Interested in Going to the Track?

Posted: September 30, 2010 in Racing

I’ve been mentoring several drivers for quite a while now and thought this might be a nice introduction for those interested in seeing what it is like going to the track for the first time.

Most people think they can’t do it themselves or their car is not good enough unless they have an expensive sports car.  It is quite to the contrary.  My first DE weekend was in an ’95 Honda Accord EX sedan.  It was quite fun and only fueled a passion further to where I am now.  Though the car you bring has much to do with driving enjoyment – most modern cars (even with automatics) can be fun to drive and do a weekend (I see lots of Mazda 3s, Focus, etc. out there).  But most importantly is the skills you learn or observe will help you become a better (and hopefully) safer driver on the road.

There is one drawback – you cannot drive trucks, vans or SUVs in these events.  Though they make it easier to drive with a sense of security and higher viewpoint, they have a high center of gravity and become unsafe at high speeds (even on the road).  I fear people see mass as the only safety variable which is not quite the case (this mass comes at the expense of higher gas bills and more emissions).  The big trucks / SUVs do not have the most important safety attribute: the ability to react and avoid and accident altogether.

Anyway, back to how to get involved.  There are 3 Very Important Things People Learn when they go the track for the first time:

  • An Epiphany: You are not that good of a driver as you think you are.  I went through this and I’ve seen many friends and students go through this.  In fact you will go away with quite a humbling feeling that you need to get better.  Still to today – I know I can get better and strive for it.
  • Driving too fast on the streets is dangerous.  The biggest thing I learned is that – if I want to drive fast is to take it to the track.  Because of this I’ve slowed down from my speedy escapades and now feel overtly nervous going too fast on the street b/c you have no control over other inexperienced or inattentive drivers on the road with you.  Also you don’t know if the next corner will have pedestrians who suddenly dart out on the street, etc.
  • You will learn to use your vision.  It sounds funny at first but when you learn how to use your vision correctly – it makes driving much, much easier.  An interesting fact is when going 65mph you travel 95 feet per second – most people only see 95 feet out when they drive, thus they are only looking 1 second ahead.  Track driving helps you learn how to lift up your vision and see farther ahead b/c when you go through a corner faster than you though you could go, you need to see through it to the exit and sometimes the entrance to the next corner.  Most drivers on the street see only the brake lights of the car ahead – often tailgating at the same time.  With this new talent, you will learn to react quicker b/c you now see it sooner.  You will know how to react better as you have now practiced it.  Often is the case – almost every driver out there does not know how to control a car in a skid (they only know how to answer the question on the driving exam…steer into it).  In fact they learn at the worst moment (when it happens).  When you have passengers in your car including children – it makes a difference.

I honestly think that our driving tests are too simple and pass too many people without really testing them.  I can pass the written test, drive in a straight line doing the speed limit, and if applicable parallel park.  Now, what if my car actually goes into a skid on ice or wet pavement (I learned the question on the test)…but I never actually practiced it in a controlled environment?  Imagine if we’d actually learn just a little bit of car control and understand that we are driving deadly weapons – how much more respect we’d have for our cars…and the condition of our cars (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone with bad brakes or no lights working or wobbling wheels.

If you want to try some things there are many options:

  • Stop by the track during a club DE (driving event – also called many other names) and often at lunch time they let anyone in any vehicle out there on the track to drive in a single file line at highway speeds behind a pacecar.  You get to on the track for very little money (usually $10-$20) and ride with the family.  You may also find an instructor (trained member who can take passengers) and go on a ride-along to see what it is like.
  • Sign up for a Taste of the Track (we call it in our local PCA region).  This is a nice little program where you can sign up but not drive your own car.  You sit in with novice students in the classroom session, get to go on ride-alongs with various instructors, and if they have parking lot emergency exercises (described below) you are often allowed to go to these.
  • Sign up for a emergency exercise (BMW CCA & SCCA have a program called Teen Street Survivor clinic).  This is a neat program where they set up a safety course where you get to see what brake lockup is like, go on a skid pad and actually spin your car, do emergency lane change maneuvers, and even do a little autocross (described below).  I often think all the parents should do these too as they like their children don’t know how to control a car at its limit (usual parental irony – do as I say, not as I do!).
  • Autocross – this is a time event where in a large parking lot cones are set up to create a challenging yet low speed race track.  The worse that can happen is to hit a cone so and there won’t be any other cars out there.  It is also affordable and you can learn how to drive fast as there are many mentors there.
  • Sign up for a 1 or 2 day DE – This is the first step to really learning how to drive a car.  You get detailed class room instruction, get to participate in controlled emergency exercises, get to ride along with an instructor, and get to talk to peers.  This is a complete immersion into a new world (even before you hit the track as you’ll need an experience mechanic to check over your car to make sure its safe).  By the end of the day you will be so tired, you will sleep like a baby.  In the end, you will have become a much better driver and have an understanding very few people on the road will have.
  • From here on it can become a slippery slope doing more DEs, getting a car dedicated for track driving (it does abuse your daily driver as you level of experience increases), etc.  Or one is enough – but everyone on the road is now better off with a much more experienced driver out there.  Just ask my wife who has done 2 DEs so far.

In the end – give it a try and after one weekend let me know if you don’t feel it was worth it.  I bet you’ll have a whole new skill set and understanding making you a much safer and competent driver.  If you have any questions – feel free to contact me.  Pass this along to those interested.  Good luck and safe driving.

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