Your one stop shop on everything you need to hit the track.
Disclaimer: Even though motorsports is an overall pretty safe hobby, there is still inherit risk with it, up to and including death. I’m not liable for any physical harm that comes to you or your property. You’re doing everything discussed below at your own risk.
If you like to drive spiritedly and have fun with cars, you really, really need to do yourself a favor and attend a track day. Not only can you push yourself and your car to their current limits, you’ll also learn in a controlled environment on where you and your car can improve. Plus, well, there’s nothing quite like it.
Before The Track
Here’s a step by step list on what you need to get off Project CARS:2 and be on an actual track.
Step 0: Own The Right Kind of Car
Now, I bet you’re thinking, “I knew Parker would use this time to shill his BMWs!” Actually, no.
Any car can work – even your mom’s Prius. However, no truck/SUV/minivan will be allowed on the track with most companies, so if you own one of those – well, you’re SOL. Sorry, should have bought a car instead of a tank.
“Why Can’t I Use My SUV/Crossover/Minivan/Truck?”
One reason, and one reason only – the risk of rolling over. All four of those vehicle types have a high center of mass height – that is, the point in an object where we can assume where all of the mass is. When you corner, the weight – and this point – move around the body of the vehicle. When this point moves outside the track width of the vehicle, the vehicle rolls over.
The basic rule of thumb is that your vehicle should have a higher width than height in order to prevent rollovers. Due to their designs, SUV/Crossover/Minivan/Trucks are for the most part unsuitable – and if you’re reading this beginner’s article, chances are completely unsuitable.
Here’s a visualization:
One final thing to note is that motorsports can be dangerous – so if this is your only car and you can’t afford to lose it, you might want to consider HPDE insurance in case something happens.
With all of that said, you could always rent a car for a day through a variety of companies; whether this be a Prius from Enterprise or an actual race car.
Step 1: Make Sure Your Car Is in Good Mechanical Order
I can not emphasize this enough – before you throw your car around a track, it’s extremely important that it’s in good mechanical order; after all, it’d suck not being able to use all the track time you paid for with your hard earned money because something broke – not to mention having to get the car towed all the way back to your place. You’re going to be driving your car very hard, after all; make sure it’s up to the challenge.
Each company has an inspection checklist, so I’m not going to go in great detail since requirements vary. However, here’s a general list of things you should inspect before hitting the track, for the safety of yourself, your car, and others:
- Do your tires have sufficient thread left?
- Are your wheels torqued to the correct spec? (Do this ONCE while the tires are cold; you don’t need to retorque them after every run. In fact, you shouldn’t, as you’re adding extra torque for no reason.)
- Do your tires have the correct pressures in them? (Too little can result in a blowout, too much reduces your contact patch and in turn grip.)
- Are all of your fluids at their correct levels?
- Are there any fluid leaks? Any fluid, especially oil, on a track is extremely dangerous.
- Are all of your wires and hoses secured?
- Is your battery properly secured, and are the terminals covered appropriately?
- Are your throttle return springs ok? (If applicable)
- Is your radiator overflow ok?
- Do your brake pads have more than 5mm (a pencil eraser) of material left on them? (More on brakes in a bit)
- Is your brake pedal firm? Is the brake fluid level correct?
- Are your rotors within wear specs? Do they show any signs of damage, such as cracking/scoring?
- Do your brake lights work properly?
- Is your steering tight? Are your wheel bearings in good shape? (You can test this by lifting the car and pulling the wheel back and forth – it shouldn’t move.)
- Are your OEM seatbelts in good condition? Does your airbag system (if equipped) show any error lights?
Step 2: Sign up for Motorsportreg.Com
Because of the large number of companies offering different types of events at different places and at different times, the best way to sort through them all is on motorsportreg.com. Making an account is free, of course, and it allows you search for events based on your location as well as filter to see what type of events you want shown – in this case, you’re going to want to select “open track” on the left side.
Step 3: Sign up for an Event!
Assuming you find the event you want – whether it’s an open track day, autocross, or whatever – sign up for it! Make sure to get an instructor (usually a $50 option, if it’s optional) – s/he will show you the best line and give you some pointers on what you can improve on.
