Finding your way around a new racetrack
One of the fun things about vintage racing old sports cars is that often you get to travel to and drive upon a racetrack that you have never been to before. Sometimes it will be a major racing venue, tracks like Watkins Glen or Mosport Park or Elkhart Lake, tracks with rich histories that extend back to the roots of sports car racing in the early 1950s. Other times you will find yourself at charming, unpretentious places like Blackhawk Farms, Roebling Road or Waterford Hills, surrounded by people who have towed their own racecars to the venue for a weekend of sporting cheer.
The Easy Way
There are some people, a surprising number actually, who never venture beyond their own backyards with their vintage racing cars. Year after year they go to the same two or three tracks and work on the kind of tiny improvements that eventually make them an expert at their chosen tracks. They know where the hotels are, where to buy gas and which auto parts stores are open late on a Saturday night. It is all very comfortable and predictable and easy, but not what some of us want to gain from the whole vintage racing experience. For some vintage participants, the idea of going to a new track combines all of the best elements of a history lesson, a chance to learn the ins and outs of a new racetrack and a college road trip.
Getting There From Here
The United States is a surprisingly big country, especially if you are towing a racecar across it. Often that journey of traveling hundreds of miles across several states can also be an important part of the overall adventure. Planning your route, driving all day and into the night and staying in roadside motels stirs within us a genetic memory of the same wanderlust that first fueled the pioneers and in the 1920s and '30s pushed a whole generation to travel west by automobile. The lure of the open road is a strong one. Most racers today use enclosed trailers, providing a safe and secure place for their racecars, tools and parts. An enclosed trailer makes you anonymous and keeps your stuff safe at roadside diners or when you stop for the night at second-rate hotels.
But you do miss something if you have never stopped at a gas station for a fill-up with an esoteric sports car on your open trailer. It seems like everyone in the place wants to talk about your car. They want to know what kind of car it is, how old it is and where you are going with it. You and your sports car are instant celebrities, at least for the few minutes it takes to buy gas and supplies and use the restroom. Some people shun such attention, but it really is a nice way to connect the people you meet to the era we are all trying to recreate by driving these old cars. At any rate, after driving such a long way, you finally reach the race headquarters hotel and check in to your room. Tomorrow, you will be racing.
Getting to the Track
There is something almost mystical about arriving at a racetrack for the first time. First of all you have to find the place, which can itself be quite a challenge. Most racetracks grew up several decades ago, when they were placed some distance from town so that the noise and activity wouldn't disturb any neighbors. Invariably, however, suburbs have pushed outward so that many racetracks are now bordered by subdivisions and civilization. Rarely is the route straightforward, and it is almost as if negotiating the maze of roads while pulling a trailer is a rite of passage that must be endured before ultimately arriving at your destination.
Upon arrival, you can be sure that at least 50% of the time you will arrive at the wrong gate. Racers almost never use the actual main gate of a racetrack, which is usually the one that you will first come to. That means you will have to turn your rig around in a cramped space and drive to the other side of the track to find the proper racer's entrance.
Having found the right gate and parked your trailer and tow vehicle behind a long line of other racers, you now get to go off in search of registration. This is usually a small building, operated by volunteers whose job it is to provide you with credentials and parking decals, give you various forms and schedules, have you sign a waiver and release and occasionally dole out trinkets that the race organizers have managed to arrange with their sponsors. At registration, they will also often check your racing license and make sure that you have paid your entry fee.
These are just the first in a large group of volunteers you will encounter during your race weekend, and it is important to remember that without them there would be no racing. The most important thing you will get at registration will be a credential, usually in the form of a wristband that will identify you as a driver and allow you access to almost every part of the racetrack facility. With this on your wrist and your parking decal attached to the windshield of your tow vehicle, you are ready to proceed into the paddock, the true inner sanctum of any racetrack.
Where to park? It's a simple enough question, but making the wrong choice can condemn you to a weekend of misery, while making the right choice can make your race weekend one of the most memorable. If there is any chance of rain, pretend you are a soldier and take the high ground. There is nothing worse than sitting in a lake, watching your tires and gas cans float away as you try to keep your socks dry. Sometimes, you will know some of the other racers who have already set up camp and will find a spot nearby. This will be really convenient, because you can share tools and parts and look out for each other's stuff while someone is out on the track.
Some people like to choose a spot in the paddock that is close to the track so that they can watch all of the action, while others will want a place away from the hustle and bustle so that they can relax between track sessions.
