How to improve your skills and still have fun at your next track day

By J.G. Pasterjak
Mar 1, 2023 | track day | Posted in Features | From the May 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

Measuring success is easy when the stopwatch is ticking: Just look at the results, and you have a pretty good idea of how the meet went. 

But for those running non-competitive track events, success is not measured simply in lap times or positions, but in the overall satisfaction and fun of driving your car at the limit. Without the objective yardstick, though, how do we gauge improvement? And what techniques and mental approaches should we take to the track for those days when outright speed is not the goal?

We’re glad you asked, because we’re going to give you some tips for how to win your next track day. For an assist, we enlisted Dion von Moltke of Racers360. Dion spends most of his time coaching racers looking to eke out that last hundredth of a second, but he has some great advice on how to approach the non-competitive side of track driving: “Ultimately, you’re using the same techniques in a competitive environment or a non-competitive one when it comes to car control, so when there’s no clocks, you really have to focus on your execution inside the car.” 

Throttle: Be Smooth

Photography Credit: Dave Green

“So, when you’re out there, your focus should be on specific control inputs, like throttle application. Ideally you don’t want to be applying the throttle before the apex of the corner, and you want to be applying the throttle in such a way that once you commit to throttle, you’re progressively adding and not having to back off at any point through the corner. 

“If you’re having to back off, you’re too early. If you’re able to go full throttle and stay there, maybe think about backing that point up a little on the next lap and see how it feels.”

Brakes: Be Smooth

Your braking technique is equally important. “It’s a track day,” Dion notes, “so I tell people not to really try and brake at the last second. That’s not the goal, and frequently you’re driving a street car, so your brakes probably aren’t optimized for track performance anyway. 

“More important than brake application is brake release. I tell folks to concentrate on a smooth release that guides them into the corner. If you want to be more aggressive in your corner approach, don’t do it with a later brake application, do it with a lighter brake application.”

Smoothness: Be Smooth

How to win that next track day? Stay safe, have fun, make friends, and keep the car in one piece. Photography Credits: Perry Bennett

If a lot of what we’re covering so far seems to come under the heading of smoothness, you’re on the right track. A lot of your performance can be self-evaluated even without the aid of timing gear or data acquisition by noting how much extra work you’re doing in each corner. 

While there are certainly exceptions, for the most part, each corner should include a single brake application, a single turn-in, a single return to and application of the throttle, and a progressive unwinding of the steering. If you find yourself engaging in multiple instances of any of these inputs, ask yourself why that’s happening. If you’re anywhere except Turn 17 at Sebring, then the answer is most likely that you’re screwing up something.

Keep Safe by Keeping Focused

Also remember that mental state is important for top performance, regardless of whether the track session is competitive or recreational. You still need to keep a general sense of focus and concentration for top performance as well as safety. 

Dion reminds us to not “overthink” our track sessions in the heat of lapping, either. “There’s a lot of mental ‘noise’ during a track session, and trying to focus on everything at once is going to get you in trouble,” he notes. “So remember the basics. Entry, apex, exit. Eyes ahead. Breathe. No death grip on the wheel. Focus on proper techniques and good habits, and the rest tends to sort itself out. On track is not the time for granular analysis of tiny details.”

Traffic: Gotta Work Through It

Photography Credit: Dave Green

One key difference between competitive and non-competitive lapping sessions is traffic. Visibility and predictability are your key allies when working through traffic, and one of the most important factors to remember is that no one is keeping track of where you finish at a track day, only whether you do finish.

“My safest approach to making passes during a non-competitive track day actually sounds kind of counterintuitive, but I think it’s the safest,” Dion says. “You don’t want to create too much space between the cars when you’re making a pass. If one car makes a dramatic move to give a car they’re overtaking more room, all of a sudden you have a car that could be dangerously off-line entering the next corner. 

“By keeping things tighter, both cars stay closer to the proper racing line. By staying closer, you also increase the chances that the driver being overtaken has a clear view of you and can accurately gauge your intent. Also, in case the unthinkable happens and there’s actually contact, a contact initiated between two cars in close proximity is going to be less dramatic than a contact initiated when one car had an entire track width to build momentum before impact.”

