The excitement and anticipation of a first track day is often tinged with some anxiety. There’s no shortage of questions and concerns prior to the day, and that’s a good thing; there’s much to learn and consider.
So to get you started, address some of the common unknowns and put you ahead of the curve before your first session, here are some insights and FAQs on a wide variety of track day topics.
Every track has its own flow of traffic through the paddock, into pit lane, and onto the race track.
After you find a parking spot in the paddock you’ll want to get oriented. Learn the route into the pit lane and to the starter, who will give you the go ahead when it’s time to join the track.
Keep speeds low through the paddock and pit lane, and keep your eye out for pedestrians and other cars maneuvering in the area.
Keep in mind that rearward visibility in particular is limited in many of the more dedicated track cars, so don’t assume that you’ll be seen.
Pit lane entry is positioned in the vicinity of the final corner on track.
Learn where (or at least where to expect) pit entry before heading out on track by reviewing a track map, talking with experienced drivers, and/or if possible, do some trackside reconnaissance on foot.
To take the pit lane while out on track, position your vehicle on track as necessary (right or left side), and signal your intentions – typically with a fist out the window and upward.
This is a long debated question with strong opinions on both sides of the coin.
The answer has become somewhat easier with the advent of multi-stage and immensely advanced traction control systems. In a growing number of modern performance vehicles there’s very little reason to disengage traction control entirely. Instead, the driver can “dial back” the intervention of the traction system as desired.
In older vehicles with more basic and intrusive traction control systems, the question remains more difficult to definitively answer.
A few guiding principles:
From the car in front (to be passed) perspective, passing is initiated with a “point by” out the driver window. The point by is either straight out and to the left (pass me on the left), or up and over the roof (pass me on the right).
When giving a point by, be demonstrable and clear from elbow to fingertip. If multiple cars are behind and looking to pass, give one point by for each car you intend to let pass at that time. Hold your driving line and reduce or maintain your speed after giving a point by.
Look to give a point by and allow the pass well in advance of brake zones and corners. If you give a point by too late, the driver behind might wave it off and hold off until the next available passing zone.
When you’re the one doing the passing, wait for the car ahead to give a clear signal as outlined above. Present yourself to the car ahead, but don’t pressure them with erratic driving (more on this below). If you’re not comfortable taking the pass at a given point on track, then don’t do it.
If you run a modern set of high performance tires, then the answer is no. As a novice track driver you can utilize the same set of tires used on the street to begin your track day hobby.
In fact, there are advantages to novice drivers doing this. High performance street tires are generally more communicative (including audibly) and forgiving than more dedicated track tires, which can be very sudden and “on/off” with their grip characteristics.
A word of caution though: Be sure to properly adjust and monitor your tires. High performance street tires are not as durable as track tires. If you sense them getting “greasy” or overinflated, back off your pace, return to the paddock and adjust.
In a single track day, certain components of your vehicle will endure more use, wear and tear than in tens of thousands of miles of standard road use. Before track day, you need to budget time to conduct a full mechanical check of your vehicle. Learn how to get your car properly inspected and prepared for track day.
It’s a very personal decision, but if track day insurance is available for your intended event, the answer to this question is never “no.”
Of course there’s added cost, but there’s no denying that things occasionally happen out on track, and vehicles end up damaged. If you feel the need to protect your vehicle and pocketbook against potentially costly damage, then by all means source track day insurance for your car. (Note that most standard car insurance coverages do not extend to track day activities.)
Supplies are key to getting the most out of a track day. You’ll need many basic items, regardless of your experience level. We’ve compiled a list of the supplies we consider indispensable, and would highly recommend you put on your track day list, too.
Yes, reputable track day organizations and driving schools will assign you an instructor. He or she will be in your passenger seat from the very start of the first session, and typically throughout the entire day.
There’s good reasons that skydivers go tandem first, and one generally doesn’t go rock climbing solo for the first time. While recreational track driving isn’t really in the same category of dangerous, the track environment has inherent risks, and is a unique driving environment. Even seasoned performance car drivers with plenty of on-road performance driving experience find themselves very lost when out on track for the first time.
There’s just no downside to having an instructor during your first track event(s). We highly recommend signing up with an organization or driving school where in-car instruction for novices is guaranteed.
You’ll need a helmet dedicated to performance race track driving. These are different than motorcycle helmets, full face mountain biking helmets, or anything similar.
Track helmets are branded with a Snell rating, which dates the helmet. After a number of years, older Snell rated helmets become obsolete and prohibited by various track day organizations.
If you’re sourcing a first track day helmet be sure to acquire the latest Snell rating.
As for full face vs. open face helmets, that’s up to personal preference. Both are approved for use by recreational track day organizations.
Absolutely. With an instructor alongside, he or she will be there to help observe and interpret flags. However, you should be able to recognize any flag and react appropriately, even if not prompted by the instructor.
Many track day organizations have a rundown of flags and their meanings on their websites. Some study before your first event is recommended.
In the pre-track briefing, the starter will often make an appearance and explain flags as well. Consider this an opportunity to refresh on the details.
On-track sessions are generally 20-25 minutes, but you don’t have to remain on track the whole time.
Subject to track entry (starter discretion) and exit rules, you can join and leave a session at will.
So for example, if you’re tired, or you don’t like the sound or feel of some aspect of your car, you can and absolutely should safely exit the track at pit entry.
Position your car appropriately to enter pit lane, and signal your intentions with a full fist out of the driver window and pointed up.
No signal is required when joining the track. If cars are already participating in the session they must be aware of new cars potentially joining the track at pit exit.
When joining the track observe and follow the Blend Line, which forms a lane that safely funnels you onto the track.