Having chosen your spot, it is time to unload the racecar and set up whatever shade and weather protection you have brought with you. This can be as simple as a large umbrella, or as elaborate as a roll-out awning that is permanently attached to the side of your enclosed trailer. Many racers have found ways to make their weekends more comfortable by adding folding chairs and tables and other comforts from home.
Just because you and your racecar are at the track, have paid your entry fee and are all set up in the paddock doesn't mean you will be able to go out onto the track just yet. Your car needs to go through a technical inspection to make sure it is safe and legal, and your driver's suit, helmet and other gear needs to be inspected to make sure it will protect you. For some racing groups this process is a mere formality; for others it is a serious check to ensure that all of the cars on the track will be safe and sound.
Sometimes, the organizers will use roving technical inspectors who will come to your paddock spot and inspect your car for you. More likely, you will have to bring your car to a designated place where a line of racecars will form as everyone goes through the tech process. Invariably, some racers will have left their timing a bit tight and will be trying to get their car through tech so that they can make the next on-track practice session. It pays to let these people ahead of you in the tech line. Who knows, next time it could be you.
The tech inspector will generally want to look under the hood, checking for loose fuel lines and ensuring that each carburetor has its own return spring. They will want to see your fire extinguishing system, see that the brake lights work and confirm that your electrical cutoff switch will kill the battery power to the vehicle. Your fuel cell and the age of your seatbelts will be checked. Your personal driving gear, including suit, helmet, socks, gloves, shoes and arm restraints will all get the once-over to make sure they are up to specification.
If everything is in order, you may present your logbook, which the inspector will sign and you will be issued a tech sticker and told where they wish it to be placed on your racecar. This tech sticker is your car's pass to go out onto the track and must be in place for practice, qualifying and racing.
So here you are, at a track you have never driven before, with your racecar having passed tech and with a full tank of gas, and tire pressures and lug nuts checked and ready to go. You have wriggled into your driving suit (it must have shrunk, I couldn't have gained this much weight...) and are ready too. Or are you?
Before you go out to the pre-grid to line up your car, it would be a good idea to at least look over a map of the track. Although this is of limited value when it comes to actually driving the track at speed, it can tell you how you will be entering the track and where the exit from the track onto the pit road is located. It is never bad form to ask questions of this sort from someone who has been to the track before. Often this information is covered in the driver's meeting, but just as often the driver's meeting can be scheduled after the first several practice sessions have taken place, so it pays to find out the customary procedures before you actually head out onto the track.
While you should get your car to the pre-grid in plenty of time before your first practice session starts, you won't want to be at the very front of the grid, where others who have driven at this track will be trying to go quickly right away. Hang back toward the rear of the grid and ask those around you if they have driven here before. If you are lucky, you might find an experienced driver in a slower car who you can follow for a few laps to get an idea where the course goes before you begin charging into corners trying to break the lap record.
On the Line
There is a path around every racetrack that is considered to be the fastest and safest way to negotiate each corner. This is called the racing line, and it is what you will be striving to learn when you begin driving a new track. As you pull out onto the track for the first time, don't get sucked into trying to keep up with the drivers who already know the track.
Your first few laps should be at half speed, pointing faster cars by as you try to imprint your brain with the patterns of the racetrack. Each corner is different, although sometimes as you are just beginning to learn your way around, several may look the same and you may lose track of where you are on the circuit. Be patient and eventually things will start to make sense.
Racetracks have a rhythm or flow to them, and when you tap into that it will all go much smoother. Then you need to begin to concentrate on the portions of the track that don't flow smoothly, as they can catch you out when you begin to go faster. It is much safer to begin by driving each corner on a line with a later-than-normal apex. Although this will be a bit slower at first, it will be safer as it will leave you with extra room on the exit of the corner to make up for any mistakes you made going into the corner.
As this is your first session on a new track, it also doesn't hurt to come in a lap or two before the checkered flag to check under the hood for oil leaks or any other problems that might not be evident when you are driving the racecar.
In the Wheel Tracks of Greatness
As your racing weekend progresses at a new track, it is important to remember the heroes who raced there in the past. Often the track store will have a history book written about the track that you can add to your library and use to learn more about the facility. By the time you have made the trek from the hotel to the track and eaten at a few of the local places, you will also begin to feel like this new place is becoming a familiar place.
Hopefully, if all goes right and the racing gods cooperate, at the end of the race meeting you will still have a workable racecar and will be ready to begin the long trip home. You will have committed another racetrack to your memory and will be able to nod wisely when someone mentions feats of daring that the track has seen. You've been there and you've done that and you have raced in the wheel tracks of greatness.