At the time of writing, I have been racing wheel to wheel for about 4 years now. Looking back at when I started there were some things I did well and others that I had wished I had done. Here are some tips for getting started in wheel to wheel racing. Many of them also apply to those starting out with track days or taking their first steps in getting a competition license.
Make Sure you are Hydrated, Rested and Fed.
It was a little surprising to me how tired I was after my first few weekends of racing. When you look at an SCCA or NASA race weekend schedule you might get 2-3 hours of track time and another 2 hours if you are doing the test day prior. Over the course of the 2-3 days this might not seem like a lot, but it can be very taxing as you are constantly concentrating and learning in the car. Make sure you have adequate sleep each night, are drinking plenty of water and eating. These will all help you bounce back and recover from your on track sessions. I remember being very nervous and excited one weekend before the race and stayed up watching track videos and messing around looking at my data. While the study time might have helped, not getting enough sleep and being tired clearly wasn’t helping my performance the next day.
Like most beginners at any sport or activity your first experience is likely to be humbling. People that gravitate towards racing often think they are great drivers. To be honest they probably are better drivers on the street than most, but there is more to racing than taking the on ramp faster. Come into the race weekend looking to learn without the ego and you will get more out of it. It is always nice to be faster than someone, but I have seen a few beginners get disheartened because they are not winning from the start or are several seconds of the pace. Come into the weekend knowing you have a lot to learn and you will get more out of it, plus your ego won’t be as bruised at the end of it.
Introduce Yourself to People
One thing I did my first few race weekends was make it a habit to walk around the paddock a little and introduce myself to other racers in my class and run group. Part of the fun of racing is all the great people that share a love of cars and racing. Getting to chin wag with your mates is always part of the fun on a race weekend. Introducing myself also helped out me on track as people knew I was a novice and so were more polite out on track without dive-bombing me, or at least I like to think so.
Ask For Help
Another benefit of having introduced myself to the others racers was that I got lots of tips, pointers and advice. These included car positioning, shift points, braking references and even sitting with me to go over my video. I can’t thank those kind people enough as it really helped me improve my lap times. Consequently, I got down to the actual wheel to wheel racing a lot quicker than if I was trying to work it all out myself. Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help at the racetrack. Most drivers I know are great welcoming people and are more than happy to help out, at least until you start beating them. Racers are there to race they want someone to race against. No one wants to race where it is a glorified track day with all the cars spaced out. People will help you get up to speed and competing as they want to have some fun passing too. Some racers will offer this up freely but with others all you have to do is ask. Looking back I got a lot of help but I know if I had asked more questions and approached more people I probably would have learned quicker than I did.
Attend Events as a Spectator or Volunteer
I attended an event or two before I got started racing. I had originally attended the events to learn more about the cars and classes to help narrow what kind of car I wanted to race. Looking back though, I learned a lot more than I had initially realized. Each event and track is different has a different schedule, has different areas of the paddock that are used for different things. Going to the event helped me understand a little about how a race day runs and what happens. I would highly recommend checking out a few events in your area. I learned about why there were these empty spaces where no one was parking, that looked too perfect to be spectator parking. They were for gridding up the cars before they went out on track and inspecting cars after they came off the track. I saw how the various worker disciplines wore different colours to differentiate them. I was even able to talk to several drivers in the various classes and ask them more about what was involved. Not only did I get to see some great racing for free but I came away with key knowledge. The info I had learned helped me to be more relaxed at my first race weekend as I already knew what was going on. You can even volunteer at events and be a worker to learn even more.
Get Good Safety Gear
When looking at your first set of safety gear most starting racers myself included want to spend way more money on the race car and very little on the actual gear. I highly recommend you don’t buy the cheapest gear you can find but spend a little money and buy better gear. I am not saying bankrupt yourself so you can’t afford to race by buying the best ultra-light gear used in Formula 1. Instead buy some middle of the range gear. Most club racers starting out will likely use the same suit and helmet for 3-5 years so you want to get something comfortable and suited to your climate. Many of the cheaper suits are made of thick, bulky material that can get very hot and uncomfortable in the car. If you are ice racing this might be fine but running in the middle of summer in California and you can quickly overheat. Middle of the range gear tends to have a better fit, be lighter and in general is more comfortable. It might be a little more expensive then the bargain stuff but it will definitely be worth it over the next 3-5 years. Talk to your local safety gear supplier and if there is one in your area go visit their showroom, try things on and ask questions.