Of course, Dion notes, ideally cars should never touch during a track session, adding, “but we can also drive in such a way where if there’s a mechanical failure or track malfunction, the consequences are minimized.”

The takeaway message here is that, no, you shouldn’t be knocking other drivers’ mirrors off during a track day, but making dramatic moves and leaving unnecessary space in a passing zone caries its own risks. Keep things in formation, make yourself visible, and deviate from the proper driving line as little as possible while maintaining a safe distance.

Relax, Have Fun, Repeat

Finally, relax and have fun–and know when to call it a day. “The last session of any track day is always the most dangerous,” Dion reminds us. “People are tired, the track is not in optimal condition, and it’s not a time when everyone is making the best decisions. 

“So the later it gets in a track weekend, the more seriously you should take any red flags. If you blow a corner in the second session of the weekend, you can regroup and try some different approaches. If you blow a corner in the last session of the weekend, maybe that’s a sign you should park it.” 

And on that note, Dion has one last bit of advice: “The regret of pulling off early but keeping you and your car safe will never be as bad as the regret of staying out one lap too long and making a horrible mistake.

Don't Drive Tired | How to Get the Most Out of Your Tires at a Track Day

Aside from entry fees, tires will be one of your biggest expenses as you make the plunge into track day culture. Getting every penny of value out of them is key to having a positive experience. 

While non-competitive track days don’t depend on cutting the fastest lap, driving at the limit is still hard on tires. That means choosing rubber with true track capability isn’t necessarily just a speed decision. “The great thing about modern 200-treadwear performance tires is that they’re literally designed to be a dual-purpose tire,” explains Nick Fousekis of Falken Tire. “You can drive them on the track without worrying about unpredictable wear or heat degradation, then drive them home.”

Indeed, managing heat and spreading it evenly across the tire surface is paramount to maximizing the life of whatever tires you end up with. Nick recommends an easy, old-school trick to figure out how your tires are working on track–call it a first step.  

“Hit the shoulders with a little chalk,” he says. “That should tell you whether you’re rolling the edges over too much or not using all the tread surface, and that can help you make some coarse pressure adjustments.

“With modern high-performance, low-profile tires, you’re probably going to start around the pressure you run on the street, and you want to see that chalk getting rubbed off right to the edge of the tread,” he continues. “If the chalk is disappearing down the sidewall, adjust pressures up. If the chalk at the edge of the tread on the face of the tire still remains, you can adjust down a bit.”

But, he adds, regular track day participants will eventually want to invest in some actual thermal measurement gear, like a probe-type pyrometer, to get a better picture of each tire’s workload.

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

How to maximize tire life at the track: choose the right ones, monitor pressures, and don’t overdrive them. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

While a set of track-capable 200-treadwear tires may wear slightly faster on the street than those rock-hard mileage masters, using non-performance tires on track in an effort to increase service life can be a false economy. Many non-performance tires aren’t designed to deal with the thermal and physical stresses of track use, and while the tread surface may not wear very much, excess heat can lead to “chunking”–the tearing away of big hunks from the shoulder of the tire. 

Nick offers a few basic tips for starting off a fresh set of tires to ensure maximum performance and durability: “Put a few miles on a new set of tires before you go to the track. Get some heat in them, scrub the mold release off, and that should give you a good starting point.”

Avoid the other major tire killers, too, like UV and ozone–although that’s an impossible luxury with daily driven tires. But for dedicated track rubber, proper storage can extend life. “Ideally you want to store them covered or bagged in a room that doesn’t get too cold or too hot,” Nick notes. “They don’t need to be fully climate-controlled, but keeping them from freezing or cooking next to a heat source is a good idea.”

But since these are street tires that we’re talking about, they’re subject to typical road hazards. Nick reassures us that any repairs done to a tire that keep it suitable for street use should keep it suitable for track use: “If you get a puncture in a sidewall, we’d recommend that tire be removed from service for road or track use. But a properly applied plug or patch on the tread to repair a clean puncture shouldn’t affect a good tire’s street- or track-worthiness.”

Start Stopping | Make Sure Your Track Day Brakes Are Performing Properly

Possibly more than any other system on your car, a track day will heavily tax your brakes. And unless it’s the creation of a warlock or fae spirit, no one brake pad can be happy on the street, aggressive enough for the track, easy on rotors, and capable of delivering long life everywhere. 

