How to select the right race track to begin auto racing

If you’re a skier, mountain biker, or recreational off-road driver, then you’re familiar with rating scales that communicate difficulty. If you’re just starting out in these hobbies or are risk-averse, then you can refer to these scales and opt to steer clear of the riskier, more challenging stuff.

A skill rating system
A skill rating system

The same sort of objective ratings scale isn’t available when it comes to evaluating race tracks. Looking at a group of track maps on paper, they all appear similar. And while no American road course is so unavoidably difficult or dangerous that no novice should attempt to learn in the environment, some do present unique challenges and characteristics to be aware of. If you have available race track choices, considering the difficulty of the race tracks and selecting one that is less inherently difficult isn’t unwise.

Even more important to you having a positive first track day experience is the host organization (or driving school). The challenges of any race track can be overcome with good instruction and a controlled event environment, but the lack of a proper novice program can really sour and jeopardize the experience.

If you’ve never done performance driving on a race track before, then plan on being overwhelmed. That’s not the sensation that most novice drivers envision when signing up, but not long into the first session that sense of a steep learning curve sinks in for almost everyone.

Having this realization in a minimally intimidating race track environment is the best case scenario. You’re going to be battling lifelong driving habits, and developing new techniques. If you don’t feel like the race track is also fighting you through this process, then that’s a preferable scenario.

What factors make certain race tracks more difficult?

Walls

Walls and barriers in close proximity to the track edge can intimidate and work against the development of fundamental performance driving techniques like tracking out. (Using the entire width of the race track at corner exit.)

An absence of trackside walls and barriers isn’t license to push the limits, but most novices would prefer to navigate a road course for the first time, and be able to more clearly focus on learning if not surrounded by immediate consequence.

Uneven or inconsistent pavement

Bumps that unsettle the car, and varying grip characteristics are not ideal for learning. Learning to drive on track is challenging enough with a smooth, consistently paved surface.

An unsettling portion of the Sebring track.
An unsettling portion of the Sebring track.

Challenging sectors and intimidating corners

During a first track session, novice drivers are probably not best served by facing down corners like Road America’s “The Kink.”

Elevation changes

Significant changes in altitude add a level of difficulty that’s not necessarily conducive to learning starter car control and balance.

WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca has a 180-foot elevation change
WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca has a 180-foot elevation change

If there are multiple race tracks to choose from in your region and you’re just starting out, then it’s a good idea to consider your options before signing up. Not all race tracks are equivalent learning environments. Watch available in-car YouTube track footage, and converse with experienced enthusiasts familiar with the area tracks. Chances are you’ll conclude certain race tracks are more preferable to learn on than others.

Once you’ve developed a baseline performance driving skillset, then proceed to more challenging race tracks that introduce more variables.

(Once again, note the challenges of any race track can be overcome with good instruction and a controlled event environment. If you have concerns about learning at a given track, then discuss them with the host organization ahead of time.)

Avoid open track days

Regardless of the difficulty of the race track, attending what’s commonly called an “open track day” as an inaugural event is ill-advised. Open track days are attended by those already familiar with the track and performance driving. The run group assignments (Novice/Intermediate/Advanced) are sometimes less strict, which paves the way for drivers assigning themselves improperly.

Most importantly, most open track days do not guarantee in-car instruction for novices.

How to choose an organization

Those looking to begin a performance driving hobby have numerous options to choose from. There are many reputable track day organizations and driving schools around the country.

Nevertheless, vetting and asking questions of whichever organization you’re considering is still good practice. Remember, you’re the paying customer, and when it comes to beginner performance track driving you want to be sure you’re going to be in an ideal environment.

Questions to ask:

To help ensure you sign up with a good one, here’s a suggested list of questions for track day organizations and driving schools:

  1. How long have you been in business, and how many events have you managed?
  2. Will I be provided with in-car instruction?
  3. How are instructors qualified?
  4. How many cars will be in the novice group/session? How was that limitation determined?
  5. What are the passing protocols?
  6. Is there any competitive element to your event, e.g. timing?
  7. Do you host at certain tracks you’d consider better learning environments than others?

Track day organization and driving school recommendations

Here’s a list of resources to get you started, in no particular or significant order:

Good luck getting underway with your performance driving hobby!

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