No matter how much track day, autocross or driving school experience you have, your first time doing actual wheel-to-wheel racing will be an entirely different animal.
You can be the fastest guy on your local track, but it won’t prepare you for the thrill and danger of jockeying for a line mere inches away from other cars who want it just as badly as you do. There are things you can do to prepare, however.
Friends of Jalopnik and veteran amateur racers Bark M. and W. Christian Mental Ward (both of whom have real names, I think?) are here to help with that. Here’s what you’ll want to know before you go racing for the first time. -PG
Bark: Well, Mental, it was a real pleasure to drive with you as part of the Road and Track team as we battled against our friends from Jalopnik in this weekend’s American Endurance Racing Enthusiasts’ Cup. Although it was nice to take home the victory, I wish that the conditions of our victory had been different. Thankfully, it turns out that Raphael Orlove is okay after his brutal crash. That happened directly in front of our pit box, and it was terrifying to see in person.
Mental: It was a good time, Bark. I share your gratitude that Raph was OK. We had made a few jokes about all of the slides in that turn and I think we were in mid-conversation about track newbies right at that moment he spun, and then we saw the hit coming. It was so stunning; we were in shock for a second and almost forgot to radio our driver to warn him. I watched chunks from that impact fly 10 feet into the air.
Bark: Although I know that Raph has a ton of rally-driving experience, it was awful to see his first wheel-to-wheel experience end so violently. It made me think of all the things that I wish I had known before MY first W2W experience. I remember it vividly; it was at the Gator-O-Rama 24 Hours of Lemons race at MSR Houston. I had some HPDE experience, and even some coaching behind the wheel at the Ford Performance School, but as the late Marvin Gaye once said, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.
I was placed behind the wheel of a oil-dumping MKII Jetta that I’d never driven before, on a track I’d never driven before, and, oh yeah, it was at 2 a.m. in the complete and utter darkness.
I remember thinking to myself each time I passed the entrance to pit lane: I can do this one more time. I can do this one more time. I’m not completely terrified. I can do this. Luckily, the poor little Jetta’s motor decided to sacrifice itself to save me from having to finish my whole stint, exploding gloriously all over the engine bay.
Mental: My first brush with wheel to wheel was at the now defunct Panoz race school at Road Atlanta (that’s right, the same one as the dreamy Patrick Dempsey). We had been exposed to the track and the cars in a series of confidence building exercises. When we ran the whole track, it was limited to passing in specific areas. Even those three days were not enough to prepare me for W2W.
My first race was at the beginning of LeMons in 2007 at Altamont. The whole track was covered in cars three wide, and we weren’t even running full cages in those days. Even though it was barely 45 miles an hour, it was petrifying and I used to commute to downtown Atlanta on a motorcycle.
Bark: For your first race, I’d recommend picking a track that you’ve been able to drive before, whether at a performance driving school or an HPDE. Virtually every track in America hosts some form of budget racing now, so there’s a good chance there’s one at a track that’s close to you.
Go to a school that offers instruction, or an SCCA Track Night with an experienced friend, and take your time finding your way around. You’ve got enough to worry about with the eighty-five other cars on track—-don’t try to learn the track at the same time. And, for God’s sake, don’t do it in the dark.
Mental: I try to walk the track. I enjoy staying at the track during events, and often the night prior is a great time to take a stroll. If you are with a team, it’s a great exercise to do together.
When weather and regulations permit, one of my favorite pre-race rituals to do is get up early and go for an actual run on the track. You’ll notice nuances, spot pavement irregularities and develop visual cues that help you at speed, and reinforce the line.
A lot of folks swear by track videos, and those will help, but they can’t replicate the depth and the spacial dimensions. Ask anyone who has driven Road Atlanta. The videos for turn 11 into 12 are nothing compared to driving it. Finally, check the dates. Trees get cut down and buildings move so you will lose your markers. I have been to tracks where the brakes markers were relocated slightly moved every time they mowed the lawn.
And no, Forza is NOT a substitute.
Bark: One thing that I’d definitely recommend would be something that I did serendipitously that fateful night: do your first race in a car that isn’t contending for a win. The last thing you need when you’re trying to learn to race is to have the pressure to compete. Find a car and a team that is supportive of new drivers, and will be understanding when (not if) you’re off the winning pace.
Mental: Have a discussion with your team before you arrive about their goals. If you are expected to put the car in the first and hold it your first race, you need to start someplace else. There are plenty of teams out there that focus on finishing, not winning. Step one is learn how to take care of the equipment. By focusing on being smooth and keeping the car in one piece, you not only become a better driver, you become the kind of driver people want to have around. You know, a member of the team.
I have built a few cars and on occasion I have chosen conservative drivers over faster ones because I knew the slower guy could take care of the car. There are few events worse than wrenching all night on your car because of a ‘red mist’ incident. You know the old phrase; to finish first you have to finish. Learn to finish.
Bark: Something that you’ll see several new racers do is beg and borrow (hopefully not steal) their safety equipment from friends. I can’t stress enough just how important safety is for a beginning racer. That four or five hundred bucks you save by sharing a helmet or a fire suit with somebody whose bodily dimensions aren’t the same as yours aren’t worth the potential risk to your life.
