By Don Kleist
Have you ever wondered how it would be to drive your car as fast as you can on a racetrack? If you own a Porsche and have never been on a track, I’ll bet that you have wondered. Watching Formula 1, Rolex endurance races, CART, IRL, or even NASCAR, it is easy to get the feeling that driving a car fast is no big deal. Yeah right!
But what is really involved in getting you and your car to a track? The rest of this article is aimed at those who are trying to decide if a day at the track is right for them. I will explain how a Driver’s Education event is conducted, from the viewpoint of a beginner, and share with you some of my experiences. I suspect most who have attended Driver’s Education events share my views.
First let me say this: Driving a 2,500-4,000 pound automobile on a racetrack is serious business. The safety of all involved is of utmost importance. And safety is stressed from before you get to the track until you leave.
Deciding to Attend a Driver’s Education Event
You have some interest in attending a Driver’s Education event because you are reading this article. In this section I will speak to several of the issues involved in making that decision.
Will I be safe?
Safety is stressed at all times. All the cars are inspected to insure that they can handle the stresses of high-performance driving. All students begin each track day with an instructor riding in their cars. Instructors are volunteers who have significant experience driving on racetracks. Many, but not all, have racing experience as well. Instructors and students communicate via intercom-like devices that fit into the helmets. This communication lets students get feedback and helpful tips while they are on the track.
I have found that the instructors make the experience very rewarding. From my first day on a track through several dozen more, I have found the instructors to be patient, encouraging, helpful, and fun to drive with. They are great people.
Beginning students attend a classroom session before they are allowed on the track. The classroom instructor is an experienced driver who discusses basic vehicle dynamics and the proper way to drive a car on a racetrack,
Although serious accidents are rare, they can happen. Therefore, no cars are allowed on the track until an ambulance and crew are at the track.
What if I have never driven on a racetrack?
Although it is natural to have concerns, I know I sure did, don’t worry. The other beginners are in the same boat. Students are divided into run groups, according to their level of driving skill. Beginning students are all in groups with only other beginners. And don’t think you will embarrass yourself in front of your instructor. They know you are new and expect you to take some time to become comfortable driving on a track.
There is no timing of laps or racing of any kind. Passing is only allowed on the straight-aways. And then only when the driver to be passed signals the passing driver that it is OK to pass. Your instructor will be very helpful in telling you to let faster cars pass.
What if I drive too slowly?
While on the track, you drive at a speed that you are comfortable at. There is no urging by the instructors to drive faster than your own comfort level. But as you gain experience, your speeds will gradually increase, even on your first day at the track.
What happens if I have an accident?
Accidents at Driver’s Education events are rare, but they do happen. Since these events are driving schools, not racing schools or timed events, your normal auto insurance is likely to cover any damage you car sustains if it gets in an accident. You may want to check with your insurance agent about this. Or you may choose not to alert them to your driving intentions. This is entirely between you and your insurance company.
From my own experience, my insurance company covered damage suffered by one of my cars when it left the track and hit a fence. I use United Services Automobile Association for my car insurance. I had to do nothing special to have them pay for damages. I had my car towed to a repair shop, then called my insurance company to report the accident. I made no attempt to hide the fact that the accident occurred on a racetrack. From then on I had to do nothing. The repair shop and my insurance company took care of everything. I suspect my premium will go up, but at least the damage was covered.
(Since I originally wrote this article most insurance companies, including mine,have included language in the exclusions section of their policies that precludescoverage for accidents that occur during Driver’s Education Events. – dek)
Getting Your Car Ready
Before a car is allowed on the track it must pass a rigorous inspection to make sure that it can safely handle what you are about to do with it. SEM/PCA has developed a safety checklist that each car must pass. Brake pads and fluid, suspension components, tires, steering components, wheel bearings, brake lights, pedals, wiper blades, rear view mirrors, engine and transmission mounts, battery mount, headlights and brake lights, and seat belts must all pass muster. Further, your car must pass a driving evaluation by the inspector.
What impressed me the most the first time my car was inspected was the brake fluid check. The inspector took a sample of my car’s brake fluid and used a special gauge to measure the moisture content. These guys are serious!
This inspection can be performed by any of a number of certified inspectors. But the best part is the arrangement between SEM/PCA and Munk’s Motors. On the Saturday before a Driver’s Education event, (or possibly two Saturdays before), you can take you car to Munk’s Motors and they will perform the inspection for free. And Munk’s will provide pizza and drinks. What a deal.
Check the SEM/PCA calendar for inspection dates. These are also a good time to just hang out at Munk’s for a couple of hours. You will meet a number of car nuts and be able to see some fine machinery up close. I find that these Tech sessions are always a great time.
Now that your car has passed its technical exam, you must finish the job. The night before the event go through your car and remove anything that can move. This includes floor mats and anything under the seats, in arm rests or door storage. The last thing you need is to head into a sharp turn at speed and have your throttle or brake pedals jammed by something that has found its way to your pedals.
