ratio is much greater, and considering that one could chalk up over 200 track miles in a single day. you will be asking some serious questions of your car (many of which will be answered by the smell of burning).
Many tracks - especially airfields, demand some very, very hard braking for tight corners, which could mean 100 mph to 30 mph in as few feet as your car will manage, several times a minute. How often do you do that on a road?
You may well find (after a couple of track days) that you need ‘harder’ brake pads, and brake fluid with a higher boiling point. These will enable you to drive harder and faster, but be warned, they may alter the road manners of your car detrimentally.
Tip >> To conserve your brakes, MAKE YOUR SESSIONS SHORT. When you are ready to leave the track, do a ‘slow lap’ avoiding the brake pedal - keep a good eye out for fast cars behind you, and DON’T take the racing line. When you park, don’t engage the handbrake (it might weld!
Should I 'overfill' my engine with oil?
It is vital that you check the oil level, not only before you start the day, but at least one other time during the day. This is especially important for older engines which will get through a surprising amount in one track day. Most people recommend that you slightly overfill your oil before a track day, but this can cause problems, especially if you are driving a car with a catalyst, as too much oil can damage the expensive ‘cat’. Up to the full mark - little and often - giving the car a chance to cool before you check.
Whatever the recommended service interval - if you’ve done a track day, change the oil earlier! (Every 3000 miles for a track/road car is usually considered the highest mileage appropriate)
Will my tyres be up to a track day?
It is generally accepted (although there are many exceptions to the rule) that road-going tyres should be slightly over-inflated for a track day - 2 lb should do it. If you turn up to a track day on barely legal tyres and expect to get home again (legally). forget it. Assuming you have decent tread to start with. If it's wet, you'll notice very little tyre wear on the day; if it's dry (depending on your driving), you could see much of the tread disappear in a lot of blue smoke.
Generally speaking, the less 'track savvy' your car, the more you'll trash the tyres. Drive a lightweight Lotus Elise or Caterham Seven for a day, and you'll take only a few thousand miles from the tread. Drive a two ton saloon with the same enthusiasm, and your tread will (as if by magic) disappear.
The last thing you may change to your car (before the engine) is the suspension. However, you really need to do a few track days to get a feel for what you might need. Road suspension is too soft for track, but many cars boast 'sports suspension', which go some way towards improving the cornering abilities at high speeds, and stopping the car from bouncing like a jelly on bumpy sections of track. Time will tell.
Tip >> Don’t even think about suspension or engine upgrades before tuition, experience and brake upgrades. In that order. By that time, you'll have
a much clearer idea of what to do to improve the track performance of your car - or more likely, you'll have decided to sell it and get a car more suited!
Do I need, and can I get insurance?
Getting insurance is not a requirement for a track day. It depends on whether you are prepared to pay the premium. Some car policies cover 'non competitive' track days (check your insurer) - most do not. You can purchase one-off policies that will insure varying amounts of cover - a commonly used firm being Competition Car Insurance.
Be warned. on most track day cover, If you drive into another car, the policy will only cover the damage to your car - having said that, collisions on airfield days are almost unheard of, and on track days are extremely rare.
What do I need to bring?
First up, a helmet for your bonce and one for any passengers' bonces. If you don't have one you can usually hire one.
Some track day organisers insist upon seeing your driver's licence.
A tyre pressure guage is useful, some oil to top up the engine, torque wrench etc. but make sure these are either totally secure in the car or better still when you arrive, take them out and leave them in the paddock area. (They'll wreck the inside of your car on the first corner.)
You can always tell track day regulars, because they usually bring 2 litres of water with them - not for the car, but because one can get very dehydrated (it's very physical work) - and when it's cold, they all wear hats.
What does 'open pit lane' mean, and do I get charged for an extra driver?
Second drivers are usually charged at a proportion of the charge of the first on 'open pit lane' days. Passengers also sometimes incur a cost (though not much).
