A few years ago, I thought that before I did a track day, I had to have my car properly prepared for the track. Obviously, I was an amazing driver, but my car…my car would hold me back from my showcasing my true talent as the next big racing star. Everything I had read online told me that I needed to have lots of different things done to the car to enjoy my first full weekend at the track. On the short list of modifications that I had to have before I signed up for my first track day were the basics: R-compound tires, coilover suspension, and racing brake pads at a minimum. I figured to really set the world on fire with my driving skills, I’d probably need upgraded sway bars, wider wheels at all 4 corners to maximize the grip, some chassis bracing, and maybe a bucket seat or two. Anything less than that level of prep would surely be a waste of time and I simply wouldn’t consider doing a track day without. Like many people I have talked to in recent years since I startred tracking and later instructing, I was under the belief that the car parts makes the driver. I slowly started to modify my car with the intent of eventually doing a track day. I also drove it. I drove it a lot. I took it to the mountains many times, frequenting places such as Deal’s Gap and Suches in Northern Georgia. I autocrossed it a few times with the local SCCA chapter - my placing first in the novice class feeding my thought that I was an amazing driver that simply needed to be on a racetrack as soon as my car was ready.
And then, in April of 2010, I was introduced to a current friend of mine named Drew. Drew was into cars and driving and had done a few track days with a group called NASA. Up to that point, nobody I knew had actively participated in any track days on a regular basis. They were all a mystery to me, but I knew I had to partake in one. Drew told me about an event in May that I could participate in at Roebling Road with NASA. He would not be able to make it to the event, but his dad, Jeff, would be there and would bring Drew’s helmet and gloves for me to borrow if I wanted to try my hand. In my head, I knew that my car wasn’t ready, but this was my chance! I could show the world that I was gods gift to driving like I always knew I was. And if I wasn’t any good…well, my car wasn’t ready for a track day, so there was that. So I signed up and waited a few weeks for that first event. While I was waiting, I ordered some new tires so that I would have my best foot forward starting out my new career as a racecar driver.
I also actively asked around on the forums for the best brake pads I could get for track days. Many brands and compounds came up in conversation with everyone giving a different opinion. Ultimately though, I ended up running out of time and had to make due with new OEM brake pads from an earlier generation of my car that I bought off another owner just the day before the event. I really was not happy about this as everyone online had told me that the car needed racing pads and that I was putting my car and myself at serious risk without them. I also did not have coilovers yet, but I did have lowering springs. Unfortunately, the shocks were stock and I couldn’t adjust them. I was a little down on myself for not being able to get the car prepped in time and with much anxiety I packed up all my tools, my new floor jack, and some snacks and hit the road for the 3 hour drive to Roebling Road near Savannah, GA. I stopped on the way and bought some new windshield wipers just in case it rained over the course of the weekend. I wanted to be as prepared as possible, all the proper track modifications or not.
That first weekend was quite the eye opener for me. I learned that even in the lightly modified state that my car was in, it was properly prepped for the event. In fact, it may have been a little over prepped with the addition of the sticky 200 treadwear tires I had added to start my racing career off right. The weak spot of the car was painfully evident though. It was me. I was the weak spot. I didn’t realize it at first, because as anyone who has just completed their first session or two of their first track day ever will tell you, YOU ARE THE BEST DRIVER IN THE WORLD…you’re just learning the track…and you have this silly instructor in the car that is just slowing you down. As the weekend wore on however, my instructor, Khoi, showed me the ropes and really made a lasting impact on me that still sits with me to this day. The session he took me out in his car during a time trials session was absolutely insane. It was then that I realized I could not drive well at all…but I wanted to learn how to!
After that first track weekend, I didn’t see another track for about 7 months. Why the long wait? Well, partially because I was rebuilding my car (not modding mind you, but rebuilding from an accident on the interstate), and partially because I didn’t want to go about tracking half assed. I wasn’t saving up for mods, I was saving up to be able to pay event fees. I told myself at the beginning of 2011 that I would do at least one track day a month, so I needed to save up big time to make that a reality. And so, nearly every month in 2011, I did a track day. Some months I did more than one. Other months (like that winter when I had moved to Chicago), I did none. Over those first events, I started to realize that modifications don’t help you become a better driver. Can they help you lower your lap times? Surely. Can you help you lower your lap times? Absolutely.
You see, the more I participate in track days, time trials competitions, and instruct beginner drivers that were much under the same impression as I was about modifications being necessary to drive on track - the more I realize its simply not true. Forum after forum, Facebook group after Facebook group – they all lead you to believe that you need all the proper modifications to participate in a track day. My favorite are the people that have been doing track days for a while and think they need all the parts to go faster. They get the parts, but still can’t go fast and just keep throwing money at the car to try and make it go faster when what they really need is to focus on themselves as drivers. Seat time does make drivers faster, but without focusing solely on their driving and instead focusing on modifying the car to allow quicker lap times, I feel that they are doing themselves a disservice. I’ve always tried to tell my students that their car can be gone in an instant, but the skills they develop while learning to drive it fast will stay with them forever.
These days, my check list for a beginner driver looking to do their first track day is pretty simple and devoid of high dollar modifications like coilovers and bucket seats. Racing brake pads aren’t even on there, nor are sticky tires. Truth be told, all that you really need to get on track for your first track day – a car that will pass technical inspection, and a good attitude. Oh, and good windshield wipers. You can’t start your racing career without those.