Car Advice

Track Days for Beginners – an entry into motorsport

At some point, I’m sure you’ve wanted to see what your car can do on a racetrack. And you can. Read our track days for beginners.

HUMANS ARE HARD-WIRED to love the thrill of speed, hence rollercoasters and all sorts of adrenalin rides, but it’s even better when you’re the one in control. 

But unless you are a complete idiot, you don’t get that thrill on public roads.  You need a racetrack.  And you can most certainly take your car to a track for a nice, spirited, safe drive.
 
Now let me hear those reasons why you haven’t treated yourself to the experience of a lifetime:

  • I don’t know where to go or how to start
  • It won’t be safe, I’ll crash
  • Insurance won’t cover my car
  • I’ll break my car or damage it
  • I don’t want to race other people
  • It’s dangerous

Here is the good news.  It’s actually cheaper, easier and a lot less risky than you might think to use your own car on a racetrack.
 
There’s two basic types of event – club and commercial.  Club events are cheaper, but require you to join a car club, get a basic CAMS license and pass something called scrutineering where officials check over your car.  Like most clubs, such events can also be a bit unwelcoming for the newcomer until you learn the ropes and meet the people.  That said, there are now regular “Come and Try” events run by car clubs which are sponsored and subsidised by CAMS, the Australian motorsport body.  These events have proved so popular many more have been scheduled that originally planned.  If you want to know more about them then contact CAMS here.
 
The commercial events are more targeted to the newcomer, more relaxed about scruinteering and are generally more customer focused as they don’t assume everyone is a regular club member.   So we’ll describe what happens at typical commercial event, but first, what actually is a track day?

Comprehensive Car Insurance

Track days vs driver training

A track day is simply an open racetrack for anyone with a suitable vehicle to turn up to a drive around as fast as they like.  There is no timing, no race, no “first”, so it is NOT a race. 
 
If you do try and race expect a very rapid ‘please explain’ from the organisers, and if you cannot muster a good reason for your behaviour further expect an abrupt end to your day.  And there is very unlikely to be an acceptable explanation.  But don’t confuse no racing with no rules. 
 
Every driver is sorted into between four or six  “run groups” based on your ability and car, so you’re out on track with similarly-fast vehicles, not that racing Porsche driver by the serious looking bloke in a Nomex onesie.  Each group goes out in turn, for around eight to fifteen minutes, then you come back in and wait your turn.  Continue until the day ends.  During your breaks there’s people to chat to, food, drink or just watch the action.  A few minutes might not seem like a long time out on track, but it is.
 
In contrast, a driver training day is where there is a specific curriculum with classroom theory and a set number of exercises all run under direct instruction.  This may or may not include some tightly controlled laps of a racetrack.  The driver training day is often focused on road safety, whereas the track days are just about speed and fun. A driver training day will not give you the full thrill of a track day, but it will introduce you to the fun of driving in a more measured manner.  It’s no bad idea to do the driver training days first then work up to a track day. 
 
Some track days include ad-hoc access to instructors, but that does not make them driver training days.
 
The difference is important as your car insurance *may* cover you on a driver training day (read the product disclosure statement), but will *not* cover you on a track day. 
 
Before we leave the topic of track-based driver training, be very clear that learning advanced car control skills on a racetrack does not make you a safer driver on road.  The reason is that imparting basic skills which you then let rust only serves to instill false confidence you can drive your way out of problems.  The real secret to safer road drivers is attitude adjustment to a defensive mindset, and diligent work on observations.
 
But enough doom and gloom, let’s talk about track days, because that’s where it’s at for a true thrill.  Words can’t describe it, you’ll just need to do it.
 

Jaguar F-Type at Sandown
Jaguar F-TYPE at Sandown on a track day. The car was unmodified.

What do I need for a track day?

Just your car, yourself and a motorsports helmet you can pick up at any motorcycle shop pretty cheaply.  

Will I damage my car?

In all seriousness, you’re more likely to crash on the way there or the way back.  Fundamentally, a racetrack is a simpler version of a road that is wider and never ends because it’s a loop.  It is safer and easier to drive than a public road, and you choose how fast you go.  There will be plenty of room to get up to speeds that would land you in jail elsewhere, and lots of time to brake.
 
Also, racetracks are designed for people to come off the track and not damage their car.  That’s what all those sand traps are for, and why there’s no trees or lamp posts.  Not saying there is no risk, but it’s a lot, lot less risk than many people imagine.

