So, you want to drive a racecar. Don’t we all? You have the project car, probably a fun little bucket car that you won’t break the bank with, right? All the videos you’ve seen, video game tracks you’ve memorized, and maybe even parking lot autocrosses, parade laps and canyon runs you’ve been on. You’re ready for the big-time, huh? Let me place my metaphorical hands over yours, because a sanctioned international raceway event will change your fucking life. Are you ready? Let’s do it.
Before we get into the track prep, let’s talk safety. The most glaring need will be a certified helmet. This is literally the single most important piece of safety equipment you will have, because if every other piece fails, your helmet shouldn’t. If you already have a helmet, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. For those of you hunting for your first one, there are a lot of resources for information, but basically, the most common (and least expensive) helmet is a DOT rated helmet, which you can pick up almost anywhere and do not expire. DOT is typically slapped on motorcycle helmets, which are NOT rated for multiple impacts, and are not always accepted at tracks. If you can, get your hands on a Snell rated helmet. They’re not uncommon, and you can find them in race designs and motorcycle designs, but keep in mind that the Snell rating expires. Check the inside of the helmet for the Snell sticker for the year of certification, and check with the organization for how many years they accept them. Make sure it fits snug, the bouncing helmets are not only unsafe, but they’re super annoying.
Okay, your noggin is covered. What else? Most organizations will not require a fire suit, although some do, so check to be safe. Harnesses are also not required, but can help. Keep in mind, harnesses are recommended to be break-away types to be in daily drivers. Although roll cages are not often required, a roll-bar is required in convertibles, and the driver/passenger helmets need to sit below the roll-bar, so you may have to adjust your seat. Most tracks require windows down, so be sure yours works, with the exception being drag strips, that more often require windows up. Tracks will also require long sleeve cotton shirts and pants, although most places won’t kick you out as long as you’re wearing clothes. Although we all enjoy morbid humor, no one wants to end a track day worse off than when they started. Speaking of…
Prepping the Car
There are a million ways to prep a car, but for the absolute beginner, let’s cast the widest net and let your experience fine-tune you. When you’re moving up to tracks, the general consensus is “don’t put anything on the track you’re not willing to lose”. This includes your car, and even yourself by extension. Look, racing is AMAZING, and we couldn’t imagine our lives without it, but we all acknowledge that we are taking personal and max-bet risks. But we’re not stupid, and you shouldn’t be either. Common sense goes a long way.
Having said that, what may seem the most obvious is your car’s life juices. Check your fluids – ALL of them. Engine oil, transmission/diff fluid, brake fluid, clutch fluid, coolant/water (some tracks do not allow coolant, use distilled water to protect your engine’s insides and avoid making a slick track), grease boots, and empty your catch can if applicable. Keep in mind it may help to change certain fluids for older/high mileage cars. For example, you may consider running a thicker oil since your car will be working harder, or a higher temp brake fluid to avoid boiling. However, I definitely recommend adding an extra half-quart of oil than you normally do, because unless you have a baffled oil pan (if you don’t know, you don’t), the G-force may cause oil starvation. After all, you’re putting your car through 20 minutes (on average) of pedal-to-the-ground stress, give it some extra help.
Another obvious but less frequently checked prep is a bolt check. It seems silly, especially if you have a daily driver or stock car, but please, check your bolts. This is easily done while, say, checking your suspension and fluids. Carry a few common size wrenches with you while you make sure your bushing and tie rods and shocks aren’t shot and check your bolts while you go. Believe me, it will only seem silly until you’re at a track day and your transmission falls out of your car (true story). It’s easy and won’t take as long as you think, just do it and thank us when you find a loose bolt. Finally, give your car an extra “umph” on race day by giving it some super sweet upgrades. These can include such super expensive things like: cleaning or replacing your air filter, changing your oil, check your tire pressures and tread, changing your spark plugs, changing your transmission fluid, bleeding your brakes/clutch, and EVEN cleaning your windows. What we’re saying is, there are plenty of things to do to make sure you have a fun, cheap, and safe track day.
Pack your bag!
