The Track Experience
by Graham Chandler
The previous article in this series introduced you to the track environment and gave you an idea of what it will be like to attend a track day. Now it’s time to actually do it and this article will explore further what to expect.
NOTE: Not Every HPDE is run as described below, you will see regional and club differences.
The day has arrived! Your first track day! You’re probably feeling a bit anxious. The MINI is clean because it’s really bad form to show up with a dirty MINI. You’ve reviewed the car-safety checklist multiple times in anticipation provided by the event organizer when you signed up. You are ready! Don’t forget your helmet! Let’s go!
After driving to the track, you’ll pull into the paddock, an area where cars are parked while not in use. Here people are busy tending to their cars. Brake pad changes, wheel changes, tire pressure adjustments. You’ll also see trailers of all types signaling that the hard-core of the sport are here. Those that have non-street legal cars for one reason or another are side-by-side with novices.
This is a place for camaraderie. People help each other. Experienced drivers love to talk about their cars. It’s an infectious atmosphere. On top of all that, the instructors are out on track having their fun adding noise to the atmosphere at this early hour of the morning.
Over the track loudspeaker system crackles an announcement… “All participants to the drivers’ meeting, every driver must come to the drivers meeting now.”
The drivers’ meeting provides a means for the Chief Instructor (CI) to lay out the day’s activities, issue driver/instructor pairings and go over the basic rules. Let’s cover some general rules right now as they are pretty typical for this type of driving event (DE).
Flags and their meanings
Flags are used by corner workers to signal drivers. Corner workers communicate with the Control Tower other track workers by radio. The entire track is covered in case of an emergency or something that compromises safety.
Flags are color coded as follows:
Green – Track Clear - only displayed to start or restart session.
Yellow – use caution (waived means urgent).
Blue, or Blue with Yellow diagonal – faster car behind – yield at next passing zone.
Yellow with Red vertical Stripes – Debris on the track – use caution.
Red – stop immediately in view of a corner worker.
Black – waved and pointed at a particular car - that car must return to the pits.
Black with Red disk – Mechanical Problem – displayed to a particular car - that car must return to the pits.
White – Often used to signal instructors the session is about to end.
Checkered – end of session.
Not all organizations use all the flags. Be sure to pay attention as to what flags will be used. You may also encounter local or regional flags not listed above.
Corner worker station locations
The CI will use a map of the track to point out the location of the corner workers. Every driver must locate these workers and point them out to the instructor in the car so that each driver knows where to look. Corner workers appreciate a wave of acknowledgement on warm up and cool down laps.
Passing zones and procedures
At DE events, passing is allowed only on certain straight-aways for safety reasons. For the most part passing is only allowed down the left side of the track. This is the safest way to pass because the driver of the car being passed can more easily see the passing car in the driver’s side mirror. Any exceptions will be explained. No passing can happen unless the slower car’s driver points deliberately out the window once for each car to be allowed to pass. The slower car must move to the right and slow down during these maneuvers. The CI will again refer to the map of the track to precisely define the beginning and end of each passing zone. There is absolutely no passing allowed in the turns even though a driver might mistakenly issue a late “point by.” It is the responsibility of the passing driver to abide by the passing zone rules.
Other topics that might be covered by the CI are the procedures for off-track recovery. Given there is sufficient run-off area such as grass, avoid turning the wheel abruptly to get back to the track. Instead, reduce speed and drive a gentle curve back to the track. Take a look at the diagram to understand this technique.
On the other hand, with limited space to maneuver, you should try to point the car in the safest direction and brake rapidly in a straight line with the clutch depressed. “Both feet out” is the expression we use. Other regions may use the term “Both feet in”.
Now the practical training will start with the in-car instruction and the initial orientation laps conducted at slower speeds. When your group is called, take your car to the “false grid”, a place to line up in the pit area. Course workers will guide you to your spot where you will meet your instructor.
After introductions in your car, your instructor will give you an overview of what will happen during the first session. Generally you will be asked to point out the corner worker locations while driving at reduced speed around the track. During the first few laps, your instructor will point out some features of the track. These features are as follows:
• Braking points
• Turn in points
• Apex points
• Track out points
The place where you will apply the brakes and downshift is sometimes marked by a series of white boards on the outside of the track. These are marked by meter measurements beginning (for example) 200…150...100…50. You will begin by braking at the 200 meter mark or whatever the highest marker board is at your track.
Turn in points
During training sessions, the turn in point is the place where you will have all of your braking and downshifting complete. This point will usually be marked by a traffic cone on the outside of the track. This is where you will turn in across the track toward the apex point.
The apex point of a turn is also usually marked by a traffic cone on the inside of the track There is a raised curbing at this location where you can put your inside front wheel. The objective here is to smoothly turn toward the apex point from the turn in point. When you are driving at track speeds, you will be at full throttle as you approach and go through the apex. The car should be going in nearly a straight line heading for the track-out point.
Track out points
Again, during training sessions, the track out points will usually be marked on the outside of the track by traffic cones. Like the apex point, the track out point has raised curbing that will, to some extent, help you avoid putting your wheels on the grass. Having applied full throttle through the apex point, the car should naturally carry itself to the track out point.
During the above discussions I mentioned the terms inside and outside of the track. This might be a little confusing, so let me explain. These terms relate to the sides of the track as you approach a turn. An upcoming turn to the left means the outside of the track is the right side and the inside is the left side. The opposite applies if you are approaching a right turn. This will become clearer as you drive the track.
OK, so let’s drive the track! Most instructors have two-way communicators so that you can hear instructions inside your helmet. With helmets and communicators in place, seatbelts fastened and windows down you’ll probably have a discussion about driver position with your instructor. Ideally, you will be seated so that your arms are bent around 120 degrees at the elbow and hands positioned at a symmetrical 9 and 3 position on the wheel.
