You're about as familiar with the racetrack as you are replacing the empty toilet paper roll at home. Still, that's not enough to squash those feelings of you wishing you were Ken Block and acting out on all of that on some place other than the street. There's a right way to do all of this, though, and it starts before you even step foot near the tarmac.
You know that some sort of driving school is your best chance at familiarizing yourself with the track and not ending up in the weeds, but you also know that most driving schools cost more than your Civic. All of which has led you to your local track hoping for some sort of open lapping session or an HPDE (high-performance driving education) event where you'll be able to bone up on your skills among instructors and drivers of varying expertise and for a whole lot less dough. Show up to your first event unprepared, though, and you just might be sent home. Your first successful track day starts here.
Nobody's going to let you onto the track if you or whatever it is that you drive isn't up to snuff safety-wise. In most cases, you've got to be at least 18 with a legit driver's license and have a car that's in good working order. In almost every case there will be a tech inspection where officials will give your ride a once-over, making sure it's fit for the track and not the boneyard, which means you should probably leave your dumped 240 with its cracked windshield and puddle of trans fluid underneath it at home.
Seats and harnesses: You can hit the track with whatever seats and seat belts your car was originally sold with so long as they're in good working order. Go fast enough, though, and you'll soon realize those vinyl captain's chairs and lap belts won't keep you from sliding around when cornering hard and won't thoroughly protect you should you and your hooptie slide into something hard.
The solution is a bucket-type seat and multi-point harness. A proper, lightweight bucket like MOMO's Start or Supercup seats as well as Corbeau's Forza Sport seat will wrap just above your hips, keeping you from moving side to side and do all of this while weighing less than your stock pieces. Multi-point harnesses like belts from Corbeau strap across your torso in three, four, or five spots, keeping you firmly planted in your seat and offer quick-release capabilities that allow for a fast exit should you bungle things up badly enough.
Rollbars and 'cages: Most rules only require some sort of roll bar if you've got a convertible. Go fast enough, though, and you may be required to have one even if you don't drive a Miata. In most cases, a simple, bolt-in, four-point roll bar is enough. Here, two points form a hoop that span above driver and passenger to make rolling over more bearable, and another two points connect at the floorboard near the dash, making side impacts less of a thing. As far as roll bars and 'cages go, they can be made of mild-steel or lighter-weight but more expensive chrome-moly tubing, and typically attach to the chassis in four, six, or eight spots.
A solid roll bar or 'cage doesn't have to be custom-made by your fab guy, either. Cusco, for one, offers bolt-in chrome-moly and steel 'cages for all sorts of applications, which are designed to keep you safe but also to stiffen up your chassis, which is never a bad thing.
Helmets: No matter how slow you are, nobody's going to let you race without a helmet. Here, you'll need more than your old BMX brain protector. Most tracks require you to have one that's been Snell-approved, which means it's met a series of industry-accepted standards that are enough to keep everything stuffed inside of it intact.
Jackets, suits, gloves, and shoes: Show up in pants, closed-toe shoes, and a long-sleeve shirt and you won't be turned away. Go fast enough, though, and you'll want to consider a fire-proof suit, gloves that allow for better steering wheel grip, and shoes that'll make you and the pedals a whole lot more intimate with one another. While a full-blown Nomex suit from MOMO might be overkill for your first track day, the right gloves and shoes can make how well you and your pedals and steering wheel communicate with each other that much better.
Steering wheels and adapters: In terms of safety, you can't beat your car's original steering wheel and airbag. It's big, though, and bulky, which makes you being able to make whip-snap turns on the track a whole lot harder. A smaller, lighter-weight steering wheel can make the process of turning a whole lot more communicative, but wait on ditching the factory one with its airbag until you've got a proper seat and harness. Then check in with somebody like MOMO, who's been making steering wheels of all kinds for decades, one of which is bound to suit your needs.
