***Editors Note*** Derek, meet everybody. Everybody, meet Derek. Derek is our new intern and hails from Texas. Naturally, he drives a fast car with a V8 - don't write him off so quick though, he just bought an Integra due in large part to listening to too much of our SlipAngle podcast while he was driving (we will do that do you, so be careful). Derek is a new driver, but he approached us a few weeks ago when we hinted that we might need some help with all of this stuff. He's got some big plans and his head seems to be in the right place, so we said, "What the Hell? Why not." We all remember what it was like before we got into this silly hobby and Derek is right where we all were when we first started. Here's his first article and a great read for anyone thinking about taking the plunge! Take it away Derek! - Austin
Learning to Wheel /// Part 1 - First Track Day
By: Derek Yarbrough
Earlier this year decided to purchase a corvette with the ultimate goal of getting the car on a racetrack. I flew to Washington D.C. from the Houston, TX area with a one way ticket, bought the car, and drove it 1,300 miles back home - that’s another story for another day though. After buying the car I was ready to get the thing on a racetrack but how?
“Just do some track days." "Just go track your car." "This car would be best for a track rat.” From reading all the conventional automotive media, I gathered that people track their streetcars at “track days”. All that is well and fine except for one problem - Everything I read never bothered elaborated on a many key details. Details such as (1) where to find a track day (2) how to get your car ready (3) what to expect (4) and the right mindset to be in. (Editors note - I think #4 is the MOST important).
I did all the research I could; set my car up the best I could, and had fantastic experience at my first track day this past September. I plan to help out any of you with zero track time by documenting each track day I attend in one of these articles while at the same time providing a beginners perspective. I am committed to improving my driving to the instructor level. My ultimate goal is to be an instructor for some of our Texas track organizations. With every “Learning To Wheel” entry I will track my progression, any modifications/prep made to my car, and the overall experience from any track days I attend.
How I signed up for my first track day
Okay, I was ready to get the corvette to a track day, but where do I start? How do I sign up? This part was easy. I googled road courses in Texas and visited the website for MSR Houston which happens to be the closest track to me. On the website I combed the track’s calendar for events and came up with an event with “The Driver’s Edge” on September 12th-13th, 2015. Next I visited the actual “The Drivers Edge” website and looked for info on registration. Right there on the website was the entire schedule for the organization and the days/time the registrations open for each event. I noted that registration opened on July 13th, 2015 at 9:00 AM. Fast forward to the morning of the July 13th and I am staring at the website waiting for registration to open. I signed up as soon as it opened and good thing I did because by noon that day the track day was 90% full! Registration included my racetrack background, my car, and the modifications to it. Of course I signed up for the beginner run group because I had no track experience. The Driver’s Edge even had an option to rent a helmet for an extra 20 dollars.
One thing I want to add is that an additional way to find track days in your area is to search each track organization’s schedules. There are a few national organizations that do track days all over the country. These include Chin Motorsports, Hooked on Driving, BMW Club (BMWCCA), Porsche Clubs (PCA), and The National Auto Sport Association (NASA). All of these groups have HPDE (high performance driving education) at their events. The bottom line is by some enthusiastic Google searching you should have no problem finding a track day in your area, but they fill up fast so pay attention to the registration dates!
“The Driver’s Edge” requires you to have your car pass tech by a certified mechanic 30 days or less before the event. Most every other organization should require this as well. As long as your car doesn’t leak anything, has fresh brake fluid, your tires have plenty of life left, and plenty of bake pad life left then you are good to go. The organization will have a tech sheet listed on their website somewhere and you just print that out and bring it to your mechanic.
I did a few things to my car before I went to a mechanic to have it tech inspected. I was unsure of the condition of the brake fluid in the car so I bled the brakes and replaced the fluid with Castrol SRF DOT 4 brake fluid. My brake pads were worn enough to merit replacing with a new set so I took the opportunity to upgrade to a better brake pad. This is not necessary if your brake pads aren’t worn out. The previous owner had outfitted my car with a set of Michelin Pilot Super Sports, so I was all set on that front. You don't need sticky tires to do a track day, especially your first, but my car already had them, so that's what I used.
Now that my car had fresh brake pads and fluid, I was ready to pay a visit to the shop for a tech inspection. I choose to go with a performance-oriented shop that primarily deals with Spec Miata’s here in Houston called Gas Head Motorworks. If you don’t have a performance oriented shop in your area, not to worry. Any ASE certified mechanic could do the tech inspection. While I was there I had them also do an alignment because I had not had it checked since I bought the car. Good thing I did too because once the guys got it on the rack they told me that the alignment on my car was all out of wack. If you’ve recently had your car aligned then I wouldn’t worry about this step. My car passed tech with flying colors. These guys even had a tool they used to check the moisture in my brake fluid to ensure it was in spec. As a bonus they threw in the tech inspection for free with the price of an alignment. Now my Corvette and I were ready for our first track day!
