Intro to the Track Experience
by Graham Chandler
Many of you that have a performance car, such as the MINI, may have wondered how to exploit its performance in a safe environment. Because of the uncertainties of street driving, it is unsafe to drive your car anywhere near its full performance capabilities. Let’s face it, the street environment is full of hazards and we all must exercise defensive driving to avoid falling victim to them.
AGranger hustling Jango through Motorsport Ranch’s Turn 7 at the bottom of the Esses. Ace MetroplexMini.org Mini Instructor David Mcbee is probably screaming GAS!GAS!GO!GO!GO!
Photo courtesy of Hart Photography www.hart-photography.com/mtrsport.html
So, a place where you can really drive your MINI is at a track. To many, the thought of driving their daily driver on a race track conjures up visions of their car becoming damaged in some way, or having contact with other cars on the track. This series of articles is designed to show the reader a very different environment where you can safely explore the thrilling performance of your MINI, or any other suitable vehicle. My emphasis will always be on safety and responsibility. This sport is all about growing your skills, understanding your car, working the track and dealing with its complexities in as safe an environment as possible. You will understand more of this in later articles.
For now I want to be clear on safety. Strict rules imposed by the organizers mean that you cannot be passed by another driver without your express permission. Likewise, if you are faster than the car in front of you, that driver must signal you to pass in one of the designated passing zones. All of this will be explained later. I raise these points because I want you to know there are safeguards for your protection. Corner workers can identify potentially dangerous situations and black-flag violations of track policies.
Each of the articles in the series will address the steps to becoming a competent and safe driver on the track. So let’s get started! So what is track driving and what makes it a better environment than the street? When I talk about track driving, I am focused on road-type tracks rather than drag strips or oval tracks. A true road course is a closed circuit with combinations of varying radius curves in both left and right directions connected by straight-aways, often with elevation changes. The picture on the next page shows a typical track day with a student being instructed on the proper techniques for performance driving.
The Road Course is 3.1 miles long, is 40 feet wide, has 16 turns, off camber turns, high elevation changes, and is designed to be run either clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Image courtesy of www.motorsportranch.com
A real race track is a driver’s dream! Unlike the street, there are virtually no bumps, no drain covers, no potholes, no street-type curbs, and you certainly won’t find anyone talking on the phone! There are runoff areas where, if a driver error occurs, there is a safety margin where control can be re-gained. Also as previously mentioned, corner workers use fl ags to signal drivers of any conditions that could compromise safety.
Track days are highly-organized performance driving events focused on driver education and improvement. These track days defi nitely are not racing. Anybody who wants to learn racing should attend a racing school and this type of school is outside the scope of these articles.
A track day begins well in advance of the actual day itself. Careful preparation is needed and much of it is required in the name of safety. The first step, of course is to locate a suitable track and determine the schedule of available track days. You will register, sign up and pay for your track day. During this process you will provide details of any previous track experience you may have as well as giving details about your car including any modifi cations that may have been made.
The organizers of the driving event (DE) or high performance driving event (HPDE), as they are often called, will assign all the drivers into run groups according to experience. Sometimes these are numbered with novices being as assigned to run group #1 with higher numbers for experienced and seasoned drivers. Sometimes they are color-coded with novices being assigned to the green run group (the greenies!) while the more seasoned drivers are assigned to the red group, for example. Other intermediate color codes are used for varying skill levels.
The individual drivers are responsible for the proper preparation of their cars and certification that the car meets all safety points as required by the organizers. Usually the organizers will provide a detailed checklist of all these items. Sometimes there is a formal examination of the car by qualified technicians. It all depends on the event.
Then there is the individual driver equipment, most importantly, a suitably rated automobile safety helmet. These helmets carry a Snell rating and the track may require a particular year rating or better. Some organizers also require driver suits and gloves and they may also have these available for rent.
Tony Brawner cresting the hill in Vader, about to drop 11 stories to an off camber downhill right.
Photo courtesy of Colour Tech South Motorsports Photography, LLC. www.colourtechsouth.com
For now, that’s probably enough about preparation and safety. I will revisit these topics once we begin our first track day. Right now, I want to take you through some expectations and maybe answer some questions that you may have already.
First of all in this section, let me begin by saying that no street driver is anywhere near prepared to just go out on the track and drive for the first time. You need a minimum of two things—classroom time and a good coach. In class you will learn the following:
• Track terminology
• Flags and their meanings
• Vehicle dynamics
• The correct line around the track
• Passing zones and procedures
• Corner worker station locations
• Instructor’s role
There’s more of course but the above list is a good start and these items will be covered in later articles. Like any sport you need a good coach. In this case you will be assigned an instructor for the day. These instructors can have hundreds or even thousands of track hours both teaching and driving on the track. If you listen and do what your instructor says, you will quickly begin to acquire both confidence and consistency.
The next article in this series will take you through a typical track day is organized and what you can expect.