For the majority of track day organizations, the answer is down, no matter the track conditions. Yes, this means even in actively rainy and wet conditions you’re still running with your windows down. If you follow our track day supplies advice (linked above), you’ll probably be alright.
Just about everything, yep. Your vehicle cabin should have no loose items. Even removing floor mats is advisable because they can shift during track driving, and possibly impede access to the throttle or brake.
Don’t leave items in the trunk either. You don’t want to be trying to distinguish between items thudding around in the trunk and mechanical concerns in the middle of a track session.
Having the right mental approach is key to both safety and learning to become a better driver.
To start with, forget about being fast. It doesn’t matter how much performance street driving experience one has, or car control skills developed by going sideways in parking lots or driving aggressively on back roads, driving on track is a different animal. How to actually navigate a race track as quickly as possible isn’t easy, it’s a learned skill. No one gets it right from the first session. Actually, the sense of feeling lost during a first track outing is absolutely common. Drivers who’ve been involved in track days for years or decades are still learning.
So learn technique and the racing line first, then pick up the speed as you gain understanding and confidence.
“This is not a race” is a mantra repeated in the pre-track briefing by every track day organization.
The reasons for reminding participants of the recreational nature of the event are critically important. The competitive spirit is alive and well in many of us, and ego is human nature – especially, for whatever reason, with performance cars and horsepower.
But ego and what’s known as “red mist” – when a driver allows ego and emotion to influence his or her driving behaviors – is potentially very dangerous and expensive business.
If you could foresee yourself succumbing to ego-based racing behavior on track, do some psychological prep work in advance.
While driving on track with other participants and cars is fun, track days are fundamentally an individual pursuit. You’re there to enjoy your car at extra-legal speeds, and develop your driver skillset in a safe, controlled environment. No one remembers who “won” a track session. The damaged car that was trucked back to pit lane on the other hand…
If competitiveness must play a role in your track day, then compete against yourself and the clock. While timing laps initially is unnecessary and a distraction, with some experience timing and tracking your laps can become a good reference point for individual driver progress.
If you’re new to track days you are a NOVICE no matter what you’re driving. “But I drive a 673 wheel horsepower XYZ with upgraded brakes and race spec suspension.” Sounds awesome. If an inexperienced track driver, then still a novice.
The performance car hierarchy is often turned upside down at track days. Supercars are regularly humbled by well-driven Mazda Miatas, and the experienced track local might be the fastest car on track no matter what he or she is driving.
Drivers who move up in run group based on perceived car capabilities compromise the safety and fun of everyone participating in that session, and they impede their own driver development as well.
There’s no shame in being a track day novice. In fact, experienced track day participants often recreate the novice experience by inviting pro drivers or locals for ride-alongs and pointers. Don’t be eager to move out of the novice group – you and your instructor will know when it’s a proper time.
Erratic driver behavior presents a real challenge and safety concern to all participants in the track session.
One of the common and key mistakes among novice drivers who want to be fast is that they conflate driving hard with driving fast. Teeth gritted, hands firmly clasped on the wheel, kneejerk throttle and brake inputs. The assumption is that you can will or crazy your way to a fast lap. That’s not the way it works.
Pro drivers are not crazy, they’re measured, smooth, consistent, and comprehensive in their understanding of the race track and how to navigate it with the greatest efficiency.
Smooth inputs is the name of the game on track. Ride with an experienced, fast driver, and you’ll likely notice that the speeds are high, but the driver inputs smooth, and the car consistently balanced.
Mechanical failures can and do occur on track. It’s an extremely high mechanical stress environment, and parts can give up.
If you sense something isn’t quite right with your car, don’t drive through the concern. Reduce your speeds, give point bys as necessary, and navigate your way back to the pit entry and paddock immediately.
Track days are deceptively taxing on the mind and body. Experienced participants regularly take a session or two off throughout the track day to rest and recover. There’s no reason not to come in early from a track session if you’re not feeling up to the task either. Again, there’s no rule that states you must stay out on track from the start to the finish of the session.
Participation in a track session requires hyper focus. If you sense you’re not able to dedicate 100% of your cognitive abilities to the task, then don’t participate or continue in the session.
Likewise if you’re feeling physically tired, give it a rest. Often dormant neck muscles are stressed, and the g-forces of track driving take a toll on the entire body after a while.
If experiencing mind or body fatigue, take a break, or even cut your track day a bit short.
Your ability to get the most from a track day is entirely dependent on learning the racing line.
Other than smooth inputs and keeping the car balanced, learning the racing line is top of the novice driver priority list. Your instructor will help you identify the racing line.
Start slow, learn the racing line, and then speed up if you’re so inclined. Participating in a wet track day? Learn how to approach a rainy track.
Sit as low as possible without obstructing views out of the car.
If seat bolstering can be adjusted to better fit and hold you, optimize it. You want to sit in, not on the seat.
Pull yourself up tight to the wheel. With your back planted against the seat back you should be able to rest your wrists on top of the steering wheel with some bend at the elbows.
Last but not least, hold the wheel at “9 and 3 o’clock” positions. Many modern performance car steering wheels have “bump outs” above these positions to help you better mark and maintain proper hand positioning.
By and large the paddock during a recreational track day is one of the friendliest, encouraging sporting environments you’ll find.
So ask questions and initiate discussions with experienced drivers. Having difficulty navigating a particular section of race track? Other than your instructor, look for pointers from participants who have hundreds, or even thousands of laps in the books.
Two common novice mistakes during track days are failure to adjust tire pressure and using the handbrake after a track session.
The one oversight will wear out your tires in a hurry and rob you of grip. The other will potentially damage your brake rotors.
The thrills of track driving are hard to match, especially when you’re just starting out, so enjoy it. Driving on track is truly a one of a kind experience.
Be safe, and enjoy your track day!