Once on the track you will learn how to feed the wheel through your hands when necessary and not run your hands through the twelve o’clock position. You never want to have a hand on the wrong side of the wheel.
Now it’s time to proceed carefully down pit lane, through pit out and onto the track. It’s worth pointing out that the pit out lane usually has a solid white line separating you from the track, don’t cross it! This is where you will be merging with faster traffic sometime in the future and you will want to adopt the right habits now.
Your instructor will begin pointing out the track elements I have previously described. Try to drive a smooth line from turn in, through the apex to the track out point using the traffic cones you’ll see there. Then connect the turns and straight-aways as you learn the track during the orientation laps as signaled by the yellow caution flags at each corner worker location.
While the yellow flag is out, let’s examine in detail the technique for negotiating a typical turn. In an ideal world, all tracks would conform to a set of standards with the various elements of the track being constructed or marked in a similar fashion. This ideal world however, is not always the case, sometimes you may have just bare track with little or no markings. To make things clearer, I am going to use a track with markings.
The following series of photographs show a car positioned at the various key points through the turn.
Approaching the braking point
Notice the positioning of the car on the outside of the track. The turn coming up is a 90 degree left hand turn followed by an immediate right hand turn that can be taken at wide open throttle. Just like a straightaway. The car’s position on the track now provides the best angle to attack the apex. Also notice the marker boards that provide a guide to your braking distance to the turn. All braking and downshifting must be accomplished before you turn.
The turn in point
Here is the Turn in point. Notice the brake lights are on, and because this is a training session, the turn in point is marked by a traffic cone. Right at this point you will cease braking and begin your turn across the track and gain sight of the apex. Once turned and headed for the apex you will begin your acceleration.
Approaching the apex
With the apex in sight, you are at a critical point in the turn. Take a look at the apex. There is a raised concrete curb and you can see that the marker cone for the apex is positioned off-track next to the latter half of that curbing. This is because you will want to achieve a late apex to flatten the exit out of the turn. You will see why in the remainder of the photographs. Ideally, the car will be at wide open throttle approaching the apex because the majority of the turn is now behind you. To give you an idea how sharp the turn in is, here is another view.
Approaching the apex
At the apex
Here, the car is at the apex with its wheels clipping the latter half of the concrete curbing. Again, ideally, the car would be at full throttle, and if you take a look at the following picture, the remainder of the turn has a really flat exit line out to the track out point.
At the track out point
Here is a view of the track out point. Because we aimed for the latter part of the exit from the previous left hand turn we still have plenty of room to the right. The car is pointed in a perfect position to attack the next turn, not headed for the grass to the right! The car has completed the left hand turn and is positioned to attack the next apex.
At the apex to the next turn
Here the car is using the concrete so that the wheels are turned minimally to complete the turn. The less the wheels are turned during the exit phase, the faster the car will accelerate onto the straightaway.
When the corner workers put the yellow flags away you can begin to go faster. As you go faster remember to drive the line as your instructor teaches it to you. This line is both the safest and fastest way around the track. There! For once everything works out to the good! Both safest and fastest! Gotta love that! Laps go by and you begin to drive with ever increasing smoothness. By smoothness, I mean that the gearshifts, the braking, changes in direction, and acceleration begin to flow and work together around the track. Each of these activities should start to occur at the same points.
There is a slower car in front of us now. Just drive your line, do not necessarily follow the line of the car in front, it might be the wrong line! After a few turns, the instructor in the car in front should notice you and prepare the student for you to safely pass. The straightaway and passing zone are just around the next corner so you should also prepare yourself. There are few exceptions to which side of the car to pass, we will pass the car to the left down its driver side which is normally the case because it’s easier to signal the pass. Having made the last turn, the lead car pulls over to the right and the drivers arm pointed briefly out the window signals your pass. The lead car slows and you accelerate rapidly and resume your driving line as soon as it’s safe to do so. The trailing car may have a slightly disadvantageous line but it is going slower and won’t need the optimum line. The following picture illustrates the passing signal.
Pass to the left point-by signal
If your track allows passing to either side, here is the signal to pass to the right…
Pass to the right point-by signal
A few laps later we have a faster car behind us. Again, drive your line and take all turns as if the following car is not there. Remember, this is not a race; nobody may pass you until you are ready. The passing zone follows this next turn, so get ready to move to the right and slow down. With the turn over, execute the move and slowdown procedure and point your arm straight out the window briefly. The following car passes safely to your left and sets up for the next turn. Do whatever you need to do to allow the car in front to get maximum advantage of the driving line. Going slower, you won’t need the perfect driving line; you’ll get back on line as soon as there is good separation between the two cars. If there were two cars needing to pass you and there is enough space on the track, point each car by separately.
After what seems like no time at all, there is the checkered flag signaling the end of the session. This is the slow-down lap. It’s time to cool off the brakes, but still drive the line. This line needs to become ingrained, so drive it whether you are going 40 or 140. As you approach pit in, the start of the pit lane, your instructor will tell you to give the “pit in” signal, a fist raised out the driver’s window as in the following picture.
Pit In Signal
During your slow return to the paddock, your instructor will begin to review the session. Once in the paddock, you will park, (carefully remembering to leave the emergency brake off to avoid cooking the pads), and your instructor may complete a written evaluation. Each track is different, but there is an example evaluation form attached (see attachment).
The remaining sessions of the day will run the same way as the first, but you should find yourself becoming more confident and gaining accuracy and smoothness. In between sessions you may have the opportunity to attend classroom sessions. The next article in this series will discuss what you may have learned both in class and on the track and provide answers to questions that may have arisen since your first track day.