Time to Drive on a Racetrack: High Performance Driving Events

As previously mentioned, I had always thought that it would be necessary to spend a small fortune to actually get out on a racetrack. As I continued to watch club races at my local track (Lime Rock Park in Connecticut), I heard people talking about going out on the track with their cars in some type of driving event. For some reason I assumed they were only talking about using high-priced sports cars such as Corvettes, Porsches, and Ferraris, but I was mistaken. What I heard intrigued me to learn more about these high performance driving events (HPDEs). Oh, just to keep you on your toes, some clubs call these events by other names such as “Performance Driving Experience” (PDX) or “Performance Driving Event” (PDE). I learned that people can use regular streetcars; it does not have to be a high performance sports car. I know what you may be thinking. There is no way that you would take your streetcar, on which you rely on a daily basis, out on the track. You simply can’t risk damaging the car that is your only means of transportation. You may also be thinking that your car is simply too slow to bring out there and might prove to be quite embarrassing. I experienced both of these feelings at different times. At first I brought “my baby,” a 1996 Mitsubishi 3000GT, a car that I had wanted for many years. When I thought about bringing the car to the track, I was not worried about the car being too slow, but I was very concerned about damaging it. My first event was a bit stressful because I was so nervous about getting any chips and scratches on the car, or crashing it for that matter. The goal at this point in your career should be to simply make it through the event without damaging the car, or even worse, hurting yourself. Use this as an opportunity to learn if you are interested in pursuing racing further, and of course, having fun. What I realized from this experience was that I was interested in doing more driving events, and that I wanted to further pursue wheel-to-wheel road racing.

While there are risks associated with participating in HPDEs, it is not nearly as dangerous as some may think. All HPDE clubs that I am aware of have a special run group for novices. In the novice run group, each driver has an instructor ride with him while out on the track to provide guidance and to make sure that everyone is driving safely and within their capabilities. If you are using a racecar in these events, be aware that the instructor typically needs the same harness system (seat belts) that the driver has. While out on the track, you can’t simply pass cars any place on the track, the turns, in particular. There are designated passing zones, which are limited to straight-aways; often clubs require the driver being passed to point you by. The first several times out on the track, you will probably find it can be a bit tough to get used to everything that is going on all at once. That is one reason why you have an instructor to act as your second set of eyes and to watch for any potential issues. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be as alert as possible. Pay special attention to the flaggers giving you vital information. You will be on the track with other novices in a separate group from other experienced drivers, so there is no pressure to go fast, and you will have time to get accustomed to all of the details on which you need to concentrate. Focus on learning the proper driving lines and being safe. There are no rewards, nor driving scouts out there looking for the next Michael Andretti.

Driving on a track was much different than I had anticipated. When I had previously watched some of the races, it had looked like they were not going very fast. I had always thought that I was a very good driver, and that I would also be really fast out on the track. Needless to say, it was much more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I remember my instructor telling me, “Remember to look at the corner worker stations, and check your mirrors often.” I thought, “Yeah right, take my eyes off where I am going and look in the mirrors?” I also found that I was not able to look at the flagging stations as much as I should have. As the day progressed, my comfort and confidence levels continued to grow. I thought it was really funny that while I was at the event, I was enjoying myself, but I had not caught the racing bug…at least not yet. I am sure it was because I felt a bit stressed with everything going on. Looking back on it the next day, my perspective really changed. I guess things just needed to settle in, and I got over the initial stress of doing my first event. The following day, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to do another event as soon as possible!

Did I tell you that in the second run session of my first HPDE I spun the car? I was going through a turn and felt the car sliding. So I did exactly what I shouldn’t have and suddenly lifted off the gas. It felt like the spin lasted a few minutes and everything really slowed down. What a helpless feeling! There was no damage to the car, but it hurt my confidence level. I spoke with an instructor about what had happened and decided to go back out on the track. After the next session, I was able to build my confidence level back up a bit. At the same time this made me begin to seriously think about what other options there were, instead of using the 3000GT. My wife recommended that I use our old 1987 Honda Prelude si that we kept for winter driving. Yes, I loved the 3000GT so much that we used the Prelude that was in “a bit rough shape,” and had a ton of miles on it. All right, maybe saying a bit rough shape is being very kind and a ton of miles meant over 170,000 miles on the stock suspension and engine. And the paint? Yeah, that wasn’t very pretty either. I remember the time I started the Prelude up in my garage and my neighbor came running over because he thought our house was on fire. So, it smoked a little when I first started it. That was really embarrassing, but pretty funny now when I look back at it. When my wife first mentioned the idea of using the Honda, I thought she was crazy. I could just picture it: I park next to a Porsche 911 start the car, and tons of smoke comes out of the exhaust! After a bit more of her convincing and my thinking about it, I decided to try it and performed some basic maintenance in order to get it ready for the track. I was also a little intimidated about driving a car with only 110 horsepower with the other high horsepower cars that would be on the track with me.

