Avoiding Common Mistakes At Your First Track Day

By Guest Contributor

May 02, 2016

Image: Wiki Commons

This week’s column comes to us from Scott Huntington.
Scott is an automotive journalist from central Pennsylvania with a penchant for performance. His work can be found on Yahoo Autos, Hooniverse, On Pit Road, and more. Here Scott shares some insight on how to avoid some often-made mistakes that can befall track day newcomers. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington or check out his blog, Off The Throttle. -ed
It's your first track day, and you're excited to finally be there.  You may have the guts, but are you prepared to handle a road course? Many first-timers make mistakes. Here are some common ones that you can address before you get out there on the track or attend your first autocross event:
If there's one thing to remember about driving — or any sport, really — it's that someone will always be better than you. Someone will be faster, more skilled and more experienced. It's just the way this thing works.
Image: Wiki Commons
What should matter to you is your own capabilities and limits. Trying to outperform others without getting a feel for the track will bring trouble (and maybe embarrassment). You can try as hard as you like, but you can't rush a learning curve here.
Not Using All of the Track
Professional drivers use every inch of the track available to them. Why? It helps their lap times. The science is simple: The more track area you use, the more turning radius you have and more speed through the corners.
During practice laps, you should make sure your tires are slightly touching the flat curbs along the edge of the track. This is the way to know you are using all of the track. But use caution — inches matter, and some curb-running can help or hurt your lap times. Plus, doing this is slightly more dangerous.
Yet, when you get good at it, it pays off on the clock.
Getting a Case of Leadfoot
It's easy for beginners to think that flooring it will bring good lap times. But don't just drive with the big toe, treat the throttle as an extension of your body.
You have to accelerate gradually, especially when it comes to turning. You may think that cars with traction control systems prevent spin-outs when exiting a corner. But even the computer can overcompensate, killing your power and speed needed to finish a turn strong.
To get out of this habit, pay more attention to your car's feedback and its limits.
Getting Frustrated with Early Results
A major common problem is to take a few laps and then get annoyed that your times aren’t as good as you’d like them to be. What newcomers need to remember is that you won’t break any records on your first day. You likely won’t even finish near the top. Go in realizing that you’ll start slow and then improve and you.
The team at CJ Pony Parts when out last year, and for one of them, a guy named Magoo, it was his first time doing autocross. When talking about his experience, they say “He was definitely nervous going into it, but his fellow autocrossers… all helped put him completely at ease. Every one of Magoo's passes got faster. He started at 86 seconds and, throughout the day, shaved a full 20 seconds off of that time.” They go on to say that he learned more and more about his cars handling on each lap.
Apexing Too Early
This is a common mistake, which is why this common rule exists: If you go into a turn too early, there's a good chance you'll fly off the track.
Your brain tricks you into entering the apex early when you're speeding up to a turn. The extra radius feels safe at first, but you quickly find that you have a huge amount of understeer. After exiting the turn, you have to cut off a huge amount of speed. It's no fun at all!
Ideally, you should make the corner in as straight a line as you can manage. It's always better to go in slow and come out fast.
Not Keeping Eyes on the Prize
When you first started driving, you were probably taught to look at the road and maybe what was 15 or 20 feet ahead of you. When you’re on the track, you need to imagine what your car will be doing hundreds of feet ahead.
This is especially important when you're driving a faster car, or driving your own car much faster than you’re  used to.  As speed increases, your sight should be farther ahead. Keep your eyes up into each corner: Your turn, braking and steering wheel control will all follow.
Braking in the Middle of a Turn
Oddly enough, too much deceleration can be as much of an issue as too much acceleration. Braking during turns is an understandable mistake that can be caught early.
Many novice drivers may feel like they enter a corner too fast, so they brake. Unfortunately, this can upset the vehicle dynamics and send you flying off course.
This is why practicing turns is so important. If you know the turns, you'll find that you need to brake before entering, achieving a comfortable speed as you ease into the turn. Then, you can work your way up to faster speeds.
Follow those tips and you’ll make sure your first day at the track is a great one.