Beginner’s Guide to Track Days

Beginner's guide to track days

Track Days can be stressful for first timers…so here’s everything you need to know to make sure you and your car survive your first track day.

Okay, you’ve paid your money and the day has arrived to let your pride and joy loose on a race track…only you’ve never cut a lap before, okay, maybe you have on PlayStation. It ain’t the same in the real world.

Beginner's guide to track days

That’s why we headed along to a Pilota Sportiva trackday at Haunted Hills in Victoria (prior to the current lockdown) and grabbed some time with driver trainer to the stars, Steve Pizzati, to get his top tips on preparing you and your car for a track day. But, before we get into this, here’s a little bit on the car we took to Haunted Hills and, thanks to Ford Australia for letting us track-drive the thing.

Beginner's guide to track days

Our test pilots for the day were the dynamic duo from Capture Factory, Cristian Brunelli and Cam Iniss. Here’s what Cristian had to say about the Ford Fiesta ST they took to Haunted Hills. And, don’t forget to click on these blue words to read our full road test of the new Ford Fiesta ST.

“I jumped in the Fiesta ST and put it straight into Track mode. This relaxes both the stability and traction controls and… lets you have fun.

“The Fiesta ST is a car you feel comfortable pushing straight away. And that’s because it’s got plenty of power for the track but not so much you’ll be dancing it on the ragged edge around every corner.

“Haunted Hills is a roller coaster of a track with ups and downs and plenty of corners, and the Fiesta ST felt perfectly suited to this layout. The steering is direct and has a nice feel. The brakes feel strong and the engine note, thanks to the pops and crackles on overrun, encourages you to go faster.

“Like an old-school hot hatch, I found the Fiesta ST loves to lift a rear wheel in the air around tight corners while the front is hunkered down and doing its job – gripping. Even better, you can steer with the throttle; if you think you’ve come in too hot just lift off the throttle and the nose will turn in tighter. You could even provoke a little oversteer if you lifted off hard enough.

“To get the best from the Fiesta ST, I found it was better to stand hard on the brakes and then turn in; treat it like a race car basically. Slow in, fast out. Why? Well, if you came in too fast and were all ham-fisted about it it would just understeer through the corner but then almost everything from an M3 to a 911 will do that if you’re not driving properly. So, the Fiesta ST is a car that rewards proper track driving.

Beginner's guide to track days

“In the end, the Fiesta ST is well suited to a track like Haunted Hills in Victoria as it’s small, likes to change direction and has good punch out of corners. You could probably do without seat heaters and other heavy options on the track but nothing beats them on a cold day when you’re driving home from the track.”

Pick the right event for your level

There’s a huge variety of events where you can drive on racetracks. At one end of the scale you’ve got driver training, with the event specifically focused on skills development. Then there are ‘experience’ days, where you might get to drive on a track but usually in a very controlled manner, and the focus isn’t on skills but more just a chance for you to say you drove on a track.

There are commercial track days (like the one we’ve attended with Steve), which are typically flat-out, fast as you like, but no timing and perhaps a ban on in-car cameras. They often have instructors who will hop in for a lap or three and offer advice, but it’s not a structured training course.

Beginner's guide to track days

Finally, there are club days which are cheapest, but offer no instruction (unless it’s a specific beginner day), but are run close to motorsport standards so you get timing, trophies and can use cameras. You’ll be expected to know what you’re doing, so it pays to build up to one of these events rather than heading to one first.

Whatever event you go to, know the rules in advance about what you need to do before you get there.

Top Tip: Start with a focused training course, then maybe a commercial track day, then a club day. The very best investment is driver training.

Prepare your car

Most sports cars can handle track work…well, at least a few laps driven by a novice anyway. Regardless of your car, you’ll need to ensure the tyres are in excellent condition, well away from the 1.5mm minimum tread depth and evenly worn.

The other item that gets hammered is the brakes. You absolutely must ensure there’s plenty of meat on both rotors and pads, and that the brake fluid is relatively fresh.

Beginner's guide to track days

Also have your car serviced and make sure you let your mechanic know you’re planning a track day so that they can double check all the fluids. I don’t know how many road kilometres every track kilometre is equivalent to, but it’s quite a lot so anything which was close to being replaced will suddenly need replacing. Keep an eye out for little things like needing to run metal valve caps instead of the standard rubber ones, under $10 at the likes of Supercheap, but not what you want to have to worry about on the day. Finally, remove all loose items from the car.