Congratulations, you’re almost there!
Step 4: Purchase a Helmet (Required)
Unless you happen to have a Snell 2015 rated helmet lying around, you’ll need to go out and purchase one of your own – unless whatever facility you’re going to happens to have helmet rentals (even then, why would you want to put your head into a helmet that has someone else’s sweat?)
The good news is that they’re pretty cheap and will last you quite a long time. I bought this helmet on Amazon for $120.
You’ll need to know your head size before you buy one – as the helmet should be tight enough that your cheek skin and forehead skin move with it if you were to pull it up and down on your head. To measure your head, get some tailor’s tape and have someone take measurements from the top of your brow to the back of your skull at it’s widest point. Each company provides a sizing chart – consult it with your measurements to determine the correct size for you.
Step 5: Prepare
Now we’re at the day before the event – it’s time to pack. In my experience, here are the things that you absolutely need to carry with you:
- Your helmet.
- Tow hooks/points in both the front and back of your car.
- A long sleeved shirt, and normal trousers (not shorts). Comfortable shoes and a jacket are usually good to have, too.
- Paperwork that’s required by the company you’re running with.
- Plenty of food and water – you’re going to be at the track all day, and it’s extremely important to stay hydrated.
- Camping chairs to rest in after a run.
- Shop rags to check fluids with.
- Glass cleaner.
- Painter’s tape to make numbers on the sides of your car with.
- Distilled water.
- Tire pressure gauge and a way of inflating tires (whether this be an electric pump or a bicycle pump).
- Extra oil – longer tracks usually result in some oil combustion, and you really don’t want to run low on oil. Check the dipstick 10 minutes after every run, so the oil has time to settle in the sump.
- Cameras, if you have them.
Try to get this all squared away as early as possible so you don’t have to think about leaving something behind at the last minute.
Get as much sleep as you can – you don’t want to be tired when you get to the track, nor do you want to be on the drive to the track.
None of the following things are required, but are highly recommended.
Performance Brake Pads
Stock brake pads are meant to handle the gentle dullness that is street driving while making as little noise as possible and giving a long service life. They are also required to work even when stone cold – as a result of this combination, they usually accomplish their task quite well, and that’s fine and all.
However, you’re going to be running your brakes hard all day – and OEM pads simply aren’t up to the task. Brake pad materials are designed to operate in a certain temperature range; over that range, they overheat, causing a reduction in performance (longer stops), which isn’t just dangerous but it’ll slow you down, and that’s not fun. Plus, your brake rotors could become glazed – and that means you’ll have to throw them away and buy new ones. Not fun at all.
There are several upgraded brake pads that are able to withstand the abuse that track work brings with it, and allow you to stop quicker too. I bought Stoptech Sports for my E46, and they’re doing a pretty good job in terms of stopping power and lack of noise. That said, unlike stock pads, they required to be heated up a bit before they give full performance; all that means is that I have to use a bit more force on the brakes when I leave home for work for the first two minutes or so. No big deal.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can just upgrade the front brake pads and leave the rears stock – almost all the braking happens up front anyways.
While you’re at it, why not ditch your old brake fluid for a better one? Read on to find out why you should.
Performance Brake Fluid
Like your stock brake pads, stock brake fluid is designed to operate in a certain temperature range – and you’ll most likely exceed that range on the track. Unlike your stock pads, when your stock fluid overheats, it boils; when it boils, you lose all braking force, as there is nothing left to actuate against the brake calipers to slow you down. (You can read about how brakes work here if you’d like to know more.)
So, to go with your shiny new performance brake pads, get some performance brake fluid and give your brakes a flushing through. Performance brake fluid has a higher boiling point than what the fluid that AutoZone sells – and won’t overheat on you when you’re at the track. Look for a fluid that’s listed as DOT 5.
I personally bought Motul 600 – and have not had any problems with it, besides being shocked to see how worn my old fluid was in comparison!
Flushing brakes is really easy, but time consuming. Try to do this the weekend before your track day given that it might take a few hours. I’d recommend doing your brake pads at the same time since you have the wheels off.