Rent A Car
A few racers start out planning to build a racecar and go racing. Many of these racers sink large sums of money and time into a car trying to get it completed and go racing. Some of these racers never make it. They spend so much money and time on the car they don’t or can’t finish it and miss the entire racing season. I recommend if you want to go racing, start by renting a car. It is a great way to try different cars and get started without the additional hurdles of building or buying your first racecar. The other good thing is you can try different classes and see which you like best. You also don’t have to worry about storing, transporting and maintaining it and can just focus on your driving. To find cars to rent in your local area check your SCCA or NASA region website and if they have a monthly magazine check the classified section, there are normally plenty of Spec Miatas, Spec Racer Fords and a few Formula and Production race cars ready to rent.
Focus On Your Performance
My first weekend I knew I wasn’t going to be breaking lap records or winning races but I thought I was going to do better. I hadn’t come into it as a learning experience. I told myself I was there to have fun, but really I wanted to be mid-pack competitive. As I pointed the fast guys by and saw the timesheets I knew I wasn’t very fast. I looked at the competitors around me and was disappointed I wasn’t as fast as them. I tried to not let it show but I was a little bummed. Looking back though I was focusing on the wrong things. I should have been looking at my performance and focusing on how well I was doing and improving compared to previous sessions. Throughout the weekend I had gotten faster, my lap times were always improving, I was more comfortable in the car and clearly getting the hang of understanding this racing thing. I should have been focusing on my own performance. I would have had more fun and been less disappointed if I had realized at the time how good my accomplishments were instead of looking at the performance of other people. After all these people had been racing in this class for many years. So focus on yourself and your own performance, don’t make the same mistake I did.
A few quick driving tips for those starting out in racing. You have probably heard these before but I can tell you they are true and actually work. I know because I did them.
Look Where You Want To Go
The car really does go where you look. The times I have spun off and ended out in the weeds I can attribute to looking at the post or sign or wall and not wanting to hit it rather than focusing on getting back on track. I highly recommend you spend a lot of the test and practice sessions looking where you want the car to go and looking at all the details; cracks in pavement, changes in curbing and colour or texture changes in pavement. All these reference markers will help you know if you are in the right place. Looking further ahead will help you build up your driving knowledge as you will start to predict when another car is going to spin, go two wheels off or hit the brakes because they missed the apex or turn in. A light bulb went off for me when I stopped thinking of a corner as turn-in, apex, track out and instead as a long sweeping arc. Looking through the turn as an arc really helped my lap times improve. I was no longer driving around connecting the dots, I was trying to drive the car at the limit. Also know you are going to be slower than the hot shoes so watch your mirrors and be aware.
Focus on Exit Speed
The next big step in improvement I noticed was when it clicked that being able to get to full throttle earlier was faster. If you have ever watched movies it is always the late braking, jerking the wheel and banging through the 10 to 12 speed gearbox that is fast. Nope. I have found that if I want to be fast, I need to get to the car slowed downed, rotated and to full throttle at or near the apex to be fast off the corner. When I realized this by accident on a cool down lap in the car, I was amazed. Of course I had read books, listened to interviews and watched videos and knew this to be true but until I actually did it on the racetrack I didn’t know how much faster it was. You could actually see the lap timer ticking down in front of your eyes. So once you feel good about your vision. Focus on your exit speed if you can’t get to full throttle at or near the apex, most likely you didn’t slow the car enough.
The most important thing about starting in racing though is have fun! Sure it can be a challenge and frustrating but if you are not having fun what is the point. I look forward to seeing you racing.