Track day at Thunderhill

Intro

A few months ago, I decided that I would attend a track day.  The story of all the stuff I had to do to finally end up at the track is another story … this blog post is going to be about my actual track day experience this weekend.

First of all, the track I ended up at was Thunderhill Raceway Park.  It's really in the middle of nowhere … a good 3 hour drive from Mountain View and 1.5 hours north of Sacramento.  I decided to attend through one of the many driving event/performance driving companies in the area … in this case, Hooked on Driving.  At 285 bucks, this wasn't one of the cheaper events in the area … but as it turns out, we were running with a really high quality group of people … so, depending on your attitude, the extra few bucks might indeed be worth it.  I think I've seen other events run as low as $180.

Second, the car I was taking up was an 2000 Porsche Boxster (non-S).  A fun little car … not too much punch, but good around corners and very balanced with a decent top speed.

The night before

I booked myself a room in Willows, CA (which is the closest town) for Friday so that I could get a good night's sleep before the event on Saturday.  I left Mountain View at 9 PM, stopped for food, and ended up in Willows around 12:20 or so.  It was a clean and uneventful drive and time passed more quickly than I expected.

I ended up staying at the Days Inn, which, despite being the second best rated hotel in the area, still seemed like a slightly dumpy outdoors hotel for around 90 bucks a night.  For a really sketchy budget stay, there are Super 8's and Baymont Inn's around which have pretty bad reviews on the Internet.  Those would run you about 60 bucks.  I'm not very picky at all but, in this case, I decided not to risk it.  The best of the local hotels seems to be the Holiday Inn Express, at around 115 a night.

The morning

The event registration started at 7 AM and driver meetings started at 7:50, so I woke up around 7:10, got dressed and left around 7:30 AM.  With a 10 minute drive to the track, I ended up parking and arriving pretty much right on time.  They handed me an envelope with some event materials and I proceeded to sit down in a rather 70's looking building with a bunch of other people.

David Ray, the event organizer, went ahead and greeted everyone, including sponsors, before sending everyone off with their respective groups.  The event is organized into A (beginner), B, C and D (experienced) groups.  There were also cars with X's on them which I imagine means expert or coach.  I ran in beginner, naturally, since this was my first time out.

You get five 20 minute sessions spread out through the day.  The A group had a bit of extra orientation after the initial sendoff.  Everyone got an introduction to how passing works, how to point people by, where the passing zones were, where to pit in and out, and how the different colored flags at the flag stations work and what they meant.

After that, it was off to the cars.  By the time I had arrived earlier, the covered canopy areas had been taken up and I ended up finding my own parking spot.  At this point, I grabbed my group letter (A) and a random number (64) and stuck them on the upper passenger side of the windshield to mark my car.  This would ensure that the organizers would know what group I was running in and let the photographers later have photographs I wanted already prepared for viewing after the event.  I also ditched everything from the car that might bounce around … one of the requirements for driving on the track.

Soon, it was our turn.  Announcements were made over the PA system for the A group to line up at the grid … an array of about 20-25 cars lined up in columns near the entrance to the main track waiting to enter.  I didn't bother coming into the grid until near the end of the call … they tend to call you about 20 min early and I don't like to spend all that time waiting.

Once you get to the grid, you stand outside your car and look lonely so that a coach will find you.  I ended up with a friendly grizzled old guy with glasses and a white beard.  I would later find out that he was a former race car driver and ran racing teams for a while.  He was also coaching some guy there with a Ferrari F430 Scuderia and Nissan GT-R for some ungodly amount of money.  I felt a little guilty but, obviously, I had really lucked out.

I strapped on my helmet … a Simpson Diamondback.  For fans of Top Gear, this is the same helmet the Stig wears … in other words, pretty high end.  The day was starting out overcast, so I changed out the face shield for the stock clear one instead of the aggressive looking reflective blue shield.  All drivers are required to have some sort of SA 2000 or 2005 certified helmet … you can rent one from the track if you need to, but in this case I had decided to buy and bring my own.  What can I say, I'm a fanboy.

They started out with letting the coaches take the car out for a couple of laps to show you around the track.  Then they switched off and let the students drive around slowly.  I was a little surprised by the couple of blind turns over hills and the relatively sparse need for shifting on the course.  Combined with the total lack of walls, this makes the track pretty beginner friendly.  Anyhow, the session seemed to end just as it was getting started.

After the run, each group goes back to the building to meet up and do a download/debriefing.  The instructor emphasized the need to give point-bys to faster cars and showed a few more basics on apexing, etc.  Most of this I knew from reading up on racing online.

