By Joe Benton
There is nothing quite like sitting in pit lane about to be waved out onto a race track. My car was ready, the new header and exhaust spitting and growling next to the pit wall. The stiff suspension would be more than capable of handling the three and a quarter miles of race track that waited outside pit road. A five-point racing harness strapped me into my one-piece bucket seat. I held on to my D-shaped racing steering wheel and waited my turn to go.
No speed limit. No police cars. No need for a radar detector. No road signs. No center stripe. But like most everything else in life, things on the race track are not quite as one might expect. In fact, as these racin deals turn out for almost every novice driver on a track, the question is not how fast do you want to go, the question is how fast can you drive you car and stay on the asphalt?
Every driver begins with an instructor in the passenger seat. That person stays with you and your car until you are able to demonstrate that you are safe to drive solo, neither a threat to yourself or to anyone else on the track. There are always plenty of beginners at the track and all of us take a while to figure things out.
Instructors repeatedly advise, warn and scold novice drivers to slow down. I suspect the warning arises as much from enlightened self-interest as teaching philosophy. The idea the instructors repeat over and again, is to find the racing line, that elusive and fastest way through a turn. While searching for this unwritten line, the new driver is told over and again that it is more important to drive smoothly around the track than to drive quickly around the track. Once you drive smoothly, the speed will come.
The first attempt to drive smoothly along that racing line can be discouraging and scary. All of the anticipation can dissolve into a puddle of self-doubt and discouragement. The anxiety is compounded because your first effort is around a track that you have never before driven. There are no road signs or center stripes, so the driver must know the course, every corner and bump.
So here is some home work.
Almost every track has a web page these days. The Virginia International Raceway for example is www.virclub.com. You can take a look at the track map and at some courses read a description of driving the course corner by corner.
Driving a car quickly around a track in an exercise in multi-dynamics -- there will be several forces influencing the car at a single moment.
To begin to learn about the forces at work on a race car you can continue to browse the internet. You will almost surely find something written by someone driving a car exactly like yours. There is a lot of material available.
There is also The Technique of Motor Racing, by Piero Taruffi which is recommended by several car clubs that hold high speed drivers education events. Even though the book was written in the 1950s and has never been updated, the laws of physics remain the same except for those minor modifications imposed by the Porsche 911. Taruffis book is a good look at theory and technique of cornering, braking and downshifting.
Driving your car through the hot summer sun is physically taxing. You need to take care of yourself.
Make sure to bring plenty to drink, bottled water or a sports drink. Try to stay away from caffeine on a hot day. You need healthy snacks for mid-morning and afternoon. Most people wear a hat after driving. The hat keeps the sun off your head and covers up your helmet hair. Wear cotton cloths, particularly in the summer, but always natural fibers. Natural fibers will cause fewer problems for the doctors should you find yourself in a fire. The right shoes are also important. Lightweight and flexible are the key words here. Some drivers wear gloves, some do not.
Your race track kit ought to include sun screen and rain gear. High speed drivers education is an all-weather sport.
Your tool box depends on your mechanical expertise. At a minimum you will need to check the air pressure in your tires throughout the day. Its best to check your tires after a run while they are still hot. The tires may gain too much pressure on a hot day. Any dramatic drop in pressure is a warning sign. You will also need to insure the lug nuts on your wheels are tight. Check them after each session on the track. There are plenty of torque wrenches at the track and people are willing to lend them out. You will need to know the size of your lugs though.
People borrow, rent and buy helmets. The entry-level price is roughly $225. There are mixed opinions on motorcycle helmets. My opinion is, if you have one and want to use it, go ahead. I bought an open face Bell Helmet because I wear glasses. Ive not yet encountered a problem or taken a hit in the face from stray rubber or debris, but after the experience of wearing the open face helmet I strongly recommend the full coverage type.
Finally, as you drive on to the race track grounds for the first time you are about to encounter some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. It is important for you to remember that all of them had a first day at the track and they all know the excitement and anxiety you feel as a novice driver. So if roaring around a road course in your prized possession or hot rod is not as easy or as quick as you imagined, give yourself a little time.
The results are thrilling.