Michael Johnson's Track Guide

Authored by SDC Head Coach: Michael Ryan Johnson

Welcome to your first track day! This will certainly be an exhilarating experience and with a little preparation, one of the most fun days you can imagine. As a race driving coach, I have had the opportunity to share in this day with many drivers, and I wanted to pass along the keys to help you set yourself up for success to help you make the most of your day while keeping yourself and others on the track safe. This guide shouldn’t be considered ‘all inclusive,’ but the tip of the iceberg into learning this wonderful sport of track driving. Furthermore, your track day group will offer other important information as well as a drivers meeting, as they will have information specific to your event. As your first step into the world of motorsports, have an incredible first day of many and enjoy this sport as much as I and so many others have.

Goals:

All drivers arrive at their first track day with varying levels of motoring experience. The first and most important part is that we get through this first day safe and with our and others’ equipment all intact. There will be lots of days in the future we can focus on going fast, but day one should be focused on safe driving along with learning about our machine, track day etiquette, and ourselves as a driver as we embark into this new form of high performance driving. It is always eye opening for so many drivers as they head on track for the first time how the physics change when you go from highway speeds to track speeds.

Track Safety rules and Etiquette

While driving on track there is potential for danger, so there are thoughtful rules along with systems in place to help track officials communicate with drivers along with driver-to-driver communication so everyone can have a great time on track and know what is going on around them.

TRACK RULES

  • Paddock speed limit is typically 10 miles per hour. Please be careful because kids, dogs and people on their cell phones posting about their day at the track are walking around and not paying attention.
  • Hot pit speed limits are between 20-35 miles per hour (confirm with your local track). Also, it is recommended not to do burn outs on cold tires when you have been released onto track. It is very embarrassing to hit the pit lane wall before you get to the track.
  • Windows down – Many track day groups require you to drive with your windows down so you can make quick ‘point bys’ if another car catches you.
  • Pre-Grid – Before you head on track you can select where in the group you want to start. If it is your first time on track, it is encouraged to go at the back of the group. By doing this you can see the others go out first as well as not feel the pressure of having anyone behind you (to start with at least). As you start to learn where you fit in with the group, you can start moving up in the group.
  • Pit Exit/Track Entry – As you enter the track, stay within the pit blend line as you build up to speed. Do not cut in front of faster moving vehicles for the sake of joining the normal driving line.
  • If for some reason your car becomes stationary on track, stay in your car, unless it is on fire. It is much safer to be inside a vehicle near a live track than being exposed to other vehicles while on foot.
  • Track Day Insurance is available.

FLAGS

  • Green – the track is live, enjoy!
  • Yellow / standing – Warning, reduce speed, there is something you should be aware of that is not necessarily on the track but could be dangerous, no passing until you see a green flag or a flag station not displaying a yellow.
  • Yellow / Waving (could include the flag person jumping up and down) – Warning, reduce speed, there is something that is on the track that you will have to take deviate your normal line to avoid, absolutely no passing.
  • Two Yellow Flags (standing) – full course caution, often displayed on the first lap of a session, no passing.
  • Black – Return to pits. This can be for several reasons: if displayed for the entire field, the entire group should return to the pits, often because someone is stranded and fire and safety needs to tow them back in. Alternatively, it could be shown for you specifically, and the grid steward wants to speak to you. Return to pits and stop to speak with them to understand and resolve the issue. As a word to the wise, track workers are here to help you, so shouting at them is not the answer.
  • Checkered Flag – The session is finished, return to the pits.

