I have seen all sorts showing up at ungodly hours in front of world-renowned racing circuits, eager to please themselves and their friends who often accompany them with a visage that speaks equal amounts elation and dread. For the first time track rat, or even the fifth-timer, there is a nervous charge that motivates them to get up earlier than a stockbroker, inhale a quart of cheap coffee and head off to do battle with the laws of nature.
Though the idea of hurtling around a racetrack with others may sound daunting, with an understanding of the basic physics at work and a bit of courtesy a track day can be a hugely-rewarding, pain-free experience.
There are only three basic inputs a driver makes: turning the steering wheel, pressing the brakes and pressing the throttle. Keep in mind that the tire can only do one of these tasks at 100% at a given moment. That means that if you’re accelerating with your foot to the floor – ie. 100% – the tire has nothing left in reserve for cornering. Overstep the mark and the car begins to slide. Because we want to try and blend these inputs as smoothly as possible, we have to compensate. For example, with the 30% of the tire being used to corner, we have something like 70% left for accelerating. Of course, this is fundamental theory which does not take into account the behavior of your specific tires or the power delivery of the engine, but it does generally hold
true. If we were to turn this into practical advice, think of it as “more of one, less of the other”. As you are exiting a corner and are unwinding the steering wheel, you can add a proportional amount of throttle. When the car is pointing straight ahead with no steering lock on, you can floor the throttle.
Entering the corner is one of the trickier parts of driving. While it’s important to try and be as smooth on your throttle and steering while cornering and accelerating out of a corner, applying the brakes on the way into the corner must start with a firm initial push and then tapering pedal pressure off smoothly. The firm initial “hit” should be made while the car is straight – ie. no sharing the tire’s responsibilities with turning right then – and as you begin to taper off, you can start to gently turn into the corner. Too much initial pressure can result in locking up the brakes, but as long as the initial pedal pressure is firm but not too firm, it should prevent the driver from entering the corner too fast.
I’ve always felt it’s important to try and treat your car with respect because it is crucial for getting a feel for “the limit”. You will hear this term thrown around by some of the more experienced drivers. What this refers to is the point at which the car begins to slide. Generally speaking, trackday drivers should try to approach the limit as cautiously and progressively as possible, so that when they overstep the line, they won’t be asking for an accident. For instance, the car may begin to slide, but if it is cajoled towards and just beyond the limit, it will react in a predictable manner. If the car is bullied into a situation which the driver is not capable of dealing with, it can result in a spin or a crash.
What the first-timer should be ready for is a good amount of information being conveyed to you in an environment that will seem intimidating at first, but with a calm outlook, the faster cars passing you won’t seem like such a threat. For this reason, it’s important to try to keep an eye on your mirrors, especially when you’re on the straightaways. For safety reasons, most trackday programs insist on passing down the straightaways or more “open” sections of the track. Because communication between drivers is all-important, you will be expected to give the driver behind you a “point-by” signal which says you acknowledge their presence and are allowing them to pass you safely. By keeping your eyes on the mirror, you give yourself some breathing room, allow your instructor to focus on your driving and let the faster traffic enjoy themselves.
Keeping ego in check is probably one of the most important things to do while driving quickly. Many first-timers will assume that because their car powerful, renowned for its impressive lap times at the Nurburgring, or expensive, that they should be able to pass the majority of the other cars on track. Unless the track is filled exclusively with this kind of driver, it usually isn’t the case. Whether you’re driving a McLaren or a Mustang, if a Miata is filling your mirrors every time you enter a corner, it’s probably best you let them by, even if it’s difficult to stomach.
In closing, just try to take it easy out there. Why motor racing attracts egos I’ve never fully understood, but if you can learn to deal with yours and those of others, you’ll be in for a very rewarding time. Furthermore, treat the car with respect and give yourself a bit of wiggle room out there. Being aggressive and pushing hard won’t necessarily teach you the fundamentals and it usually just adds to the bill. Driving quickly and safely requires a finesse and level-headedness that comes with time, experience and an understanding of the basics. Most importantly, communicate! An experienced coach can relay tons of tips and specific instructions that will save you a headache, and they’re usually happy to help. They’re out there because they enjoy it and want to make sure you do too.