“I’m fine.” An innocuous statement at face value, but perhaps the most frequently abused falsehood in all of humanity. I was many things in that moment, but I certainly wasn’t fine. I’d just put my car — one I loved and hoped to keep forever — into the wall at about 60 miles per hour. The driver-side airbag hung limp at my shoulder, brushing against my helmet in the gentle breeze through my open window. The safety marshal whose concerned inquiry prompted my empty assurance had gotten there in a matter of seconds, but even if it had taken minutes, I wasn’t going anywhere. My training had kicked in. Stay in your car unless it is on fire.
It wasn’t, so there I stayed, letting that safety mantra loop through my head because it was preferable to contemplating the reality of my situation. I’d screwed up, and badly. Like any spectacular mess, this was the result of multiple errors, some committed hours, days and even weeks prior. It was an all-too-predictable example of a cascade failure that set me back mentally and financially. And to make matters worse, I knew better. People more experienced than myself had been repeating the same basic advice since the first day I set foot in a track paddock. For the most part, I’d listened. But on one early spring morning, my series of individually minor missteps led me directly into a concrete barrier.
I was reminded of that particular calamity this week when a YouTuber named Chet became the subject of a near-endless stream of dunks after posting a video depicting his rather spectacular shunt in his Tesla Model S Plaid. Presumably, Chet didn’t set out to put his Tesla into a wall at triple-digit speeds, but it was a consequence that many — myself included — found entirely predictable. Hindsight’s funny like that.
If you’re here for the schadenfreude, skip to the end for the rest of my story. But if you’re here because you’re eager to get on track and learn how to drive fast in a safe, educational and spectacularly fun environment, this next part’s for you. Heed this advice, and you could find yourself immersed in a fantastically rewarding hobby.
1 – Don’t modify* your car for the track
See little baby Byron up there? That photo was taken in 2008. 2008 Byron really couldn’t stand the idea of driving a stock vehicle anywhere, so my 6 had an intake, ECU piggyback, lowering springs and a handful of other mods, plus a set of beat-to-crap FD RX-7 wheels wrapped in some unremarkable summer rubber. None of it made me any quicker. Several of those parts actually cost me time, especially when my zip-tied solution to mounting the aftermarket electronics gave up midway down VIR’s back straight, letting a box the size of a classic Game Boy dangle precariously in the footwell until I could pit in and come up with a fix. Did I need those extra 13 horsepower badly enough to become a potential rolling hazard to everybody else on track with me? Nope. But I sure as heck had wanted it.
To be clear, this is not the car I put into the wall; that would happen nearly a decade later. Almost-40-year-old Byron looks back at that photo and shakes his head (that ridiculous expression notwithstanding). And it’s not like I had any shortage of 40- and 50-something track rats giving me the exact same advice, but of course I wasn’t interested, because those alterations were what made the car mine. I wasn’t there to drive a car. I was there to drive my car. And there’s a twinkle of rationality to that. If you’re going to explore your car’s limits, you probably want them to be predictable. But do yourself (and your fellow participants) a favor by just leaving everything the hell alone until you know what you’re working with. And trust me, if it’s your first track day, you know a lot less than you think you do about what you’re working with.
Here’s the big secret: There’s no such thing as a car that isn’t “fast enough” for the track, nor one that handles too poorly. You’re there to learn how to drive your car fast, not to learn how fast your car can go. If that reads to you like a distinction without a difference, I’ll borrow the expression my instructor used to articulate the fate of some of my fellow novices: O.S.B. — other sports beckon. Translation: Maybe this whole track day thing ain’t for you. Mod yourself now; mod the car later.
2 – *But don’t skimp on safety
I can guarantee that at least a handful of readers will go straight to the comments after reading rule #1, frothing at the mouth about how this whole piece is junk because it ignores basic safety. Here’s the asterisk: While you shouldn’t modify your car before your first day at the track, you absolutely must maintain it at a level appropriate to the environment in which you intend to drive it. That means upgrading your brake fluid, bare minimum. Upgraded pads and rotors are good ideas too, especially if you’re driving something that wasn’t really meant for track duty, which is most cars — even enthusiast models. Never assume your car is track-ready off the showroom floor. My Blackwing came with DOT3 in the reservoir and a note in the owner’s manual stating that it should be upgraded prior to track duty.
My omission of tires here is intentional. I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to replace your street rubber with something more appropriate (especially if your stock tires are all-seasons; they’ll just get destroyed), but I would steadfastly discourage anything that might be a more substantial upgrade in grip. Traction is great, but novices often don’t recognize that trap even when they’re barreling into it at triple digits. More grip means more wear on your suspension components as they’re tasked with greater loads. It means more wear on your engine as your oiling system fights against potential starvation from increased lateral g-forces. More speed means your brakes are working harder and forced to dissipate more heat. If they can’t, your fluid boils and you find out the crappy way just how much it can cost to flatbed your baby back to civilization. Now, on that note …
3 – Don’t track a car you can’t afford to write off
The simplified version of this rule is to never take your daily driver to the track, but not all DDs are created equal. More broadly, you should never track something you can’t afford to write off — be it financially, logistically or emotionally — and I don’t just mean long-term. If you don’t have a contingency plan in place for the entirely-possible scenario where you’re unable to drive your car home at the end of the day, you have no business being there at all.
