So You Want to do a Track Day

The following article was written by SR for the Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park

and reposted here.

You’ve got the sweetest sports car.  You joined all the forums.  You’re in the Facebook groups.  You’ve hung out at the shows and at the meets.  As you saddle up for your Sunday drive on your favorite twisty backroad, you don your perforated leather driving gloves, your manufacturer-emblazoned Puma driving shoes, your shades, and it’s on.  You are God’s gift to driving.  That fervently-blinking Stability Control warning light in the dash certainly thinks so, at least.

What if there were a place that you could exercise your car the way it was meant to be driven, without inhibition or restriction?  A place with no speed limits, no traffic, plenty of open pavement, and lots of like-minded car enthusiasts to share the fun with?  Open Track Days and High Performance Driver’s Education events offer just this experience, and our local 1.6 mile North Florida track, the Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park, is a great venue for experienced drivers and first-timers alike.

If you’re reading this, you likely already possess the driving skill and finely-tuned race car comparable to any professional racing team’s.  But just in case you’d like to brush up on some tips for preparing yourself and your car, both physically and mentally, we’ve summarized the most important ones. 

Check your ego at the door.  Everyone goes to the track to have fun.  It’s not a race, there is no competition, no prize, no trophy, nor payout.  Your prize is going home with a huge grin at the end of the day with your car in just as good of shape as you arrived, and as a more skilled driver.  The only way you’ll impress your instructors and your fellow drivers is with an open-minded attitude, good listening skills, and patience. 

Do your homework.  Reading this article is a great starting point.  I’d recommend finding on-track videos posted by an experienced instructor, such as The FIRM’s John Van Buskirk.  Take a look at a track map- you’ll need to know the names/numbers of the turns, as well as where each corner worker station is located.  The corner workers might seem like they’re just some chumps hanging out in a little shed, but they are your first line of defense against on-track incidents.  They’re your lifeline, so pay attention!

Be informed on insurance.  In all likelihood, your normal insurance that covers you and your car on public roads will NOT cover any sort of incident on a “racing surface,” even if you aren’t doing any sort of racing.  There are special insurance policies available from The FIRM’s insurance partner, Hagerty, which do cover track days.  I’d recommend reading about them and purchasing one, especially if you rely on your track car for transportation as well. 

Prep your car.  This is a whole topic in itself, but these are the very basics.  Make sure your tires have a good amount of tread remaining above the wear bars, with none of the belts or cords showing, and no leaks of any kind.  Tire age matters, so check the 4-digit code for when they were made (1516 would be the fifteenth week of 2016, for example).  Even a new tire can be dangerous if it was stored, handled, or fitted improperly.  The track staff will help identify any potential issues at the tech inspection, but set yourself up for success by having a set of fresh tires mounted, sized in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations.  Consult with your instructor regarding tire pressures. 

On-track driving is very demanding on your car’s braking system.  While cars from many brands will be perfectly capable of driving on track in completely stock form, brake pads and brake fluid are the two consumable parts that you absolutely should upgrade before going on track.  Factory brakes are meant to be quiet, clean, and long-lasting, but will quickly deteriorate with track temperatures.  If you feel your brake pedal beginning to get soft, that’s called “brake fade” and it’s the last warning you’ll get before the heat in the braking system makes your brakes completely ineffective!  Avoid disaster by installing track-capable pads and fluid, as well as knowing when to relax your pace on track to allow your brakes to cool.

The FIRM can be particularly hard on brakes due to several acceleration sections with hard braking zones in between.  Brake fluid requirements vary by car, but a majority of cars benefit from flushing with a high-performance DOT4 fluid such as ATE TYP 200, Motul RBF 600, RBF 660, or Castrol SRF.  Regarding pads, consult with experienced drivers who have driven the same model car you have on track. 

Check for leaks.  If your car is leaking oil, coolant, fuel, power steering fluid, brake fluid, windshield washer cleaning fluid, blinker fluid, elbow grease, or any other liquid of any kind, you must get it fixed before coming out to the track!  Dropping fluids on track is dangerous not only to your car, but to the other drivers on track as well.

Last but not least, come with a full tank of gas and install your tow hook or hooks.  Hopefully you won’t need them, but even a factory tow hook is a lot better than nothing should your car need a tow.

