Your first track day
Track days are pretty informal affairs, but there’s still a process to get through before you’re allowed out on the circuit. Where track days really beat racing hands down is with the general lack of hassle and hanging around. No trailering, no scrutineering, and no waiting for nine other practice sessions to finish before you get to have your blast on the big, black track.
That’s not to say it’s just a matter of driving to the circuit then slotting onto the track for instant action though. Nothing’s quite that simple after all, and all track days operate to rules and regulations of some sort. These tend to differ depending on the organiser and some will be stricter than others often with the highly worthy intention of maximising the track time for all involved. This affects the price and quality of the day.
At the track
First job is to sign on, showing your driving licence and handing in your pre-signed indemnity form which you should have had through the post or by email with instructions and directions the week before. If you haven’t, don’t panic. The same info is usually available on the website, as are indemnity forms. And even if you forget your form, you’ll find them on the day at the track, too. Once you’ve signed the sheet, you’re usually given a wristband (some organisers give two – one to prove that you’ve attended a safety briefing), as well as a handful of stickers and a voucher. One of the stickers will be your number which should be stuck to the car so you can be identified and pulled off the track if you’re especially naughty while another might indicate the sessions you will go out in, if it’s a sessioned day.
Essentially, track days can either be divided up into sessions, where people of similar experience are grouped together so that the quicker guys will not continually trip over the slower, and the slower runners do not feel they are getting in the way of the ‘hotshoes’, or open pit lane, which means you can go out when you like. Each has its advantages, and it’s really a matter of deciding what suits you best. Even on an open pit lane day, you’re unlikely to want to drive for more than 20 minutes at a time.
Once the stickers are fixed on you might want to remove or tape up your headlights and then run through some safety checks, sometimes from a checklist provided.
It’s mostly common sense: tyre pressures checked, mirrors adjusted, wheel nuts tightened, loose odds and ends taken out of the car, is there enough fuel, that sort of thing.
By now it’s about time for your briefing, which again is largely informal though compulsory and dwells upon the safety aspects of the day. Track procedure is explained such as driving on the right where the line allows and overtaking on the left and not in the corners and the flag signals in use are also made clear.
Something else to listen out for is the way the corners are marked. Most operators use a system of cones to mark the line as closely as possible – turn in, apex and exit of the corner. Braking points are not marked, after all, when there’s anything from a Mini to a Supersports racer on track that sort of thing is pretty subjective.
The local knowledge of the instructors helps too. After all, these guys are the experts. For example, if it rains in the weeks after the GP at Silverstone, the rubber laid by the F1 boys gets pretty slick.
There are other warnings, mostly along the lines of don’t beach it in the gravel bed as it ends the session and your day, don’t overtake in the braking area or the corners, and always use your mirrors. Also, the point that this is strictly non-competitive is hammered home and any sort of timing equipment is banned from track days, which is why they’re allowed in the first place so please abide by the rule. Get used to UK track days and you’ll soon hanker after European playgrounds like Spa-Francorchamps.
Q. Why do track days exist?
Track days started out as little more than a few mates hiring a race circuit and having a day’s fun. Pretty soon people cottoned on to the fact that with the perils of speed cameras, traffic and fear of a blue light flashing in your rear view mirror, the days of fast road driving were in decline. So much so that the track day movement is now a fully-fledged phenomenon with a track day of some sort taking place nearly every day somewhere on another in the spring/summer. Here are some questions and answers that will help you if you’re new to track days or may be of interest even if you’re not.
Q. So what happens at a track day then?
Track days are a way of enjoying yourself and your car in a safe controlled environment away from the public highway. There are many operators, and prices can range from 60 quid to £400 for a days fun, depending on the company and the circuit booked.
Q. What’s the benefit of airfield days?
Airfield days are great for the beginner, due to the wide-open spaces, and are ideal places for novices to cut their teeth. Even if you spin wildly, there’s usually nothing to hit, which makes them great places to discover your limits. Plus, they are usually cheaper than conventional race-circuits such as Silverstone or Brands Hatch. The only negatives can be fairly abrasive surfaces so high on tyre wear as well as a lot of gravel and loose chippings at some venues which can flick up and chip your car.
Q. Do I need a race licence?
Not if you’re just doing straightforward track days, but you must take your ordinary driving licence and of course it must be valid. One point worth noting is that if you’re going to a day where you will be driving either the circuits or the organisers own cars, they might get a bit sniffy if you have been banned or currently have six or more points on your licence. Also ensure that you’re booked on a track day, and not a test day, which is only for those with race licences.
Q. I’m not that fast, will I look foolish?
No, not at all. Track day companies have full driver briefings and instruction available for novices so don’t worry even if you’ve never been on a track before in your life. Plus, everyone with an Atom isn’t an ex-racer (although there are some). Most people have them for fun, so any speed is fine. Plus, you could be in an Atom 160 and someone in a 300 will look quicker, simply because their car is. However, don’t get carried away, take your time and learn your limits. Operators see too many people turn up thinking they are Jason Plato only to go into the cat litter on their first lap. Be warned – marshals can spot a twat a mile away and any on-track shenanigans will result in a ticking off or even being sent home and possibly blacklisted. Follow instructions and you’ll have a great time.
