PICKING UP SPEED: MY FIRST TRACK DAY

Breaking in my new baby

Breaking in myS4 at Thunderhill Raceway 2015

Few things are more fun than driving a car on a track. And let’s face it, a lot of us drive our cars like we’re on one anyway. But since many of you reading this post haven’t officially tracked your car, I thought I’d share my recent experience at Thunderhill Raceway, located a couple hours north of San Francisco.

Although I’ve driven on tracks many times working for various manufacturers, this experience is special since it marks a lot of firsts. It was my first time at Thunderhill Raceway, my first time with Audi Club North America and my first time to have instructed track time at a HPDE (High Performance Driving Education) event.

What? You’ve driven on tracks without ever having instruction? Surprisingly, yes. What’s even more surprising is that I’m Asian and they still handed me the keys. If I ever crash a car, I’ll just say, “It’s your fault. You knew I was Asian. Why are you surprised that I barrel rolled my car and ended up inside a Wendy’s?”

Fighting the g-forces...

Fighting the g-forces…

Thankfully, manufacturers are quite content letting industry peeps drive their cars with the implied agreement that you will not do anything crazy or stupid, although, stuff does happen. Remember that guy from Jalopnik who crashed a 2016 Camaro prototype? Well, that could’ve easily been me (major kudos to him for owning up to it).

It’s all the more reason why I wanted to have this track time. It was an opportunity to really explore the limits of my car, and to really hone my driving skills with a seasoned instructor. And if you’ve never been to an HPDE, it’s like this: before you can put the gas pedal down, you’ll have to pick up a pen and piece of paper. That’s right folks, expect some classroom time, as they tend to not like a bunch of hooligans running loose with two ton torpedos on the track. But more on that later.

So what was it like driving on a track? Well, if you’re really pushing it like I was, it’s like being on a really great roller coaster — it’s a mix of really thrilling moments peppered in with some really hair-raising ones (see video above). The only minor difference, of course, is that unlike a roller coaster that’s securely attached to the rails, you can easily go flying off the track if you’re not paying attention. Like I said, only a minor difference.

Thankfully, though, that doesn’t happen too often. As I stated earlier, if you’re just starting out, you’ll be riding with an instructor who’ll help guide you down the track, pointing out which lines you should be following, where the apex is on each turn, when to apply gas, etc.

Probably my favorite shot. The tires look extra big, don't they?

Probably my favorite shot. The tires look extra big here. Nice, right?

You don’t notice it at first, but all of your senses are working overtime — especially your vision and hearing. This is also why it’s also exhausting. You consume an incredible amount of physical and mental energy; I remember my arms and legs hurting from all of the work they were doing as well as trying to hold my body in place. It’s intense.

Also, you tend to sweat. A lot. So make sure you eat well and have plenty of water on hand. Most HPDE events will have food and water. If you go to an event that doesn’t, be sure to have some stuff on hand (that Snickers bar you left in you glovebox, while delicious, isn’t very hydrating).

All of this preparation is very important, as is being able to follow direction, because even a small mistake can lead to big consequences. I remember one of the drivers failed to listen to her instructor regarding passing zones and passing etiquette. You can see in the video where I and two other drivers almost turn her car into a Miata pancake.

Depending on the track and your skill level, you can get up to some pretty high speeds (I was able to top out at 120 mph on the straights at Thunderhill). But surprising even myself, this wasn’t the part that was the most fun.

I had the most fun on the longer turns (like in turn 2 or 3) where you’re balancing the car on the edge of understeer or oversteer. It’s one of those moments where you and your car really get to have a conversation. It went something like this: I would dial in more or less steering while also feathering the gas. My car communicated back through the steering wheel what the front tires were doing, while the rear end would kick out (or come back in line) depending on how much gas I applied. It was like playing with a really eager puppy, except I didn’t have to bribe my car with any treats (just several tanks of gas).

GBMB3466

Bye bye Golf R!

This experience on the track also translated to better driving off the track. For example, on my way home I learned to use my S4’s sport differential on freeway on ramps, and I was much more in control of the car (that tends to happen when you’re taking turns at 80 mph on the track and now only are driving at half that speed).

