On any given day, you’ll find bands of bleary-eyed men and women waking after a night of mediocre sleep, shuffling anxiously out of their beds which look as if a few stray cats had been fighting under the sheets. These people, emboldened by a cup of coffee and the sound of their engine idling quietly and ominously, take their eyes from a half-digested breakfast and fix them on the track map shared between three or four friends. Analyzing the corners, imagining the nuances of the road surface and the sound of howling tires, shifting phantom gearsticks and even making impressions of engine notes may make these thrilled enthusiasts seem a bit cuckoo to the passerby.
With the excitement nearly palpable, the crew grab their keys and hop into their cars, driving off in a small and exceedingly proud train. Admittedly, these sort of pre-race jitters are a huge part of why it’s so fun to go a track day, but it is just as important we’re able to keep a reasonably calm perspective and make sure we do a few things right.
First and foremost, prior to leaving the house, the car ought to have it’s fluid topped up. A full inspection in never necessary but, without exception, assuring that the tires, brakes and other consumables are in working order is paramount. Nobody wants to get to the track to realize their brakes won’t last more than ten laps – and believe me, that does happen.
Assuming you haven’t been on a circuit before, or at least tracked your current car, it helps to familiarize yourself with the different corners and elevation changes the circuit has. For one, this will make the task of navigating the course easier since you’ve got a decent sense of where it goes. It may sound ludicrous, but when you’ve got other expensive automobiles whizzing around you, few minutes on YouTube will help you settle in comfortably once on track. A certain degree of comfort is what we’re really after.
At the track, most people are so enthralled to be surrounded by other petrolheads that they get lost in endless conversation, working themselves into a frenzy even before they’ve driven a lap. Nobody will explain the importance of a level-headed disposition to you, so allow me. While your buddies may be off talking shop and exchanging figures, take the time to sit down, relax and quiet your mind. Whether it’s classical music or a cup of tea, shutting out some of that background noise will make you twice as aware and receptive while on track. It will also help keep some unnecessary aggression at bay.
Once you and a coach – assuming you’re provided one – set off, listen closely to their notes. Most track day outfits usually have their students – especially the greener ones – set off in a tight formation at trotting speed so that they can analyze each corner. Some groups will allow their students to walk the track which should be done even if you have to hold off a bathroom visit or a reassuring call to the spouse. The information you will glean from these preparatory laps will save you headache and lower your lap times.
Once it’s time to pick up the pace, the most important thing one can remember is to operate the controls as smoothly as possible. Depress the brakes and throttle as if, under your foot, there are eggs and you’ve been dying for an omelette all day. Similarly, try not to saw at the wheel. Instead, with your hands fixed at 9 and 3, move the wheel in smooth, deliberate movements. Think of a great painter wielding a brush on a canvas. Your inputs are confident but gentle. With confident, calm movements comes a mental clarity that will help you stay focused and receptive.
If your technique is up to par – and the instructor should let you know – focus on hitting your marks. That is, ensure that every apex is brushed with an inside tire, the full width of the track is used where appropriate and the corners are entered and exited at the proper point. Typically, the apex will be denoted by a cone as will the turn-in and track-out points. The organizers want to make learning the track as easy as possible.
The real link that determines a successful day is between the coach’s instruction and the student’s willingness and ability to listen. So often coaches are unwilling to make suggestions and by doing so, put themselves at risk of being hurt. Concurrently, students with the will to show their stuff or boast will find themselves ignoring so many important pieces of information that they go slower. When sheer aggression fails to pay any dividends, inexperienced students will tend to push even harder, thereby inviting more danger while not going any faster. It is astute coach’s responsibility to let his or her student know where and how they’re making mistakes, and the student to heed that advice.
So while we stress the importance of listening to the point of exhaustion, be aware that opening your ears and (temporarily) deflating your ego might be what leads to a successful, enjoyable and affordable day. It certainly will keep you out of harm’s way. A coach worth their salt can spot an incident well before it happens, so if they advise you to do something differently, it’s for your own good. If it seems like they’re berating you, let them know or find a different coach, but it’s far more likely they just want you to drive quickly and safely.
In fact, it’s a huge misconception that you put yourself and your automobile at considerable risk when driving on track. Of course, there will always be an element of danger – that’s part of the appeal – but in reality, almost all track days go without hiccups. As long as your car is in good shape and road-worthy, your ego is well in-check and your ears have been cleaned recently, you’ll find that exploring the limits of your car on track is safe, rewarding and not too tough on your bank account. Oh, one more thing – don’t forget to tip your instructor!