Saturday, March 13, 2010

a guide for track day virgins

Unparalleled fun if you get it right…
by Pierre Martins

Targa I’ve received a couple of emails recently asking for tips and advice for people who want to do track days, so I've decided to put this little guide together. What follows here is not intended to teach anyone how to drive fast, but more how to get through your first track day without making an ass of yourself.

Track driving is vastly different to driving on the street, and believe you me, if you do it right, you will be in awe over what you’ve been missing. But do it wrong and it could turn out to be a horrible experience. You don’t want that, you want to enjoy yourself and drive your car home afterwards, in one piece.

On a track you can hone your skills to a razor sharp margin, but to get there will take more than just one session, or one track day for that matter. Hopefully this little little guide will set you off on the right path and enable you to enjoy your first track day, without winding up the seasoned track drivers.

Prepping your car beforehand…

There are usually different classes at organised track days - novice, intermediate and advanced. Simply enter in the novice class and take it from there. It doesn’t really matter what car you have. What matters is how you drive and conduct yourself on the track, so don’t worry if your car is not a track orientated car. However, your car is bound to take massive punishment, so there are a few things you should prepare for beforehand…

brakes%203 Your brakes will generally suffer most, so make sure they are in good nick.

You should have at least 50% material left on all your brake pads. Heavy cars will eat pads. Track compound brake pads are advisable and chamfering the pads around the outer edges will assist cooling. Change brake fluid to synthetic dot-5.1 or better. Lots of heavy braking will generate loads of heat in the whole braking system and there is a definite possibility that your brakes will overheat and fail. Brake fade is a serious and very real concern on the track. more >>

Tyres must obviously be in reasonable condition with decent sidewalls. They can be toward the end of their life, but should have at least 5000km worth of tread left. You’d be amazed at how much punishment the tyres take and how fast they wear on a race track, so if you turn up at a track day on tyres with barely any tread left and expect to run the full day and drive home again, forget it. Generally speaking, the lighter and more track orientated your car is, the less tyre wear you can expect. A Lotus 7 will go a long way on a set of tyres, but drive a two ton luxo-barge around a track at a semi-decent pace and you’ll trash your tyres in no time.

Make sure you have sufficient oil in the engine, gearbox & diff. Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing to see how many people head for home after their first session because they didn’t check these things. It’s vital to check the engine oil level, especially with older engines. Some people recommend that you slightly overfill your engine before a track day, but this can cause problems if your car has a catalytic converter. Too much oil can damage the cat. 

Make sure you have no coolant leaks, check if the battery is secure and clean the car inside and out whilst your at it, especially the windows.

Fuel. Although not a requirement, but if you wanna run race fuel, keep in mind that the car’s OBC will need time to adjust, especially in cars with self adjusting timing.

Prepping the nut behind the wheel – You!

Yes, track days are meant to be fun, but be forewarned, track driving is vastly different from driving on the street. So whether you’re doing this for shits and giggles, or whether you’re thinking about taking it up as a serious hobby, my advice to you is to at least familiarise yourself with the basics of track driving prior to your first track day. thumb%20warning%20no%20brainLearning to drive on a track is not about going balls to the wall from the word go. The odds are stacked against you and I’m willing to take a bet that you’re gonna be blown away by the experience. You  will probably be nervous and slow during your first session, but don’t worry about that and don’t feel intimidated - we all have to start somewhere. You will soon get quicker, just take your time and don’t become impatient.  Learning to drive on a race track depends on how good you are at interpreting what happens whilst you’re driving. You have to learn how to turn motion into thought, and then to translate those thoughts back into motion again.  more >> 

You will probably become increasingly nervous as your first track day draws closer. Welcome to the party. Stress is good, it keeps you alert. Seasoned racers will tell you that the sick feeling before a race never really goes away. We all get a bit frazzled before the race. It’s the nature of the beast and there is no cookie-cutter plan to calm your nerves, but there are a few things that will help…

Do everything you can the day before. If you need to buy fuel, do it the day before and not on your way to the track in the morning. Pack the car with everything you need the night before. Lay off the booze and anything that contains caffeine and try to get a good night’s rest. 