In addition to having an instructor in your car when you are driving, there are often classroom sessions to discuss driving technique. During the first classroom session, I asked if there were any unique lines for lower horsepower cars versus higher horsepower cars. The instructor asked me more about my car and how much horsepower I was talking about. When I said 110, several people chuckled, and I felt a bit embarrassed. In the next session out on the track, not only was I keeping up with the other higher horsepower cars, I was actually passing them. Now that was a huge rush! After the session, I remember one guy who was driving one of those exotic cars come over to check out my car ask me what modifications I did to it. My reply was, “One of those air intake things, but that’s it.” He just looked at the car in shock. He then asked, “Did you modify the engine?” I just smiled and said no. I, too, was in shock to see him looking at my old, junky car. How weird was that? A guy driving an amazing Ferrari came to check out my old, junky Prelude? And yes, he was one of the people I passed while out on the track! You may be wondering how a car could pass another car that has much higher horsepower on a straight – the answer is corner exit speed. In my case, I was taking the turn preceding the straight at 90 mph while the other car was only taking it at 70 mph. Even with all of the extra horsepower, the other car could not compensate for the much higher exit speed. This was when I truly learned just how much the driver impacts things, and that you don’t need an expensive or high horsepower car to have a great time out on the track! It is important to realize that the car is only one part of the equation. I also learned that people who bring less expensive cars are not as worried about damaging their vehicles and often learn faster than people who are afraid of hurting their car and thus tend to hold back much more. (This certainly is not to say that driving a high horsepower car wouldn’t be a blast to drive on the track.)

After taking the Prelude out on the track, I gained a new respect and liking for the car. Before I never really cared about the Prelude or gave much thought to fixing it up. But now it was no longer our junky, old winter car. In my head, it became my racecar! I began to work on the car and made it more presentable – I fixed the oil leaks, patched some of the rust holes with Bondo, and eventually painted it myself. This was the beginning of the end.

Is there a requirement to participate in HPDEs before entering a club racing school? Although it is not a requirement, I honestly wish it were. This comes from both a new racer’s perspective, as well as from a person who has racing experience. I am not saying that a person needs to spend years doing HPDEs, but one should at least do a few events before moving on to wheel-to-wheel racing. Do yourself a favor and participate in HPDEs until you feel comfortable being out on the track. (I can’t even imagine having one of my first track experiences being a full out SCCA or NASA race school.) While these schools briefly touch upon the proper and fastest racing lines, it is much easier to learn it at your own pace without having to worry about cars passing you anywhere and everywhere on the track. When you first go out on a track, there are many, many things on which you need to concentrate. First and foremost, you need to drive safely and be aware of your surroundings. In a HPDE, you have time to build up your speed at your own pace and concentrate on learning the proper racing lines. You will also have an instructor ride in the car along with you until you and he feels confident that you are ready to go out on your own. This is not the case when you participate in a club’s race school. When you enter a race school to get your license, you had better already have this basic knowledge, or things will be extremely difficult for you. In the racing schools, the club will often have instructors out on the track driving their own racecars to see how you react to them doing various things, such as getting very close to you and staying there, passing you, and letting you pass them. The room for error when wheel-to-wheel racing is much, much less than in a HPDE. Yes, I have seen people who jump right into racing without going to HPDEs or another comprehensive type of race school. What often happens is that they are not as safe on the track in a race situation as they should be. These drivers often become the drivers everyone says to watch out for. By going out and participating in one of the race schools to get a race license without any previous track time, you are jeopardizing your safety as well as that of your fellow drivers. “Wheel-to-wheel racing” is not just a saying.

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You will be racing with cars that are less than a few feet (and many times just inches) from your car through the turns with both of you pushing the cars to the limits. Additionally, a person without enough track experience won’t have as much fun as a person who is comfortable out on the track. Keep in mind that, while racing, you won’t just be out on the track with other novices. Instead, you will be out there with some very experienced drivers who will be passing you just about anywhere. I am not trying to scare you about the race schools or racing in general; once you have gotten some seat time, you will be ready for it. The point of this is to make sure that you are safe and that you enjoy your experience. The Going Back to School section will give you a better idea of what a typical club’s race school for licensing is really like.

You may also be wondering what experience you need before doing a HPDE. There is no necessary formal training you need before doing a high performance driving event. It can be useful to do some autocross events to become better at controlling your car, but it is not a prerequisite.

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