So, there’s a track that you really want to drive. Great! But you’ve never driven it before and you don’t want to make an idiot of yourself. That’s tricky. Here’s how you can Forrest Gump your way through it without completely screwing up.
I bring this up because I’ve been trying out new tracks quite a bit lately at various arrive-and-drive events for LeMons. Arrive-and-drives are the best thing to happen to motor racing since the invention of the wheel. It’s a win-win situation for everybody: a team needs cash and/or another driver, and you get to drive. Someone else does all the work on the car and all you’ve got to do is show up and race it.
Obviously, it’s always a good idea to offer to help with stuff during the weekend, but as far as the hardest part goes—making the car run and ensuring that it will pass inspection—that’s not your problem, and that’s fantastic.
Arrive-and-drives are also a great way to experience tracks you’ve never driven before. You’re able to race far outside of where you could reasonably tow your own car for an event without your friends, family and workplace assuming you’ve been kidnapped by that guy with the rope from Casino Royale before you get back. At the same time, it’s hard to enjoy things when you’re nervous about racing on a new track.
That’s why this guide is here. I can’t tell you how to drive a wicked fast lap immediately—even I can’t figure that out right away—but I can at least tell you how to calm down and lay down some decent laps the right way. To achieve excellence, first you’ve got to nail basic adequacy. There are better guides written by hotter shoes out there for reducing your lap times.
This is for that first hurdle: how do you race on a track you’ve never been on without crapping your pants in fear and shame?
I mince no words about my level of experience: “I suck.” But I will do my best to have fun and bring the car back in one piece.
If you’re already nervous about dropping in somewhere new to race, don’t make yourself out to be the third coming of the Stig. Be up-front about this: “I’ve never driven this track before, so I’m going to be off-pace.”
Part of that is for your own benefit. As the day wears on, sure, I’m looking at my lap times versus everyone else’s to double-check that I’m not embarrassingly slow, but don’t hop into the car expecting to immediately run the same times as the folks who’ve been driving there for years.
Realize that it takes years for many average drivers to truly master a circuit. You do not have years. You’re just here for the weekend.
The other part of this, obviously, is for your team’s benefit. They won’t flip out when you can’t claw the team back to the top of the standings after a mild snafu, or when you probably lose a few places during your stint. They know you’re here to have fun, and a like-minded team won’t pressure you into pushing yourself and the car over your abilities (and having a good ol’ fashioned oops as a result).
There’s nothing that quite compares to having an instructor ride with you to point out everything from the basic racing line to tips for improving as a driver. It’s far less stressful to try out a new track in a setting where the focus is on learning than it is during the race weekend itself, when you’re focused on competition.
The track itself is no longer an unknown entity after you’ve driven it. That’s one less huge thing to worry about. While Patrick didn’t get to test out his knowledge in a race—the rain had something to say about that first—I do know that tracks I’ve driven before are way less stressful than ones I haven’t.
Is there a bit of time before your race weekend? Consider signing up for a track day or a racing school at the same track.
If you’re too short on time to drive the track before the race weekend itself, the race weekend still usually provides you with one important chance to go see the track before you race on it: practice time.
Always plan to do the practice time if you’re racing on a brand new track. Sometimes extenuating circumstances (work, non-running cars, etc.) get in the way, but try to avoid that.
I know way too many crapcan teams who won’t run the practice days on a race weekend because they’re afraid they’ll break the car. That line of thinking has never made much sense to me. For one, it’s better to find out about an issue the day before a race than it is during the race itself. Two, I’d much, much rather drive alongside people who’ve seen the course before than ones who haven’t.
I understand: your car is a fragile pile of dung held together with zip ties and phlegm. However, if it can’t hold up to a few exploratory laps at five-tenths of your team’s driving capabilities, that doesn’t bode well for doing the race itself.
Practice time is the opportune time to knock out some goofy slow five-tenths times. Everyone’s at different stages in their shakedown, and many of your fellow track newbies are out getting a feel for the course with you. Not everyone does the practice session for whatever reason (cost, experience, time, etc.), so you’ll have a lot more space to screw up without hitting anyone than you will on race day.
Run a few laps. Get a feel for elevation changes, landmarks and lines that you wouldn’t be able to pick up on as well from a video. Experiment. If it’s your first time in the car, too, here’s the perfect time to get familiar with it.
If you’re running a crapcan whose owner doesn’t want to send you out for practice laps in their car, by all means, ask around to see if another team will let you drive theirs. Most teams have to give priority to their own teammates before letting you hop in for a few laps, but many of us would rather drive alongside someone who sort of knows where they’re going as opposed to someone with no clue.
Can’t get out there in your own car? Take a ride-along in someone else’s car, or wait for the track to go cold and bike or walk the darn thing.
Walking or running the track isn’t just good exercise—it’s a much better way to get the lay of the land than watching a video, for example. A while back, W. Christian Mental Ward and Bark M. debated everything you need to know before going racing for the first time, and Ward’s right on this: there’s nothing like seeing the track in its current condition.
Landmarks can change over time: structures can be moved, landscaping gets reworked, new cracks form in the surface, giant creepy bug sculptures become sentient and eat half of the paddock, yadda, yadda.
A quality ride-along or track walk can show you exactly the course you’re going to be driving, and allow you to figure out landmarks for turn-ins, braking and the like based on things that you know are there.