Safety First.  Requirements for clothing and equipment vary by track and by club, but most require, at the very least, long sleeves and long pants made of natural fibers such as cotton, as well as closed-toed shoes.  Stay away from synthetic fibers (like sweat-wicking workout clothes) that may melt in the event of a vehicle fire.  Helmets are mandatory and are available to rent from The FIRM, however if you’d like to purchase your own, you’ll need a Special Applications “SA” Snell-approved helmet.  It will need to be from either the current standard or the one before; for example in 2019 the most recent standard is Snell SA 2015, but an SA 2010 would also be acceptable.  Head and neck restraints such as the HANS device are quickly becoming mandatory, and I highly, highly recommend using a helmet that provides anchors for such a device.  While most head and neck restraints require fixed 5- or 6-point harnesses, the Simpson Hybrid S can be used with factory 3-point seat belts.

Speaking of seat belts, don’t feel like you have to install harnesses for your first track day.  While I do encourage everyone to research the benefits of rollover protection, FIA-approved seats, and 6-point fixed harnesses, your car’s factory safety equipment meets the requirements to get on track.  I don’t recommend using a 4-point harness while on track.  If you do choose to upgrade your seats and/or belts, it’s okay at The FIRM to change the driver’s equipment only, but many organizations require equal levels of protection for both the driver and passenger.

Pay attention to the driver’s meeting.  Your friendly track staff will explain all the crucial details: flags and their meanings, run groups, timing of sessions, passing rules and any important points to note about track conditions.  Of particular importance are the flags.  Green means the track is open, yellow means there is a caution on track such as dirt or other debris, or a disabled vehicle.  Red means come to a controlled stop, preferably near a corner worker station.  Something bad has happened and rescue vehicles need to get out on track.  The black flag means there is a problem with either your driving or your car, and you need to relax your pace and come into the pit to check in with the track staff.  A blue flag with a yellow diagonal is a signal for you to check your rear view mirrors and let a faster car pass at the next passing zone.

All this knowledge and we haven’t even talked about the actual driving yet!  For your first time, you’ll have an experienced in-car instructor with you to help you with where to look, what path or “line” to take around the track, where to brake, where to turn, and so on.  The following guidelines apply to all on-track driving:

Get comfortable.  Your driving position is important.  You’ll want to be close enough to the steering wheel that your elbows remain bent, and that you are able to comfortably use the pedals with the ball of your foot, not your toes.  Sit fairly upright and not leaned back.  Keep both hands on the wheel unless it’s absolutely necessary to take one off, such as when shifting gears in a manual-transmission car.  Even then, only let go long enough to shift, and get the hand back on.  This isn’t the Fast and the Furious, so don’t rest your right hand on the gearshift.  I use a 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock hand position, but many use a 10 and 2.  I don’t recommend putting both hands up at the top of the steering wheel in an 11 and 1; for some reason people want to do this.

It’s not a race; drive at your own pace.  While you should be aware of other cars on track, drivers behind you will forgive you for driving at whatever pace you feel comfortable with.  What no one will forgive you for is driving beyond your abilities and wrecking.

Look ahead.  The car goes where your eyes go.  Most new drivers focus too close off the nose of the car.  Concentrate on looking far head into and through the next turn.  This is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding skills to learn for a new driver, so practice early.  It is unsettling to get used to not checking right next to the car as you drive, so ease into it.  Think of looking ahead as feeding your brain; the further you look ahead, the more information your brain has to make decisions, and the sooner it gets it.  You’ll be able to pilot the car smoother, safer, and faster just by providing your subconscious with all the extra information.

Be smooth.  At higher speeds, every input into the car- turning, braking, and accelerating- has a larger effect than it would at regular speeds.  Be deliberate, but be smooth.  Resist the urge to death grip the steering wheel with white knuckles.  When you apply the brakes, lean into them hard, but not so hard as to activate Anti-Lock Braking or “ABS”.  You’ll know ABS activates by the pulsation you feel through the brake pedal.  Roll the throttle on, but don’t stomp it.

