From Backroad Cruiser to Apex Hunter - A Beginner's Guide to the Track
Getting on the track may be daunting at first, but here you can see how to get past the hurdle and Get Fast!
In my previous article, I mentioned how I tracked my GTI. I didn't dive too deep into that; it wasn't necessary to that post. Now we dive into that, and how to get started in this legal thrill, along with covering some answers to a question I asked on my Instagram story this past weekend.
Before I had any seat time on an actual racetrack, I spent my weekends chasing cones on occasion with Virginia Motor Sport Club, who organizes all the central Virginia autocross events; they also have some great, helpful people within the members who are extremely knowledgeable in the art of driving.
My GTI at one of my first autocross events after I bought it. Photo courtesy of Mick Anders.
Autocross is a great, affordable way to get into performance driving. It will teach you a lot about the dynamics of your vehicle, and it is more of a low risk environment; in a car like my GTI you may not even leave second gear for the duration of your run, giving you more time to concentrate on your steering inputs and how your vehicle reacts under this newfound stress.
Some may never progress past the confines of cones in a parking lot, and if that's where you're happy with your thrill being at, all the power to you! I might even go as far as to say I envy you; you'll save more money in the long run compared to those of us who went ahead into the world of road courses.
My first event on an actual racetrack took place at Dominion Raceway, an upcoming local favorite to the Central Virginia crowd; it's conveniently located 45 minutes north of Richmond and hosts plenty of great events. They're a pretty new facility too, with a 2-mile road course and a 0.4-mile oval track for the crowd that enjoys that.
Dominion Raceway, Virginia's newest road course where groups like Get Fast Events host plenty of events. Photo courtesy of WDCR SCCA.
Get Fast Events hosted my first event on this road course, and has hosted all of the events I have done to date. The event that pulled me in was a trackcross; you run a section of turns on the track and go against your own time. No other cars in close proximity, no worry about them slowing down your runs. They also host HPDEs, where you get lots of seat time with an instructor present.
Assuming your car passes tech inspection, and you've got a proper helmet, you're ready to be on track! Take a couple parade laps, learn which way to turn your car, line up for grid, and you're all set! It's that easy!
It's your first time out there, don't stress about times, only stress about becoming a better driver. Your mind is your limit; more times than not my mind is what has kept me from improving.
Exhausting the stock all-seasons going into turn 6. Photo courtesy of Tom Mersereau.
As stated earlier, I asked a question on my Instagram story this weekend for people to answer. That question was "Any advice you'd give to first time track drivers?" I was happy to get plenty of answers, I'll cover some of the better ones here.
Leave your pride in grid, let your car communicate what it needs to go faster!
My friend Kate, who recently started tracking her Del Sol, gave these words. Your car knows what it wants better than you do. Your tires will make noise when at their limits, you'll be able to feel if your brakes are close to lockup, it's all in the feel. Learn where your car is comfortable and go from there.
Something I struggled with early on in my car was harsh turn-in leading to overdriving the tires; this leads to a loss of time. While you shouldn't be chasing time in your early events, this is critical to learning your vehicle and will make up for time in the future. Smooth is fast, fast is smooth.
Kate's gorgeous Del Sol at Dominion Raceway. Photo courtesy of Kate Vehrs. IG: katevehrs
Your car is your trophy, don't take it home on a trailer!
This bit of advice given by my friend Evan is preached heavily in driver's meetings at the beginning of every event, even more so in the novice meetings that you absolutely should attend if you haven't been on track before. Don't overdrive the car and put it into a wall; that hurts nothing but your ego and wallet. Cars are expensive, so are repairs to tire walls.
To add on to this, especially when you're running early on, the last place you want to shave time off is in braking zones. Find time elsewhere; whether it's a better line, more throttle input at a different point, or just letting the car do what it wants to, there's time everywhere.
Evan's beast of an STi that is now starting to see the track time it deserves. Photo courtesy of Julian Toman. IG: evo2_slo
CHECK YOUR BRAKES.
If you leave this with no other advice drilled into your head, at least remember this. As my friend Christian stressed, your brakes are probably the most important part of your car when pushing its limits.
Your tires will communicate with you when they're overheated. You'll feel that and be able to manage it, and back off the stress somewhat. Your brakes, well if your fluid overheats, or your pads overheat, you'll get a soft pedal in some cases; an extreme case could cause you to lose brakes completely. Brake fluid is very important, I'd recommend something like Motul RBF600 for usage in anything from autocross to HPDEs.
Don't forget to get some pads with better bite either, I've personally ran into brake fade with RBF600 in the system while on a sport pad. It's not that fun when you're coming up on the tail end of a Porsche Cayman. After that incident, I switched to Powerstop Trackday Spec brake pads and haven't looked back. Braking performance is much more important than brake noise, and gives the most confidence in the car IMO.
Christian's MK7 GTI, that has seen a little bit of track time. Photo courtesy of Christian Jonkers IG: cj.mk7
I'll end this with a bit of my own advice, and that is to go out and have fun! You don't have to have the stickiest tires, the most power, the best car; in the end there's gonna be someone in a Miata on Hoosiers with lots of seat time who is faster than you. Aim to be that person, but until then, be humble.
The only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice. Find where you can improve yourself; if your car can use improvement along the way improve upon it too! Seek out your local organization, whether it's your local NASA branch, SCCA branch, or something similar to Get Fast Events, there's bound to be something. Just ask around and learn!
Get out and drive!