SUDO Make me a SAMCH
Autocross and High Performance Driving Events
A Guide and FAQ for Beginners to Advanced drivers.
As most of you know I’m itching to get back out on the race track next year in my z06, I’ve had the opportunity to drive road America twice and ride along with a buddy at BIR in the past – this next year I am planning to hit both tracks, possibly some others - and I may even dodge some cones at some point this year as well. With that comes prepping the car for track duty, which got me thinking. I’m sure there are many who’ve never tracked their car, but would like to; or those that have who might benefit from some tips. So I thought we could start a thread that had tips, tricks, and suggestions for both HPDE’s as well as Autocross events. I've seen threads like this in some form or another on other forums but why not get our own going.
The information below is a mix of personal experience, items from books I’ve read, as well as from various other forums. I've lifted some of this from Corvette forums, LS1Tech, and a couple other forums I frequent - so I don't take credit for this or claim it all to be the gospel of racing or apply 100% to every car or every situation, but it should serve to be a good foundation for anyone starting out with this horrible addiction, lol. I’ve broken the following up into three sections, the first is general information that could apply to either Autocross, or HPDE’s – thing like what to bring, behavior, track and driving tips etc. The next two sections are more specific to Autocross and HPDE respectively as there are some significant differences between the two.
- Invest in a good helmet Depending on the sanctioning body for the type of racing you plan to do - different types of helmet ratings may be required. This is not the place to skimp. Buy the best helmet you can afford, go to a local store and try many on, you want to make sure you get a proper fitting helmet, but also one that will be comfortable. Fancy composite helmets are light which is a big advantage, especially at higher levels of competition / skill, but is not strictly necessary. SA2005 is currently the minimum specification I'd recommended looking for, a good SA2010 will last longer, though.
- Check your ego at the door often the first time at the track is a humbling experience. Don't expect to be #1 in your class. Don't go out driving like you're a pro driver. Drive within your limits and work your way up pushing the car harder as you progress. BE SMOOTH!
- Don't worry about performance (hp/tq) mods Most any car now days is going to have more power than a vast majority of beginner drivers are going to be able to use effectively. Work on your line and car control first, worry about performance mods later.
- Seat time > * pretty much anyone who's been doing this for a while will tell you, the single best money you can spend to improve your lap times is more seat time, this is especially true the newer you are to this sport. If you really want to improve fast look into one of the many racing / driving schools that are offered all around the country, I've heard of people getting more seat time at one of these schools than an entire year of events.
- Slow in / fast out. If you start turning and the car keeps going straight (push/understeer) you are likely entering the turn too fast.
- Bring Sunscreen and apply it often. Spending all day, or all weekend out in the sun can take a toll, nothing worse than getting up for day two of a track event and looking like a lobster.
- Find/Bring Shade - if there’s a covered padock or other shade nearby try and take advantage of it if possible. Another option is one of those foldable tent deals you see at outdoor sales and such, especially at weekend-long events.
- Check out the Skip barber book - Going Faster It's a really good read.
- Brake / Shift in a straight line At least starting out this is a good bet and part of the 'slow in / fast out' philosophy, get your braking and gear selection taken care of before turning into the corner, this will allow you to focus on hitting the apex and rolling onto the gas coming out of the corner without upsetting the car.
- Clean your car out! Anything that moves or could move remove it BEFORE tech. Floor mats, air freshener, the fuzzy dice hanging from your mirror, etc. With the speeds and corner/braking forces seen on the track you don’t want this stuff flying around. Also remove center caps, valve stem covers, basically anything that’s removable that you don’t want to lose on the track.
- Bring bags / a tarp to cover all your stuff that you remove from the car prior to racing, this will keep it organized and dry should it rain.
- Water – Bring and drink plenty of water, dehydration sucks
- Eat Healthy - try and have a light meal before the day starts, and bring some light / semi healthy snacks or lunch items along. A full day (or weekend) on the track can take a lot out of you, and you can't perform your best if you are starving or concerned about making it to the can.
- Other things to bring – folding chair, hat, sunglasses
- Don’t drive down the middle of the track – generally speaking the fastest line around the track will have you at one side or the other, or crossing over the middle.
- Make sure your car is mechanically sound – torque all lugs, check brake pads for wear / rotors for cracks, make sure things like ball joints, tie rods, etc are in good working order. Tires in good shape (not show cords/wear bars) etc
- Bleed your brakes and consider switching to a high temp fluid if running HPDE’s (See that section).
