Skills and Knowledge
Flashback: Going to my first track day
Published July 2023 by Track Manual Team
Driving my car on the racetrack was my dream ever since opening up Gran Turismo 5 on Christmas. The force-feedback of the Logitech wheel as I circled around Laguna Seca in an iconic RX-7 FD had me hooked. “One day,” I thought, “I’ll definitely be behind the wheel tackling the Corkscrew.”
Fast forward four years, I bought a Mazda Miata NB in college to prep for the track, inspired by my friend tracking his NA. But life happened and I ended up selling it to focus on my professional career. The dream was put on hold for a few more years, until I found myself the owner of a very used 2003 Porsche 911. After fixing up mechanical issues and refreshing its consumables, I signed up for my first track day at Thunderhill East to realize my childhood dream.
Preparing for the first day
The anticipation for your first track day is a feeling that’s hard to forget. I could hardly sleep the night before and ended up bringing Thunderhill track videos in a Motel 6. My mind raced with questions about how fast I would go and what lap time I’d set my first time driving. I was also nervous about breaking something on the car or crashing off the track.
A bit of preparation goes a long way to quashing those fears. Here are some tips for the first time out:
- Make sure your car is in great mechanical shape. Check tires, brake fluid, oil, as well as any mechanical parts. Tracking is harder on your car than you’ve ever driven it on the street.
- Hire an instructor. I hired an instructor for my first day from the event organizer NCRC, and it was the best decision I made. Having an experienced driver sitting next to me giving me tips and constant feedback jumpstarted my learning process and prevented me from building any bad habits.
- There are plenty of guides and videos online for tracks across the world. You should familiarize yourself with the track layout ahead of time, but I also guarantee that you’ll forget most of it when you’re behind the wheel for the first time.
- Get plenty of rest and stock up on water and snacks for the upcoming day. Motorsports is more taxing on your body than you can imagine. Seriously, don’t let the thin physiques of F1 drivers and the fact that you’re sitting fool you. You’ll be continually processing information and resisting G-forces.
- Don’t worry about lap times. While we love to see how fast we are compared to the field, preemptively focusing on times hinders learning. Instead, focus on driving smoothly and getting comfortable with your car and the track. The lap times will follow.
First Session Out
After attending the beginner classroom session and meeting my instructor, I put on helmet and waited to hear the call for the novice group to head on track.
The first two sessions of the novice group were lead-follows, where a group of cars follow an instructor lead car at a slower pace to get familiar with the track.
I spent my first few laps understanding how to drive on the track. That may sound fairly obvious, like just follow the road and keep your car on the tarmac. But you would be surprised how many inputs there are: physical, audio, and visual: The slight bump of going over a rough patch of tarmac, the squealing sound of your tires as they get close to their grip limit, and the waving flag from a corner worker warning you to take caution ahead.
The key to being a fast and safe driver is to be able to efficiently process these inputs while driving. Most new drivers develop tunnel vision, where they focus only on their car and the tarmac directly in front of them. Advanced drivers are aware 360 degrees:
- Ahead: Keeping your eyes focused ahead past the immediate next segment of track to identify visual references and set up your car way in advance.
- Around: Flag towers are the main form of communication between the track officials and you. Memorize where they’re located and keep an eye out for flags.
- Behind: Is there a faster car coming up behind you? Checking your mirrors frequently will prepare you to point them by (or defend if you’re in a real race).
Don’t forget to communicate with your instructor. Want them to identify brake zones for you? Or perhaps you like all your feedback after you return to the pits so you can focus on driving while on track? Help them help you.
Thrills and Spills
The adrenaline kicks in hard, starting the moment you arrive at the track and grid with other high performance cars. The high only spikes higher as you get on track.
As you gain speed and become more comfortable as a driver, it’s inevitable you will start pushing harder and have your first off track excursion and black flag. Going off track is usually a sign of lack of concentration, lack of skill, or a dangerous maneuver. When it happens, make your way back to the hot pits when it’s safe, debrief with the instructor or staff, take a breather, and refocus. Usually, only three black flags are allowed before you are banned from driving for the day.
My first black flag and off track incident was spinning on Turn 2, a long left hander where I exceeded the grip of my car and spun into the dirt. My car stalled and I tried to immediately start the car to no avail. I immediately thought, “I broke my car. Not only was my track day over, but I had a long expensive road ahead to fix the 911.” However, my coach reminded me to take a deep breath and wait a few minutes to restart the car. It successfully started and I had a great rest of the day. Going off-track is part of the learning experience and nothing to be embarrassed of, just don’t make it a habit!
Overall, I finished my day with only two off-track incidents, improved my driving skills and appreciation of the 911, and left with a big grin on my face.
This experience has forever hooked on motorsports. My goal now is to get faster with various types of cars and eventually get into wheel to wheel racing. It also inspired me to co-create Track Manual to provide the information needed for those looking to get onto the track for the first time.
Looking to get on track? Check out how to sign up and the products that we use to keep our cars track ready. Hope to see you out there!