Alright, the car’s set, you’re safe to sail, and you’re confident that your car won’t spontaneously explode. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot actually. But fear not! With a combined billion years of experience (give or take), we’ve seen a lot of things that ended the day early, and not for lack of prep. So here we go, in no particular order, a list of extra recommended things to bring:
- Brake pads: a least one set, recommended 2 if you’re going with AutoZone/Oreilly’s brands
- Random Tip: On race day, do NOT put your E-brake up between sessions, your brakes are HOT and they will warp or stick. Put it in gear or chalk your wheels instead.
- Extra Oil: check your oil after every session, a lot of cars consume at high RPMs and a blown motor is a buzzkill.
- Gas can(s): tracks do have gas, if you want to pay $7+ per gallon, but remember that it’s not recommended to run race fuel unless your tune is made for it, it’s so much easier to bring a couple 5 gallon cans and stop by a gas station
- Coolant/Distilled Water: heat happens, watch your temperatures and give yourself a cool-down lap if/when needed to avoid damage or blowing a hose
- A basic tool box: for obvious reasons
- A jack and a couple jack stands: your car will get VERY hot and being under it is miserable, give yourself space with a good jack and stands
- Tire iron/key: if you have wheel locks, don’t forget your key, it sucks!
- Bike pump and tire gauge: sometimes street pressures turn into slidey pressures on the track, but if you drop them down, you’ll want to be able to bring them back up at the end of the day
- WATER: bring drinking water. Trust us, when you’re going full out for twenty minutes, you’ll get thirsty
- A folding chair/tent: track day naps are the BEST naps you’ll ever get, bring something comfy
- Sunscreen/sunglasses: yes, even when it’s overcast
- Random Tip: Contact lens users, consider using glasses. Tracks are dusty, especially if you dip off course and the wind and dirt can irritate your eyes pretty bad.
- Ibuprofen/acetaminophen: Tylenol. Loud noises, strong smells, and you will be sore.
- Drain Pan and funnel: you never know you need it until you really need it, plus the track will thank you for not leaving a mess
- Window marker/masking tape: most tracks will require you to display a number on your car, and they tend to only have duct tape, so it’s best for you to bring your own
- Shop towels/rags: try as you might, you will probably get dirty
- Tire plug kit: it’s rare, but it has happened, and getting a flat on a track day is a major bummer and it’s a good thing to carry anyway
- Trash bags: most tracks will have garbage cans around the pit, but no guarantees they are in walking distance
So, you’re all packed up and giddy with excitement. Get some good rest because now the fun part starts.
What to expect
The thing that amazed me the most at my first track day is how nice and organized everyone typically is. It’s a very welcoming community, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and say hi. We’ve all learned things at tracks and met people with decades more experience than us and I don’t think any of us have been turned away. On the contrary, you’ll find that people are eager to talk about a shared passion. The energy is amazing on track days, and we’ve all experienced withdrawals after incredible track days. The best advice I can give is to be social and open to others, you never know who you’ll meet.
As far as the structure of the events, they vary pretty widely, but typically you’ll have an early morning registration (get there ASAP, everyone needs to sign in) where you’ll fill out a “self tech” sheet on your car and be sorted into your run group either by experience or lap times, then you’ll have a mandatory driver’s meeting. They’ll go over etiquette, safety, rules, and the schedule. The schedule is your life, carry it with you at all times, because they will most likely stick to it even if they don’t announce it.
You’ll have a set number of sessions, usually 4 or 5 and usually 20 minutes each. After each run or two, check your oil, brakes, and tires to make sure you’re still in safe parameters. There’s usually a lunch break in the middle of the day, so relax and get a bite to eat! Most tracks will have a café or snack shack on site but bring snacks if you’re a grazer. Overall, most events are super-well organized, but you’ll find you have preferences for certain organizations and the way they host, the number of cars they allow in a run group (which affects traffic on the track), and the way they separate their run groups (by time, experience, mods, etc.).
Your experiences will be different, you’ll find certain times of the year you love or hate to track, things you decide are vital to a good track day, and you’ll eventually have a favorite track. It’s an incredible experience, and there’s nothing else quite like it. If you’re considering or registering for your first track day, be prepared to want more. Sure, it’s a “race”, but go for fast times, for friends, and for experience. The community and vibes are something we haven’t quite found anywhere else, so help us to keep that energy. Be polite, be spontaneous, and remember that everyone is there to have fun and make it home in the same condition they arrived. Be safe, have fun, and God speed, racers!