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Getting On the Race Track for the First Time

Preparing you and your car for the first time on the track

Doug Neilson
Jun 10, 2015

You've heard of it, you've seen it, you want to do it, all your friends are doing it, and it has been popular for years now, so what are you waiting for? Now is the time for you to jump into the driver seat. Yep, I'm talking about the racetrack: high-performance driver education (HPDE), car club track events, and open track days. But before you to jump into the driver seat, you need to first step completely out of your comfort zone. Now, I know you're feeling intimidated, and perhaps even a little bit scared, as the thought of driving your "baby" at speed on a racetrack may cause you to quake in your boots.

OK, no need to fret—I'm here to help. First, let's get you sorted out. The most important thing to remember is that everyone at the track, no matter how much experience they have now, had to start somewhere. That is, they had a first track day, too. So one of the first things you will learn at the track is that most everyone is accepting and extremely helpful to first-timers.

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In my humble opinion, the best way to begin your track day journey is at an HPDE event. This will ensure that you start with some basic classroom instruction before going on to the racetrack itself. Instructors will teach you about track entry and exit procedures, track etiquette, passing rules, basic cornering theory, and the fundamental "race" or "school" driving line for the track that you are at. Believe me, all of this information will go a long way to giving you some knowledge and confidence.

Of course, you're going to need a helmet. If it is your first track event and you're not sure what your "track" future may hold, it may be best to borrow one from a friend, or rent a helmet at the track. However, if you are absolutely sure that you are going to be hooked (like the rest of us!), I suggest buying a helmet. Be sure to check out the helmet buyer's guide in the February 2015 issue of european car magazine or click here. For most HPDE, car club, and open track events, the minimum required compliance of a Snell or SA2005 or newer rating is necessary. Note that motorcycle or "M" rated helmets, e.g. M2005, are not typically allowed. For clothing, most events require long pants, as no shorts are allowed (due to the potential fire hazard). In addition, there are some events that require long shirt sleeves as well. And for shoes, I suggest a pair of thin-soled runners to ensure you have a good pedal feel and grip. Regardless, make sure you are comfortable and be sure to check the organizer's rules prior to the event; you don't want to go home disappointed.

You also need to prepare yourself mentally and physically for your track event. This type of sport requires your full concentration, as your senses will be overloaded from your first lap to your last lap of the day. Therefore, you will need to be extremely well rested and hydrated prior to (and during) the event. Also, my advice is to always leave your ego at the gate when entering a racetrack. You may well think you are the next Ayrton Senna, but there is a hell of a lot to learn. I have been running at the track for more than 14 years and instructing for 11 years, but I still learn things every time I go. Note at an HPDE event you will be paired up with an instructor when you are a beginner, and as you progress, I recommend you keep asking for an instructor. Drive smoothly, within your comfort zone, and look well down the track (keep your vision up). As a student, no matter how experienced, the best advice is to be sure you are all ears. You may not be able to perfect the most recent skill learned or discussed on that particular day, but at least you heard it, and you will remember it until it becomes second nature to you. After all, learning at the track is about repetition in a safe environment; practice, practice, practice!

Getting on the race track for the first time porsche 911 Photo 3/6   |   Getting On The Race Track For The First Time Porsche 911

Preparing your car

Be sure your car is in excellent running condition, with all of the fluid levels topped up to maximum. Any, even the most minor, mechanical ailment or leak should be attended to well before the event. There is no doubt that running on a racetrack is harder on your car in every way imaginable, so having it in perfect running order is the best way to protect it, and the others you are sharing the track with.

Many track events require you to have your vehicle inspected by a certified mechanic prior to the event, so be sure to find out if this is the case beforehand. There are also some events that have their pre-track inspections at the track prior to the event first thing in the morning; be sure your vehicle is ready for such an inspection. Uninspected or unfit vehicles will not be allowed on the track, so be aware. Again, you don't want to be sent home disappointed. Safety first!