- Bring a GOOD air pressure gauge something reliable and accurate - it's quite stunning how much air pressure can affect (positively or negatively) your times
- Bring an air tank or compressor you may be able to borrow this but its nice to be able to add air as needed throughout the day.
- Start with street tires – street tires let you know when shit’s about to hit the fan, they bark, squeal and generally tell you that if you don’t let up you’re going in the weeds! Until you are really consistant and not improving lap times a whole lot stick with them. Slicks on the other hand you get OMG GRIP, OMG GRIP, OMG GRIP, OMGWTFBBQ! No warning!
- Use full brakes. This may sound obvious, but I didn't find it nearly as obvious as I thought I would. We are conditioned by a life time of street driving to avoid stamping on the brake all the way. Full throttle is easy... we're pretty used to doing that. But full brakes are something only done under emergency conditions. There's a mental shift there that has to be made. 'Emergency' braking is what you do on many turns on the track. That's harder to get used to than you might think.
- Don't follow the race lines from the other racers except for guys that are fast. My experience has been that most of the racers have bad lines. They aren't good examples to follow. Watch the cars that are winning. Inevitably, they're on different lines than most of the other cars. Those are the faster lines. Keep in mind, however, that the 'ideal' race line is changed by the car you have. The best line for your car on street tires is not the same as the best line on race tires.
- Don't set your e-brake This is probably more specific to HPDE's but isn't a bad idea for autocross also, especially in faster classes. If your brakes are hot and you set the parking brake that area of the rotor is not going to be able to cool much at all, and will very likely warp and/or crack. Once you park the car just leave it in gear and chock the wheels if needed. After a minute or two roll the car forward 6-8" to allow the area previously behind the caliper/pads to cool.
Autocross differs most from HPDE's in that they are generally held in wide-open parking lots, and have maximum speeds in the 40-80mph range. This reduces the risk factor as going off-course almost always results in, at worst, a good hassling from your buddies. It allows for pushing your car 100% or 10/10ths with relatively little risk. It is also far cheaper than HPDE's - generally ranging from $20-$40 per event and rarely requiring any mods to a completely stock vehicle. Below are some helpful tips that are more specific to Autocross.
- Participate in the novice program,most autocross programs offer a novice class that includes both classroom and in-car instruction by some great drivers. Take advantage of this and learn as much as you can. It's amazing how helpful people are at these events if you're respectful and eager to learn.
- Fold your rear view mirror up out of the way. This does two things. It clears your field of vision and makes it impossible for you to look back to check and see if you just hit that pylon. You need to keep your eyes beyond the next gate and this just removes another distraction.
- Use white shoe polish to check and see how far your tires are rolling over. A dab from the corner of the sidewall to the outside edge of your tread will do. After your run you will be able to tell how far you have "rolled" the tire by how much of the white has worn off.
- Walk the track with an experienced driver if you can, make mental (or written notes) about each section of the track, what gear you may be in, turn in points, etc.
- Draw a map of the track this may help visualize each section, where your turn-in points might be, tricky and/or confusing spots, etc
- Ride with or have an experienced driver ride with you this is an excellent way to quickly learn the fast line around the track, as well as to receive valuable tips on how you can improve your own driving. Be open to advice!
- Take it easy on your first run– learn the course on run #1, after that gradually increase your pace and push harder . Generally your second to last run should be your fastest (let it ALL hang out on the last lap)!
- If you loose it stay off the gas, lighten the brake pressure, and wait for the car to come back-- calm down, look around, find the course; trip the lights, and go and greet your appreciative audience.
- Know where your car is one great exercise to help with this - on the road in a light/no traffic area point your side view mirror(s) down so you can see the road next to your car / your rear tire (depending on car) get right up next to the white/yellow line and then get a frame of reference from the fender bulges, hood lines, etc to use for reference. Practice this enough and you'll be able to get remarkably close to cones w/o hitting them. This is especially helpful in the slalom.
- Look Ahead! When we first get our driver's licenses and learn to drive, Its fairly common to need to learn to look at the horizon rather than directly in front of the car. This is a common thing to regress back to when autocrossing; the fear of hitting cones, speed at which thing are happening, and overall just sensory overload will draw you back into that short sighted view. Don't look at the apex cone. Spot it as you approach the turn, then direct your eyes to the cones beyond it on the other side of the turn where you intend to drift the car at turn exit. Direct your eyes where you want the car to go, and you will naturally go there. Don't look or aim at the apex. Aim for the corner exit and use the apex as an inside limit for the turn. Looking at and aiming for the apex will tend to pull you into an early apex turn, and you'll run out of road on corner exit.