“What about better tires/coilovers/seats/wheels/etc?”
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve not maxed out what you currently have – and throwing money at the car will do absolutely nothing to make you a better driver. If you have a decent set of all-seasons, just use those. Proper summer tires are expensive, and while they’ll let you turn harder/get better times, they’re also much, much less forgiving; instead of gradually losing grip, they tend to lose all of their grip at once, turning slow, gradual slides into fast spins that you as an amateur might not know how to recover from yet.
Everything else, such as coilovers, more power, wheels, etc is at this point a waste of money. Use the money to attend to maintenance and more track days. Stop using these un-needed upgrades as an excuse to not hit the track.
At The Track
Be sure to leave early enough to make it to the first driver’s meeting, since it’s usually mandatory. While on your way to the track, do not do anything illegal/stupid. It turns out the Highway Patrol isn’t as stupid as we all thought, and they love track days because some people act like idiots and that’s just easy money for them. Do not give the police money, do not make the people who are against our hobby look good. Be responsible on public roads.
When you get to the track, find a place in the paddocks to put your stuff down; if you have time, you could try to strip out anything you don’t need for the track, such as extra seats, your (full sized) spare tire/jack, and any junk in the storage compartments. Be sure to have your paperwork ready to take to registration; doing it all beforehand is a very wise idea. Be sure not to miss the mandatory driver’s meeting. There, you’ll go over some track basics and etiquette, and be paired up with your instructor.
Remember, you’re a student – assume you know absolutely nothing about performance driving, and listen to your instructor well, as s/he has been doing this a lot longer than you have.
Since you’re running in the beginner group, you won’t have open passing; generally, passing is done only on the straights and point by only. What that means is that you “point” at the side that you want the faster person behind you to pass on. Here’s an example:
You are on Thunderhill West’s main straightway, giving your 100hp Neon that your dad bought you as a 16th birthday gift all it has, when you look in your mirror and see a shiny, angry looking Camaro ZL1 quickly catching up to your tail. Now, knowing that you can’t go any faster, and wanting to ensure everyone has fun, you stick your hand all the way out your window and point leftwards; you pointed by your side that you want the Camaro to pass on. He drops a gear and zooms by your left as you both approach turn one.
Don’t let your pride blind you; let faster traffic pass.
The most important thing is to learn your limits as a driver and the car’s limits and improve on those. Do not exceed them – that’s how you wind up spinning/hitting a wall/taking an off road excursion.
After every run, make sure you drink plenty of water – driving at a track is a physically demanding thing, and you don’t want to worry about dehydration. Some places might not do cool-down laps; if your company doesn’t, you can just drive slowly around the paddocks to let your car cool down. When you do finally stop, be sure to remember to NOT APPLY THE PARKING BRAKE. YOUR BRAKES WILL BE SO HOT THE DISCS/DRUMS MIGHT FUSE WITH THE CALIPER.
Ask your instructor if you could ride along with them when they go out in one of the more advanced group sessions; observe what they do, including what line they use, and use your observations to improve your driving.
Some Track Day Driving Tips
Disclaimer: I’m hardly the most qualified person to ask when it comes to track driving. Below is what I’ve learned during my first track day, and what I wish I was told beforehand.
Here are a few tips on how to drive faster on a track and get more out of the time you paid for – as well as making you a better driver on the street, too.
Be sure to ask your instructor about any/all of this for more details, and to review how you yourself are doing.
Leave Your Stability Control On, for Love of All Things Holy and Sacred.
This is going on the top of this list because it’s the most important thing on it, and people who are virtual race car drivers seem to be the loudest the subject.
Some people seem to have this idea stuck in their heads that electronic stability control is some kind of evil nanny that prevents you have from having fun and going fast. They really couldn’t be more wrong.
When you see that light flash, it means that some stability control engineer in Germany, Italy, Japan, or wherever your car is from saved your car from your own incompetence. You did something to upset the balance of the car, and the computer reacted to make sure you’re still going on a steady course.
My instructor didn’t ever turn the stability controls off, and he was one of the fastest people there in his stock ’15 Mustang GT. I asked him about it; he said he didn’t need to turn it off because he didn’t do anything to upset it.