Will everyone else be an speed-crazed idiot?

Fair question.  A good rule is that the cheaper the day, the greater the chance of idiocy.  The reason is that many costs are fixed, such as the track rental,  first aid, marshals and the like.  The cheaper the entry fee, the more cars are needed on track to make a profit, and the risk goes up.  Cheaper entry fees also attract cheaper cars, and they seem to be driven by people more, shall we say, willing to take a risk and less willing to take instruction.  More cars on track also also leads to impatience with lots of people trying to get a clear bit of track and then taking risks because their time is running out.
 
The answer is simple; don’t go to the cheapest track day you find.  The difference between one at say $150 and $350 or $400 is immense – far safer and more enjoyable, and well worth the extra.
 
Also, believe it or not, beginners are less likely to crash.  This is true of motor vehicles in general, and even pilots.  The crashes start to happen at that dangerous point when you think you know it all but aren’t as experienced as you *think* you are…

OK, how do I tell what’s a good track day and what’s not?

Phone the organisers.  Ask them what their beginners program is.  Ask them how many cars are on track at any time – ideally you want 15 or less, although that’s a dependent on the track length – the cars permitted on any given racetrack is known as the “track density”.  Ask them what sort of cars they see on track, and for photos of a typical track day – you want to see cars of similar value and setup to your own.   Ask them about their tolerance for skids (the answer should be “nothing intentional”).  Ask them about their overtaking policy, which is typically by consent of the driver being overtaken.  If the answer is “anywhere you can” look elsewhere.  Ask if they have instructors, and who they are.
 
Finally, just be honest and say you’re a newcomer with a nice car and you’re worried.  See what they say.  If the answer smacks of “harden up princess” then you’re in the wrong place.  We’ve all been newcomers, even if not everyone admits it or remembers.  Also look up videos on YouTube of the day’s running, everyone’s got a dashcam these days.
 
From all that you can make a pretty quick call on whether or not you’ll be safe.  And ask if you can turn up and just watch, then you can see for yourself and talk to the owners who are driving.  The best operators welcome visitors, and all car people love to talk about cars and driving.
 
No track day operator times, or permits to be timed any laps.  You need to enter a club sprint event for that.  Some operators do not even permit in-car cameras, which is a great shame as it’s really good to relive the event, so don’t assume your in-car camera will be permitted.  The reason for all this are lower insurance.

I’m convinced.  Maybe I should enjoy myself after all.  How do I prepare?

Many people turn up with no preparation and do just fine, but a bit of prior effort always helps:
 
Car – have it serviced beforehand, and the brake fluid changed.  Ideally, use DOT 5.1 or high-performance DOT 4 fluid – your mechanic should know what this means.  If the brakepads are anywhere near replacement time, replace them.  You may not use all the pad, but the more material there is the better the ability to absorb heat.  Ensure the tyres have decent tread left, and inflate them to 40psi which is about 5psi above normal. This is to stiffen up the sidewall, and reduce heat buildup.  Clear the car from all loose objects, no matter how tiny.  
 
You – no alcohol the night before, good night’s sleep, turn up in plenty of time.  Wear clothes that cover all your body except hands, and choose tight-fitting, thin-soled shoes.  There’s no need for race shoes, just thin-soled, tight-fitting shoes.  High heels or work boots are just wrong!  You don’t need a race suit or gloves.  Take sunglasses.
 
Technique – there’s books on this, but in short; keep your hands at 9-3 on the steering wheel and do NOT move them, ensure you look well ahead around the corner as you approach it, and remember, slow in, fast out because it’s easier to reduce acceleration on exit than increase braking on entry. Take your time and build up to higher speeds.  If not sure of a gear for a corner, use the higher gear not the lower one.  Do most of your braking in a straight line, ease off the brakes as you turn in, only accelerate as you unwind lock and…be smooth, super smooth and gentle.  Change gears on straights only. Turn off your phone and stereo, no distractions, just focus on the drive.  Most automatics can be left in Drive, and use the sport mode if there is one.  That takes care of 90% of beginner mistakes. You can read a lot more on WinHPDE and we have posts on steering and braking techniques that are relevant.

 

jaguar-vision-sandown-look2
Rule #1 – look where you want to go. Rule #2 – see Rule #1.

Can my car handle it?

Yes.
 
