Have you ever heard of the SCCA-the Sports Car Clubs of America? What about their program called SCCA Track Night in America Driven by TireRack.com? If you’ve ever had the desire to get your car on a professional road course and challenge it and yourself, read on.
Track Night in America Puts You and Your Street Legal Car on a Real Race Track
It’s pretty rare for someone who isn’t a professional race car driver to get out on a real race track. Most “average” drivers who want to experience a little speed, test themselves at speed or see how their car handles have to content themselves with an autocross track laid out on an old airport runway or a large parking lot. There are even occasions where the autocross track might be on a speedway’s property or even use some of the actual track for the autocross course.
However, these are not real race tracks in every sense of the word. They let you go somewhat fast and push your car’s handling as well as your skill. They aren’t the same though. Most road courses have long straights where you can really wind your car up and go. There’s also an intangible “something” that only a real track has – a mystique, if you will.
SCCA Track Night in America Driven by TireRack.com lets anybody with a street legal vehicle, a valid driver’s license and 150 bucks get an hour of actual track time. It’s reminiscent of “Run What Ya Brung” nights back in the day. First timers will be put into a Novice class. Someone who has been to a couple of events and feels up to it can go into the Intermediate class. Lastly, someone with more skills and more track time can go into their Advanced class.
You’re a Novice Driver If You Have No Track Experience
As mentioned, there are three classes: Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced. The SCCA says the Koni Novice Experience “is perfect for those new to being on track, those who are at a particular track for the first time, or those who would just like to have some pointers and guidance during the evening.”
Koni Novice drivers will have paced laps that are preceded by driver meetings where tips and instructions are given. There will be tutors/coaches/trainers in the meetings and on-track with you. During the driver meetings, these coaches will provide individualized tips and pointers on how to get more out of your car-safely.
The SCCA likens this class to summer camp for drivers. Coaches, many of whom are professional race drivers, are on hand to provide instruction and oversight, but by and large, you’re given fairly free rein up to a point. The coaches are there to help and guide you to becoming a better driver on the track and thus a better driver overall. Drivers can stay in this class until they feel confident enough to move up to the Intermediate level.
One of the major lessons in the Novice group is “track awareness.” This is knowing where you are on the track, where your corner entry and exit points are and, most importantly, knowing where track hazards and faster cars are and where they should/might/can be at any point in time. Track awareness is more than road awareness on the highways and the coaches will help you develop it.
If You Have Track Experience You Can Be an Intermediate Driver
The SCCA says that the Intermediate group is more relaxed than the Koni Novice Experience. This is because you’re expected to know the basics already. Your goal in the Intermediate class is to improve your track awareness and the rest of your driving skills. This is the ideal group to practice your footwork, heel and toe, getting onto the brakes smoothly and at the right time, accelerating smoothly out of the apex of the corner, etc. Your skills are there now; they just need to get some polish on them. You’re learning how to “feel” your car and tell what it’s doing beneath you.
The Intermediate group is “the perfect place for those who have a handful of performance driving experiences and those who just prefer to participate at a more relaxed pace.” This isn’t to say that you’re going to be putt-putting around the track. Intermediate class allows on-track passing – in designated areas where it’s safer to pass.
The main thing that separates the Novice and Intermediate classes is that Intermediate drivers are offered less individualized coaching attention. There are still coaches out there offering tips and pointers where they see a need/opportunity, but you’ve already started to develop track awareness. You already know that if you go entering Turn 1, you’re going to slide because the track is slick and bumpy there and you’re beginning to be able to predict where that guy driving faster than you is going to approach and pass you.
The Advanced Group Ups the Ante
Alright. You’ve attended Track Night in America on four or five occasions. You’ve been in the Intermediate group for two or three nights now. You’ve gotten good at your footwork, have been able to minimize your slide through the corner and can now apply full throttle at just the right moment to get a great run out of the corners. You’ve learned how to feel what your car is doing as compared to your throttle, brake and steering inputs and can really power through those corners at speed.
Your head is on a swivel the way it needs to be. You can see that guy in the Mustang GT about 20 car lengths behind you and coming fast, but just beyond the sharp edge where he’s in control. You’ve noticed that he can point the car almost where he wants it, but he’s really not completely in control, so you know to get way over as he passes and to control your speed so he is able to pass you on a wide stretch of a straightaway.
