(Updated on June 22, 2021)
Ever wanted to put your car on a race track, but weren’t sure where to start? If you’re into cars, a track day is one of the best and most exhilarating ways for you to enjoy your ride.
The best part is you don’t have to be a professional race car driver; open track days are accessible to most people and cars, no matter where you live or what you drive.
High Performance Driver’s Education
Most track days take place in the form of HPDEs, or High Performance Driver’s Education. In this format, students are divided into different run groups: novice, intermediate, and advanced.
During your track day, you will gain experience handling your vehicle at the limit, learn the racing line, and experience the thrill of triple digit speeds in an entirely safe and legal environment.
Not only that, these skills are directly applicable to regular everyday driving and will make you a safer driver, particularly in inclement weather when the grip levels are lower due to rain, mud, ice, or snow.
HPDE Run Groups
Different run groups have different expectations as far as driving ability and passing zones. If you’ve never put your car on a racetrack before, you’ll be in the novice group.
Novice run groups ease into the track experience, often starting out the day with a quick autocross to warm up the car and driver. They may incorporate passing drills for practice before they open the track for a regular session.
Intermediate groups have good car control and decent track awareness. These drivers have several track days under their belts, and usually are past the point where they need an instructor to ride along with them for guidance.
Intermediate drivers should be familiar with all of the flags, know the racing line, and understand how to make a safe pass on a straightaway.
Advanced run groups are very comfortable with the race track and often bring fully prepared cars on trailers, some of which may not even be road legal. Advanced drivers have the most lax rules, largest passing zones, and are the most hardcore of track rats.
Typically, novice and intermediate groups have the option to grab an instructor for the day for more hands on learning. Advanced run groups are often allowed to bring passengers for a ride along.
How Do I Prep My Car For a Track Day?
Most street cars can be safely run on a track, but there are a few things you need to look over before you head out to your first HPDE.
Inspect the Vehicle
First and most importantly, make sure your car is road worthy. You will have to pass a technical inspection (commonly called “tech”) to make sure your car is safe for the track. All fluids should be topped off and relatively fresh, especially brake fluid and engine oil. Make sure there are no fluid leaks; engine oil and other vehicle fluids can be very slick on track.
Jack the car up and make sure there is no excessive play in the wheels (wiggle them top to bottom, then left to right). There should be slop on center in the steering. Tires and brake pads should have plenty of life left.
Verify the throttle and brake pedal return normally, and that the brakes are not spongy. All cars should have a proper battery tie down as well.
Some tracks have noise restrictions. You will want to look up your local track to make sure your vehicle is quiet enough to comply with any noise restrictions in place.
How frequently you should change the engine oil of a track car is a subject of great debate, one that can only really be solved for you by sending used oil samples to a company like Blackstone Labs for analysis.
At the very minimum, follow the “severe driving conditions” oil change interval recommended by the owner’s manual. Many people choose to change their oil even more frequently depending on the vehicle and how hard they drive at the track.
Many stock brake pads can’t handle the heat of a track day and will fade throughout the course of a session. In severe cases, this may lead to a complete loss of braking.
Do some research on your specific vehicle to see how your brake pads are expected to hold up during a track day. Sport pads and larger calipers (such as Brembo and Wilwood systems) are typically designed to be safe on track.
DOT3, DOT4, and DOT5.1 fluids can be used interchangeably (as long as you’re moving to a higher number than what the factory calls for). If your vehicle comes with DOT3 brake fluid, consider switching to DOT4 or DOT5.1 to take advantage of a higher boiling point.
Related: DOT 3 vs DOT 4 Brake Fluid
Running brake fluid with a higher boiling point will make it less likely for you to boil your brakes on tracks with heavy braking. Boiled brakes won’t adequately stop the car and could lead to a serious accident.
Note: DOT5 fluid is not compatible with DOT3, DOT4, or DOT5.1 fluids. DOT5 is silicone based, not glycol based like the other fluids.
How Do I Find HPDE Events Near Me?
There are several good ways to find motorsport events in your area. The most reliable way to do this is to go to MotorsportReg and search for events within a certain radius of your location. You can search by event type, filtering by HPDEs or other events such as autocross or hill climbs.
You can also search Google for “HPDE” followed by your approximate location. Look up any local race tracks near you to see what events they hold and which groups typically run at that track. Most HPDEs have a similar format, but some groups will be cheaper or provide more hands-on instruction.
Additionally, you can ask around your local car club. Many enthusiasts enjoy and participate in track days, and these people are an excellent resource for finding the best events in your area.
What Will I Need?
For the Driver
Bring a helmet. If you don’t have a helmet, some groups will provide helmets you can rent for the day.
Different HPDE events have different helmet requirements. Some events are OK with a Snell M (motorcycle) helmet, while others require a SA (special application) helmet instead. SA helmets are held to a higher standard and offer some fire resistance.
New Snell standards are released every 5 years, and most events let you run any helmet that has been certified within the last 10 years. If you plan on racing a lot, you might want to invest in a SA2020 helmet.
Need some helmet ideas? Here are a couple links to get you started.
The RaceQuip PRO20 Series is an inexpensive entry into the helmet market, coming in around the $200 mark. These helmets meet all of the motorsport requirements of Snell for the SA2020 standard.