If there are cones out to signify turn-ins, braking points or apexes, try to find other landmarks other than those cones. I, for one, have a bad habit of treating them as kill cones, as if I get extra points for knocking them in the air as high as possible. Style points are a thing, right? Either way, expect them to get punted into next week the second your race begins, provided they’re left out at all.
While Ward poo-pooed “driving it in Forza” in that same article, my experience with using a sim before driving a new track is the exact opposite. I found it to be a huge help with getting the basic flow of the track down and calming my nerves.
I’m usually brought out as comic relief whenever video games are involved because I have no feel for them, and sim racers are no exception. Eventually, though, even I can sort of figure it out enough to go on a series of good sightseeing laps.
There are two tracks I’ve been insanely nervous about driving. The first was Texas World Speedway after my car had been totalled there before I could ever drive it. The other was Circuit of the Americas after they first started allowing amateur track days on the schedule. Every group driving COTA that year was asking their participants to be on their best behavior to prove to the track’s powers-that-be that amateur days were, in fact, mostly harmless affairs.
Don’t do this.
While neither were actual race dates, I found it insanely useful to just see the track for myself in something. I got up from that computer realizing that neither course was out to get me. I also felt like I wasn’t going to get lost, flip the car in a blaze of stupid, and die on either track. Simply learning where the track goes is a massive relief on longer, more complicated courses.
Of course, with any other non-real-life view of the track, my suggestion to drive it in a game comes with caveats. Pick a fairly faithful rendering, otherwise you’ll end up like the guys who get an unpleasant surprise at the Nürburgring Nordschleife because their sim of choice that they’d been practicing on left out a few turns.
Make note of how detailed the render is as well. Some scan the actual track to capture as much detail as they can, while other renders may just be the general layout with a perfect, glass-smooth surface—even if the track itself is anything but in real life. If it’s a popular course on a popular sim, chances are, people have dissected how true-to-life the game is, as our own Robb Holland did with iRacing’s version of the Nürburgring.
As with video, sim courses are a snapshot in time. Even if the game you’re playing scanned all the bumps in, that means that the track you’re driving in the game is the track as it was months or years ago. Soil shifts and settles over time, bumps worsen, and tracks sometimes repave.
If you can’t get on the track before you have to race at all (even virtually), find folks who have driven there before and pick their brains. Part of what was useful about sitting down in front of a sim for me was having someone who’d driven both tracks in the same room, pointing out landmarks I’d want to pay attention to in real life.
One easy way to look at the track beforehand is to look up videos of people’s laps. Try to find a car similar to the one you’ll be racing and pay close attention to lines, shift points, confusing sections of the track, and figure out the flow of things.
Here’s some good race laps from onboard from the Model T GT.
The one drawback to the ubiquity of GoPro-style cameras is that their fisheye lenses are terrible for showing elevation changes. They’re great for capturing more of the action from side-to-side, but expect elevation changes to be more severe in real life than they appear in most videos.
Alternately, spend some time with a map and someone who’s good at driving it. If you’re going somewhere completely new, forums can sometimes put you in touch with locals who’ve driven a track a billion times. Other resources like Race Optimal are entirely devoted to picking through how to drive a fast lap. Ask the right people, and do the appropriate Googling until you get to the basic layout of the course, tricky sections to watch out for, and maybe some good landmarks for turn-ins and tips for finding speed. That’s it.
If you’re driving someone else’s car, start with the owner. Unless this is also their first time at a track, they can tell you the specifics of how that particular car behaves on track, which is way more helpful than that one YouTube of a car with twice the horsepower and a few hundred pounds less than what you’re driving.
If I’m doing an endurance race with my 944, I tend to stick the person with the least amount of seat time on a given track in first (provided they’re unlikely to wad up the car, of course). Pace car laps are wonderful for getting acquainted with a new track.
The 24 Hours of LeMons, for example, lets cars circulate for a while as they determine whether it’s okay to drop the green flag. Get out there early if you’re new to a circuit and drive, drive, drive. Many cars drive the racing line out of habit, so pay attention to the dudes who seem to be going in some kind of outside-apex-outside pattern for the turns. Where are they turning?
If you set the appropriate expectations and no one expects you to be the team hero, your adequate, passable, kludged-together laps will be just fine. You’re probably doing better than you’re giving yourself credit for. Those laps will probably end up being fun after you get the basic idea of where the track goes, too. Isn’t that why you’re here?
Go have fun. If you’re not comfortable pushing the car just yet, that’s also fine in this kind of situation. No one wants to see anyone wad up a car. Don’t take stupid risks. Besides, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably also an amateur, and the emphasis is more on learning how to become faster as opposed to beating everyone else at this point.
If there are multiple stints, ask for advice on how to get faster before you hop back into the car. How do you compare to the rest of the team, and what are the faster drivers on your team doing differently?
I feel like I’ve learned a bit more just from getting away from familiar courses. I can’t just go through the motions on a new course. I have to figure things out. Sometimes I can compare a corner to one I’ve driven elsewhere. Other times, I have to look at what other folks are doing, try to do that and see if it works. It’s scary, but you know what? Everyone at any given race weekend drove that track for the first time once. It’s not a unique experience, and only a totally garbage hypocrite of a person would hold that fact against you if you’re slow.
More importantly, I’ve had fun. I’m serious: go have fun. If you’re having fun, it’s a whole lot harder to worry yourself into a big ball of dumb. The less you’re focused on worrying, the more you can focus on driving and enjoying your weekend.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.