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Cliff's First Track Day Experience

I’ve played a supporting role in a number of automotive racing and performance driving events, I worked pit crew at the Baja 500, I worked in a trophy truck shop for years, I built Shelby Cobras and helped host a Cobra track day, I’ve been to a number of races, volunteered with the SCCA, helped others with their race cars. I’ve done some autocross races and grew up racing motocross, but somehow I had never driven a car on a race track myself. There was always a reason not to go. I’ve got to go on a bike ride. I’ve got a family event that weekend. Will my car hold up? Maybe I should buy another car (I’ve had two failed attempts at buying an Rx8 R3). Which organization/track do I start with? I don’t know many people who do track days. Will I need to buy new tires? Which tires? Which brakes? How much does all this cost? Is it worth it? The list of questions could go on and on. However, trying to adhere to the spirit of Deft Auto’s sense of automotive curiosity, I finally decided enough was enough--2021 would be the year I start getting real track experience. On a recent Saturday morning, I showed up at Sonoma Raceway at 7:00 a.m. hoping to complete my first track day with the National Autosport Association or non-space-related NASA. I said “hoping to complete my first track day”, because when I arrived there was no guarantee that I’d be able to drive that day. I had not signed up for the event in time and all of the reservations for instructors -- required for first timers -- were taken. Frank (see Frank and the Mare), however, urged me to “just show up, they’ll work with you.” I’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, the result of nerves from a long week and a late night prepping my car for track duty. After weeks of research and deciding on parts, I had installed track pads, new rotors, flushed the brake fluid, and installed my track tires, just what I needed to comfortably make it through the day in my 2012 VW GTI.

The first task of the day was to find the drivers’ meeting for my group. After wandering from group to group, and crossing paths with a young couple making out between buildings, I found my meeting. After sheepishly listening to the host reprimand latecomers for missing vital information, I approached an official and told him I wanted to sign up if there were any openings. “Well, someone didn’t show, so we can probably work with you”, the official mentioned. After gleefully walking to the registration area, signing up, and being assigned a coach, the missing driver did show up. This provided a problem, one more student than coaches, my elation turned to sheepish guilt. Graciously, the event staff found a volunteer to be my coach for the day. I was relieved and excited.

Instructors review the course with students after drivers meeting

“Nice to meet you, thanks for f---ing up my day. You better be good or I’ll be f---ing pissed,” was the greeting I received from my newly assigned driving instructor, PJ, a salty middle-aged Brit with an apparent sailor’s mouth. Unsure of how to answer, I managed, “Nice to meet you, I’m Cliff.”

While sitting in my car waiting for the start of our first session, the questions started:

“What kind of experience do you have,” he fired off.

“Some autocross, and a whole lot of motocross,” I said.

"Are you an aggressive driver? A smooth driver...what kind of driver are you?”

“I just want to be clean and smooth, learn some good lines and make it out of here in one piece,” I responded.

“Ah, a model student, then.” PJ said warily.

I quietly nodded back, hoping for approval.

The first session was a slow paced orientation--a no drama, no helmets affair--with PJ talking me through the racing lines and braking zones. “You can feel it in your ass cheeks, when the car settles, can’t you? Then you turn in.” It was true, I never thought of looking toward my derriere for driving advice, other than the occasional butt pucker when things get scary. Thus began a day of paying uncanny attention to the communications from said “ass cheeks.”

After the first session, Frank and I headed over to the Speedway Grill for our ceremonial burger lunch. Frank always advises to get the BBQ sauce with your burger.

The second session was helmets-on and full-paced. My first laps were hesitant. As my speeds increased, I kept thinking of my home garage track prep. Was my brake flush done correctly? Had I bedded-in my brake pads and rotors just right? Also of concern, I was running on tires that had been through more than a few autocross races, and I wasn’t sure how they would hold up. Should I have bought a new set of tires? As we glided over hills and through bends, PJ would occasionally give a gentle nudge to the steering wheel to guide my lines, adding in no-frills commentary, “Brake, turn in, apex, track out…... Lift, squeeze on the throttle, hold your line, look up, head toward the curb, give it some gas.” I remember being impressed with the amount of grip the car had and not having to deal with any understeer, likely aided by my upgraded rear sway bar.

