While we know a lot of our readers have plenty of track time already under their belts, there are those among us who, for a multitude of reasons, have gazed upon race tracks from afar rather than personally putting rubber to the asphalt.
Maybe you’re unsure how to get started. Maybe you assume it’s too expensive, or that you don’t have enough experience, or that your car isn’t fast enough. Since 2015, the Sports Car Club of America’s Track Night in America Driven by Tire Rack program has been helping simplify the process for drivers of all experience levels while dispelling those aforementioned assumptions and providing a safe, inexpensive way to get your street car out on track.
“Track Night in America is, simply, about fun with cars,” said the SCCA’s Heyward Wagner when the program was first announced. “Traditional road courses have always been a bit of a secret society. This program is all about removing the mystery, eliminating hurdles and opening the doors so everyone can come play. Whether you’re a driver, friend or just hanging out, there is an experience for you at Track Night.”
And the word’s getting out: In 2015, the SCCA saw about 4000 entries for the program throughout the race season. Last year, that number jumped to more than 7,500. “We’ve also expanded the number of tracks we visit throughout the year,” says the SCCA’s Jim Llewellyn. “Now in the fourth year of the program, we’ll visit more than 30. As many have requested, we’ve got at March 15 session at Willow Springs in Southern California – and this date will be on “Big Willow.” In 2018, Track Night in America Driven by Tire Rack will also make first-ever visits to Auto Club Speedway, Dominion Raceway, La Junta Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.”
As Jim mentioned, among those recently added to the track roster was Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. About an hour from downtown LA, Auto Club is best perhaps best known for its two-mile banked oval, which has seen use in NASCAR, IndyCar and other professional racing series, but it’s also home to an infield sports car course that lets drivers stretch the legs of high horsepower cars in the straights while providing some fun technical elements as well. We were anxious to check out the program at this new venue, so we hopped on SCCA site and registered for the event right away – good thing too, because the groups filled up pretty quick.
Here we’ll cover some of the fundamentals about how to prep for a day at the track and then head out to the grid to show you what the SCCA’s Track Night program is all about.
Billed as “The Fastest Way To Get On Track”, Track Night in America is designed to take the guesswork out of the process of getting on track with your street car – be it a bone-stock daily driver or a highly modified, track-tuned road course monster.
In the simplest terms, drivers only need a few basics to get out on course – a mechanically-sound vehicle (no leaks, battery properly secured, etc), a Snell SA/K2010 (or newer) rated helmet, a driver’s license, and the entry fee (usually $150), and that’s about it. Though the SCCA typically limits the event to driver’s 18 years of age and older, special accommodations can be made for young drivers who have some motorsports experience and the consent of their parents, according to the Track Night rules and regulations.
After consulting the tech sheet, everything on our 2017 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat looked mechanically ready for show time – except for the tires. After a year-long honeymoon with the 707 horsepower muscle car, the factory Pirelli Pzeros looked like they’d seen better days. But the timing for the event couldn’t have been more serendipitous since Michelin recently added 34 new sizes for their latest Pilot Sport 4S high performance summer tire, including 275/40R20, which is the OEM tire size used with the factory wheels on non-widebody 2015 and newer Dodge SRT Challengers and Chargers, along with the Challenger T/A 392 and Charger Daytona 392, as well as R/T Scat Pack models with the Dynamics Package.
Ranked the number one max-performance summer tire by Tire Rack, the Pilot Sport 4S is the successor to the Pilot Super Sport and incorporates many of the track-focused performance attributes of the DOT-legal Pilot Sport Cup 2 competition tire while remaining a viable year-round performance tire option for both track and street use in drier climates like Southern California. Tested alongside other max-performance summer tires like the Pirelli Pzero, Continental ExtremeContact Sport, and Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3, the Pilot Sport 4S took the top spot in dry braking, wet braking, dry lap times and wet lap times, so it seemed like great fit for our Hellcat’s needs.
New rubber mounted and tech sheet compete, we headed off to Auto Club Speedway.
Getting On Track
As the Track Night name implies, the fun gets started a little later in the day than most track day events. A bit past noon, and once all the drivers had checked in, the SCCA’s Eric Clements assembled all the participants for a driver’s meeting. Here Clements covered the basics of on-track etiquette – passing rules, the meanings of different flags used by the track officials, and pertinent information about the course itself.
He also reminded the attendees that track days are not “races” in that drivers are not competing against one another. “There are no winners or losers at a track day,” he emphasized. “We all win if everyone goes home with a smile on their face.”
During registration, drivers are instructed to select a run group based on their experience. Those with little or no previous track time were placed in the Novice group, while those who had done high performance driving events previously could opt for the Intermediate or Advanced run groups. Advanced group drivers are given more leeway as far as passing rules go, the pace is quicker, and the expectations for on-track safety and behavior are higher.
“No previous on-track experience is required to join in on a Track Night event,” Llewellyn explains. “Drivers can participate in the Advanced, Intermediate or KONI Novice Experience groups so on-track activities remain fun for all, and there are a few SCCA driver coaches on site to provide some guidance and feedback.”
Dividing the drivers into groups based on experience prevents a large disparity in terms of speed and experience, making it easier for newcomers to get acclimated to track driving while allowing more advanced drivers a chance to open up the taps without worrying about the track etiquette of the other drivers they’re sharing the course with.
There are no winners or losers at a track day. We all win if everyone goes home with a smile on their face. – Eric Clements, Sports Car Club of America
Drivers, Start Your Engines
First up in the sequence of events is a paced parade lap session for Novice group drivers. Set at a low rate of speed, it allows those drivers to get a feel for the course layout at a pace where they can soak it all in while considering their lines and technique.
After each group meets for a pre-session briefing, run groups are sent out on track in twenty minute rotations, allowing most drivers to get in more than a dozen laps per session, and an hour of track time total throughout the day.
With the staggered track time, participants have a chance to let their vehicles cool down, check tire pressures, and talk shop with other drivers between on-track sessions. There was a healthy mix of cars at this event – everything from a factory-stock Subaru BRZ to a highly modified Lotus Exige, with plenty of muscle cars, sports cars, and even a few every day commuter cars that you might not expect to find lapping a road course out to have some fun.
And therein lies to the brilliance of Track Night in America: The sense of inclusion. The SCCA knows all too well that the gateway to becoming a track rat can be initially intimidating, and the idea here is to pare down the process into the bare necessities to help folks get started. And they also know that once you’re in, it might not be long before you’re competing in SCCA Solo events like autocross and time trials, or even stepping up to wheel to wheel competition before too long.
But even for those that don’t have aspirations of becoming the next Mario Andretti can find value in Track Night events, due in no small part to the low cost of entry and the SCCA’s emphasis on designing safe, fun events that cater to drivers of all levels of experience. “A lot of the success comes from the program simply being so enjoyable,” SCCA President Mike Cobb said in the announcement of the 2018 event calendar. “Even I plan to register for a couple Track Night sessions this year to hang out with other automotive enthusiasts and have fun with cars.”