Important, but less frequently used flags:

  • Red Flag – Bring your car to a stop as soon as it is safe to do so, ideally within sight of a flag station and off line. A red flag is displayed for an emergency on track and fire and safety crews will be rolling as soon as the cars stop. While this is an emergency stopping situation, make sure not to slam on your brakes when this flag is displayed, as the driver behind you may not have seen the flag.
  • Blue Flag with yellow stripe – This is an indication that a faster vehicle has caught you and you should check your mirrors to let them pass at the next safe opportunity.
  • White Flag – Depending on your organization, and typically in a track day environment, this means emergency vehicles or slow moving vehicles are on track and be cautious. Alternatively, in NASCAR, the white flag means there is one lap to go.
  • Black flag with orange circle (meatball flag) – This is a mechanical black flag. There is something wrong with your vehicle and you should pit immediately and be aware you could be making the situation worse the more you drive.
  • Black flag (rolled up) and pointed at you – This is the flag man's way of saying that he saw what you did and is a warning that he doesn’t like it. If you continue, he will unfurl the black flag and you can have the opportunity to speak with him about it.
  • Yellow flag with red stripes (Debris flag) – this flag indicates there is something on the track. This could be used for anything from oil, to a bumper or a car that went off track and carried a lot of sand/dirt on the track.


POINT-BY'S

In order to keep all participants safe and communicating, track days use a system called ‘point-by’s to facilitate overtaking of other drivers. If it is your first day on track, you are going to be giving a lot of point by’s! Very simply, if another car catches up to you, the next time you enter a straight (some track day groups will only allow certain areas for this), simply extend your arm out the window in the direction you want them to pass (or over the roof if it is on the passenger side). The more visible you can make this signal, the better. Depending on the car that is passing you, sometimes you will even need to lift off the throttle some to facilitate their pass (the light weight cars tend to be very quick and nimble in the corners, creating a good lap time, but they do not always have the punch on the straights).

It is important to hold your normal driving line (do not try and pull out of the way for the passing driver, or we get into a game of standoff).

Sometimes a car will catch you in an inopportune place for a point by. Simply wait a few corners until a preferable place, then point them by. The same goes if you are the passing driver and a helpful driver tries to point you by in a bad place, you can always wait until a better place.

If someone has caught up to you it means they are either in a faster car or are driving better than you. When you point someone by, it is a great opportunity to pay attention to their lines, see what they are doing and learn from them.

OVERTAKING

As an aside, by not pointing people by, this is one of the easiest ways to make non-friends at a track day event by not adhering to this etiquette.

As you start to build speed and gain confidence, you will certainly start to be on the other end of the point by’s! When you approach a slower car, it is preferable to hold a safe distance (perhaps 3-4 car lengths behind them). By flying up and tailgating someone, you can make them uncomfortable which may lead to them making a mistake and their problem can become your problem. Wait patiently behind them, or move into their mirrors if you are on a straight and they haven’t pointed you by. Once they give the point by, simply drive by them in the direction they indicate, but as you do, make sure you are finding your braking points. It is very easy to make the pass and forget to brake and go flying off the course!

Also, as a good habit, as you make the pass, it is best not to cut across someone to get back on line, especially if you are just arriving at a braking zone as their vehicle might not brake as well as yours.

In the instance you find yourself stuck behind another driver who simply isn’t giving you a point by, the reality is, they are probably well over their own limit and don’t realize you are even there. If this continues for a lap or two, you can always pass through the hot pit and indicate to the grid steward you would like some track space by indicating with your hands. They will send you back out in some clear air and you can get back to your drive!

EXITING THE COURSE

After a cool down lap and immediately before you enter the pits, a closed fist (“Rock on”) out the driver side window indicates you are heading to the pit lane. Remember the pit speed limit as you come off track and 10 mph speed limit in the paddock which will feel incredibly slow after you session on track!


Track Driving Techniques - Basics

As mentioned previously, our first goal on track is safety. There will be significant differences from road/street driving so you should be prepared to learn and adapt to those new techniques. Enjoy the process and learning as much as you can! You are the captain of your ship. There is no excuse for spinning or losing control.


COACHING

Many track day organizations offer some sort of instructor/mentorship from more advanced drivers for first timers. While these are certainly well intentioned, a professional race driving coach can be invaluable at this stage. Having a professional with you can help you build a good driving foundation, dramatically cutting your learning curve and provide ample warning if things are going south. If you can arrange it, I would highly recommend adding one to your program to make sure you are starting off on the right foot rather than having to fix bad habits later.