The third time out I was feeling much more confident, why wouldn’t I? I hadn’t driven off track yet and had barely a hint of understeer. Plenty of room to go faster, right? I got into a groove early on and PJ’s queues came less frequently. I know from competitive motocross and mountain biking that there’s a fine line between staying relaxed enough to flow yet alert enough to listen to what the course and car are telling you, I had begun floating into the realm of too relaxed. Between turns 8 and 9 I got over-eager and pushed the front wheels wide. “Did you see what you did there? You turned in too early the turn before and it pushed you wide in the next,” PJ chimed in. “Reign in the enthusiasm Cliffy,” I told myself as I recognized the need to think one to two turns ahead.

As I regained my confidence, I began closing the gap on other cars and PJ’s commentary came back. “What the @#$% are you doing? Drive your line, not his.” I had begun following the lines of the car ahead of me instead of focusing on the lines I had been working on with PJ. Sure enough, after refocusing, I was past the car ahead of me in half a lap.

As we crested the blind hill coming into turn 6, lap after lap, I kept dabbing at the brakes which would unsettle the car. My instincts were telling me I was about to launch us off a cliff into some unknowable abyss and my foot refused to stay on the throttle. PJ however, had other ideas, “Don’t touch the f--cking brakes! What the hell are you doing?” The only response I could manage was a frustrated, “Aaaaaaghhhhh,” and to make a mental note to commit next time. PJ’s guidance would prove effective. Soon I had that turn figured out, at least to the point I stopped dabbing the brakes. We worked through the track section by section and I started exploring the track limits and curbs. “Use the rumble strips,” PJ kept saying, “Use all of the track.” We were indeed making progress and I noticed that driving a wide line, gliding from curb to curb, was helping me make up serious chunks of time on much more powerful cars.

The fourth and final session out I felt much more confident in myself and in my car. PJ offered to do a lead-follow session, where I would follow him driving his own car, “You’re doing really good, I don’t think you need me in here with you.” I was getting the sense he was hoping for more driving time himself, but I wanted him in the car next to me for real-time communication. His coaching, if not elegant, was effective. Not too far into the fourth session, I caught a pair of Mustang GTs, which kept pulling away from me on the straights. With PJ’s guidance, I managed to carry more momentum with better lines. With more momentum than the Mustang I dove in to pass on the inside of turn 6, a long, left-hand, downhill turn.

“We weren’t supposed to pass there, but he was f---ing clueless and wasn’t going to let you by,” said PJ.

“Oops,” I thought, as I remembered I was only supposed to pass on the outside of that turn. But after being stuck behind that guy for three laps, I was glad to have some open track.

I came up on the other Mustang. “He has no f---ing idea what he’s doing!” PJ yelled in frustration. Remembering what we’d practiced earlier in the day PJ’s, I navigated the chicanes of turns 8-10 better than the Mustang and ran up the inside on turn 11. “Really nice pass, get over,” said PJ, seeming content with my performance. I let out a hollar of satisfaction. The session ended, and I was pumped with the progress I made.

“You did f---ing good, man, you did really f---ing good,” PJ assured me as we exited my parked GTI. “That GTI was just a peach. Really good.” PJ reached out his hand for a handshake and raised the other arm for an embrace. Circling Sonoma Raceway that day, I made a friend in the salty Brit. Despite all the concerns and disaster scenarios I had come up with about doing my first track day -- imagining my brakes disappearing or my well worn tires peeling away -- everything went fantastic. I made a handful of passes and a new friend, I even learned to listen to my “ass cheeks”. All in all I was quite pleased with myself.

Most of all, I was happy my car held together and I would be able to safely make the drive home. Yes, I’d still love an Rx8 R3 and think I’d prefer that on the track. Yes, I’ll need to buy new track tires soon. Yes, it was worth spending the time and money getting my brakes up to snuff. Yes, my nearly stock GTI was more than capable for the day’s challenges. In fact, there were people out on track with far older and less capable cars than mine. I even saw a hammered Toyota Yaris with faded paint, looking mostly stock except for a sway bar and track tires. I guarantee the driver of that car was having no less fun than I was. I also thought it was noteworthy that the majority of driving instructors were in Miatas. (You can read about my love of Miatas here.)

The moral of the story is that I had been putting off my first track day for a number of years over concerns that ended up being non issues. The event staff was more than happy to help me enjoy my first day, and my instructor, despite the rough facade, was happy to see me succeed. There’s no reason, and the Yaris was an example of this, that doing track days has to be ridiculously expensive. I’m not sure if it will be in the same car, but with some good coaching that I haven’t been able to get out of my head -- “drive your line, not his….. Use the rumble strips….. Listen to your ass cheeks,” -- I’m looking forward to my next track day. Laguna Seca, here I come.

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