Automotive Ramblings

How to get Started in High Performance Drivers Training (Track Days)

Also known as Track Days, High Performance Drivers Training programs are becoming more and more popular in the U.S. Already very popular in Europe, the basic idea is to have professional instructors make you a better driver, in your own car, at a real race track. These are not races against other participants even though you will be on track at the same time as other students. In fact, passing is strictly regulated in most events for this very reason. Rather, this is an opportunity to expand your skills with quality instruction in a controlled and safe environment. Events are open to anyone with a little cash, a solid car, some safety equipment, and a good attitude.

Lets start with the location, the race track itself! Chances are if this topic is of interest to you, you already know where the nearby tracks are. But you may be surprised to learn of others that major race series events don’t necessarily participate at. Examples in the Pacific Northwest include Pacific Raceways outside Seattle, and Thunderhill in Northern California. Both of these tracks are outstanding, but don’t host any major racing series. In fact, their main focus is amateur racing and driver’s education. You can find out about locations in your area by contacting your friendly nearby SCCA chapter or local amateur racing organization, like the ICSCC. I typically attend events at Portland International Raceway as it’s the closest track to me.

Which segways nicely into who you should contact to get involved. Some race tracks will have onsite organizations for HPDE classes. Other amateur race organizations will also feature driver education classes. The local race sanctioning body in your area will detail their clubs and schedules. At PIR, the local clubs that I know of that are locally sanctioned are Cascade Sports Car Club and Team Continental. The SCCA also holds schools here, but they are geared more for folks heading directly into amateur racing. I have personally attended 3 or 4 of the Cascade events and they’re fantastic. Friendly instructors, lots of on track time, and a comprehensive classroom session that gives all the basics of handling dynamics, flag definitions, and some good bench racing. Local car clubs also hold track days, but most require previous instruction.

So now you know where to go and who to contact. Now the important question, what are you going to drive?! You should drive your own car of course! The most obvious reason is that you’re comfortable in your own car and presumably want to get better at driving it. Don’t worry about the fact that you don’t own a Ferrari or a Porsche, presumable you have something that you would like to learn how to drive better and that’s what the HPDE is all about. While I probably wouldn’t recommend taking out your Expedition, any car will work! I’ve seen guys come out in Chevy Cavaliers and Scion Xb’s before!

So what’s the catch? Your car has to be safe. Safety is paramount at keeping these events running and avoiding huge insurance nightmares. That means your car has to be in good tune, with no leaks, good brakes, decent tires, and all the other things a properly maintained car should have. Some organizations may want a fire extinguisher mounted as well. Your school’s organization will have a tech inspection with specific items to note. It’s not intended to be a surprise, so get a copy of the list in advance.

And lastly, I mentioned the importance of safety. You’ll need a newer helmet for starters. Many organizations have loaner/rental helmets, or you can use a newer Snell approved helmet with a rating of 95 or higher. While SA rated helmets are preferred, the M rated motorcycle helmet will be accepted as well. Most clubs require long sleeves and pants as well.

But other than that, you’re set except for one last thing: A Good Attitude. You’re not going to be the next Mario Andretti your first time out. In fact you won’t be Mario-like even after 50 such events. But the instructor that sits next to you is closer to that mark than you are, and you should heed their advice very closely. Do what they say, both of your lives depend on it. But in knowing you’ll make a few mistakes, enjoy the learning process and be prepared for that kind of experience.

And then at the end of the event, count how many times you say, “I can’t wait to do this again!”

I’m attending the Cascade Sports Car Club’s HPDE this Saturday with my buddy Paul in the Rabbit, and my other friend Ed, who’s bringing his Revo GTi. The following Friday, I’m back to PIR to take the M3 out for the first time with the Portland BMW Club. [cartman]Schweeeet![/cartman]


p.s. if you’re still not convinced, check out this in-car video at PIR. Check out Dennis Palatov’s Website for more PIR and Sports Car goodness!