What to Expect Your First Time at the Track

What Cars Are Allowed?

You don't have to have a BMW to go to these schools. EVERY school I've been to has had a good mix of sports cars in attendance. It's mostly BMWs, followed by a small group of Mini's, and then a random smattering of other sports cars. SUVs like X3s, X5s, and X6s are not allowed. Most schools do not allow convertibles, but check with the school organizers to be sure or check with me and I can find out. Some hardtop convertibles or soft-tops with roll bars may be allowed. Any type of transmission is allowed, you can absolutely bring an automatic transmission car to the track - I did for my first school and it worked great. It was one less thing I had to worry about while learning what how to drive at the track.

What Event Should I Go To?

GingerMan and Putnam Park are great tracks for Novices. I went to Mid-Ohio for my first school and that worked out well - while it is a more technically challenging track I was not hindered in my ability to learn as a first timer. Autobahn is also fine for first timers - it's a pretty open track with good visibility, but in my opinion GingerMan and Putnam are both slightly better for first timers. Grattan is a bit more challenging for a first timer, but it's also a lot of fun.

At any of the tracks - as long as you don't exceed your comfort level and listen to your instructor - you will be fine. That being said, I wouldn't recommend the VIR event for first timers - it's a long drive and a complex track with more gotchas than the other options available.

If I had to pick a single event for first timers I'd go with the GingerMan Driving School in August. It is run by the Windy City chapter, and these friendly folks put on great events. There is something just about every month of the season - pick what works best for your schedule and come on out to the track and have some fun with us!

Helmets and Apparel

You are required to have a helmet to drive on the track at these schools. Typical prices range from $170 - $600 for most helmets. When buying a helmet, fit is the most important thing, if the cheap one fits the best (your head not your budget) get that one. If a more expensive one fits better, you should get that one. This is after all your head we are talking about and a helmet is something you will have for many seasons. The fit should be pretty snug - but not painful. Keep in mind that the helmet will break in a little bit and loosen up some as the padding forms to your face. A poor fitting helmet will do a worse job protecting your head. They will need to be SA2010 or SAH2010 approved. SA2010/SAH2010 are helmet safety rating standards. It is very easy to find out if the helmets meet this requirement. There is a sticker inside the helmet beneath the padding that shows the rating. If you are buying a new helmet you'll want to get the newest rating you can so the helmet has as long of a useful life as possible - for now the newest rating is SA2015 - the next one will come out in 2020.

This is a Balaclava (or head sock). I prefer to use a full face helmet for the added safety over an open face helmet and I like to use a balaclava with it since it helps me get my helmet on and off easier. A balaclava will also soak up sweat and is far easier to clean in the washing machine than trying to wash the padding in the helmet. If you plan on wearing a balaclava, be sure to use one when trying helmets on as it makes a small difference in the fit and size you should buy.

I recommend going to a shop to try on several helmets. If there isn't one near you, find an online retailer that will work with you in assessing the right size and will accept returns or exchanges while you find the right size and fit. I went to Lane Automotive in Watervliet to try several on.

A helmet can be a large expense if you aren't sure you want to do this track thing more than once. The club has some loaner helmets available from our autocross program. We have 1 M, 1 L, and 1 XL helmet that can be borrowed from the club and meet the required safety standards. Let us know well in advance if you'd like to use one of these so we can coordinate getting the helmet from our Autocross program in South Bend as well as having enough time for you to check the fit. We only ask that you are careful with it and return it promptly. SA2010/SAH2010 helmets you purchase for use at the track will also meet the requirements for autocross, so your helmet can also be used for those events as well.

Driving gloves are not required - but feel free to buy a pair as they add some serious cool factor to your first driving school experience, just know they aren't a necessity. The gloves I use have a grippy material on the palm that lets me maintain a very relaxed and loose grip on the steering wheel without allowing it to slip. This helps prevent muscle fatigue and cramps as well as promoting smoother steering input - which is a good thing.

You don't need to buy a set of racing shoes for your first school. I've had a pair for two seasons and I feel like I was just starting to realize the advantage of them at the end of this past season as my skills were progressing.

All you need to bring for your first school is a comfortable pair of flexible tennis shoes and you'll be fine. High heels, boots, and sandals are not allowed.

Some groups require long sleeve shirts (cotton - not nylon or other synthetics), and most require you to wear pants - not shorts - even in the summer. Read your sign up packet for details on what is allowed at your school, if you aren't sure or it doesn't say pack a long sleeve shirt just in case or email the organizers and ask. I keep a long sleeve shirt in my track bucket so I am always prepared in case I need one.

