Many of us on the TURNology staff have competed in racing events, track days, time trials, and HPDE, and we thought it appropriate to share a few tips with drivers new to the track day scene.
Meet & Greet
It’s intimidating to be “the new guy”, but at your first event, go around and introduce yourself to others in your run group and those with similar cars to yours. First, it helps make you feel more part of the group than just the guy off by himself. Second, is you’ll find that many will have experience with the event organizer and the particular track you’re at. This will make it easier to get your questions answered, as either your new friend will know the answer or can send you to the right person among the organizers to get you the information you need. Finally, should you have some sort of mechanical or driving-related damage; these are the people most likely to help. They may be knowledgeable about your car and can inspect areas you might not think of, help you repair damage, or maybe even allow you to borrow a spare part to get you back on the track. It’s good to have friends.
If you watched the motion picture Rush about the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, you’ll remember the line Niki’s character delivers to his future wife: “God gave me an okay mind, but a really good ass, which can feel everything in a car.” To have that feeling of connectedness to the car, you need to be firmly secured in it.
We’re not suggesting you install a full harness into your car for your first track day, but here’s an easy way to hold yourself tighter in the seat. There are little H-shaped metal devices that come with child safety seats. They’re also sold separately. They’re designed to maintain tension on a seat belt to hold the child seat securely in place. You can use the same device on your OEM seat belt to keep you from sliding around inside the car on your first track day (but do start thinking about a proper harness).
SFI 38.1 is the specification for a head and neck support for drivers of cars on tracks. It begins “This SFI Specification establishes uniform test procedures and minimum standards for evaluating and determining performance capabilities for Head and Neck Restraint Systems used by individuals engaged in competitive motorsports.”
It all started with the original HANS Device, which has already saved countless lives. Since then, other manufacturers developed their own systems, but all (including HANS) must meet SFI 38.1 specifications in order to carry the SFI approval sticker. The good news is that there are now systems available starting at around $250. And if your insurance is anything like ours, $250 is less than the deductible for an emergency room visit. As in a track day environment, you’re much less at risk from fire than from a spinal cord injury, your second investment (after your helmet) should be for a 38.1 head and neck support.
Rainy Days and Sundays
Depending upon what part of the country you live, you may or not have the issue of driving on the track in the rain. We have two tips for you. If you’re wearing a closed helmet in a closed car, you most likely already know you can crack your visor to allow more air into the helmet. However, in a real downpour, it’s not going to be enough. If it’s a sudden, freak downpour and you don’t have anti-fog in your gear bag, here’s a time-honored tip. Pour just a drop of dishwashing liquid on each side of your visor and smear it around. There should only be as much as a light film. Where would you find dish soap at a race track? You can ask someone who is at the event with a camping trailer or RV, drive to a local convenience store, or even use the liquid soap in the restroom. All of the above will work.
Speaking of rain, make sure you keep your wipers in top condition during driving season and have plenty of washer fluid in the tank before you head to the track. Another issue about driving in the rain is not just to see , but to be seen. In a heavy downpour, to a car approaching from behind you’re nothing but a wall of mist, and they can’t see where your car is actually located within the ball of mist. Without knowing exactly where you are there’s the potential for a collision. Use the same rule of thumb as suggested when you drive on the streets: if your wipers are on, so should your lights. It could save you grief as well as earn you the respect of faster drivers.
Tear Offs In A Closed Car?
There’s a strong case to be made for drivers in open-wheel cars to use tear-offs on top of their visors. But what about drivers of closed cars? Tear-offs protect your visor from scratches and other damage that can distort your vision. It’s probably more likely that you’ll scratch your visor in the paddock than on the track. We picked a mid-price, full-featured helmet that retails for $750. The visor alone costs $150 to replace. That’s why we suggest that you apply at least a single tear-off on your visor, no matter what kind of car your drive.
Keep Your Helmet Fresh
Quick tip: if you’re racing in a class or event where a fire suit is not required, stop at your local paint shop and buy a bag of painter’s hoods. They look just like fireproof balaclavas but they’re super cheap. Wear one at your next autocross and it will wick away the sweat and leave your helmet springtime fresh.
Know Your Sound
Different tracks have different sound levels allowed from day-to-day. Be sure you know the sound limit for the day you’ll be on track and make certain your car is compliant. Keep in mind that it’s not just your car’s exhaust that determines the total output of sound. Intake noise, engine noise, transmission noise, tire noise, and noise caused by aerodynamic devices can all raise the sound profile of your vehicle. Start with a track day at a circuit with a very high sound limit and determine exactly what the sound profile of your car is. If you have plans of running at a circuit with a lower sound level, experiment at the high-sound-level track day with various changes you can make to the areas listed above. You don’t want to be black flagged on your out lap at the ‘quiet’ circuit.