Fire suppression: Your bone-stock Accord doesn't need a full-blown fire suppression system, but a small fire extinguisher could mean the difference between you driving home or you scooping up a pile of Honda ash. Securely mount it someplace within arm's reach.
Most of the time, more horsepower is fine and all, but if you're new to the track, it turns out that less is more. Less power means smaller consequences for when things go wrong and heightened sensibilities for everything else, like turning and braking.
Brake pads: The most important thing you can do to prepare your car for a track day is to make sure its brake pads are up for all of this. Wonky pads mean you'll be entering turns slower than you ought to, which means your overall lap times will be slower. Slower is never fun. Pads are inexpensive and simple enough to swap out, which means there's no good reason for you not to have a dedicated set for the track.
EBC Brakes, for one, offers pads that'll get you to the track and back and work sufficiently while you're there as well as dedicated track pads you can swap into place on site.
Alignment and Suspension: You're new to the track, which means whatever alignment settings your car was originally built around are good enough for your first time out. You know things like camber and toe make a difference, though, which means you need a do-it-yourself alignment device like SPC's Fastrax. Along with a tape measure and hand tools, Fastrax lets you measure and adjust camber and toe in the pits for incremental changes without visiting the alignment shop.
In terms of suspension, nobody's going to turn you away from your first track day for still rocking those stock shocks, but don't neglect any suspension bits that might be worn beyond use. Replacing any bum bushings with more durable pieces from somebody like Energy Suspension will never be a bad idea. The company's polyurethane pieces can help remove some of the slop in your tired suspension, which means better grip, and who doesn't want more grip?
Cooling: If your Evo overheats in the McDonald's drive-through, then it'll be toast on the track. Most of the time, on-track cooling issues are caused by an insufficient or obstructed radiator. A thicker-core piece from Koyo or Mishimoto that's made of aluminum, which can better dissipate heat, can help alleviate all of this and look good while doing it.
Oiling: Most of the time, an oiling problem won't present itself unless you've had your way with things like rebuilding your long-block or installing an aftermarket turbo kit. If they do, though, consider your track day dunzo. Unless you're simply low on engine oil, you won't be fixing the cause of all of this in the pits.
Wheels and (more importantly) Tires: The right tires are almost always the most important thing between you going fast or you sucking. Like brake pads, a dedicated set of high-quality, lightweight rims and sticky tires should be one of the first places to invest your race-destined dollars. Don't let factory wheels and tires keep you away from your first time out, though. So long as your tires retain decent tread and are free of any cracks, leaks, repairs, or plugs, you could do a whole lot worse. Don't forget, though, that those same tires have got to get you back home at the end of the day, so save some tread for the ride home.
When you're ready to get serious, invest in a solid set of DOT-approved track tires that you can drive to and from events, like Falken's Azenis RT615K or Hankook's Ventus R-s3. Nothing will improve your lap times like a proper set of tires will.
THE RIGHT GEAR
Prepare your car all you want the night before, but you'll inevitably need to make changes at the track or, at the very least, monitor how bad you've been doing.
Tire pressure gauge and pyrometer: Sometimes the only difference between grip and you going any faster is how much air is in your tires. You already know you need some sort of gauge to measure their pressure; combine that with a pyrometer that'll tell you how hot each section of rubber is and use that data to make sure all four tires are the same.
Ramps, jacks, and jack stands: You raising your car in the pits will almost always be inevitable. Do it without getting mauled by your own ride with a pair of ramps or a proper jack and jack stand combo.
Data logging and playback: Being able to log what's going on with your engine can help you improve for future events. A data-logging system will let you review lap data like cooling system temperatures, oil pressure, engine speed, or practically anything you can hook a sensor up to. Use the results to fix nagging issues before they become problems.
Monitor yourself and your bad driving habits with some sort of in-car camera. Here, you can review how bad you are at heel-toe shifting, among other important things.
Everything else: No successful track day ever happened to anybody who's failed to bring a box-full of basic hand tools. You won't be ripping cylinder heads off or replacing any synchros, but you should be prepared to swap wheels and tires, change out a bad axle, swap brake pads, or solve an overheating issue.
