Going to the Track? 10 Tips to Help You Race Like a Pro

Nissan Skyline GTR | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Nissan Skyline GTR | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re hot shit because you just got a “track pack” sports car and think that the local road course is going to get slapped silly with tire smoke this weekend. Did you know that it costs nearly $400,000 a week to field a NASCAR team (a single engine will run about $100K)? After attending numerous races, and witnessing everything that can go wrong on and off the track during our coverage of the 2016 One Lap of America, we can safely attest that the odds are against all of us.

While we have more experience reviewing cars on the street than ripping them around a track, we still ask for advice from the pros when the opportunity presents itself. Take our recent interactions with former Porsche GT champ Craig Stanton for instance, who piloted the Toyota Racing team’s Sienna minivan for the entire leg of the 2016 One Lap of America. After decades of racing, the longboard loving, down-to-earth speed demon sat down for a quick Q&A with us in order to offer a few pointers to anyone showing interest in the sport.

Craig Stanton
Craig Stanton | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

Simply put, it takes a lot more than just owning a fast car, spending boatloads of money, and showing a willingness to work on improving your driving skills. You have to start at the bottom and slowly work your way up, and even if you drive well on a particular afternoon, that doesn’t mean your car isn’t going to shit the bed on the way home, or be in such a sad state that you miss qualifying the next day.

The amount of time, money, energy, and dedication that go into making a race car driver successful are mind blowing, and the risks associated with racing are both expensive and dangerous. But if you really think you’ve got what it takes, and you don’t care if you spend large sums of cash on an already expensive mode of transportation, keep reading and don’t forget to adjust your life insurance premium accordingly.

1. Build a budget and choose a car

Blue Dodge Viper
Blue Dodge Viper | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

You won’t get very far if you can’t afford to keep a car running, so always start with a budget, then go about selecting a vehicle that compliments the kind of racing you are looking to get into. It’s also important to have a fat stash of cash set aside for the inevitable failures your car is going to throw in your face over the upcoming months, so save up more than you expect to use. Chances are you’ll need it down the line.

2. Get some gear and kart racing time in

Ariel Atom
Ariel Atom | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

When we use the word “gear,” we’re not just talking about buying a jack and a torque wrench and calling it a day; poor preparation can lose a race if you aren’t careful. You’ll need a pop-up tent to keep the sun and rain off your backs, scores of tarps to cover your tools in case of inclement weather, mechanic gloves, jack stands, plenty of replacement fluids, and back-up rounds of rubber in case you blow a flat, just to name a few.

Stanton says that while you wait on all those precious tools to arrive you should be brushing up on your driving game by partaking in regular rounds of go kart racing. This will help you develop a strong level of driving sense and a better feel for what to do when a difficult apex approaches.

3. Get to know your car

Racing wheels and brakes
Racing wheels and brakes | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

Once you’ve got some karting practice in, and your race car is safe and legal to drive on the open highway, take it out for a spin in order to familiarize yourself with all of its little quirks. Manual transmissions will act differently when a performance clutch and a lightweight flywheel are dropped in, and coilover suspension setups will need to be dialed in so that compression and rebound feel appropriate to the tracks you will be seeing. Any issues you foresee need to be jotted down at the next available rest stop or gas station, so that when you return to the shop you have a running list of things to look at and fine-tune.

4. Find an easy beginner track and a team

McLaren Racing
McLaren Racing | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After getting your car dialed in the way you like, it’s time to go hit the track, but before you do that, be sure to either have a group of friends who race along with you in similar vehicles, or a pit crew who can help out. This will make the entire experience more enjoyable, and you will have plenty of support when shit goes south out on track.

Speaking of race tracks, Stanton wouldn’t suggest you starting a new video game by taking on the biggest, baddest boss imaginable, and the same goes for racing. Start with a beginner level track and fly around it until you are so comfortable with its little quirks that you could do it blindfolded. This will not only build confidence, but it will also serve as a reference point down the line, when you need a touchstone to think back upon.

5. Choose the right track day

Dodge Viper
Dodge Viper | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While crappy weather can ruin an entire afternoon of fun, choosing a track day that suits your driving style and practicing with a group of drivers that aren’t having to work their way around you will make the entire experience a lot more rewarding. So check that weekend forecast, hop on a local track’s website to see what’s scheduled, and don’t forget to always come ready for rain.

6. Do your homework

Craig Stanton at the track
Craig Stanton at the track | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Some tracks will let you walk its entirety prior to driving on it. Stanton suggests buying a longboard or a scooter and perusing the perimeter in order to inspect every turn, and to familiarize yourself with everything up close. He also recommends watching any videos of people going around the track online, as this will give you a strong sense of what to expect.

7. Know your track day do’s and don’ts

wrecked car
Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

All tracks have rules, and while the majority of them are the same everywhere you go, unique ones do pop up on occasion at various venues. Stanton says hopping on a track’s website and looking over the list of regulations is a definite must, and that proper behavior in the staging lanes and paddock are often just as important as what occurs out on the course. We don’t want you getting black-flagged on your first day, because that would just ruin everything.

8. Get your recording equipment ready

Dodge Viper
Dodge Viper | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

A series of GoPro cameras can make all the difference in the world, and by outfitting the interior and exterior of your car with them, you gain the ability to document every move and mistake made on race day. Taking all these recordings, and syncing them up later at home, allows you to see firsthand what the car did wrong in a certain turn, and if it was your fault from behind the wheel.

9. Race like hell while respecting the rules

One Lap racing van
One Lap racing van | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

When the green flag flies it’s time to see if everything you’ve done in preparation for this moment will pay off. Just remember the rules, be courteous to others, and hit the track as hard as you can. Naturally, some form of strategy must be implemented as well in order to preserve things like tires and fuel, so don’t go overkill on the throttle or cornering sharply, especially if you plan on driving the vehicle home afterward.

10. There’s always room for improvement

Race helmet
Race helmet | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

Stanton’s final tip is a sobering one — after dozens of years behind the wheel, even he admits that he could be better. There is no final level of mastery for this sport, and the sooner you realize that the better. So recognize what you do right, note the areas where you could stand to see some improvement, and get back to practicing and fine-tuning your car, because winners aren’t born in this sport, they are built.