And for your car’s protection remove all loose items from your trunk. Even a pair of sneakers can fly around in your trunk and produce unsightly bulges in the trunk lid. As an example of how items will move if they have a chance, my BMW has a fold-down armrest in the middle of the back seat. I brake hard enough entering turns that the armrest is always down after a session on the track. I also had the door to the storage bin between the seatbacks on my Boxster S come open.
There is no gasoline available at Waterford Hills Raceway, so be sure to fill your tank before you get to the track.
The last part of readying your car occurs at the track. Each car will undergo a brief inspection to make sure that you have removed all loose items, that the brake lights still work, and that you have unobstructed vision both forward and rear. The inspector will use a torque wrench to tighten each lug nut on your wheels. Driving fast is much easier and safer in a car with four wheels. The inspector will also verify that your helmet meets requirements. More on the subject of helmets below.
Getting You Ready
You must be registered to participate in Driver’s Education events. You can get the forms, instructions and other information from the SEM/PCA web site under the “Driver’s Edu.” tab at the top of the page. Download the registration, inspection and medical forms and follow the instructions. When you mail the registration form and your check, you are on the way to a wonderful new experience.
While you are at the “Driver’s Edu.” tab of the SEM/PCA web site, click on the link named, “SEM/PCA Driving School Handbook” and read its contents. This is valuable information about driving a car on a racetrack. Don’t be alarmed if some of this material seems foreign. The important parts will be covered during a trackside drivers’ meeting or in your classroom session before you venture out onto the track for the first time.
You must have an approved helmet. It may be either open-faced or full-faced. But it must have a Snell rating of SA 95 or SA 2000. Motorcycle helmets, those with an M rating instead of the SA rating, are NOT allowed at SEM/PCA schools. For your first one or two track days, you can have a helmet provided by the SEM/PCA. The page on the web site that has the forms explains the helmet program.
Get a good night’s sleep before your first track day. I guarantee this will pay off. Your day will be a full one.
The morning of the track day dress in a long sleeved cotton shirt and long cotton pats. Jeans will do fine. Wear comfortable canvas or leather shoes. Bring coats or sweaters if the weather will be cool, as you will be outside most of the day. Also, bring sunscreen if necessary.
And get to the track on time. You must present your car for trackside inspection and you must attend the driver’s meeting or you will not be allowed on the track.
When You Get to the Track
The big day is finally here! You are on your way to the track for the first time as a prospective driver.
I remember my first time. I was a bit apprehensive and nervous. I imagine
everyone in the same boat will have these emotions. To compound my feelings, the weather was not all that good. Although the forecast was for clearing, there was a mistiness in the air and the roads were wet. But at this point I couldn’t back out. Fortunately, the track was mostly dried off by the time I took to the track. Remember, Driver’s Education schools operate rain or shine.
Upon entering the paddock area you will find a wide variety of cars in a variety of states. Some will just be parked, others will look like they came with their own mechanics, and others may still be on the trailer they arrived on. Some drivers will be changing to track tires, while others may be tweaking under the hood. Don’t worry. Just park your car and start looking around. There will be many neat cars there, not all of which will be Porsches.
The first thing you should do is check in at the registration desk. If you don’t see it at first, ask someone. You will find that the people at the track, both other drivers and the instructors, are always willing to help. This, in itself, helped calm my nervousness. At registration you will sign a standard waiver and get a sheet that tells you your run group and instructor.
A continental breakfast will be set up for you to enjoy. But I advise you to go light on this. Your stomach will appreciate this later in the morning. The club also provides pop and bottled water throughout the day.
At this time you will need to get you car inspected again. Drive it into the pit area. You will see other cars line up. Just join in line. Stay with your car until an inspector gets to you. You will be required to show that your tail and brake lights work and that your helmet meets the standards. This is also a good time to get to know some of your fellow drivers. Some will be first timers like you. Just knowing you are not alone is nice.
Next will come a trackside drivers’ meeting. Here you will meet the instructors and be given an overview of track rules and the meanings of the flags that will be displayed by corner workers. This concludes the preliminary part of the program.
The first order of business for all beginners is a classroom session. You will get a small handout that deals with basic car handling techniques and other information that will help you on the track.
Details, like how the hold the steering wheel and how to position your seat, will be covered by your instructor. He will discuss basic vehicle dynamics, how braking and accelerating affect what the car does. He will also give you an overview of the track itself.
There will be a number of orange cones beside the track. They indicate turn-in points, corner apexes, and track-out points. These will help you position your car for fast, smooth cornering. Your instructor will describe how to use these cones as you drive.