Mental: No doubt. Safety equipment and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are just like cars and shoes. Updated fashionable versions arrive every year, so that mean closeouts and sales. Check out Discovery Parts, Saferacer and the lot, especially now in the off-season. There are some great deals out there. Get gear that fits, is comfortable and is up to date.
Think of it like this. How much money have you invested in your body and your head? How many years of experience at your job, perfecting that golf swing and muscle memory? What about degrees, certifications and sales knowledge, How long did it take you to acquire what you know? How much did you spend?
Now, how much would you spend to protect that?
Bark: Let’s talk a little bit about what to actually do once you get strapped into the car for the first time. I wish that somebody had told me the following: don’t worry about driving fast. Worry about driving predictably. Mental, remember the stern instruction I gave you on Friday?
“Stay away from that X car. They’re nothing but trouble out there. They’re going to kill themselves, and probably somebody else, too.”
Mental: It was funny! Literally one minute it was all toilet humor and then suddenly—-DAD VOICE.
Bark: Well, remember the reason my father-of-two-young-children tone came out of my helmet? An off-pace car that was taking an unpredictable path around the track, making them incredibly difficult to pass. As your future fellow competitor, I can deal with you being slow—-we are all getting faster and learning together, here. What I can’t deal with is you taking random lines all over the track. If you sense that somebody faster is behind you, just drive the normal line and allow them to go around you.
Mental: I tell my students, your hands follow your eyes. Anyone who has trained in martial arts, used a firearm, or practiced basketball free throws knows this biological reality. The mechanical addendum to this reality is that the car follows your hands. The short version; the car goes where you look. This is how a car hits a single tree in the middle of a field, because they were staring at it trying to avoid it.
It’s good that you don’t want to hold up a faster car, but if your eyes are in your mirrors, where do you think the car is going to go? Use the mirrors to clear your entry into a turn and then get your eyes back up and outside. Got a breather on the straight? Sweep your gaze across the gauges, the mirrors and then eyes back up looking forward. If you are smooth and predictable, faster cars will have no issues getting around you.
Bark: Great advice, Mental. Now, what happens when you ignore all of the above? Well, you’re probably going to spin or go off track. Don’t stress—-this happens to everyone. In fact, the owner of our race car spun in exactly the same spot as Raphael, and he’s got literally thousands of laps at Mid-Ohio. When it happens, keep your head about you. If you’re going into a spin, don’t try to save it—-you’ll end up tank slapping yourself right across the track into either a wall or the path of an oncoming competitor. Keep your spin predictable for everybody around you.
Put both feet it—-clutch and brake—-and bring the car to a halt. That way, you won’t stall the car on the racing line. If you do stop on the racing line, do your best to get off of it as quickly as you can. Gather your wits, look for a safe re-entrance onto the line, and get back up to speed.
If you do feel like you are in severe danger of not making a turn, then straighten out the wheel and go off course in a straight line. When turned front wheels hit bumps, bad things happen. Like flips. While that makes for spectacular YouTube content, it’s very bad for you and your car.
Now, all that said… one of the most important things any new racer can do is to have fun! It’s easy to forget to enjoy yourself when you’re stressed about racing. I find that my best racing experiences have always been the weekends I shared with friends. If you’ve got some friends that are already racing wheel-to-wheel, see if they’ll let you join in the fun. If you don’t, there’s virtually no better place to make friends than at the track.
Everybody there is a brother on the Pyramid of Speed, and nearly everybody wants to see you come back. One of the reasons we had such a great weekend at Mid-Ohio was that I probably knew a third of the competitors from previous races. In fact, we were able to defuse a potentially nasty situation with another driver who was blocking us a bit by going down and talking with a friend of mine who was manning his radio. Go around and introduce yourself to your competitors. Tell them it’s your first time. You’ll likely get a hearty welcome and perhaps even a few friendly tips.
Mental: Not to mention help. Most racers like most racers. I have lost count of how many times I have spent a night at the track under someone else’s car spinning a wrench trying to get them back in the race. But I will say it’s about half as many times as others have helped me. Tools, parts, or just experience are all benefits of being a good person and having a solid reputation at the track. That reputation is built on you, not your trophy collection or times on the podium.
The attraction racing holds for me is as individual pursuit but a team activity. You drive the car, but the team makes the race, and the racers make the event. I am usually one of the last ones to leave the track, because I am so busy socializing and reliving the weekend with buddies, old and new.
Bark: So true. Building friendships at the races could even lead to an opportunity for you to get behind the wheel of other cars in the future—-when our car went down at the Glen last year, I had several teams offer me a seat in their cars to finish out the day. But more importantly, regardless of your finishing position, you’ll enjoy yourself much more when you’re surrounded by good friends.
So, that’s it. Be prepared, be safe, don’t be a jerk, and have fun. We’ll see you at the track.
Bark M. is an amateur endurance racer, a reformed autocrosser with several National Tour and Pro Solo trophies to his credit, and a Boss 302 and Fiesta ST owner. His writing can be found on several websites, including The Truth About Cars, Road and Track, and here at Jalopnik. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most ofthem. He is a retired Air Force Officer, loves cartoons, and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has four dogs, a Philosophy degree and amazing hair. If you have an unnatural hunger for stupid car pictures, self-promotion and short videos of his three dogs, follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Vine.