There’s a great tendency for new owners of a high-performance vehicle to want to take it out on the track and see what it can do. That’s great until something happens. Sometimes it’s minor; sometimes your new sports car is a smoldering, twisted pile of wreckage. But, unlike if such an incident occurred on the street, your car insurance doesn’t cover use on the race track. So, you have nowhere to turn for restitution.
There have been incidents where wrecked cars were moved to a public road to claim that it was a highway accident, so the owner could collect on the insurance. This is a really bad idea for several reasons. One is that it’s insurance fraud and not just that, it’s considered hard fraud, which the insurance companies pursue more vigorously. One out of three hard fraud cases result in a criminal conviction, so those aren’t odds you want to play (especially with people taking pictures on their phones of your wrecked car at the track). Instead look into inexpensive, single-event HPDE and track day insurance policies available from a variety of vendors.
Give Yourself A Brake
Our friends at Performance Friction explain that the two biggest contributions you can make to a safe and enjoyable day at the track are fresh DOT4 brake fluid and brake pads that are up to the job. Even stock pads with just fresh fluid may be sufficient to get you through your first few events. The important thing is to completely flush your system of ALL brake fluid, including from the master cylinder. You can suction out the fluid from the master cylinder to make the job go a little faster. If your brake fluid is dark, it’s best to flush it first with a low-cost, store-brand brake fluid to get all the old fluid out of the system.
Once you’re certain the system is completely free of old, contaminated fluid, the bleeding can begin. Make sure you’re using a race-formulated DOT4 fluid from a known supplier of racing brake components or fluid. This is not the place to cut corners.
Start at the wheel that’s furthest to the master cylinder and work your way around the car to the wheel closest to the master cylinder (typically right rear, left rear, right front, left front). Make sure all the old fluid (including any fresh fluid you’ve used to flush the lines) is out of the system before you start the serious bleeding process. The process is well-described elsewhere, but one key item worth mentioning is for the person behind the wheel working the pedal press down slowly and smoothly. Being to jerky on the pedal can cause the system to ingest air bubbles (bad).
To learn more about the most effective way to bleed your brakes, check out the article “Five Pro Tips For Effective Brake Bleeding For Reliable Track Use.”
In regards, there are several top quality manufacturers who supply their friction materials to top-line race teams. Look at their websites for pads to suit your purposes. Many have street/track pads that allow you the braking power you want at the track and also the safety level you need on the street (we’ve driven a car on the street – briefly – with race pads that need a lot of heat to work and trust us, it’s no fun).
For the most part, on your first track day, you don’t want to spend a lot of time messing around with the car’s setup. You’re there to learn the track and high-performance driving. Honestly, messing around with coilovers or alignment settings is AP Track Day.
The one area you can, and should, make adjustments to your vehicle is tire pressure. But for that, you need to purchase an accurate gauge before you leave for the track. Any of the online performance-parts retailers sell quality gauges. Here are some buying tips. Make certain it comes with a rubber boot on the gauge body so it doesn’t break the first time it’s dropped. Also, make sure it has a bleed-off valve so you can lower tire pressures quickly. The range of the gauge should have your basic tire pressure around the center of the gauge so that it’s more accurate (for example, a 0-60 psi gauge versus 0-100). When treated with respect, a quality tire gauge will last 10 years or more, so invest in a quality unit.
In terms of setting your tire pressures for your first on-track session, start around two psi under the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure setting (listed on the b-pillar on the driver’s door – not what’s marked on the tire). They’ll heat up and you’ll likely find yourself at about two degrees above the recommended setting when you come off the track. For more information on how to adjust tire pressure to change handling, check out the article “Speed Secrets With Kenny Brown: Setting Tire Pressure For The Track.”
You’ll likely hear from others in the paddock about the advantages of running nitrogen in your tires, as it doesn’t contain moisture the way that atmospheric air does. This is true. But keep in mind that normal atmospheric air is already 80% nitrogen. It’s expensive and doesn’t really come into play until you’ve learned enough about your driving and the car to be able to tell the difference between a couple of psi of pressure makes in the handling of your car. In the meantime, save your money. If you ever have to fill a tire at the track, it’s unlikely you’ll be carrying a pressurized cylinder of nitrogen with you, so you’ll be topping off your tires with plain old air, anyway.
We could go on ad infinitum with the tips, tricks, and hacks we’ve learned over the years, but surveys have shown you won’t read much further than this last paragraph. Plus part of the fun of driving your car on the track is learning things for yourself. Then, when you become old and slow like us, you can pass your advice along to younger drivers.