Friday, July 8, 2011

How to Track Your Car

When I say "track" I mean a road track.  With turns. Right as well as left hand turns.  Usually in some interesting configuration.  So I am not talking about drag strips, speedways, or circle tracks.  Road tracks would be like Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, or anything that Formula 1 races on.  A road course tests the car and driver as a whole, not just acceleration or top end speed, but also cornering, braking and car control. 

It might surprise you how easy it is to be able to get your car out on real race track by participating in an event called an Open Track Day (OPD), also known as a High Performance Driving Event (HPDE).  It is like actual racing but mitigating the risk by limiting how and when cars can pass each other.  Generally this means you can drive your car as close to the limit as you feel comfortable, but you can only pass a slower car on the straights after they have pointed you by.  Sure, sometimes you can get stuck in "traffic" but usually the events are organized in such a fashion as to give you plenty of track time, so the few laps in which you are working through slower cars, you can make up for it with many more open laps and pushing yourself and your car.

Now you might be asking what do you need.  For the car, it should be in fine running order.  Some tracks may require convertibles to have a roll bar, but you won't need a roll cage, race suit.  Just a regular old Ford Taurus would be fine.  Maybe not fun, but a stock car is perfectly acceptable.  I will define what "fine working order" means in more detail a little later.  Cost wise, registration fees can range anywhere from $100-400/day depending on how nice the track is and who is organizing it.  For instance, Laguna Seca is about the $300-400 range, where Gingerman Raceway in South Haven Michigan is about $150.  Gingerman is a nice track, but it doesn't have the pedigree of Laguna Seca.  Your next biggest expense, unless you already have one, would be a helmet and that can cost $250 or more if you want a really fancy one.  Next would be gas.  Not only for driving to a from the track, but also at the track and that expense will vary with the car.  If you have a helmet, and you go to Gingerman, then you can expect to pay about $350 for the day if you are driving 4 or so hours to the track and staying at a hotel for one night.  If you can camp on the track, I would suggest it since it usually means you can walk the track the night before and perhaps even make some friends with other drivers.

Step one; find the nearest tracks.  You may be lucky and live in the Detroit area in which there are 5 tracks within a 4 or 5 hour drive or you may live in a race track desert and will have no choice but to drive 8+ hours.  Unfortunately if you try searching on google maps you can get a lot of false positives, but its a good place to start.  One really helpful website is  On that site you can browse tracks by continent, region and state so you can then easily identify tracks that might be close to you, see the course layout, see in-car video of the track and read through the turn by turn guide.  Once you have identified some local or not so local tracks, you can find their website and see if they have a posted schedule for open track days or what groups are hosting events there.  For instance, you might see that the Porsche Owners Club has an event, and they may be open to anyone who might be interested in attending simply because they can't can't get a large enough group from within the club to cover the costs of renting the track.  Also, there are groups that all they do is track events such as 3Ballsracing.  If necessary, you can always try and contact the track and see what groups are around that allow random people to attend.

Hopefully you have found a track and some potential track dates it's time to get ready.  You need inspect the car for potential mechanical issues that if not addressed or identified might make the day a little more dramatic than you originally intended.  I will post a write up on how to check your car before you bring it to the track.  If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, you can bring it to a mechanic who can do it for you.  Whoever is organizing the track day may have a few local mechanics that they would suggest.  It is better to address any problems ahead of time because the organizers will likely have a safety (aka tech) inspection on site to try and identify and mechanical hazards.  And if your car is deemed as being unsafe, you may not be able to run.

Besides having a car in fine working order, you will need a helmet.  When purchasing a helmet you should pay attention to teh safety rating since different tracks or organizations may have different requirements.  When in doubt a SNELL SA2010 full face helmet will meet or exceed all requirements and you can use it if you start racing.

Most importantly, bring an open mind.  Listen to people.  If available, ride along with more experienced drivers.  Take it easy, and try and work on the fundamentals; racing line, identifying turn in points and getting a feel for the car. Of course, have fun, and you won't be having fun if you are pushing to hard, driving stupidly and crashing. 

Lastly, keep in mind that you will be at the track all day, and it will probably be hot.  Try and get plenty of sleep the night before because you will definitely get more out of it if you aren't hungover or half asleep.  Bring sunscreen, a hat, a chair, some shade if you can, a cooler with drinks to keep hydrated (preferably water),and snacks.  Don't under estimate how much your performance on the track will be dictated by how dehydrated, hungry or fatigued you will become from the heat.

See my next post on inspecting and prepping your car for the open track day.

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