Van + Track Day = Riotous Fun
Track days can be fun with any vehicle...even a van!
Track days are becoming more accessible every day. What was once an event saved for the fastest and meanest vehicles people can get their hands on, can now be done with whatever is in your driveway. The average track day pit consists of your run-of-the-mill Miatas, Camaros, Mustangs, and BMWs. But one very chilly overcast Wednesday in May, I decided to break the mold.
I daily drive a 2016 Ford Transit Connect XL Cargo LWB. This isn't my van's first motorsport event. I frequent the local RallyCross scene, and have been doing that for 3 years now. Most of those are off paved surfaces, and I hardly see speeds over 40 MPH while competing. I always wanted to see what the van does on an actual course, but was hesitant to be the small fish in a big, fast, more powerful pond.
My most recent RallyCross event (Scott Zimmerman)
That was until I discovered SCCA Track Night In America. TNIA is a great way for anyone at any skill level can drive almost any vehicle out on a track. Entry fees are very affordable, and you get at least an hours worth of track time regardless of your skill. I noticed the local track was hosting one, and seized the opportunity and signed up immediately.
Per every motorsport event I sign up for, questions regarding safety are always raised when entering a cargo van. The universal rule for almost all motorsports is your vehicle has to be wider than its height. It's this way in RallyCross, and it applied here at TNIA as well. As always, I am very welcoming to any safety concerns, and am more than happy to work with officials. Even if my van is wider than its height (barely, by an inch), if they deem it unsafe to drive I will accept their ruling. Safety is always a top priority for myself beyond the concerns of the officials. After all, the van is also my daily driver and have to drive it home at the end of the day. After a few e-mail exchanges explaining the specifications of the vehicle and my motorsport driving history, I was given the blessing to drive.
Now with the go-ahead, I must make sure the vehicle is able to survive the three 20 minute sessions each driver gets. I spent some time surfing the web and talking with others to see how much work is really needed to track prep a vehicle. There are two areas that are the highest concern: brakes and tires.
I really need a garage...
Brakes, especially OEM systems made for daily use, are not meant for the heavy duty application of driving on a track. The higher temperatures the components see are not what they are made for. The last thing I'd want to happen is the brakes fail while entering a corner. Luckily for me, I replaced the pads and rotors last summer with slightly better materials. I opted for a higher carbon solid brake rotor on all four corners. More importantly, the pads saw a significant material upgrade to carbon ceramic. Unsurprisingly, there is not much available in aftermarket parts for a Ford cargo minivan. Just to be on the safe side, I flushed the conventional DOT3 brake fluid for a premium DOT4 brake fluid. Although the duration of DOT4 in a brake system is lower than DOT3, you see a much higher boiling point in DOT4 fluid.
Peep the Taurus SHO wheels!
The Ford Transit Connect Cargo van came with a set of cheap Continental tires. I hated those tires from the beginning. They were loud on the road, and they were absolutely garbage in any weather that wasn't dry. I replaced those cheap rubbers for a set of Pirelli P7 all season tires. By no means are these track tires, but they were a highly rated all season tire from the research done.
Upon arrival, I clearly stuck out like a sore thumb. This is no different to any other motorsport event I partake in. But instead of pulling up to a RallyCross site with beat up Hondas and Subarus, I park between two Mustangs. One was a standard GT with double the cylinders and double the power, another was a Shelby GT350 with nearly TRIPLE my power. Sure, I might have a power advantage over a few of the Miatas, but they destroy me in the power to weight ratio.
This style of track day is all about getting on the track and keeping your space between vehicles. That means there's no wheel-to-wheel racing happening here. There were two passing sections for faster paced vehicles where one could point by faster vehicles to pass. I practiced my point by's in the paddock because I felt I'd be doing a lot of that this afternoon.
I was in the novice group, so I had to do a pace lap before my runs. I found it quite helpful learning the lines and seeing how the van actually held in corners. What worried me, was the fact I was going about 85-90% just to keep up with the pace line. If it's taking me this much effort to keep up with the slow pace, I can't imagine how it's going to be at full throttle.
I've never felt nervous behind the wheel before. Not even for my drivers license test when I was 16. I was so nervous as I sat in the grid waiting for the green flag. What if I'm too slow? What if I brake too early, or worse: too late? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I break down? What if I crash?
All of those nerves disappeared after turn 2. This was so much fun! I learned quickly about the advantages of a FWD vehicle quickly and used that to nail apexes and come out of corners with plenty of speed. As for the straights, that's where I felt all 165HP and over 3,700lbs of the van. While the faster vehicles were screaming down the straights at well over 100MPH, it was taking me the entire back straight to barely eclipse 90MPH. The fastest speed I saw was 94. I found myself catching up to the faster and more powerful vehicles through the turns. But I would lose them immediately on the straights. I didn't mind, I was having so much fun. I even had two vehicles give me point by's to pass them. Imagine taking your vehicle to a track and getting passed in a van!
In between sessions, the instructors would give the novice drivers tips and tricks not only for the track, but for their vehicle too. After talking with the instructor, I made some adjustments to the tire pressure for a slight edge through the turns. A quick inspection of the tires, brakes, and the vital fluids all yielded a healthy return. My last two sessions were just as fun as the first. I did have a small scare at the end of my last session. I noticed a loss of power over 4,000RPM. I assumed the worst, thinking I cooked the engine or transmission. When I brought it in to the pit and notified the instructor, he informed me that I may just be staving the fuel pump. I had less than a half of a tank of gas towards the end of the day, and the loss of power was noticeable when exiting a corner. Despite the small scare there, I came out of the track day incident free!
I'm still smiling about that day. To be out on a track with other vehicles and seeing what the van can do at its limits was awe inspiring. There were a handful of praises and compliments coming from other drivers that day. I encourage anyone with a vehicle and a taste for speed to hit up their local track night immediately. It is not as expensive as you think. I left that track with a van-ful of memories and new friends.
*All photos unless specified were graciously taken by Michael Berchak*