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The Perfect First Track Day: A Weekday Afternoon and Evening At Streets of Willow


The Perfect First Track Day: A Weekday Afternoon and Evening At Streets of Willow

Peter Nelson

It’s 7:30 AM on a Tuesday and I’m wide awake. Despite taking the day off, my body won’t let me sleep past this time as I’m used to waking up at 6:30 AM Monday through Friday to work my job in banking. I’m glad my body happily slept an extra hour, but I’m still a little annoyed that I can’t sleep in any later. However, it’s a beautiful sunny morning in Los Angeles, and I quickly realize why I had taken the day off in the first place: to do my first track day ever.

I had signed up only just a few weeks prior. I got an email from the SCCA saying they were going to be at Street of Willow on April 11th doing one of their popular SCCA Track Nights in America, and were offering up an afternoon and evening of track fun for just $100. This price also included an SCCA membership for new members. I was planning on running a few autocrosses in STF this year, so this would essentially be a $50 trackday in my mind. It would also be on the track I had dreamed about ripping laps on since I was in high school. I remember seeing SOW’s interesting hillside layout spread across the Mojave Desert on Speed Channel (RIP) back in the day, as well as a wide variety of racing and tuner magazines. It looked like a ton of fun for my cheap, slow chunk of Fahrvergnuegen at the time: a 1990 VW Jetta 8v. Now I proudly owned a modern Japanese version of the Jetta, except with a hatch and airbags, and I was beyond stoked to scream into the bowl and through the chicane, and see how late I could brake coming into Turn 11.

I had been lightly prepping my Mazda2 during the 2 weeks leading up to the event: I did an oil change, replaced some bald high performance summer tires with much stickier Falken Azensises, cleaned my K&N, etc. My brake pads and rotors were in good shape and the fluid was looking good at 40,000 miles. After milling around my apartment all morning in Wilshire Center, Los Angeles I packed up the car around 12:30 PM, stopped for gas and track snacks (water, Combos, candy bars, etc.) and made my ascent up the 101 heading towards the Mojave Desert.

My little blue steed pulled into Rosamond, CA after about an hour and 15 minutes; driving out of the LA Basin, through the San Fernando Valley, up the 14 and into the Mojave Desert. Rosamond was a quiet little town; a much-welcomed sight coming from bustling LA. As I rolled up to the gate at Willow Springs International Raceway a few miles down the road, I saw and heard a Ferrari in race-prep screaming through Big Willow, which made for quite the warm welcome. I signed the waiver in the front office and rolled down the road toward Streets. When I pulled in I was about 20 minutes early with just a few other drivers present and the SCCA staff setting up.

Many more cars started arriving shortly thereafter: various Toyobarus, an S2000, a 1970’s BMW 2002, a Lotus Elise, a mean-looking Challenger, a Fiesta ST and Ecoboost Mustang, a couple of NA Miatas, and my favorite of the day, an ND Miata in Cusco livery. During self-tech I discovered something bizarre: a motorcycle chain link was lightly sticking out of the tread block in my fresh passenger-rear 205/50/15 Falken Azenis RT615K+. I pulled it out and thanked my lucky stars it hadn’t dug its way in deep between the treads. After a brief driver’s meeting to discuss basic track etiquette, spots to watch out for, and how the day would progress, the beginner group got in their cars and proceeded to line up for a parade lap. We were led by one of the instructors in an FR-S for 2 laps, being shown a good line to cut on track at very low speed.

I had an ok sense of where to turn in and place myself on track as I had been studying clips on YouTube for the previous 2 weeks or so, and spent the past 6 months doing consistent weekend canyon runs on the many mountain roads around LA. While doing parade laps I was absolutely stunned with excitement; I could not wait to mash my foot to the floor coming out of the bowl, cut through the chicane flat, and barrel into turn 11 at the edge of grip as-soon-as-freaking-possible. When the FR-S pace car pulled into the pit lane to unleash the newb fury, I happened to conveniently be right behind it, so I took off down the front straight into turn 1 and 2.

Turn 2 was my 2nd favorite corner all day: if I came in reasonably wide and stayed smooth with my braking and downshifting, I was able to maintain a good amount of speed and come out in 2nd gear at around 3,250 RPMs. This meant I was just 500 RPMs away from where the 2's tiny 1.5 liter MZR engine started releasing much of its ground-pounding 98 ft. lbs. of torque and giving me good momentum heading into turn 3. I got to the top of 2nd gear as I made my way to the right-side of the track in preparation of cutting in for the slightly-deceiving (at least for my newb self) turn 3. Everything in between here and the bowl I made sure to keep tidy, but once I got to the bowl I was too excited; I ended up rarely getting the right line all day, but it sure was fun to come in hot and let the sticky Azenises and stiffer suspension keep me glued down with on-camber, and then slingshot out towards turn 9.