Instead of seeing it as a nanny, use it as training wheels. When you as a kid fell on your training wheels, it meant you lost balance; when you lose balance in your car, you’ll see that light flash.
Don’t take my word for it; read Jack Baruth’s opinion on it.
“When you see the stability control light flash, ask yourself what you did to upset the car’s balance and fix it the next time.” – Jack Baruth
Follow the Line, Not the Tarmac.
One thing that I keep seeing on the streets – and what I saw to an extent at the track – is that people kept following the tarmac instead of taking the racing line. Not only will this slow you down, it also makes you a lot more jerky to the discomfort of your passengers, and it increases the risk of a spin-out because of the increased steering action.
One of your goals for your first track day is to learn what the (racing) line is, and how to follow it. The racing line is simply the most optimum path around a road/course. Your instructor will show you the line during your first session; make sure to pay attention.
Most companies even put cones where the apexes are for each corner; you should be getting very, very close to those cones, or as my instructor told me, “Cones don’t get scared. Get close to them.”
You Paid for the Whole Track; Use It.
This goes back to following the line; see how in Turn 10 there is a paved area that’s pretty far from the white concrete in the tightest part of the corner? It’s there for a reason; they paved it to allow you to take Turn 10 wider, giving you much needed speed for the straightway between Turns 10 and 1. A lot of newbies, myself included, made 10 as tight as possible for no reason other than being irrationally scared of hitting the tire wall that’s been put up there.
As my instructor said, “I paid for the whole track; I’m going to use as much of it as I want.”
Extend Your Vision, and Look Where You Want to Go.
Most street drivers look about one car length in front of them, if even that far. That’s fine if you’re doing 10 below the speed limit, using your phone/eating/drinking/doing anything else but driving. But, it won’t do at the track, for both speed and safety purposes.
When you’re at the track, you should extend your vision as far as possible and plan for the road ahead; remember, you’re going a lot faster than 25km/h, and you’re going to be where you’re looking in the matter of seconds, so if there’s a curve ahead whose apex you need to hit, you should start planning your approach well in advance before you get there.
This applies to the street, too; it’s better to plan for a hazard that’s 100 meters out than one that’s just 10 meters out.
String Theory (and the Dollar Analogy).
There’s a lot going on when you go around a corner; a lot more than you’d normally think about. Weight is being transferred; the inside tires/wheels unload and slow down while the outside tires gain more grip as they’re being pressed into the tarmac, as well as speeding up as they have to cover more distance.
Of course, this is without any further input from you besides turning the wheel. If you were to let’s say apply 50% brakes, you’ll greatly upset the vehicle’s balance as now you’re loading the front outside wheel while unloading the other three wheels.
In order to prevent erratic inputs, you should know about “string theory”. It goes like this: pretend there is a string connecting the bottom of your steering wheel to your accelerator and brake pedals. When your wheel is at dead centre, the string has slack in it; enough slack to allow 100% of either pedal to be pressed down. As you turn the wheel, though, the string starts to gain tension, allowing progressively less use of either pedal.
My friend Daniel told me of a variation called the Dollar Analogy. It goes like this; “If you spend $0.80 on braking, you’ve only got $0.20 left for steering”. You could read that as “If I apply 80% brakes, I can only apply 20% steering.”
Brake in Straight Lines.
Let’s refer back to this image again. See the area between “braking point” and “turn-in point”? You want to accomplish all of your braking in that zone. Here’s why:
If you brake earlier, you’ll lose too much speed going into the corner, which isn’t optimal.
If you brake mid corner, you’ll upset the car’s balance and potentially spin out (see String Theory above); this is assuming your car’s stability control doesn’t kick in and slow you down more, in a controlled manner.
If you brake later, you’ll have a lower speed going into the corner, and have a lower speed exiting it. Not ideal for a better time.
That’s all you need to go know to get started with track driving. It’s a very rewarding activity; not only are you surrounded by people who share the same passion as you, you have a place to push yourself safely and learn about car control.
Now, go forth, and hit the track. I’ll see you there.