There are insurers that offer policies for track days, usually on an agreed-value basis. They’re affordable, too — generally no more expensive than your entry fee for a weekend with NASA or SCCA or whatever track day org you choose to patronize. While this won’t do you any good if you total your car and need a ride home, at least you know you’ll be made relatively whole again at the end of the day. Make sure you understand any applicable deductibles and exclusions before you purchase.
Also, never count on your street insurance paying out for damage sustained at the track. In fact, always assume it won’t, no matter what that guy on Twitter said about asking forgiveness rather than permission — you won’t get it.
4 – Don’t drive tired, hungry or thirsty
Tracking a car is vigorous work, both mentally and physically. Professional drivers are athletes, not merely athletic. Behind safety requirements, the best reason to get a harness for your track car is that it relieves a significant amount of the burden you’re placing on your core and leg muscles to keep you steady and in the proper seating position with your neck vertical. While racers endure g-forces far more crushing than those you’ll encounter in a street car, they don’t have to do the clutch-to-dead-pedal dance and door-panel-shoulder-bracing maneuvers we street car drivers have to put ourselves through. Don’t get me wrong; they have it worse, but this is one of those drawbacks to tracking vehicles that weren’t really meant to do it day in and day out.
To that end, you need to eat and keep yourself hydrated. Both are easy to forget when you’re running on enthusiasm and adrenaline. Both can also be objectionably expensive things to do at a race track, so plan ahead. Hell, eat McDonalds if you have to. An old-fashioned double-cheese is cheap and nutrient-dense. Provided fast food doesn’t make you sick to your stomach, it’s way better than nothing. It’s not just your muscles that need nutrition. A malnourished, dehydrated brain is no better than a tired one, which means it’s no better than trying to drive drunk. Impaired judgment on a race track can do more than just ruin your fun; it can end your life or somebody else’s.
And do us all a favor and check your emotions at the door. There’s no place for “red mist” at a track day. If you can’t handle being passed, stick to autocross, or trolling people more talented than you on Twitter.
5 – Don’t be afraid to go home
In other words, beware the sunk cost fallacy. If your only reason for sticking around is the fact that you spent a lot of money to be there, that’s a sure sign that you should pack up and head home. No matter where you are in the process, things can only get more expensive, not less. Remember, this is a track day, not a race; you’re there to learn and have fun. If you find neither of those is motivating you, the absolute cheapest option at any given moment is to make what the same instructor I mentioned above liked to refer to as the “high-percentage” play — packing it in. Remember, it’s not just your own mistakes you have to worry about.
Don’t be like me
Since I’d come to the track alone, I sat for hours after my crash with nothing to do but reflect on what had led to it. One look at the left-rear tire had confirmed my initial suspicion: The violent snap-oversteer event was initiated by a blowout. I immediately felt sick. Hours earlier, during tech, I’d noticed that the tire was down a couple of pounds. I’d chalked it up to a warm sun rising on the opposite side of the car, heating them unevenly on a cold morning — cold enough to be concerning but not show-stopping for a car on summer performance tires. The left-front was down a pound or so, too; the math seemed to check out. I adjusted my parking job to give the left side some fresh rays and put a pound or two in the left rear to try to get it a little closer to equilibrium, just in case. I figured I could adjust back down after the morning session if I’d overshot.
Just a few weeks prior, I’d ordered a new set of anti-roll bars. The rear was an easy install with the wheels on, so I knocked it out in the driveway the day it arrived. Installing the front bar would require dropping the engine cradle, so I stuck it in the shed for later. I spent most of the intervening weeks traveling for work, so the first chance I really had to drive the car with the new rear-end setup was my drive to the track — a two-hour highway drive that started at about 5:30 a.m. to guarantee I got there in time for tech. I didn’t sleep a wink. But I’d paid for the event and was planning some comprehensive upgrades that would likely rule out any reasonable shot at track driving for the foreseeable future. Food? Hah. My stop at the gas station included a quick run in for an energy shot.
Maybe I picked something up in the paddock; maybe my first few laps of the session weren’t sufficient to warm my tires up; maybe the left-rear was just defective. What I know for sure is that once it went, I was relegated to the status of a passenger. The initial oversteer was far more violent than anything I’d experienced in the car prior; to make matters worse, my corrections didn’t do what I expected them to. No matter what I did, I couldn’t bring the nose back around to the left. I didn’t have time to fully wrap my head around the fact that only half my rear axle was doing its job, I knew only that the car wasn’t responding the way it was supposed to, and in my clouded state, my brain went to my last-ditch training: when you spin, put two feet in.
When people ask what happened, I say “tire failure.” It’s the truth, but not the whole truth. It would be comforting perhaps to lay blame entirely at the feet of equipment failure, but that’s ultimately dishonest. While a blowout on track can certainly be terrifying, in my case at least, it didn’t have to be catastrophic. Each mistake I made leading up to that loss of traction — trying to participate when I was exhausted, running an (incomplete) modified suspension I hadn’t had time to evaluate, failing to adequately maintain my equipment — cost me precious opportunity to correct the error.
But my biggest mistake was violating rule # 5. Anybody else could be breaking any number of these rules at any time; the only variable you can control is your own performance. I should have killed my alarm, rolled over and gone back to sleep. Don’t be afraid to go home.