Q. Will I need a crash helmet?
You’ve almost certainly already got one for the road use of an Atom and you will be required to wear it. Nomad owners may not have that advantage. ACU stickers etc. aren’t compulsory, but you are on a race track, and racers these days don’t wear cloth caps! Make sure it’s up to the job. If you’re taking passengers who don’t have their own lid, most track day operators have helmets you can hire for the day, but make sure they also have disposable paper liners!
Q. I haven’t got any overalls, does that matter?
On a long and tiring day, the emphasis is on comfort so racing overalls aren’t de rigeur. However, in an Atom or Nomad, you don’t get much protection from the elements, so make sure you’re warm enough, given that wind chill will be a major factor. You’ll probably need waterproofs occasionally, too. Whatever, arms must be covered at all times in an Atom or Nomad on UK track days. A couple of pieces of ‘proper’ equipment are strongly recommended, though. Race boots and driving gloves do make driving easier.
Q. Does my car have to be prepared?
Atoms live for the track and are built with that in mind. However, it’s always a good idea to check all fluid levels and tyre pressures (which may need to be reduced as pressure increases as they heat up). Make sure you’ve got enough fuel, as you’ll use more than you imagine and track day organisers will have your guts for garters if you run out on track. If you’re planning to do lots of track days, it is a good idea to look at brake upgrades because you’ll be surprised at how much of a pounding pads and discs will receive although not as much as a regular saloon, because Atoms and Nomads are so light that it takes a lot less to stop them! As with anything, modifications are entirely up to you and can easily be arranged with the factory. Noise will be a factor, because each circuit has a different decibel limit but most Ariel cars pass most circuit noise tests in unmodified trim (though they’re unlikely to pass with the increasingly popular sports exhaust).
Q. What about tyres?
As long as you don’t go nuts around corners, the road tyres fitted to an Atom or Nomad as standard are fine for a day’s activities. However, if you get hooked on tracks, you may wish for more grip in the corners. Then you can go for a road legal track tyre like the Yokohama A048-R or if you have a trailer go for slicks! Either way, make sure they are the same overall size as your road tyres so that you won’t have trouble with binding on the wings or it affecting the gearing too much.
Q. What about all the flags, do I have to learn them?
Don’t panic – because the marshals have ways of making themselves understood! You will quickly pick up the meanings of the flags. The most frequent one you will come across is the YELLOW flag, which means that there’s danger ahead of you so take extra care. The most frequent use is to warn you of a ‘spinner’ on the track ahead. If the yellow is being waved then slow down and be prepared for anything.
A RED flag means there’s been an incident out on the circuit and the session has been stopped. This could be a car stalled across the track, or someone may have had an off that needs removing to the pits. There could be all sorts of emergency vehicles out on track going in all sorts of directions. So slow down to a crawl and make your way back to the pits or as directed.
A YELLOW & RED striped flag means there’s oil on the circuit, so take care.
A BLUE flag means that one car is holding up another and should let the other car overtake. You’ll see a lot of these waved at cars in front of you, if you’re in an Atom. Whenever you see one, take a good look in your mirrors, though, it’s possible that a Radical or Formula 3000 is coming up behind you even if you’re behind someone else.
One flag you don’t want to see, especially if it’s being aimed at you is the BLACK flag. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been naughty and are about to get an ear bashing. It more often means that there’s something wrong with your car that you don’t know about. For example, early Mk2s had a fuel overspill problem (now sorted) which spewed petrol all over tracks when the tank was full. Porsches have been known to be on fire without the owner being aware of it! Either way, come straight into the pits and park at the marshals’ post.
Q. Which side do I overtake on?
At the drivers’ briefing in the morning, you will get exact and precise instructions on procedures to follow. At nearly all events you will usually overtake on the left and if someone wants to go by, let them if you can. Of course, if you’re not sure then hold station, it is always the overtaker’s responsibility to find the safest way past a slower car. By the same token, if a driver has clearly been courteous and moved over for you, give them a cheery wave!
Q. Will my standard insurance cover me for track days?
Probably not (although some policies now include four or five trackdays), meaning that if you biff your pride and joy you’re on your own, and although the organisers will have insurance, it will only be for public liability. If you are UK-based, you could take advantage of the Ariel Club policy created by Towergate. This policy includes track day cover for all organised events and is very competitive for normal road cover, too. Otherwise, you have two options: you can speak to a specialist insurer such as Competition Car Insurance (0115 941 5255) who can quote you on bespoke track day cover if you wish, but the cover will cost about £250 for the day; or you can risk it and run uninsured. Just a note, though – if you have an off and bend the chassis and need a new one, you’re likely to be looking at £10k plus.
This guide was written for Ariel Atoms in 2010 by Bruce Fielding. It has since been tweaked.