My First Track Event
by Adam Steffes for UnlimitedLaps
Maybe you own a fast car. You like to take the long way home from work, winding through the hills. Maybe your car is a bit more modest but you like taking it out for the occasional blast when it isn't getting you through your daily commute. Or maybe you just like to watch racing - something about seeing other people go fast in flashy cars excites you. Maybe it excites you enough to make you think you could do that, too, but you think you could never get onto a real track. In any case, if you're reading this you're probably someone who likes to go fast in your machine of choice. I'm writing this to explain how you can go fast on a real race track in your own car.
Cars are getting faster. The new Viper has around 500 horsepower. The new Volkswagens - available for around $20,000 - will easily put out 200 horsepower. Honda B16 motors can scream to stratospheric RPMs. Fast cars in a wide price range are accessible to new car buyers, but how much of that power and handling prowess can you really use on the street? Ask anyone who has attended a track event and you'll probably get the same answer: not much. Unless you want a ticket or to wrap your car around a telephone pole, you can't experience its full potential on less-than-perfect roads. Race tracks are perfect for this sort of thing.
I'm a novice track driver. I won't pretend to know everything about driving or cars. Far from it, in fact. I have, however, experienced the thrills and exhilaration of driving my car at Laguna Seca and Thunderhill Park, two tracks in California. The first is a world-class track that hosts professional races sanctioned by the likes of IMSA and the SCCA. The second hosts SCCA club races and even twelve-hour enduros that attract a variety of cars and teams. Getting to drive on the same tarmac as a multi-million dollar BMW Le Mans prototype is pretty cool in its own right. But who cares - you want to know what this is all about and how you can get involved, right?
My first track event was at Thunderhill. A friend who tracks a Dodge Viper convinced me to go. I used to autocross and he thought it would be a "step up" for me in terms of excitement. So I nervously signed up, sent in my entry fee and awaited the day of the event with great anxiety. Before the event I got some information from my friend and the club that sponsored the event as to how it would all work and what I should expect. I eagerly crossed out the days on the calendar until it was time to head to the track.
The event went something like this:
We showed up at the track early in the morning and attended the driver's meeting. This is where we learned the rules about passing, where the flag stations were and what the flags meant and who the instructors were. Since I was in the novice group, I got in line with the other novice drivers to pair up with an instructor. The instructors were advanced group drivers who had a lot of experience on the track. They would explain the proper path along the track that would set us up properly for each turn. We would learn when and how to turn, brake and accelerate. Making a mistake at a low speed was far better than making one later when we would want to go faster, so it was a good idea to break us of any bad habits early on.
We took the first couple of laps slowly under the yellow flag. This was to familiarize ourselves with the track as well as to get our minds and cars warmed up. My instructor pointed out important details of each section of the track, which I quickly forgot in my excited state.
Finishing the second lap, the green flag came out and I promptly stomped on the gas. As we rounded the track he was rather quiet. I made mistakes - I could tell I wasn't doing very much right out there. I was going so slowly I could have probably driven straight off and not hurt anything. As I began my second "hot" lap, he spoke up. "You're doing ok so far," he said, "but let's try to stop moving your hands around so much." My instructor explained that my hand position was the cause of my jerky steering. "You'll be much smoother if you hold the wheel at 9 and 3 and not move your hands from that spot. There's no reason to shuffle around so much."
And so it went. I received little gems of advice that, when combined, led to a one million percent improvement in my behavior behind the wheel. Little by little, I got faster, smoother and a bit less nervous. What I began to realize was that going fast isn't a matter of the car you drive or the size of the engine under the hood. It's more about how you handle the car - was I trying to toss the car around, or was I more of a guide, showing the car what I wanted it to do and then having confidence in its ability to act on my instructions.
By the end of the fourth session, I got comfortable with the car's reactions to what I was asking of it. Tires make noise. Going around Turn 2, they would start to squeal. At first I thought I should back off. After doing it twenty times, it became music to my ears. I knew when the noise would start and when it should stop. If I didn't hear it I knew I could go faster on the next lap. I also got comfortable pointing people by to pass. Traffic became a normal condition. I even managed to pass one car that I thought was really fast. It was starting to be really, really fun.
When the end of the day finally arrived I was dead tired. The concentration I needed when trying to go fast mixed with my own nervousness sapped all my energy. I could barely load up the car at the end of the day. I still had a four hour drive home! Before heading home, though, a bunch of folks were heading over to the local diner for some dinner and conversation about the day. Over burgers and milkshakes we laughed and teased about our various "techniques" and lines. We also talked about work and life and other fun times we've had. The track event was more than just a driving exercise - it was a great opportunity to meet other driving and car enthusiasts and to make new friends.
If you haven't tried driving on a track before I really recommend giving it a try. There's really no better way to go fast, learn about your car and have a great time all at once with other people who respect you and your limits. Regardless of the car you drive it's probably the best time you can spend with it.