Beginner's guide to track days

It’s good to take advice from others, but it has to be relevant to your car and driving. The setup for your mate’s supercharged, track-prepped Toyota 86 with R-spec tyres will be different to your standard Ford Fiesta ST. For example, with stock tyres it’s not a bad idea to increase the pressure by 2-3psi as the road pressure is often a bit low. In contrast, track tyres are run at lower pressures because they’re designed to heat up and get to pressure that way – in my racecar I aim for 32psi hot, and start with 24psi on the front tyres and 27psi on the rears. Regardless of your chosen pressures, you’ll need to bleed and adjust throughout the day, especially after the first session – check them soon as you come back into the pit. So, invest in a calibrated pressure gauge if you don’t already have one.

Beginner's guide to track days

Top Tip: If the brake pads and/or rotors are within 10,000km of being changed (or more than 40% worn), change them. You can always swap them back after the event. Remember, the last 10% of brake material wears a lot quicker than the first 10%. And take your car to a motorsport mechanic who doesn’t need to ask what that blue triangle is for.

Prepare yourself

The night before, get a good night’s sleep, no alcohol, no excessively sugary foods. Driving fast on a track will require you to be at your physical best. Select your clothing, which needs to be comfortable, light but tight fitting, and cover everything bar your hands and head. No bulky clothing in the car. Your shoes are important; tight fitting, thin soles, narrow. Racing shoes are best, but most sneakers work well. No boots. Also take clothing so that you can layer yourself should it rain or become windy.

Beginner's guide to track days

Oh, and you’ll need a helmet if one isn’t supplied. It has to be a motorsports helmet which are quite different to motorcycle or other helmets – the type of crash is entirely different.

Top Tip: Racing shops sell all you need, get your helmet there at a minimum, and ideally the shoes too. You won’t need a full racing suit at track-day level and will likely just look a fool if you roll up wearing one.

Plan your day

You need to focus on your driving, not the administration of the day, so get things sorted first. Do you need a special license? Is lunch provided? If not, can you buy it? What about drinks? When you take all the gear out of your car, where do you put it? Will you need fuel, and where can you buy it? Where can you park? Can friends watch? Does your car need number stickers applied before you arrive? What tools do you need? (hint – tyre pressure gauge and bike pump at minimum).

Beginner's guide to track days

And if the track is more than 1.5 hours drive away, consider renting a motel room close to the track. It’s not worth arriving fatigued – not only is track driving going to take all your focus, you want to maximise the money you’ve spent on the day and preparing.

Top Tip: The questions above cover the bases for most track days, so work through them methodically.

Understand some racing basics

You should at least be loosely familiar with the basics of racing lines such as turn-in, apex and track-out, and look up the track layout too. Find some in-car videos and watch them if need be. Ensure you know what the following flags mean; blue, red, yellow, black and chequered. Yes, a lot of that will be covered in the briefing, but you’ll be excited and probably forget it all.

Beginner's guide to track days

And then there’s the behavioural things like not overtaking into a corner or trying to be the fastest person on the track. Show the other drivers respect and they’ll show you that same respect. Similarly, don’t try and overtake someone in a braking area, most track day organisers will jump on that sort of thing pretty quickly. The good news, is that when this sort of numpty behaviour doesn’t occur you’ve got time to concentrate on doing things at your own pace and building speed and confidence gradually.

Beginner's guide to track days

And don’t just go mental the moment you get onto the track because your brakes and tyres, and the track too will be cold. So, like we’ve said, build slowly and gradually. Let the car and you warm up. And, last piece of advice for beginners… this isn’t a race. A track day really isn’t about being the fastest person on the track. And if you make a pest of yourself by tailgating and pressuring other drivers you’re likely to find yourself being booted off the track.

Top Tip: Spend some time reading books or watching videos about track days.

So, in summary, you’ll want to make sure you’re well prepared for your track day, here’s our quick tips reminder:

  • Get up early but make sure you’ve been prepping in advance.
  • You’ll need a helmet – must be Australian standard, open or full-face for enclosed cars, full-face for open toppers.
  • Long sleeve top and pants, no shorts. No thongs, thin soled runners work well.
  • Check the tyre pressures on your car. 2-4 psi above recommended pressures works well for most stock road tyres.
  • Check that your car is in top shape; brakes and tyres are in particular going to get a workout. You should have had it serviced before the track day and let your mechanic know what you’ll be doing.
  • A second set of tyres and rims are great if you do this regularly. Not everyone will have extra wheels and tyres, so make sure the tyres on your car are in good condition with plenty of tread left on them.
  • Make sure your car has no loose objects in it. Most people even take out the spare tyre at the track to save weight.
  • Water and food for yourself , driving fast is thirsty work.
  • Leave your ego at home. There will always be a better driver or faster car out there. Deal with it.
  • It’s not a race, relax and have some fun. Ease into it, you have all day!

Follow this advice and you should be well and truly prepared for your first track day, and please let us know how you went.

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