As a beginner, though, it is good practice to learn how care for and monitor the condition of your tires, wheels, and brakes. You must have at least some tread on your tires—say 3/32 of an inch minimum (or just above the wear bars). I do not recommend running any tire that has had any type of repair done previously (plug, patch repair, or tube installed). Be wise, just don't go there. Also, for your first few track events, it doesn't matter a lick what kind of tires you are running. On your first track day, it is good practice to arrive with your tires inflated to the manufacturer's specifications. If you're not sure what the precise specification is, I recommend you inflate all of your tires 40 psi. This will allow you to skip the air compressor lineup and save yourself some time. You will, however, need to bleed some air out during the day; don't worry, your instructor will help you with this fundamental.

Getting on the race track for the first time bmw m3 Photo 4/6   |   Getting On The Race Track For The First Time Bmw M3

All wheel nuts, 4-lug, 5-lug, or center lock, should have their torques checked by you at the track before the event. Be sure to have the correct tools with you that are necessary to accomplish this task, and follow the precise manufacturer's specifications and procedures, which you will have memorized in advance.

Another easy thing to check is stress cracks in your wheels. These usually occur close to the center of the wheel around the wheel lugs, although they have also been known to occur in the spokes as well. Do not take any red flag warnings from your wheels or tires mildly, as these are your only links to the road. Treat them with the highest priority!

Brakes are another area of primary importance for track preparation. You must pay special attention to your pads, rotors, and brake fluid. Be sure to check all brake pads to ensure they have at least 50 percent, and preferably 75 percent or more, of pad material from new. You will be surprised how quickly brake pads wear out at racetrack speeds. For brake rotors, be sure they have not worn below the manufacturer's minimum thickness specification, and also check them for stress cracking. Drilled brake rotors are especially susceptible to stress cracks. If you see cracks that link individual drill holes, this amount of stress cracking indicates that you should replace these rotors ASAP.

It is also imperative that you have your brake fluid flushed and your hydraulic system bled prior to your track event. This accomplishes two things: Firstly, it ensures that your brake fluid is fresh and has not absorbed too much water over time. Secondly, it purges air from your hydraulic system, which ensures a firm brake pedal. Choose a high-quality DOT 4-rated fluid, but be sure to consult your manufacturer's specifications.

Getting on the race track for the first time porsches Photo 5/6   |   Getting On The Race Track For The First Time Porsches

Finally, if your car's paintwork is dear to you, you will want to protect the forward-facing surfaces from any damage due to sand, pebbles, rocks, or other debris that can be made airborne by speeding vehicles. There are many ways to protect the forward-facing paint:

Blue painter's tape or TrakTape (which is clear) on the front-facing areas is a simple and economic solution, but perhaps not quite as elegant. Full-frontal clear bra, with an additional strip on the roof; a full body clear wrap is even better.

Well, that is it for this time. I wish you the best of luck at your first event, and be sure to listen carefully and have fun! In the next part of this track prep series, I will discuss some additional safety measures, along with some more advanced vehicle preparation.

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Car Prep Check List (General)

  • Engine oil level
  • Engine coolant level
  • Transmission oil level
  • Inspect engine and transmission for leaks
  • Inspect fan belt condition
  • Inspect condition of drive shaft joints and seals
  • Inspect exhaust system for leaks
  • Brake fluid level (this should be full after your fluid flush and system bleed)
  • Inspect brake pad thickness, minimum 50 percent wear
  • Inspect brake disc condition
  • Inspect brake hoses, pipes, and hydraulic units
  • Check steering system for play
  • Check shocks for leaks and condition
  • Check security and condition of front and rear suspension
  • Inspect front and rear wheel bearings for play
  • Inspect tire condition and set pressures
  • Inspect wheels for damage or stress cracks
  • Check all wheel lugs for correct torque spec
  • Check seat security and safety belts
  • Check operation of all lights (if fitted)
  • Clean and dry footwell floors and pedals
  • Check battery for secure mounting
  • Remove all cabin clutter—everything from car

Things to bring to your first track day

For the car: glass cleaner, paper towel, a quart of oil, rags, blue painter's tape, a tire gauge, a 12V air compressor (optional), a tarp to put all the stuff on when you empty your car, and some basic tools.

For you: extra clothes, hat, suntan lotion, drinks and snacks in a cooler, and a camera.

By Doug Neilson
28 Articles



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