Why would a person pay a premium for a performance car and then do nothing more than park it at car shows and get-togethers? Maybe they don't know where to start or they've looked into it and feel intimidated or they've found the price of a track event is a bit too steep. Whatever the excuse, there is now an answer. The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) has created a series it's calling Track Night in America that is taking place at more than 20 locations across the country this summer to try and remove whatever barricades might stand between enthusiasts and getting out on the track.
Each location will hold one event during the week, typically between the hours of 3 in the afternoon and 9 in the evening, once a month through August. "The goal is to provide an environment for car lovers where they bring their car and play," says Jim Llewellyn of SCCA. "These tracks are out there, and we're trying to show people it's available, much like a bowling alley."
Participants may bring any car they have, so long as there isn't a strong rollover risk, it's not a purebred race car, or it's not judged to be unsafe mechanically. I brought out my '12 Fiat 500 Sport, which the SCCA does rate as a high rollover risk for Autocross. Luckily, the slightly tippy Italian was granted admission to the Track Night event, finally allowing me to see what my car could do.
The day starts with a brief run-through of safety guidelines. An emphasis is placed on the fact that this event is not about ultimate speed but just about enjoying your car while playing it safe. No laps are timed and no trophies are given out. Instructors don't even ride along with drivers since the goal is not to attack the course at maximum potential. It's all about creating a welcoming environment for the driver who may be on track for the first time. Participants are encouraged to drive at whatever speed they are comfortable with, and should someone overstep the casual nature of the event, there are consequences based on a "three strikes and you're out" format.
You'll earn a strike if you put any wheels off the course, you're judged to be driving past your own limits, spin the car, ignore blue flags to allow faster cars to pass, or if your car is leaking any fluids and/or appears to be otherwise unsafe. The strikes are in the form of black flags, an immediate pit-in where SCCA officials will explain your infraction before letting you back out. Should you receive three infractions, your participation is over. Your day can come to a more immediate end should you have contact with any other vehicles on the track or consume alcohol, drugs, or any other impairing substance. Your day will also end quickly for any disrespectful behavior or language when off the track, as the event is intended to be family-safe.
The groups are broken into novice, intermediate, and advanced. Novice provides the participant with paced laps and is intended for those who have never been to the track or are unfamiliar with driving on that particular track. Intermediate is for more experienced drivers looking for a casual environment, and advanced is for those looking to push their cars a little harder. Each group is allowed three 20-minute sessions, giving participants more than enough time to become accustomed to their car. I personally felt satisfied after only two runs.
However, the day I attended, the field was broken into just two groups: novice and intermediate/advanced. The novice field had the most entrants, meaning the SCCA is indeed attracting people to the track for the first time.
One first-time participant was Dave Hartel of Lancaster, who brought out his gorgeous '71 Datsun 240Z, one of 28 restored 16 years ago by Pierre Z. He had never taken the car out to a track before, only displaying it in shows, until he finally came to his senses saying, "To heck with shows!" and decided to track it. He was planning on attending his first event with Speed Ventures, until he received an email from the SCCA informing him of the event only the night before and was glad he decided to go with Track Nights.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Hartel said. "This was enough of an experience for me. I'm thinking about doing another one over the next couple of months." Hartel even made progress over the day in learning more about his classic Japanese import. "It was a little squirrelly out there," Hartel said of his second session. By his third, Hartel felt much more confident in himself and his car and knew a little more of what to expect from future track events.
I have a new appreciation and understanding of my plucky little Fiat as well. Maybe more importantly, I have a better understanding of the track environment. This sort of thing can be intimidating, but thanks to the beginner-level focus of the event, I never once felt intimidated or uncomfortable on course. The environment always felt safe both on and off the track—partly from the strict rules set by the SCCA but also from my fellow drivers for adhering to them.
The SCCA is hoping this may prove to be a gateway experience for some participants who will seek out SCCA Autocross events, driving schools, or time trial events. The hope is that some might even work their way to club racing.
Due to a tight budget, marketing for the event will be mostly word of mouth. Tire Rack has been a major sponsor of the event, making the $150 price possible. While this event at Streets of Willow created a turnout of about 24 cars, event participation is likely to increase based on other locations that have already run two events. The SCCA encourages anybody to come out and play. You can even bring the family or your car club buddies and do some tailgating for free. The SCCA will also offer a variety of discounts for students, those under 24, veterans, and attendees willing to help work in between run groups.
SCCA Track Nights of America isn't going to get you that F1 seat you've always thought you deserved. It will, however, get you out on the track to have some fun with your car. This beats sitting in a lawn chair at a car show any day.
If you do one thing:
My car is completely stock, with the only upgrade being a set of Falken Azenis RT-615k tires. I didn't realize how much my car could be transformed with a simple change of rubber. This would probably be the one thing I would recommend doing before heading out to the track. Even though this isn't a serious event, a stock, all-season touring tire will have a tough time holding up to the abuse of track driving. The other benefit is a tire that will instill a bit more confidence and actually make the car a little easier and fun to drive. Any understeer I've experienced in the past disappeared. The screeching and howling of tread blocks being ground to dust were also thankfully absent. The tires don't require much warm-up, providing excellent grip from the start. At the end of the night, they didn't look any worse for wear compared to when I rolled in. Thanks to the predictable nature of tire, neither did I.