Didn’t even need to ask what sort of car you have, there’s the answer.  But of course it’s a bit more nunaced than that.  If you take a standard car and drive pro-level laps for half an hour (or less!) then you can fully expect the brakes to fry and the transmission to suffer, let alone the effect on the tyres and various other consumables.  But you aren’t going to do that.  Instead, you do a gentle “out lap” as you leave the pits, letting the engine (and yourself) warm up, not redlining.  Then you do one flying lap, at the fastest pace you feel comfortable with.  Then you do a slow lap to let yourself and the car recover.  Then maybe another flyer, and then it’ll probably be session over and time for the cool-down lap where you just cruise around.  That should be well within a roadcar’s capability, but refer to your instructor and organisers for more detailed advice. 
 
The main problem is very fast, heavy cars at circuits which demand significant braking, such as HSVs at Sandown with its long flat-out sections, combined with drivers who don’t do warm up or cool down laps.  You need to be very careful in that situation, but if we take something like a lighter and straight-line slower Porsche Boxster at the curvy Winton Raceway the brakes are much less of an issue.
 

RMP_7232-2
Normal-looking cars here at Winton Raceway…

 

I’m worried I’ll need to drive fast to keep up!

No, you just drive as fast as you want. 
 
In a beginner’s session you will be fine driving a racetrack at speeds you would drive on a public road, and the other people are newcomers like you.  This is why there’s multiple run groups, so the faster guys can have their fun without worrying about slower cars, and vice-versa.  A beginners group is just that, slow and sure.  Worry not, and on the very rare occasions there’s a yahoo who thinks he’s a overlooked F1 talent (always a ‘he’ for some reason) then he’s slapped down pretty damn quick by the organisers.  But in general, the real idiots tend to think they know it all so skip beginner sessions and instruction entirely before ending up backwards into the tyre wall at cheap trackdays, which of course wasn’t their fault at all.

Will my car insurance cover any damage?

No, if your car is damaged that’s all down to you, and this is a big factor why people don’t go to racetracks.  But the chances of an off are very small if you’re sensible.  The pace of the beginner sessions is very slow, and believe me, your instructor has a very well developed sense of self-preservation so will be sure to put that first!
 
UPDATE: Famous Insurance offer some level of track insurance.

Still worried.  What about using someone else’s car?

Definitely an option.  There’s numerous events where you can try a trackday using a car you don’t own, but it is of course more expensive.  These events fall into two categories:

  • Experiences
  • Training

An ‘experience’ is where you just get to drive the car for a brief period of time, mainly to say you’ve done it.  The instructor is there primarily to keep the car (and you) in one piece.  The cars are typically hero vehicles, V8s, rally cars or similar. There is very little instruction, and what there is will be about safety not improvement.
 
A training event is where you can expect actual skills improvement and to learn.  The cars won’t be as glamorous, and the instructor will pick you up on more things and work with you to improve.  There will be more time behind the wheel, and there should be at least one theory session too, and you’ll need to work harder.  Some of the feedback might not be good for your ego because it’s honest, whereas with experiences it’s about making you feel good even if you’re not.
 
There is no wrong or right, but don’t go to an experience event thinking it’s a cut-price training course.  It’s not.
 
Here’s a list to get to you started:

Manufacturers that regularly run driver training events

Not cheap, but well organised and highly professional, and generally oriented to the fun/experience side of things rather than serious learning.  You won’t get a lot of sales spiel, but you will have fun.  Most of them run a series of courses up to advanced levels.

RMP_9544
BMW M3 at Phillip Island as part of BMW’s driver training programme
20150511_120609
A premium car manufacturer supplied in the gent’s toilets scented candles, flowers and a special basket full of logo-embroided handtowels. I have suggested the same to car clubs, but the response indicates that such measures are unlikely to be adopted any time soon.

Independent operators that run driver training events and track days

This may be bring your own car, or rent one of theirs.

RMP_5666-2
 
For ‘experiences’ see Red Balloon or similar, too many to list here.  There are some operators that run both experiences and training, for example three laps in a rally car is an experience, a theory briefing followed by a full day in a rally car is (should be) training.  I can recommend http://www.rallyschool.com.au/
 

Rally-Sequence-v4
Instructor-driven, but you can learn too!

 
Know of any more?  Let us know if we’re missing any operators.  And if you’ve taken your car to the track!  And if we missed a reason why you’ve not done a track day, tell us!

 
 


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!