So you’ve got a cool hot rod you really love to drive. Loaded it with go-fast goodies from your favorite aftermarket performance parts shop, but you don’t want to end up losing your license or doing jail time.
Wanna see what she’ll do?
Or want you can do, Driver?
Get on track!
My lifetime as a pro race car driver started as a kid that loved cars, and I found that I really loved the corners. It was the turns that really turned me on. As a teen I stumbled across a sport called autocross, where I could race my own car against the clock. From my very first fun run, I was hooked for life on driving flat out, as fast as I could. This is a great place for you to start.
What is Autocross?
Autocross is a timed run on a course set up with traffic cones and pylons, in a large parking lot or airport runway. Runs are typically under a minute. Speeds are relatively low, but because you are pushing for the best time you can, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Ride along, it’s intense. You’ll be impressed. The G-forces will throw you around like a crazed theme park ride. And it’s safe. There’s nothing to hit but cones, and this is the best thing about it.
This sport is a terrific way to learn how to drive better. The clock gives you instant unbiased feedback on your driving ability. You’ll learn to look and think ahead, the single best thing you can do to improve your driving. You’ll see how to control the throttle, not just mash it, and how much that lowers your time.
Learning How to Autocross
I am a big proponent of learning car control on a skidpad, too. These courses are offered by several professional driving schools, like Skip Barber Racing School, where I learned so much even while teaching on the pad. You drive in a circle about 35 mph and make it slide by jamming the gas or pulling a handbrake, and then catch the slide. This simple exercise teaches so many fundamental skills of proper driving. Like autocross, the things you can learn here will benefit all of your driving, making you faster on track and safer on the street. It’s the only way to safely practice and learn emergency handling. And guess what? It is great fun!
Skidpad starts with stopping slides. By repetition, you work to get these reactions into your subconscious, because when the need suddenly arises, there’s not time to think. I once asked a martial arts guru, how do you know what moves to make when fighting? He said, “There is no time to think, only to react.” This reminded me of the movie Karate Kid, where the sensai had him wax his car collection using one move for each hand: wax on, wax off. Repetition turns the learning into instinct, and then when you need it, it just happens from your subconscious. Like when racing in the rain as we did yesterday, constantly catching little slides until we won.
I’ll write much more about this in a later story, but skidpad teaches your eyes where to look, your hands where to steer, and your feet when to hit the pedals, or not. In these few lessons are the keys to driving better, and they might even save you or your family’s lives.
What is a Track Day?
Another excellent opportunity is a track day. Not races, but just driving fast on track in a controlled environment. Yes, you can sign up and do this all over the country, with groups like Porsche Club, BMW Club, Chin Track Days, Hooked On Driving, Just Track It, and many others. These groups emphasize that it is NOT racing. At Chin events they always say slower cars are friends not food. Passing is allowed with a point-by. Track day events usually offer instructors, and it is really wise to have a guide with you. It is an amazing feeling to be on track and free to floor it and zoom around corners without worrying about speeding tickets or children on bicycles around the next turn. Most areas have road courses not too far away, or you could even fly to the big historic tracks and bucket-list your way around a few of the greatest places to race on Earth. “Why have a fast car that you cannot drive fast?” (The slogan at Atlanta Motorsports Park.)
Take it to the track.
If you choose this, another wise move is to get track insurance, for the worst case scenarios. It is not required, but good for peace of mind. And let me say that you need it most when you are just starting to feel like you got this. Because you probably don’t just yet.
Race track-capable brake pads are highly recommended, and you will likely wear your tires out rather quickly, but if you listen to your instructor and bring your speeds up gradually, you can keep your risk of car damage low. But there is always risk, so go in with your eyes open when you make your choice. The rewards of fast, legal driving, however, are immense for those of us that find we love it.
From my very first autocross run long ago, I have worked to make it to every track day I could, and still do. Almost nothing else supercharges the brain and focus for car enthusiasts like driving flat out.
Autocross Races & Events
For the truly adventurous and impatient, you can even go racing right now with no experience whatsoever! Yes, you. There are series like Lucky Dog Racing League and 24 Hours of LeMons (not LeMans) that allow complete novices on track. While it does sound like a recipe for disaster, it actually works out just fine, because the other drivers look out for the rookies, who tend to be very careful. Here’s my best advice for the newbie entering the swirl of a race: One, pick a side, left or right, not down the middle of the track. Two, leave a lane for faster cars to get by on inside of corners. Three, you are part of a flow, be aware of what’s coming up behind and all around, and don’t suddenly jam the brakes except if you’re about to hit something.
I love these low-dollar endurance races. They are more like car parties, but there is lots of great driving and competition, too. And even at this level, it is expensive (Maybe $5K a weekend all in), but since the pro GT racers are spending $40K a weekend up, it’s far more attainable. Fast driving uses up parts and supplies, but is very rewarding to those that love it.
So if you dig horsepower and cornering power, too, then try your hand at the wheel on track, go for it, and I’ll see you there!