TRACK DRIVING PROGRESSION

Start off slow. Crawl before you walk, walk before you jog, jog before you run – When you drive on track start your first session of the day at a comfortable pace. As you learn more about the track, gradually build up the pace each session. It takes hundreds of laps to learn a circuit, so don’t think you are going to set your fast lap straight out of the box. You should always be in control of your car and if you feel that slipping away, slow down.


DRIVER POSITION

Before you head on track, take a moment to adjust your seat and steering wheel to create an active and engaged driving position. Your seat should be close enough to the pedals to allow you fully depress the brake pedal and still have a slight bend in your knee. Vision is key, so you want to be seated high enough in the car, relatively upright to see well out the front of the car, while leaving at least a closed fist between the top of your helmet and the roof of the car. To test the distance to the steering wheel: whilst sitting back in the seat with arms extended straight, your wrist should break at the top of the steering wheel. Hands lightly grasp the steering wheel at 9 & 3, with a gentle bend in the elbows.


WARM-UP LAPS

As you head onto track, you always want to take a lap or two to gently build up speed. Not only does this serve an opportunity to bring tires, brakes and motor up to operating temperatures, but it allows you, the driver, to warm up as well! Think about it, professional baseball players don’t go out and start firing 100 mph fast balls, why should we as drivers?


VISION

Look where you want the car to go. As you start to learn and understand the circuit, simply trace ahead with your eyes precisely where you want the car to go. The faster you go, the further down the road you will need to look.


BRAKING

Braking is one of the single biggest differences between road and track driving. When driving on track the force we use on the brake pedal is significantly greater than what we use on the street and can even engage the car’s anti-lock braking system. As a general rule you want to brake hard, in a straight line, before the bend so the car is settled and can take the corner at a safe speed. It is a good practice to be mindful of braking reference points (brake boards) and remember at precisely which point you braked the previous lap, so you can dial in your braking over time. Remember, there is only a small lap time penalty by braking early and a big penalty for braking too late.


CORNERING 101

Once the car has slowed to a suitable speed, you want to take the driving line, or path of least resistance through a corner. This is specific to each corner, but typically you will set up wide on approach, tight at the center or apex of the corner, and wide again on the exit, utilizing all of the available track. This creates a smooth arc and allows the car to carry the maximum amount of speed through the corner. Some corners, or complex sequences of corners do not follow this rule precisely.


THROTTLE

As we exit the corner, straighten the steering wheel and gradually squeeze onto the throttle. It is easy enough to slam down the gas pedal, but this will often times upset the car causing a loss of traction or in the worst cases can cause a spin.


SMOOTH = FAST

By having smooth inputs on the controls (throttle, braking, and steering) the car will remain balanced, so you want to develop a fluid driving style early in your track driving. If you are consistently “milking the cow,” as they say in Germany, you will struggle to find consistency or speed later in your driving.


SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

While you are on track you should be aware of everything going on ahead as well as behind you. Scan the corners ahead as well as keep an eye on the flag stations around the track. Additionally, you should take a quick glance into the rear-view mirror on straightaways to keep an eye on any cars that might be catching you in order to point them by.


COOL-DOWN LAP

At the end of your driving session, once you see the checkered flag, reduce speed and do a cool down lap allowing cool air to flow through the brakes and cooling systems of the car. Ideally, you will coast up to the corners so you don’t have to use the brakes as much. By allowing the brake system to cool down properly you can double the life of your brake systems.

CONCLUSION

I hope you found this guide informative as you prepare for your first track day. I wish you all of the luck and fun for what I hope is only the first step into a journey into a world which has offered some of the greatest experiences and opportunities one could ever hope for.


Sincerely,
Michael Ryan Johnson @mjdrive22 www.mjdrive.global