Listen to your car.  Listen to your tires especially.  Tires, street tires in particular, “talk” when driven near, at, and beyond their limits of grip.  If your tires are screaming in agony all the way around the track, not only are you going slower than you could be going, but you’re rapidly wearing the tires out with excess heat.  As you increase the turning angle of the steering wheel, you’ll first notice a bit of low groan or growl, followed by louder, higher pitched screeching, and then ultimately an all-out squeal.  Do your best to get around the track with at most just a bit of that low growling noise, and you’ll be rewarded with smooth, fast laps and longer tire life.

Be courteous.  You’ll need to pass and be passed by other cars on track.  It doesn’t mean anyone is winning or losing.  Each track and run group has passing rules about where cars are allowed to pass and where they aren’t.  At The FIRM, the main straight is the safest place to pass.  The slower car should remain “on line” where they would normally drive (at the main straight, this is on the right) and put a pointing finger out the window.  In this example, you would point the faster car to your left, and stay to the right, allowing the passing car to go by on your left.  Don’t slam on the brakes, but do breathe off the throttle a bit to allow them to go by.  If you find yourself needing to let a car go by on your right side, then point up and over the roof of the car to your right.

Don’t panic if you have a “moment.”  Eventually you may find that you have driven beyond what the car can take and put a wheel, or two, or four off of the pavement.  First of all, for the most part The FIRM doesn’t have any hard objects to run into, and a trip “mowing the lawn” off of the track surface will likely not harm your car.  If you do find yourself in extremis, get on the brakes as soon as you can and, if your car has a clutch pedal, press and hold it in as well.  Try to keep the car mostly straight as you exit the track into the grass, to prevent the unlikely event of a roll-over.  If you get stuck in the mud, the track staff will come extract you.  Let’s hope you put that tow hook in!  Most importantly, DO NOT get out of your car on track unless it is on fire!  You’re much safer inside the vehicle than out of it.  After putting two or more wheels off of the track, come into the pits ant the track staff will help you check your car for damage.

Know when to cool down and pit in.  Your track session should not exceed twenty minutes, even though at The FIRM you’ll likely be able to come in and then immediately go back out on track.  Street cars, even with reliability modifications, need time to cool off after all the hard driving.  If you see the corner worker at the pit wall display a white flag, that is your signal to perform a cool-down lap.  Use brakes as little as possible and try to coast around the track to allow your car, and especially your brakes, to cool.  If possible, pay attention to time and cool down before the white flag is thrown.  Once you see the checkered flag, it’s time to come in.  If it gets thrown right as you approach the pit, don’t feel like you have to dive on the brakes and come screeching into the pit, but you do want to come in at your first safe opportunity.  As you approach pit in, stay track left and put a closed fist out of the window as a signal that you are coming in.  As you enter the pits, slow down to walking speed, but also keep an eye on your rear view mirror in case a car is coming in fast behind you with failed brakes.  I recommend continuing on outside the gate onto the gravel road and doing a u-turn before parking your car, to allow even more time for brake cool down.  When you park, park somewhere level and try not to engage the brakes.  Use wheel chocks or leave the car in gear, but do not set the parking brake.  Allowing hot brake pads or parking brake shoes to touch the rotor while the car is stopped will put pad deposits on to the rotors and cause the brakes to shake or judder.

Hydrate.  Driving is much more physically demanding than most realize, especially in the Florida heat.  You’ll need to run with windows down (for pointing by and so rescue workers can access you should there be an incident), and using the air-conditioner is frowned upon as it drops condensation water on track.  To stay in mental and physical shape, drink lots of water.  Bring a cooler with at least two gallons of water per person during the summer.  Find some shade.

Know when to quit.  If your car seems to be doing something abnormal or you start to feel mentally cloudy, take a break, or even pack it up and call it a day.  One of the great benefits of track days at The FIRM is that there is more seat time available than most drivers can handle in a single day.  Don’t feel like you have to drive until the track closes; most people pack up early.

The FIRM is unique in its relaxed, accommodating atmosphere.  It is especially suited for new track drivers due to all corners having good vision, and the track having plenty of runoff should a driver find themselves performing an unplanned exit of the pavement, as well as the average amount of other cars on track being quite low.  Once you get a taste you’ll find yourself becoming a regular; I know I did.