It’s that time of year again; time to pull the cover off your car now that winter has passed. Yes, winter is a good time to spend with your family, but it’s also an even better time to get some of the items checked off your to-do list in the garage. With the shift in car show vibe from sit and watch to get up and play, we’re seeing more owners expressing interest in road racing.
To satisfy our curiosity we’re taking you along for an open track day event. We signed up for the Northern California Racing Club (NCRC) track day at Thunder Hill Raceway of Willows, California. NCRC is one of dozens of organizations covering tracks all over the country that facilitate you in getting on the track with both fun and safety in mind. Here we will cover the basic topics you need to consider before and during your first or next track day.
Making a plan is the first thing to take care of. Once you’ve booked your event, think about the logistics. Most drivers’ meetings happen first thing in the morning, around 7 a.m. Depending on how far the track is from home base, it may mean a 3 a.m. wake-up call. It’s really important to have a good night’s sleep before a big day like this, so staying at a track-adjacent hotel will give you a lot more time in the morning to relax. Splitting a hotel bill with a buddy is a small price to pay for a better start to your day. Weekday events often offer less congestion, compared to the more popular weekend events. If you can pull it off, we recommend a weekday event, especially if it’s your first time.
Before you even start packing, you need to get your car in order. NCRC has a downloadable tech inspection sheet that allows the owner/driver to do a self-inspection at home before the event. The checklist is very basic, and checks for loose, faulty, leaky, and missing equipment. This organization believes that we’re all adults and can do an honest inspection ourselves. Most others will have a final inspection on site before the event. This isn’t a place to cheat; the inspection checks for safety. If you’ve got a violation it’s in your best interest to fix it, not hide it.
The first thing in the morning is the drivers’ meeting. Though seemingly dry, this meeting is a crucial part of a successful track day. This is where they cover what each flag translates to, as well as on-course etiquette, safety, and special instructions for pitting and staging. They let the more experienced groups leave earlier in the meeting and keep the newbies around for additional instructions. This is a great opportunity to ask questions, so don’t hold back. Chances are if you’re questioning certain things, there’s a high chance someone else is wondering the same thing.
At this track day the groups were defined by passing rules. The beginner group (Solo) only permits passing on straights, which allows the less-experienced driver to focus solely on their driving where it’s most critical. The intermediate group (Point-by) requires the slower car to provide a signal to the faster car of where and when to pass. This can be on a straight or in a turn but the slower car has control. The most advanced group (Race) has no requirement for a Point-by so drivers can pass at any time. This group is for very experienced drivers and is usually the gateway between open track days and real competition driving. It’s much better for a track adviser to suggest you move up a group than down, so choose a comfortable level, no matter how many times you’ve seen the track.
The first run of the day is a time to familiarize yourself with the track, the conditions, and your car. Every track is different so take your time to learn the layout. The earlier it is in the day, the more slippery the track surface will be. The last thing you want to do is lose it right away and spend the rest of the day on the sidelines. If you’ve recently made any changes to your car, be prepared to spend a little extra time learning them. Think of better suspension and tires as a factor that ups the speed in which you lose control, not as insurance against losing control.
There is an inherent risk that you must accept with taking your car to the track. Many will argue that the drive to the track is more dangerous than the time at the track, and statistically that’s true. That doesn’t lessen the real possibility that something can go wrong. Aside from driver error, be ready to tackle a mechanical issue. We managed to break down in the first session, but because of our meticulous planning, we were able to recover and get back on the track.
After the fifth lap of the first session we heard an engine miss and pitted immediately. There wasn’t an awful noise or anything to indicate something was broken, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. The first thing we did was a visual inspection to make sure we hadn’t burnt a spark plug wire, or something obvious. With everything looking good we pulled the valve covers. That’s when we noticed one rocker had over a 1/2 inch of play. Sure enough, a pushrod was broken.
We immediately made the one-hour trip toward Chico, California, to Pettersen Motorsports, where owner Mark Pettersen was eager to help. We brought the wounded pushrod as well as one that was intact to source a correctly sized replacement. They had COMP Cams 0.105-inch wall 5/16 pushrods—perfect to replace our patient. We opted to replace them all since the ones we had were of an unknown brand and wall thickness. We knew they were hardened at least, but knowing we could break another one later was a risk we weren’t willing to take, so we took the whole set with us.
Bringing the valve lashing tool and feeler gauge paid off; we were able to swap out the pushrods and continue on with our track day. Knowing we had the toughest pushrods available that would still fit, we went back out with full confidence.
In the weeks preceding your track day, make lists of what to bring. No matter how sure you are you won’t forget, you will. If you’re looking to attend many of these events it’s a good idea to type and save the list for the future.
Pre-Tech Your Car
Generally there will be a tech inspection on-site the day of the track day. We advise you to obtain a copy of the tech form ahead of time and inspect the car yourself. This is NCRC’s tech form, the checklist is very basic and easy to complete. If you find something at home, it’ll give you ample time to repair it, rather than scrambling at the track.
We brought a compact Craftsman tool set that included plenty of 6- and 12-point sockets, combination wrenches, Allen keys, and screwdrivers. If there are specialty tools you know you might need like a torque wrench, bring them along as well. Having paper towels and gloves will make switching from work to play quicker too. It doesn’t cost anything to bring extra stuff, so pack it in!
Bring lots of snacks and water. Driving while hungry or dehydrated is not only uncomfortable, but it’s also unsafe. Food and drinks at the track are usually not healthy, won’t improve your energy level, and tend to be a bit expensive. We brought tortillas, meat, cheese, protein bars, fruit, nuts, and of course, water. For particularly hot or strenuous days, bringing a drink like Gatorade or Powerade will help keep your body balanced.
Don’t set yourself up to fail. Start in the beginner’s group and don’t graduate to intermediate until you find yourself fighting traffic an unpleasant amount of the time. Being faster than half of your group is a great place to be. If you move too early, you may be a constant traffic obstruction, which isn’t fun for anyone. These were the only vintage cars of the day. All three were comparable in buildup, but each of us were in a different run group based on skill and experience level.
Trailer Your Ride
Even if you are sure you’re a magnificent driver and your car is in tip-top shape, you never know what can happen at the track. The track is a place of high speeds, engine revving, and heavy braking. You must accept the risk that something can break and having a trailer ready to bring your car home is invaluable. If you don’t have your own, or can’t borrow one from a friend, the U-Haul Auto Transport is a surprisingly good trailer that’s about $50 a day to rent. You will need straps of your own to add to their front end tire nets.
Don’t Fixate on the Rearview Mirror
It’s courteous to be mindful of your fellow trackers, but not at the expense of your concentration. There are bound to be much faster cars out there but don’t let them intimidate you. Focus on where you want to go and save the rearview check for straights.
Stay on Line
The line is defined as the fastest way around a track with the least amount of turning, as shown on the diagram below provided by NCRC. No matter if you’re holding up a crowd of faster, more experienced drivers, stay on the racing line. It’s the job of the faster cars to go offline in order to pass. If you’re already driving at or above you and your car’s ability, venturing off line can make you lose control.
Bring your bicycle, a bicycle makes trips to the restroom or cruises around the paddock quicker and more fun. We strapped a milk crate to the back of ours so we could bring things along. The bike came in extremely handy when we had to source a magnet to pull our pushrod fragment out of the lifter valley and when we were out taking photos.
Don’t let the rules, risk, and stress take over. There are a lot of things to think about in planning and executing a smooth track day but don’t let it overwhelm you. The whole point of a track day is to have fun. Take your friends and family along, share this accomplishment with people you like having around. Having a couple extra hands is always helpful as well.