Do yourself a favor and fill up your tank with fuel as you get closer to the track; it's often available on site but for a premium. You'll need your own fuel, too. Food isn't always available at every track day, so throw some waters and a sandwich in back seat before leaving home. Finally, most of the time you'll need to decrease tire pressure for optimal traction. If you're racing on the same set of tires that are supposed to get you to school tomorrow, be sure to bring a portable tire inflator.
BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER YOUR TRACK DAY
A successful track day can start months before you actually arrive at the event. Prepare yourself and your car and increase your chances of you not looking like a numbnuts.
- Before: Any mechanical problems or upgrades should be sorted out several days or weeks ahead of the event, allowing time to realize you left that bolt loose before actually getting on the track. Lay off the sauce and get a good night's sleep before the event. The morning of, clean your windows and fuel up the tank. Anything you plan on bringing to the track should've already been crammed in the trunk.
- During: Arrive early and pay attention at whatever driver's meeting you're required to attend. It's here where you'll be told when you'll be up, what all of the different flags mean, and whether or not you're aloud to pass. Before hitting the track, ditch any loose junk from your ride and shave weight at the same time; floor mats, spare tires, and floor jacks should all go. Check your tire pressure and all fluids and adjust or top off as needed in between sessions. Take a leak.
- After: You're not loading your car onto your own enclosed trailer, which means you've got to prepare your sled for the ride home. Check those fluids again and increase tire pressure to whatever it is you normally run. Take the obligatory track-hero selfie.
TECH INSPECTION CHECKLIST
Almost any event you go to will have some kind of tech inspection where somebody important gives your car a once-over, making sure your whip isn't going to hurt you or anybody else. Avoid being sent home and looking like a loon by making sure the following bits are in order:
- Battery: Secure it with the right bracket(s) and cover its posts appropriately to prevent arcing.
- Wheels: Be sure they're still round and free of dents or warpage.
- Tires: Make sure there's enough tread and that they're free of visible cords or repairs. Remove those hubcaps.
- Engine: Take care of any leaks or excess smoking beforehand.
- Chassis: Be sure there's no excess play in the steering, suspension members, or wheel bearings.
- Brakes: Check pad thickness and that the system's free of leaks.
- Safety: Make sure those seatbelts work or that you've got an approved harness and roll bar.
- You: You'll need a Snell-approved helmet, long pants, and closed-toe shoes.
We sat down down with pro driver Oscar Jackson Jr. and Tage Evanson, regional director for NASA to give us some expert advice about hittin' the track.
What's your number-one tip for someone who's about to take part in their first track day?
OJ: Remember, it's not a race. Everyone's just trying to get close to their own limits and improve their driving.
TE: Safety is paramount; the more safety gear you've got, the better. It's also a total myth to think you've got to go off track to learn your limits. Find yours slowly, going a little bit faster into the corners each time.
What kind of track etiquette should first-timers keep in mind?
OJ: Check your ego a little bit. There will be really fast and experienced guys out there, and you haven't experienced anything yet.
TE: Listen to the officials. There's going to be some [big] egos out there, but listen and be respectful to the officials.
Tell us about your routine for preparing yourself and your car for an event?
OJ: I try to prepare the week before—not the night before, quadruple-check everything, and get as much sleep as I can the night before.
TE: No matter how much you prepare, you'll never be completely ready, so have a checklist. Mine's broken down into maintenance that starts after the end of the last event.
For those new to the track, do you recommend learning in a relatively stock car or something more modified?
OJ: The more stock your car's engine and drivetrain is, the better. You'll learn a lot more in an underpowered car and mistakes will be less catastrophic. Better brake fluid, pads, and tires are really all you need to go out and learn.
TE: You've got to find that balance between completely stock and fully modded. Most street cars will be fine with the exception of their brakes. The wrong brake pads will ruin your track weekend.