You’re an Advanced driver now. You’re comfortable passing almost anywhere on the track. Now you need to practice feeling the car start to slide into or out of the corners and learn how to correct it and keep the nose pointed where you want it. Now you’re ready to go out there and test your limits and those of your car. This is the group where you’re concentrating on becoming proficient and efficient on the track. You’ve gone beyond trying to shave minutes off your time and feel you’re doing great if you shave five or ten seconds on your lap time during the night.
Do I Need to Specially Prepare My Car to Attend and Participate?
That depends on what you consider “preparing your car.” You should check the tires to make sure there are no problems with them, they’re properly inflated, and they have sufficient tread left. Check your brakes, front and rear, to make sure they have sufficient pad/shoe life left. Make sure there is sufficient brake fluid and there are no leaks. Check the oil, power steering fluid and coolant and make sure those systems also have minimal leaks. Obvious fluid leaks are one sure way to be told you’re not going out on track that night.
Most tracks are little different on this, but it is recommended that anything and everything that can move around in your car should be removed. Bring a plastic/rubber tote for your spare, jack and lug wrench, along with some paper towels, coolant, oil and brake fluid – just in case. You’re going to be pushing your car harder than it’s probably ever been pushed in its life, so it may consume some fluids – especially oil and brake fluid – during the night.
As long as your car has all the required safety equipment to drive it on city streets/highways, and you’ve taken care of everything above, you’re good to go. You don’t need racing harnesses or roll bars (although some tracks do require them on smaller convertibles). Other than working seatbelts in good condition, all you need for safety equipment is a helmet. Sure, go ahead and buy a firesuit and racing boots if you want to look professional, but they aren’t required.
Now let’s talk with some people who have participated in Track Night in America.
Evan Yesmentes Has Been Going to Boston’s Thompson Speedway for Two Years
Evan Yesmentes lives in Worcester, Mass. and has participated in Track Night in America Driven by TireRack.com for the last two years. He attends at least two nights per year. He says he is “looking forward to more this season.” Evan found out about Track Night from a friend who has been participating since its inception in 2014. They were talking about driving and how Evan wanted to test his skills behind the wheel, and his friend asked “What about Track Night?” As the saying goes, the rest is history.
He’s a great example of the fact that you don’t need an out and out performance car to enjoy the track experience. He started racing at Track Night in his Miata and after a few nights he felt competent enough to bring his 1999 Corvette out. This is what he currently drives.
As implied above, movement between levels is mostly left to the participant. Coaches and “referees” may step in and tell you that you’re not quite ready to move up yet, but Evan self-promoted himself to the Intermediate Group after two nights in the Koni Novice Experience. Evan basically used his Miatas to gain track experience and familiarity, and once he felt comfortable enough on track, he popped himself up to the Intermediate Group at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park.
Northeast Region’s Kevin Hewlett Is an Original Track Night Participant
Kevin Hewlett, who also races at Thompson, heard about Track Night in America while he was participating in the SCCA and Tire Rack’s Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line School, where he was polishing his autocross skills. As an SCCA member since 2011, Kevin received notification about the inception of Track Night, and since he wanted to start honing his skills as a road racer, he was hooked. Kevin’s car of choice? A 2009 Corvette Z06.
Although Hewlett has been going to Track Night since 2014, he still feels as though the Intermediate Group is where he belongs for the moment. He likes the fact that passing is more controlled in this group and that the drivers are all fairly experienced. He also likes it because his friend Evan is there and they can push themselves to improve together.
Sean Bressler Is in His Second Year of Participation
Sean Bressler is from the Charlotte, South Carolina area and races at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Google was his friend last year when he searched “road racing near Charlotte, South Carolina.” CMS had a page listing their Track Night, so on the appointed day, he jumped into his 2016 Dodge Challenger Hellcat and went racing.
Bressler will be participating as an Intermediate driver this year, having spent two out of six sessions last season in the Koni Novice Experience. When asked how long it takes to move up, he said, “Everyone is different. It’s not about the time it takes, but the experience and knowledge you gain to understand how to handle the car at high speeds safely and what other cars are doing on the track.”