After waking up at 5:00 AM and driving an hour and a half, the MSR Houston sign was a welcoming sight. I remember it was such a surreal feeling to drive through the gates of a racetrack with the intent of driving on it. "All right, I’m here now where do I park?" I thought to myself. I meandered around the paddock until I found an open spot to slip into. I got there early and the paddock was extremely full, so I would recommend getting to the track as early as you can.
Now what? I’m here with my car outfitted with painters tape numbers, a full tank of gas, and a tech inspection. I found out very quickly if you have any questions just ask anyone. Everyone pitted around me was extremely nice and pointed me to the clubhouse to turn my tech sheet in. Super easy, and just like that I’ve got my wristbands and I’m ready for my first track day.
I found out very quickly if you have any questions just ask anyone. Everyone pitted around me was extremely nice
The day started off with the driver’s meeting, which was very simple, yet informative. They went over what each flag means, things to watch out for on the track, and passing zones. It was dry but had been raining the past week so they warned that it would be a mess if you go off track and that you would probably get stuck. At this event, in the green (beginner) group, you were only allowed to pass in the straights and only with a point by.
The Driver’s Edge was very keen on classroom instruction as well as track time. Basically if you weren’t on the track then you were in the classroom getting instruction. We had a classroom session before our first session. Interestingly the first session for the green group was half speed with no helmets. First your instructor drives your car around the course showing you all the corner stations and the general race line of the track. After two laps of your instructor driving then it’s your turn, but keep in mind this is still half speed. Session two starts with full speed helmet on track time for the rest of the weekend.
My instructor’s name was Chuck and he was great! I found out that they asked for the car you drive during registration to pair you with an instructor that has driving experience in similar cars to yours. I found this to be a nice touch and got an instructor with oodles of NASA racing experience in ST1 corvettes. I had high expectations for Chuck’s instruction and I was not disappointed.
During session two I quickly learned the track and had a blast. Chuck had communicator devices for us so I could hear him loud and clear during the sessions. Corner station spotting was the biggest surprise to me. No one ever talks about corner stations! Chuck let me know to check each corner station as soon as you have eyesight on it, even if it’s at the very end of a long straight. We even did a few laps where I called the corner stations out loud as soon as I could see them and I loved that drill. I quickly figured out how important looking far ahead was and eyes down the track to the corner stations helped immensely.
Check each corner station as soon as you have eyesight on it, even if it’s at the very end of a long straight.
Beyond session three and even onto day two of the weekend was more of the same. With every session Chuck added more helpful tidbits to improve my control, speed, and consistency. During one of the sessions I had got fairly aggressive to the point of overdriving the car and Chuck had me concentrate on being smooth and getting around the corners with a single steering input and guess what? I went even faster with more control.
The beginning of day one I was giving point-bys to cars with half the tire and half the power of my car. Fast forward to the end of day two and I was easily going around cars much faster than mine. All I did was listen attentively to what my instructor had to say and implement it. Chuck did tell me that I would be moved up to the blue group (novice) for my next track day with them. What a feeling of accomplishment! The weekend couldn’t have gone any better. We had great weather, the car made it through in one piece, I got successfully addicted to the racetrack, and I learned more than I could of expected to.
Things I took away from my first track day
- Don’t be intimated to track your car! Just follow the steps I did and you’ll be on the track in no time.
- Get your car ready, but no need to go over board. Good working and non-worn out brakes, tires, and brake fluid are all you need! Very glad paid attention to my brakes because some of the other drivers in my run group did experience some brake fade. My brakes worked flawlessly all weekend.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to people! Everyone at the track was really friendly and loved talking about their cars of course.
- Listen to your instructor. He/she knows more than you.
- Look way ahead and check those corner stations
- I would learn the flags ahead of time. The first day was information overload and I should of learned what the flags meant ahead of time.
- Get ready to do many more track days because this stuff is addicting!
What a Wonderful Paddock
I’ve always loved the look of a purpose built track car and have often wondered why you don’t see any track cars at car shows. Now I know it’s because they’re out being driven on track! The paddock at MSR Houston was track car enthusiast heaven. With every entry of “Learning to Wheel”, I’ll include photos of cars in the paddock that caught my eye.