Slow-car-fast was thoroughly exemplified all day between turn 9 and turn 11. I was flat through this entire piece of real estate after only a few laps of figuring it out, and kept trying out different approaches to turn 11. A few went well, others got a little scary. I never went off track, but the car shook its tail feather under braking at times, even to the point of having to think quickly and remember the Nick Lau Rule. What is the Nick Lau Rule you might ask? Nick Lau is a friend of mine in my old stomping grounds of Chicago who used to run an STS prep’d CRX that I co-drove once a few years ago at an SCCA autocross. It had stiff coilovers and a huge rear swaybar, and if the rear end stepped out (and would do so violently), you had to get it under control by putting your right foot down. My short-wheelbase Mazda2 is setup similarly: I’ve got a beefy rear swaybar and always have the rear Corksport dampers set to full stiff. The Nick Lau Rule is remembering to always put your right foot down when you’ve got a low-power FWD car that starts to exhibit oversteer. This leads to a very neutral handling experience that causes my car to eat technical canyon roads for breakfast.

During the 2.5 sessions that I drove, I cut a few good lines through turn 11 and the remainder of the track was spent being a little more methodical and not understeering into oblivion on the skidpad. I wish I could say I wised-up and eventually did the right amount of braking and found the right line coming out onto the front straight, but this was not the case. Since I’m a newb and since I was feeling true bliss riding on the track I’d always dreamed of carving, I got pretty sloppy at times. I over-drove corners, understeered more than I’d like to admit, and pushed the car really hard to get as much speed as I possibly could on the front straight. I started yelling at myself to slow down, brake, turn in here, turn in there, etc. When I did cut the right line, especially during my last session, I was maniacally laughing coming through a few of the corners, almost certainly weirding out nearby corner workers. I was truly, thoroughly addicted to track driving.

The 2300 lb., 100 horsepower steed in all her glory.

The 2300 lb., 100 horsepower steed in all her glory.

You might be wondering why I only did half of my final session: I underestimated how much gas to put in the tank en route to the track (slow car problems) and was running on fumes. I didn’t want to run out on track or nearby on my way out of town, so I came in and enjoyed the rest of the evening watching other cars tear around on track against an absolutely breathtaking desert sunset.

There were various moments out on track as well as in paddock that made my first track event especially memorable. I made a few new friends, got some solid instruction from some really friendly SCCA staff, and out on track I got the point-by from the Lotus Elise and BMW 2002. I know, it’s not racing, and the Elise driver was most certainly taking it easy, but it felt a little cool to get a point-by from such a better-prepared track toy. I also took pride in not having too much pride; I let people pass me as soon as we entered the passing zones. Hilariously enough, after letting an STI and BRZ pass me in the passing zone between the bowl and turn 9, I ended up on their butts coming into turn 11. Again: the joys of slow-car-fast and being tiny enough to cut any line I wanted.

Another great aspect of my first event was that it was a very small group. It was great to have the track almost entirely to myself for pretty long periods of time. I could really concentrate on my driving, and we even had longer-than-planned sessions. We were out for 25 minutes at a time which was great for driver development, though not so good for the right side of my neck which starts to ache after playing in the twisties for a while. Still, it was totally worth it as every variable was excellent: great weather, great people, tons of track time, great value, slow-car-friendly track, beautiful setting, and a great car to learn in!

One thing I’ve heard over and over is it’s better to learn how to drive on track with a slow car. My car can impress in the tighter stuff with basic suspension mods, good brake pads, and wider/stickier tires, and its dead reliable and very forgiving. If I had more power I’d probably put myself in a bit more danger, especially in the sections where I was motivated to really push the limits of grip in my little Mazda2. Had I done the same thing in something RWD and tail-happy, such as an RX-8, it probably would not have gone well. I look forward to getting more seat time and developing a little know-how in the coming months. Maybe I'll be able see what I can do in a much faster car sooner than later. I'm certainly on my way: I'm heading back to Streets of Willow this weekend.

Huge props to the SCCA for putting on such an excellent event. If you have yet to do a track day, an SCCA Track Night in America near you is definitely a great place to start. Check out some footage of my second session here