Car Preparation

Each school will provide some sort of tech sheet that will be used to make sure that your car is ready for track duty - as the demands on the car there are higher than on the street. The tech sheet is filled out by a mechanic that inspects your car and looks at each of the safety items on the sheet. They are looking for potential problems that could cause safety issues at the track. They check for leaks, brake pad life, worn tires, excessive play in your bushings, and several other items. You can do this yourself if you are an experienced mechanic, but for your first time it's best to take it to a professional mechanic. Dealerships and independent shops are both able to perform the inspections - expect to pay $40 - $80. Sometimes the organizing chapter will make arrangements for a group tech inspection at a shop for low or no cost so read the details on the school registration.

Performance Parts

Don't go buy performance parts for your car - trust me it goes plenty fast right now and it is more capable than you are. If you absolutely feel the need to buy something, get some touring belts. These are similar to competition race belts except you don't need a race seat or holes drilled in your car, these buckle into your existing seatbelt buckle locations. You need to make sure you buy belts that are made specifically for your model of car. Additionally every school I have been to requires equal restraints for the student and instructor, this means you have to buy two of, one for the driver's seat, and one for the passenger seat - There is a difference between the driver's side and passenger side belts, make sure you order one of each for your car. I have a set of Quick Fit Pro belts from Schroth and love them, it's been the best money I've spent on performance driving. These belts made and continue to make the biggest difference in my driving because I am held in place firmly and can relax my grip on the wheel and my feet are free to move around instead of trying to assist in holding me in place.

Tires

Don't go buy new tires unless your current one are worn out. Don't bring R compound tires to the track for your first event - most schools prohibit novices from using R compound tires. If you aren't sure if your car has R compound tires, chances are really good it doesn't. If you still aren't sure get in touch and we can help you determine if your car has R compound tires. I'll be in my 4th year of going to the track - and just this year I am thinking of learning how to drive on R compound tires. As a novice you simply will not be going fast enough to use the extra grip available from R compound tires and they can mask a lot of mistakes that will cause you problems in the future. There is no need to spend the extra money on the really sticky tires. I use Dunlop Direzza ZIIs. They last a long time and are very sticky for a street tire.

Brakes

You should arrive at your first school with a set of brake pads that have been installed within the last week or two. I like Hawk products - I've been using them since my very first driving school with NO problems. At my first school I ran Hawk HPS pads - a slight upgrade from the pads that come from the factory on the car. Not long after my first school I started running Hawk HP Plus pads, I am still running those and looking to move up in compound this year. Hawk pads have been great for me - they offer incredible value for my dollar, last a long time and I pass plenty of people with far more expensive pads on their cars. Most schools will recommend that you have an extra set of brake pads on hand. If the set you are replacing has at least half the life left on them, just bring the half worn pads with you. This will be sufficient.

I like to wrench on my car. If you are going to go to the track frequently, you'll want to learn how to change your brake pads. It's a very easy job and I'm confident you can learn how to do it even if you don't think you are good with tools. In the long run it will save you lots of money doing them yourself. There is only one "specialized" tool required to complete this job and it can be had for about $7 - it's a 7mm allen-tip socket. If you've never changed your brake pads before I'd be willing to walk you through it.

Feel free to reach out to me to discuss Hawk Brake pads and which ones will work best for your needs.

Video

Video is a great way to show off to all your friends and family that you were driving around a race track and speeds they will think are absolutely incredible. I have a GoPro that I use for capturing my on track sessions. I use it to create videos to share with friends and family online and I review it to see how I did. I look to see where my car actually was on the track - not where I thought it was. It's pretty eye opening to watch the video when you think you aced a corner and find out you had 2 or 3 feet of track left that you didn't use. It lets you know where you have room to improve and where you are doing a good job. You don't have to use a GoPro, you can use a cell phone with an app Like Harry's Lap Timer to record the video and some data about your cornering speeds, straight away speeds, lap timing, etc. Either one of these options is a cheap way to get some indisputable feedback and a fun way to show off :-) You do not need video recording equipment for your first track day - I didn't have it for the first couple of schools, but it won't hurt anything if you do have it.

Packing List

These are the things you absolutely have to have: your medical form, your tech inspection form, and suitable attire. If you have some basic tools, a tire pressure gauge, and a torque wrench you'll be in pretty good shape for your first event. I'd also recommend a $20 pair or mechanic's work gloves to keep your hands clean when working on your car or tightening your lug nuts - you don't want to get your BMW's interior all dirty with hand and fingerprints. If you don't have a tire gauge or torque wrench you can probably manage to borrow them from a neighbor for your first event. Just be courteous and return it right away and to the spot they keep it. My experience has been that people are more than willing to share and help others out.

Before the Event

You should receive a student packet that is either available for download when you register or emailed to you by the organizing group. Read the entire student packet as soon as you get it - there may be items you need to address before going to the track that you were not aware of and take some time to complete. If you didn't get the student packet, email the organizers of the event - You can usually find out who this is where you signed up for the event or on the host chapter's website. Watch some videos on YouTube of cars driving at the track you are going to, it will help you memorize the track layout so you know what turn is coming up next.