I still reminisce about my time on the track. If you have the desire and the means to do a track day, I’d say do it (of course, know the risks before going). It’s a natural high that’s hard to duplicate. The Thunderhill event I went to was held on the weekend, and I was still feeling the high on Monday while at work. I’ve never done ecstasy, but this is one addiction I could easily get used. Plus, you don’t have to worry about any side effects or buying weird stuff from a person that you have to pretend to like.

10 THINGS THAT STOOD OUT AT MY FIRST HPDE EVENT:

  1. The sound. I remember being in the classroom as some of the other drivers took their turn. It was intoxicating listening to all the different cars racing past us. There was one RS5 that I swore had a jet engine installed in it as it sounded like a plane every time it went by.
  2. Make sure you have a helmet. You will not be allowed to drive without one. If cost is prohibitive, you can usually rent one. If you do buy, make sure to buy IN PERSON so you can try them on. Although I have a smallish head, I have to wear a 2XL helmet because apparently my head is oddly shaped.
  3. DRIVE SLOW in the paddock areas (where the cars are parked). By slow, I mean make sure you’re going slow enough that your grandma would be upset with how slow you’re driving. Trust me, I wasn’t paying attention once and was doing about 20 mph — yes, 20 mph — and had a couple of veteran instructors yell at me for going too fast. Luckily, there were several other Asians at the event so I hung with them in hopes that no one could single me out as the culprit.
  4. Be sure you study the race packet before the class. There are a lot of things that you’ll have to remember and it’s no fun trying to frantically remember what all the different color flags mean once you’re on the track.
  5. Listen to your instructor! It’s not surprising that many times women will progress faster than men. This is because as men, we know best, right? Or so we think. And then we go off and do something our instructor told us not to and we end up going off the track. Or worse, end up causing an accident. Don’t be that guy.
  6. The fastest runs aren’t necessarily the most fun. In fact, my favorite parts of the track were the steady state turns where I could get my car to do a kind of controlled slide. It was the first time where I could really experience the torque-vectoring rear sport differential on my S4 at work. It was sweet.
  7. Check your tire pressure. Some instructors even recommend DEFLATING your tires a bit. While it’s contrary to what you’d expect (especially if you’ve done autocross), driving on the track all day really heats up your tires. Mine went up as high as 8 psi, which would have pretty much reached the tire’s max tire pressure had I not deflated my tires a bit.
  8. Lose the attitude. Everyone at the event is here to have a good time going fast, and nothing ruins the fun faster than an egotistical know-it-all. Trust me, unless you’re Mario Andretti, there will always be someone who’s gone faster, knows more about cars, had more mods done to his car, etc.
  9. When making mods to your car, the order one of the instructors recommended was: seatbelt, suspension, brakes and then engine. Why, you ask? Well, on the track, the seatbelt really helps hold you in place, which is important to controlling your car. The suspension, for obvious handling reasons. Brakes to keep you out of trouble, and finally, the engine last, because I assume the last thing instructors want on the track is someone with more engine than common sense.
  10. Always look ahead! By look ahead, we’re talking about FAR ahead, even in turns. You’re essentially looking at where you want to be going, not what’s directly in front of you. This was probably the hardest thing to learn and adapt to, because we’re so used to looking directly in front of us. Your instructor will help guide you to exactly where you should be looking.
  11. OK, you get a freebie: plan ahead to have your car inspected. HPDEs will not let you on the track without having that done first. You can save time by having your car pre-inspected at locations sanctioned by the organization. That’s it for now. Have fun and be safe!

MORE PICS FROM THE EVENT:

Proof that you don't need an Audi at the Audi Club event to have fun.

Proof that you don’t need an Audi at the Audi Club event to have fun.

Time to cool down the derrière after a hot lap...

Time to cool down that derrière after a hot lap…

Lucky.

Lucky.

More R8s! Sweet.

More R8s! Sweet.

Hey, who brought the new Corvette?

Hey, who brought the new Corvette?

I want to drive the red one...

Who’s racing the F-350?

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