NOLA’s Derek Wedgeworth Has Two Viewpoints on Track Night
Derek Wedgeworth is a unique participant in Track Night in America. He’s a racer and he’s on the council for the SCCA’s Delta Region as a Regional Executive. His take on Track Night in America is twofold, both as a participant and as an event organizer. Derek heard about the event through his association with the SCCA and communicating with the national office. His home track is the relatively new NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans.
He’s driven three cars at Track Night over the years. At first, he played around with his MB Miata. He then moved up to his Mustang GT, and finally to a Challenger Scat Pack. Wedgeworth runs in the Advanced Group.
What Do You Like and Dislike about Track Night in America?
Opinion across the group of people we spoke with was unanimous. Evan said it best: “They (the SCCA) had an ad somewhere: ‘You bought that sports car for a reason.’ Anyone driving a sports car enjoys the way it holds the road, and it’s fun to take an onramp with gusto or a quick blast from a stoplight from time to time, but the ability to run your car hard, in a safe environment (our emphasis) – we are all going the same direction, no side roads, no telephone poles on the edges, etc. – for 20 minutes at a time, with three “hot sessions” per event, an hour total of driving at speed on track? That’s really awesome!”
Kevin likes that Track Night is regional and that there are many iconic tracks in the Northeast at which he can race. He’s especially appreciative of the fact that the Northeast Region just expanded the event to Lime Rock Park and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The ability to get the feel of a pro race track was also a huge pull for everyone. Derek says he loves seeing “other car enthusiasts getting out and getting excited.” He also said “The ability to stretch the legs – just me and the car and the track.”
According to the people with whom we spoke, there really isn’t much about Track Night not to like. The only thing Evan said he’d like to see change is more coaching availability for Intermediate and Advanced Group drivers. “I still have a lot to learn about how to handle my car, proper race line, etc. If they can do that without a significant increase in price that would be awesome.”
Track Night Is a Grassroots Affair
As a Regional Director with the SCCA, Derek was a little more knowledgeable about the rules governing Track Night than the others. They all agreed that they love the fact that it’s a grassroots thing. You’re not going to be out there on the track with someone whose car is legal for the SCCA and develops 1200 HP. You’re also not going to see licensed racers competing. Again, this is grassroots. If you’ve got an actual racer’s license, you’re going to be told to go to any of the other racing events for professional/experienced drivers. Track Night isn’t for you. Participants love this.
Everyone agreed that this fact helps build the automotive enthusiast community coast to coast. Less than $200, and maybe a brake job and oil change before the event, and you’re going racing man! The camaraderie during Track Night is awesome and it can continue off the track as well, in local groups and clubs. Some local car clubs make Track Night their regular meeting night, in fact.
Track Night in America Is a Family-Friendly Event Everyone Can Enjoy
Track Night in America is probably the only event of its kind where you can take your children (over 12) on track with you. There are brothers and sisters who run it together, fathers and sons, mothers and daughter… They all love it. No, you’re not going to be able to drive with them if you’re in the Intermediate or Advanced Groups, but some tracks allow riders from 12 and up in the Novice Group and every track has Track Tour Laps, something of a set of parade laps so everyone can see the track from on the track.
Everyone we interviewed said the camaraderie at the track is amazing. One of the things we were curious about was where people left the things they needed to bring to the track while they’re on track. “Right next to where I park my car,” was the usual answer – and no, nobody worries their stuff will grow legs because, again, the camaraderie and mutual respect is amazing.
Track Night in America Shows There’s More to Car Ownership than Show `n’ Shines
To a person, everyone loved the fact that Track Night in America shows you that there is more to owning a pretty car than entering it in car shows. They’re all car people, but Track Night fans are also drivers. They may have a pretty car, but seeing isn’t feeling. “Track Night in America shows people that they can buy that fancy car and do more than show it and putt around in it; they can actually drive it like it was meant to be driven.”
Sean Bressler has one warning for people thinking about trying Track Night in America: “You will get hooked after that first time out. The speed, the heart-pounding excitement of pushing your to do what it was engineered to do is addicting.” That’s pretty much a unanimous conclusion as well.
Grab your helmet and let’s go racing!