Pay attention to your instructor. This information is very important. But you will be getting it as the first cars get onto the track. It may be hard to concentrate on your instructor as you hear the sweet sound of a well-tuned Porsche roaring down the straightaway. But try to concentrate on you instructor.
My problem during my first classroom presentation was Dave Nikolas’ black, twin-turbo 911. What a cool noise. I could hardly wait until it was my turn.
Now to the Track for the First Time
After the classroom session, you will have some time before your first track
session. This is a good time to check the air pressure in your tires. Improperly inflated tires can have a bad effect on how your car drives. Start out with the recommended air pressure for your car. As you gain experience, you can test the effects of varying the air pressure.
Compressed air is available at the track. If you do not have a tire pressure gauge, you will be able to borrow one from another driver. I have found that drivers are most willing to share tools when needed.
You will hear a notification several minutes before your track session that your group is to proceed to the pit area. Get your helmet and drive your car to the pits. You will know how this is done, as you will have seem other run groups go through the same procedure. Your instructor will meet you at your car in the pits.
The first several laps will be driven at slow speed, without helmets. Your
instructor will help you drive these low-speed laps using the proper lines
through the turns. He will also point out where the braking zones are for each of the corners. Speeds will be limited to about 45 miles per hour. Even at this slow speed, I was surprised at the amount of information I had to process. I really was concentrating hard.
You will be given a flag signal to end these slow laps and return to the pits. The fun is about to begin!
You and your instructor will don your helmets, put the communicators in place, and line up for your first laps at speed. Here is where the nerves started to get to me. What I came for is about to happen. If you are like most beginning students, you will be a bit nervous at this time. That is normal. I know I was.
When the starter gives you the signal, hit the gas and drive out of the pits onto the track. During the first at-speed session your instructor will be giving you lots of feedback about turn-in points and apexes. This is normal. Drive at a speed that feels comfortable to you. Remember, you are not Michael Schumacher yet!
The first couple of laps for me were not all that great. I hit some of the turn-in and track-out points and apexes and missed others. My instructor let me know about both the good and the bad. I suppose there was some ugly thrown in as well. I was surprised at how extreme some of the actions were. When breaking before entering a turn, I really had to brake hard. This is nothing like driving on public roads. And what looks so smooth when viewed on TV is really rather violent.
You will find that as you get some laps under your belt, you will become more comfortable behind the wheel. Your instructor will be talking less. And you will be so busy concentrating on your driving that you won’t have time to think about your nerves.
After a few laps, you will see the checkered flag displayed from the tower at the start-finish line. This signals the end of your first session. You will complete a cool-down lap and leave the track for the paddock area. You’ve done it! You drove your car on a racetrack at speed.
I remember my first time. What an adrenaline rush! I had not felt that way since my first rugby game in college, many decades ago. It took me 20-30 minutes to get back to feeling normal. And I remember thinking, “That was FUN!” I was already looking forward to the next session.
You will have about an hour to return to normal before your next track session. Here you will repeat the process, but without the slow-speed laps. As the laps tick off, your comfort level will increase, as will your driving smoothness. Almost without you realizing it, your speeds will also increase. That is the learning process. But remember, drive within your comfort and skill levels.
Your second track session will end just before a lunch break. Lunch will be catered and served at the track, weather permitting. This is a good time to share experiences with other beginning drivers. You will have a lot to discuss.
You will have two more track sessions after lunch. The second afternoon session will end your racetrack driving for the day. Savor the feeling as you pull into the paddock for the last time. By now, you should have some confidence that you can handle you car at high speeds. That is what you came for and you did it. Be proud. Not many people ever get a chance to drive on a racetrack.
You will likely find that what you have learned will transfer to your every day driving. I know it did in my case. When I round a turn, I mentally look for the apex. And I try to drive turns as smoothly as possible. I have found that most turns are constant radius turns. I try to set a proper steering angle upon entering a turn. And then have a minimum of steering input until I unwind the wheel at the end of the turn. I am also much more likely to drive with both hands on the wheel at the three and nine positions.
For the last part of the day, you and the other beginners will man the corner stations and help conduct the sessions. Each corner with a station will have its set of flags and a walkie-talkie for communicating with the tower. You will be instructed by the tower when to display flags, and may be asked by the tower to report on the condition of the cars on the track.
This is a good time to watch how other drivers negotiate the turns and what lines they use between the turns. It will also give you a chance to go over in your mind how you drove those turns. I guarantee you will pick up good pointers by watching the other drivers.
End of the Day
When your corner work session ends, the track is closed for the day. There may be some beverages provided by one or more of the instructors. Or some of you may adjourn to a local watering hole to relive the day’s events. In either case, I’ll bet many of the now not-so-beginners will be thinking about their next track day as they leave. I know I sure did.
We hope all beginners have a great time, learn about their cars and their driving techniques, and leave with a feeling that they have better control of their cars. We also hope to see you the next time we conduct a Driver’s Education event.