Open pit lane means that cars can go onto track whenever there is space (there is always a limit to how many can be on track at the same time - but it varies from event to event - I have known between 4 and 40
(You know who you are Castle Combe!).
The other way days are (more commonly) run is in 'Sessions', which put cars into 2, 3 or 4 groups, which have allotted times on track (The most common being 3 sessions per hour of 20 minutes). This does have the advantage of allowing all the beginners to be on the same session (The organiseres will always know those whose first day it is). In many ways 'Sessions' is better for both advanced drivers and beginners alike - less likelyhood of getting in each others way.
My first day in session A (The quick one) I made a total ass of myself - trying too hard (again).
Tip >> Enjoy C or D while you can!
What happens if I'm too slow - will I get in the way?
You probably will be slow on your first track day. Don't worry - everybody was, and you will soon get quicker. The important thing is to listen carefully at the briefing you'll get at the start of the day. This will tell you about overtaking (or being overtaken), blue flags etc. You'll soon pic it up. Nobody minds slow drivers - just drivers that get in the way!
Should I do an airfield day or a track day first?
An airfield day - probably. There is a more relaxed atmosphere, mistakes will just see you spinning off on an empty runway (rather than into gravel traps or armco) and they are a great place to get some cornering skills together (the kind one never gets on the road) - then, when you progress to a track, you'll feel a lot more comfortable (and you'll be a LOT quicker). If you can't wait to get on a proper track - try one with lots of run off first, so if you do 'overcook' you have lots of room to stop before something stops you! - Bedford Autodrome is probably the best in the UK for run off (Silverstone also has masses, but has nasty cat litter traps which will wreck your paintwork). The downside with airfields is that they are often very gritty, which will pepper the front of your car if you follow others too close. If you are really concerned with the looks of your car - avoid airfields (or fit 'armourfend' - which is good but not perfect).
Should I get instruction?
Yes. We all think we know what is meant by 'the line', but if it's your first track day, you'll be surprised by a few things regarding corners. Tracks are all about corners, not straights!
At most track events, the organisers will have put three cones on each corner. These mark the 'turn in', the 'apex' and the 'exit' points. Our job as drivers is to create a long continuous smooth flowing line that will make the radius of the corner as wide as possible - joining these 'dots'. By doing this we will straighten out the corner as much as possible, thus exiting the corner with the greatest speed. There are several keys to achieving this. (Good luck. this is what track driving is all about).
Tip(s) >> Look well ahead. As you pass the 'turn in' you should already be looking past the 'apex' cone, and on to the exit cone. It's easy not to look far enough ahead. Try to see the 'big picture' - the whole corner.
Do all your braking on the straight, and. best tip ever > never on a corner.
Burn off the right amount of speed and change down BEFORE you turn. If you are adept at 'heel and toe' to get the engine to the right revs for the next gear, so much the better - but don't worry if you're not - the last thing you need to try is your first 'heel and toe' at 100+ mph!
If, after your best efforts, you have got it wrong and are approching the apex of the corner way too fast you can often. 'straighten out the corner' to do some more braking in a straight line (even a 911 4x4 with traction control bites!)
As you enter the corner, keep a relaxed grip on the steering wheel and the accelerator 'neutral' (so you are just feeding a little power - not on, not off). Try not to make any steering or throttle 'corrections' (which will unsettle the car) - aim to 'clip' the apex cone, and accelerate just before you pass (which, if you have got it right you will almost touch), at the same time, gently straightening up. Let your progressive acceleration move you to the far side of the track as you exit the corner and unwind the steering. Hopefully, you have used the width of the road to make the corner radius as large as possible, and the second half of of the corner has become the beginning of the next straight.
Of course, you may want to go 'sideways' round corners, which can be more fun, if a lot harder to do, and demands some amended techniques. But just don't forget - your lap times will be a lot slower (and your tyre bills a lot higher!)
Second best tip ever > Err on the side of caution into corners, and you'll stay out of the cat litter - or miss the cones - or worse!