The Conquer Carbon Fiber Full Face Auto Racing Helmet is a great option if you’re looking for a mid range lightweight SA2020 helmet. Carbon fiber helmets are typically much lighter than their Kevlar composite or fiberglass counterparts.
Food and Drink
Bring plenty of fluids to drink! Many track days run in the summer, and you will sweat a lot under that helmet.
Driving hard while dehydrated is dangerous; a dehydrated driver may lose focus, and this situation can be difficult to recognize until it’s too late. A sports drink that can replenish your electrolytes such as Gatorade isn’t a bad idea.
Some events offer a lunch. For those that don’t, you’ll want to pack a lunch and stick it in a cooler. Keep in mind any dietary restrictions you may have, as the provided lunch may not be able to accommodate these.
It doesn’t hurt to bring a few quick snacks like granola bars or fruit snacks. These can be consumed on the go between events, and may come in handy if you have to leave the track to go get gas between sessions.
For the Car
In addition to your car, you may want to consider a few additional items that you may not normally carry in your roadside toolkit.
Bring extra fluids, particularly engine oil and brake fluid. Many vehicles burn engine oil when driven hard, and you want to make sure you check the oil periodically during your track day to make sure you haven’t burnt too much.
Bring plenty of distilled water. Not only can you drink it, it can be used in the radiator if a coolant hose springs a leak.
You may also want to bring some mechanic’s tools, a jack, and jack stands if you have an older vehicle and think you might break something important. Make sure you have a spare part ready to go, as parts will not be available at the track.
Roll Bar (Convertibles)
If you drive a convertible, you will need to have some sort of rollover protection. Newer convertibles typically come with enough rollover protection to satisfy the requirements in stock form.
Older vehicles (such as NA and NB Miatas) may require an aftermarket roll bar solution. If you aren’t sure what your car will need, contact the event coordinator for more information.
How Much Will It Cost?
Track days may cost anywhere from $150 to $500. While this is substantially more expensive than autocross, you get far more seat time. The seat time to dollar ratio of a track day is substantially higher than autocross.
You also probably won’t have to work a track day like you would an autocross event. Most track days have dedicated flaggers that work the entire day.
How Long is a Track Day?
Track days last the majority of the day, typically from around 7 or 8 AM until 5 PM. You will have a break for lunch, and there will be breaks in between as other run groups are out on track, giving you and your car a chance to cool down.
Will a Track Day Ruin My Car?
There’s no question that track days are much harder on your car than everyday street driving. There is an extra level of care and attention you need to give a vehicle that is routinely tracked.
You may experience more wear and tear on the vehicle, especially on consumable components. That said, a well sorted car should have no problem running many track days throughout its lifetime.
It’s a good idea to check forums for your vehicle to see if they have any specific issues when run hard. Some examples of these are overheating issues, wheel bearing problems, inadequate braking systems, and oil starvation in high G turns.
Parts that normally never wear out may become wear items, such as wheel bearings. You will have to change brakes, tires, and all fluids much more frequently on a track car. Do a thorough inspection on your vehicle before and after your track day and you should be just fine.
Are Track Days Safe?
Yes. Most track days are run with strict rules that allow everyone to stay safe and have fun. These rules may dictate when you can pass, how to pass, how to pit, and which vehicles are considered safe to run on that particular course.
Most of these details will be covered in a driver’s meeting before the event. They will also go over each of the flags that will be used throughout the day, what they mean, and what you should do if a given flag is pointed at you during your session.
What About Insurance?
While track days are typically very safe, accidents do happen. Rain, oil spills, and driver error are all common reasons crashes happen. Read your auto insurance policy carefully to understand if track days will be covered.
In many cases, “competition events” are excluded, and there may be a clause that specifies “timed events”.
There are insurance companies that provide special track day insurance when your policy does not cover you for an event. These can be purchased for the day of the event, and can help cover the cost of your car in the event of an accident.
Tips for Beginners
If it’s your first time on track, here are a few things that should make your day more enjoyable.
1) Ask Questions
Auto enthusiasts at a track day are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet. Everyone is there to have a good time, and people love to talk about their cars. If you have any questions about the day or about someone else’s track setup, don’t hesitate to ask. The vast majority of people will be more than happy to help you out.
2) Stay Hydrated
It’s easy to forget to drink water throughout the course of the day. Since most track days take place during the warmer months, it’s very important to stay up on your hydration throughout the event. Bring no less than a gallon of water, and get in the habit of drinking a fair amount after each session.
3) “Run What You Brung”
This is a saying you may hear at the event. Basically, it means “drive whatever you have, however it’s currently set up.” Don’t worry about having the fastest or the coolest car. If it passes tech, you’re probably good to go.
After Your Event
After you come back from your event, it’s a good idea to inspect the vehicle once more. Pay special attention to consumables such as brake pads and tires. Double check the oil and brake fluid levels, and top them off as needed. If you notice any additional noises, make sure to diagnose and repair them before your next event.
Track days will tune you into your car. You will learn so much about the mechanical nuances of your vehicle and its driving dynamics after just an event or two. You may find that certain components will require an increased maintenance interval, so address these where needed.
Once you get home, tell your friends about the event! Many drivers are intimidated by the thought of tracking their vehicle, but there is really nothing to fear. HPDEs are an event nearly all enthusiasts can enjoy, and it’s a great way to spend the day with a group of friends.
Featured Image Credit: AGAdmin via e46fanatics.com