High Performance Driving Events (HPDE's) commonly referred to as DE's or simply 'track days' are a whole nother animal. These allow participants to drive their cars on bonifed road courses. BIR, Road America, Mid America, Laguna Seca, VIR, etc. Allowing drivers to test their cars and their own abilities on challenging race tracks with no speed limits. Generally these have restrictions on passing ranging from only when waived by on designated straight sections, to very open passing restrictions even in some corners, but not wheel-to-wheel racing. These are not timed, and not considered 'competitive'. These courses generally allow for much higher speeds than any autocross event, and thus present greater strains on street-going cars as well as greater risk. Driving within your own, and your cars limits is paramount in making these track days a safe and low-risk activity, there is no room for ego's here. Below are both tips for getting the most out of your HPDE, as well as some considerations you should take before taking your daily driver out on the race track.
- Is your car covered?, What happens in the unfortunate event that the unthinkable happens and your car is involved in an accident? Can you afford to take a total loss? Many insurance providers do NOT cover HPDE's, but this varies by provider and policy, check with your agent and get it in writing if you are covered. Alternatively there are companies that provide HPDE specific insurance that is actually relatively affordable ($100-200+ per event depending on # of events purchased and value of car) Check the links section below for some examples. While it's unlikely accidents DO happen, so plan for the worst.
- Pay attention at the driver's meeting(s)Make sure you know and FULLY understand the passing zones, and passing method used by the people running the event. You may know what the flags mean, but make sure they are using them the way you think they should be using them. Make sure you understand any specific rules or procedures the group your running with has and ask questions if anything is unclear.
- Someone who is in your mirrors did NOT start there so they are faster than you are, let them by. Do not get frustrated by people that won't let you by. Pull into the pit, tell the course marshall, and they will let you back out into clean air.
- Do NOT use the brakes on the cool down lap Use it to cool down the car, but also drive the "perfect" race line in super slow motion. If you can't put the car where you want it at 40mph, how are you going to do it at 90mph? When you return to the pits, do NOT apply the handbrake. Chock the wheels and after about 45-60secs roll the car forward 6"-8". This will allow the part of the rotor that is inside the caliper to breath too. Pop the hood. While the hood is up, look for fluid leaks and double check your brake fluid level.
- Don't go 10/10ths this is NOT racing drive within YOUR own and your car’s limits, especially on tracks and areas of tracks with zero to little run-off room
- Get off the brakes! if you are coming into a corner a little hot let off the brakes, if you lock the wheels up you won't be slowing down as much as you could be AND you won't be turning. Often if you just let up/off the brakes you can scrub enough speed understeering to make it through the corner with little or no run-off.
- Going off the track if you know you're going to go 4-off and there is run-off room, don't turn/slide off the track, there is far less chance you will damage your car or get injured driving straight off than sliding sideways
- Replace your brake fluid with a high temp alternative. Road courses put tremendous strain on the braking system, normal fluid will very likely boil, which is bad, very bad. ATE Superblue or Motul 600 are popular options
- Be familiar with how to bleed your brakes it's not a bad thing to do at lunch time, and if you end up boiling your fluid you'll need to do so. Speed bleeders make this task a piece of cake even with just one person
- Brake Pads A good set of street/track pads will provide better fade resistance and braking force than your standard OE pads and will hold up to heat much better. Make sure you have 50% or more of pad material left; if you start a track day/weekend beyond that point you run the risk of burning the pads completely out, and as pads get thinner they transfer more heat to the calipers and your fluid, putting the braking system at greater risk. A great trick is once pads are below that 30-40% mark, retire them to Autocross duty! You need far less pad material for these events and the risk if you have a braking issue is far lower.
- Basic tools it's a good idea to have some basic tools along - jack and stands for lifting the cars to replace pads/rotors or bleed brakes, general mechanics tools, gloves, spare fluids, spare belt etc. Many people carry a box similar to this specifically for DE's Craftsman Mechanics Tool set w/ box
- Bring a spare set of pads and rotors while not 100% necessary, especially early on, it's a good idea. Track time isn't cheap and missing out on a day or more of time because your pads are toast or your crack a rotor really sucks. They work well for 'emergency get home pads' as well.