Things to take with to the track…

Basic tools. Tyre pressure gauge and pump.  Trolley jack, wheel spanner and at least one trestle in case you need to remove a wheel to check something. Some rags and hand cleaner.

Spare engine oil & brake fluid for top ups. It’s not a bad idea to take some anti-freeze and a five litre container of water with in case your car suffers overheating problems.

Spare alternator belt. Don’t ask me why I know this, just take the damn thing with! He-he-he…

A roll of duct tape and zip ties. Where would motorsport be without these two invaluable commodities?

Driving gear. Helmet, gloves and driving shoes with thin soles. Some tracks require you to wear a long sleeve shirt. 

gas3qmYour fuel consumption is going to increase drastically on the track. Don’t be surprised if it doubles!

It’s really embarrassing to run out of fuel on the race track, not  to mention the sheer waste of track time you will lose by schlepping around to get more fuel. So best you take extra fuel and a siphoning hose.

Appropriate clothing for the weather. Warm clothing in winter, obviously. A cap and sunglasses is a must in summer. You’re gonna roast in the sun.

Refreshments. Drinks and snacks. You’re going to get hungry and thirsty. Some tracks have canteens or snack shops, but they’re not always open. 

Medical aid kit, including sunscreen, eye drops and lip balm. Make sure you take headache tablets. It’s not uncommon to develop a headache at the track, and that can really spoil the day for you.

Take one or two camping chairs with for obvious reasons. 

Documentation, entry forms, etc. An arieal photo or map of the track, pen and paper will come in handy.

And last but not least, don’t forget to take money!

What to do when you arrive at the track…

Get the red tape out the way first. - Complete documentation, indemnities, registration and whatnot.

Make sure you attend driver’s briefing and familiarise yourself with the modus operandi of the track. Pay special attention to the rules of overtaking. You don’t want to plant your car in the wall after spinning out on someone else’s oil just because you didn’t know what that yellow flag with the red stripes meant, do you? – Well, make a point of memorising the flag signals. more >> 

smtm6_tn Check tyre pressures. Tire pressures always increase as the tyres warm up, so don’t inflate them to the maximum pressure, but you will need more pressure than the lowest recommended pressure initially. Although there are many exceptions to the rule, it is generally accepted that road tyres should be slightly over-inflated for track use. +/- Point-3 to point-5-bar higher than the pressures you normally run on the road should suffice, but remember to check and adjust pressures between sessions.

Torque all wheel nuts. Wheel nuts tend to work loose on the track and you don’t wanna lose a wheel when you’re travelling at speed.

Remove all accessories and loose items from the car, including the spare wheel and jack. Remove the loose mat from the driver’s foot-well and make sure there are no empty beer cans under the driver’s seat!  He-he-he…

Hey, pssst - There are lots of people hanging around at race tracks with cameras, snapping away at will. If you’re using your regular road car, tape up your number plates, licence disc and VIN number for obvious reasons. 

If you’d like coaching, get some from an experienced driver, but only after you’ve had a few laps on your own. The speed and technique of good driver is completely alien to a newcomer. It will blow your mind and you won’t learn much at all. However, get some instruction early on and you will have the rest of the day to work on your driving.

Finally, study the track map and memorise the track layout just before you go out for your first session.

First session…

Traction control, DSC, ABS, DTC and all them nanny crap… Personally I would turn all the driver’s aids off, or at least set them to minimum interference, but the choice is yours. Go with whatever you’re comfortable with.

468185283_ae9ac92d52 Warm up. Wanna kill your engine? – Rev it sky high when it’s still cold.  You've seen these guys in the pits, as soon as the engine starts they rev the hell out of it. What for? Warming up the engine? Yeah right. There’s absolutely no reason to rev an engine like this, so please don’t fool yourself, heat comes from load and there is no load when you’re parked, in neutral. Just start the bloody car and leave it at idle while you’re in the pits.

Warm-up happens on, you guessed it.., the warm-up lap. The engine will warm up automatically whilst you’re warming up the tyres and brakes. Take it easy at first. Don’t keep your foot on the brake pedal continuously to warm the brakes up, you will glaze the pads. Short stabs on the brake pedal will suffice. Pick up the pace gradually, the tyres will warm up accordingly. Keep your eye on the temp gauge and don’t send it before the engine is up to its normal operating temperature.  