The physics of track and street driving are simply far too different for any one material to do all those things, so any choice you make will involve some level of compromise.

“Well, I’ll tell you this as a brake guy, but also as a guy that does a lot of autocross and track stuff: Street pads belong on the street, and track pads belong on the track,” explains Michael Hamrick of Wilwood Engineering. “If you try to make them work too far out of their desired range, you’re going to have issues. Track pads used on the street tend to be very hard on rotors, and street pads used on the track will wear very quickly at sustained high temperatures.” 

Especially on today’s bulky but extremely powerful cars, trying to make street pads endure extended track action can lead to trouble. The ideal solution is two sets of pads: one for street use and one for track use. 

If you have no other choice and need to make a single set of pads do it all, high-performance street pads can survive track use with some precautions. Understand that they don’t have the absolute ability to handle high friction levels at the high temps they’ll see on track, and drive accordingly. And be prepared to replace them far more frequently than the typical service spec.

You need to take care of you brakes, too: Run the proper pads and fluid–ones designed for the elevated temperatures seen on track–and inspect hardware before heading out. Sadly, though, a pad compound ideally suited for both track and street doesn’t exist. Either plan on making sacrifices or swapping pads. After each session, let those brakes cool down, too. Photography and Graph Courtesy Wilwood

So, how should a budding track driver approach brake care? Michael stresses the following priorities: “Fluid, lines, pads. Make sure your hydraulics are in perfect shape before you hit the track. A good DOT 4 high-temperature fluid and good lines are a basic starting point that shouldn’t be compromised, because hydraulic failure can mean disaster.” 

He also stresses proper caution when using even top-quality brake hardware during a track weekend. “Cars today are heavy and fast, and they don’t all have dedicated airflow to the brakes like race cars do,” he says. “So proper cooldown is extremely important.”

His advice: “Always take a cooldown lap, and maybe even take some extra time once you come off track to make sure those rotors return to a reasonable temperature. These are big hunks of iron; they hold a lot of heat. And when you park the car, even if you aren’t setting the parking brake–which you shouldn’t be–that pad material is insulating a portion of the rotor while the rest of it is allowed to cool in open air. This can lead to unwanted material transfer and uneven cooling, which can lead to thermal cracking.”

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Javelin (Forum Supporter)
Javelin (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/18/21 10:21 a.m.

This is a good one! I would say it applies to semi-competitive track days as well, such as the new SCCA Time Trial program. Don't drive tired is a big one! Look at how drained I am after the final session:


fearlesfil New Reader
11/16/21 2:38 p.m.

That tired thing is a thing. After my first day of the first Bob Bondurant (RIP) course I took at Sears Point (Sonoma) raceway, I went back to the hotel, sat on the edge of the bed to watch the news, and woke up hours later still in my sweaty racing suit. Staying 100% focused during multiple track sessions while fun, really is work... Taking the cool down lap and even a bit of puttering around the pits is sage advice. My brakes have been fine on track, only to boil in the pits, necessitating having to re-bleed them... Lastly, the more your eyes are kept up and looking well ahead, the fewer mistakes you'll make, the easier it will be to anticipate what other cars are doing, and the more relaxed and fun your sessions will be. 

ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter)
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
11/16/21 3:13 p.m.

I like the emphasis on smoothness.  The whole "slow is smooth, smooth is fast" thing really works.  Many times I've gone back to look at data and found out that what I thought was a throw-away lap was actually my fastest lap of a session.

But I also think smoothness is a corollary to a higher principle: the fastest way around the track is on the best line.  Drive as fast as you can drive and still be on the perfect line, and no faster.  Most drivers I've instructed put down one or two good smooth laps, then as their confidence grows they start to overdrive themselves off the racing line, ultimately turning slower laps.

The last thing that I think is really important: pick one thing, and only one thing, to work on improving every session.  One turn, one brake zone, etc.  Then focus all your mental energy on getting that thing as perfect as you can.  For beginner drivers, fixing only one thing can often pick up an entire second or more in each session.  Data and coaching can really help identify what that one thing should be!

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