Some instructors will reach out to you either via a phone call or email prior to the event. They'll want to know about your car, your experience, and your goals for the weekend. I always like this opportunity to get to know my instructor a little bit better before meeting at the track. Don't worry about telling them it's your first time, they know you are in the novice group and are there to help you have a good time, to help you learn, and to keep you safe.

Make sure you get lots of rest the night before. Driving at the track is lots of fun, but it's also mentally and physically demanding and you will be tired at the end of the day. If you are traveling to get to the track, leave early enough to get there with plenty of time the night before.

The Big Day Has Arrived!

The morning of your first track day will be filled with excitement and perhaps a few butterflies - relax you're going to have a great time. Make sure you get to the track as soon as it opens the time should be listed in your student packet. It's better to have extra time than to be rushed. You'll need to sign a waiver to enter the facility and you'll receive one or more wrist bands that will need to stay on for the weekend. These let the people at the track know that you are supposed to be there.

After finding a spot to park for the weekend (hopefully by some friends), the first thing you'll want to do is locate the registration area and pick up your packet and drop off your medical form and hold your tech inspection form. Your registration packet will have your schedule for the weekend (track and classroom times), your group run number, and number stickers for your car. You'll need to apply the stickers to the location indicated on the instructions.

Next up you'll want to empty out your car - and I do mean empty. The trunk and glove box must be empty, door compartments, center consoles, floor mats, and even garage door openers clipped to your visor all need to be removed. You don't want anything flying around the car or getting in the way of your feet while you are out on track. If you've got glass headlights or fog lights you need to tape those with masking tape. If a rock breaks the glass, the tape prevents all of the glass from spilling on the track. All modern BMWs have a plastic cover over the lights. Next you'll need to torque your lug nuts to the factory rating. If you don't know how much that is, check your service manual. If you don't have that with you, ask a neighbor or your instructor for some guidance. One final note about torqueing your lug nuts - never torque them while they are hot - the bolt can stretch out and snap off leaving part of the bolt in the hole.

After torqueing your lug nuts, check your tire pressures and make sure they are all the same. If you've never been to the track before, talk the pressures over with your instructor - you'll hear lots of different advice from different people - so talk to the person that will be in the car with you. You can usually find an air hose available for use at the track.

There is a mandatory driver's meeting in the morning - your registration packet will have the time and location listed. Do not miss this meeting - it has general safety information, track conditions, and anything that you should be aware of. Now that the drivers meeting is done your next stop will be the classroom. You'll have several classroom sessions each day - class time is not optional, if you don't attend class, you don't get to go on track. This isn't grade school, don't be afraid to ask a question, you'll be in the class with other novices, it will probably wondering the same thing.

Some schools will offer reconnaissance laps in the morning before any groups are out on the track. This is a slow speed ride around the track in someone's car that is familiar with the track (usually an instructor). They will be talking you through the track and pointing out items like corner worker stations and giving some general tips on car placement and line around the track. I would absolutely take advantage of this if it is available - it's massively advantageous to have seen the track and started memorizing it prior to your first session and it is even helpful for your first classroom session.

Don't forget to take some time to walk around and enjoy the sights and sounds in the paddock and have a good time!

Recommended Reading

These are some introductory books on performance driving. Don't worry about reading any of these before attending your first school - go do that first! After attending your first school, you may find yourself wanting to learn more before your next school - these books are a great place to start.

The Speed Secrets book is very accessible and is easy to read. Going faster is very technical and provides a great technical explanation of the concepts and physics happening at competition speeds - but it takes some time and effort to digest all that is there. They are both good to have read, but if you are only looking to buy one book, get Speed Secrets.

Click the covers to buy on Amazon.

Speed Secrets
Going Faster

Videos

Leading up to and at your first driving school, you might hear about heal toe downshifting. It's an advanced technique that is used to make sure that the transmission is going the same speed as the engine when you are braking and downshifting for a turn. It prepares the car to get back to the throttle - without disrupting the balance of the car. As a first time track driver you are probably scratching your head and wondering what the hell I just said. Don't worry about it. You don't need to know how to heel toe downshift before going to the track for the first time. Tell your instructor you've heard about this strange thing, but don't know how to do it. He or she should be able to give you a demonstration, some tips, and general guidance. After you understand the concept you'll want to practice on the street before using it at the track.

The following video is a good tutorial on the concept and technique - I like what they say at the beginning of the video - focus on driving the proper line don't feel like you need to know advanced techniques like heel and toe.

Here is a pro racing driver in a BMW using heel and toe technique.

This is a more straight ahead view of another pro race driver using heel and toe technique.