Drive beyond your experience you won’t learn much. All you’ll get from pretending to be Michael Schumacher is a dented ego and a dented car. Drive as fast as you’re comfortable and work yourself in. Try and give yourself space ahead of you. Don’t be tempted to follow the car in front too closely, you’re likely to fixate and concentrate on him instead of the track. The trick is to look as far ahead as possible…

Look through the corners, not at them. The common sense with regard to ‘looking-through-corners’ on a race track is set in the fact that the further you look ahead, the more time you allow your brain to process things that are hurtling towards you when you’re travelling at speed. more >>

IMG_4335 Don’t go brain-dead on the straights. Get used to checking your mirrors before and after each corner, you will be amazed how quickly the faster cars will catch you if you are a track novice. Be courteous and follow track etiquette. You’re not racing against the other cars. Try not to hold up faster cars coming up from behind, you’ll only piss them off. Most track day rules require that you stay on the racing line in corners in order for the faster drivers to predict which way you’re going, but on the straights you should move over and point the faster guys by.

Make it a habit to check your gauges on the straights. Make sure the car is happy, keep your eye on the temp & oil pressure gauges. Also watch your fuel gauge, it will drop quicker than you anticipate. If you feel a power loss coming out of a tight corner, back off. It’s probably the first sign of fuel starvation. This can happen when the gauge still shows a quarter tank or more. If you keep it planted you’re risking detonation due to a weak mixture. Return to the pits and refuel. 

Give your brakes a breather every five laps or so. Slow down gradually and take a lap at 50 percent pace. Try not to use the brakes. Move off the racing line and monitor your mirrors for fast traffic.

As for you, the nut behind the wheel, you may also need a breather every now and again. Don’t continue at full pace when you feel you’re losing concentration. Breathe naturally and don’t tense up. You can expect to perspire considerably, but don’t keep driving ‘till you wanna pass out.

Do a slow-down lap at the end of each session at fifty percent pace and try not to use the brakes. Again, monitor your mirrors. There might be some asshole still on a flying lap coming up behind you…  Signal that you’re about to exit the track and enter the pit real slow. Keep an eye out for kids and spectators, they may not hear you coming.

Park the car and leave it in gear. Do not use the park brake, or sit with your foot on the brake pedal. Heat build-up between the pads and discs will warp the discs. It’s advisable to move the car a few inches every few minutes to ensure the discs cool down evenly.

Turbo cars – Remember to let the car run for a few minutes after stopping, as usual!

Between sessions…

oil Give the car time to cool and check all fluid levels.  You may never use oil on the road, but you are almost guaranteed to do so during a track day. Checking your oil regularly at the track is vital, especially with older engines. 

Check the brake pads for wear, at least once. You will be amazed how quickly they get used up, especially with heavy cars. 

Check tyre pressures after each session and release some air if the pressure build-up is excessive. Also check your tyres for excessive wear, especially around the outer edges where the tread meets the sidewall.

Re-torque all wheel nuts between sessions. This is very, very important. Wheel nuts tend to work loose on the track and you don’t wanna lose a wheel at speed, do you? Remember to do this again after the final session.

Upgrade to a faster group if you encounter too much slow traffic, but don’t get too brave or overly confident. With confidence comes complacency and there’s no room on a race track for complacency.

Beware of fatigue. Drink plenty of water, keep yourself hydrated. It’s a long day and the track will take it out of you, especially on hot days. You do need to look after yourself. 


Still in one piece? Good. Award yourself a beer whilst the car tick itself cold. Rave about what a fantastic day it was and talk smack with the other track junkies, re-torque all wheel nuts and let the tyre pressures down for normal road use, load up, clean up your pit area and head for home. 

You’re gonna sleep like a rock tonight and tomorrow we’ll embark on that slippery slope of suspension and brake mods, or maybe buying a dedicated track car…?

Welcome to the club! You’re in for the best times and worst times of your life…


1 comment:

Matthew said...

Very interesting. I've been wanting to take my car on a track for ages.