After the download, I had some free time to walk around and look at the other cars.  There was an impressive array of cars here … most quite decently high end.  At least three different Ferrari F430's and an Audi R8 were among the stars, along with more Porsche's than you could shake a stick at, including one brand spanking new Boxster Spyder.  My old Boxster was not going to win any trophies against these beasts, especially with me behind the wheel.

Many of these cars were clearly full-on race cars … carrying full body liveries and being hauled to the track and back in trucks.  This was no joke … lots of money and effort was going into getting these cars onto the track and back.

Second session.  One nice thing I started to appreciate was that Hooked on Driving had placed cones in the proper locations for turn-in points, apex points, passing zones, etc.  However, in this session, I was going into turns way too hot and not using the brakes hard or early enough.  In addition, I was so focused on the road that I really had no idea where the flag stations were.  On the bright side, I didn't really have a problem spotting cars riding my ass and giving them a point by.

We went back to the building for our second download.  Then as were doing the download, we heard thew news come thru that someone in another session had flipped their Acura NSX at Turn 8.  Totaled.  Luckily, the driver walked away fine. 

Right before lunch, we hopped in coach cars to get a ride along with an experienced driver taking the course at speed.  I got in a BMW sedan (not too many Ferrari's to go around, unfortunately).  It seemed pretty controlled and smooth and not as much of a roller coaster ride as I expected, although I was surprised at how much the tires were squealing.  In hindsi
ght, stock tires tend to warn you a lot as you approach their limits, so that was fine.  Still, when I was driving I could barely hear my tires over the wind noise, if at all.

After lunch

Afterwards, lunch.  Pretty generic American style fare … cole slaw, mac and cheese, BBQ, etc.  I was hungry, so good enough.  David Ray gave another quick set of announcements and asked if anyone wanted some advice on particular turns, to which the NSX driver responded "Turn 8!"

I tried to mess around with my iPhone but it was a real waiting game … the Wi-Fi wasn't free and the service was AT&T Edge with terrible service.  Go figure.  Not exactly an urban center, I guess.

Third session after lunch … we really hammered down on my braking … smooth but firm input and release, and braking earlier overall.  Definitely became much more comfortable as the third session ended.  By now, the sun was out and things were toasty.  I also noticed I was getting passed a lot … but by Vipers, 911's, and Ferrari's, so I didn't really feel so bad.

After the third session, I went to gas up.  There's fuel right on site, but at $4.99 per gallon for 91 octane, it was damn expensive.  Still, I bought it.  They also had 100 octane for $7.99/gallon … I really wanted some, but decided not to mess around at that point in time.  Finally, they had 110 octane, leaded … real race fuel that you don't dump in an ordinary car.

I also noted the demographics of the people at the event … nearly all older white males with the occasional wife.  A few asian males, typically younger … no older ones that I saw.  One or two hispanics … no blacks at all.

At this point, the downloads after the sessions were really more optional.  Still, it felt like the sessions felt very quick, even at twenty minutes, and the time waiting between sessions (roughly an hour) also seemed to go too quickly.  I found the time a little stressful … almost like waiting at a tournament would be … but I was enjoying the process of improving on the track.

My fourth and fifth sessions were more of the same … getting better at taking the correct lines, braking enough to smoothly take the line without squealing the tires much, etc.  By the end of the day, I had made a lot of progress and mostly had all the lines down, especially the last tricky ones at 14 and 15.

Post session

At the end of all sessions, the coaches went out again for some fun runs.  The F430 Scuderia was ungodly loud.

The professional photography crew (gotbluemilk.com) was operating out of a trailer and selling your specific photos for 25 a pop or 60 for the whole day's set.  I really didn't have any other options for photos so I went ahead and spent the money.  They burned them to a CD for me and I was on my way.

Another generic BBQ picnic dinner was served at 5:30 … which, oddly enough, I ate ravenously, despite having eaten a full lunch at noon.  Racing actually does take quite a bit out of you.

I suddenly realized I had no idea what my actual top speed or lap times were at the end of the day.  I do know I got up to the top of 4th gear on the long straight, so I estimate that got me to around 115 mph.  Not bad.

Around 6'ish they opened up the track for a free track walk.  People were allowed to walk or bike the track and observe all the little details they can't see when taking the track at speed.  I walked about 3/4 of the track but decided to cut back to my car and head home as the walk was getting exhausting in my casual sneakers … doubly so since I was tired already.  I hopped in the car, gassed up again, and headed home.

I felt a real sense of confidence on the way back.  None of the curves or turns on the street were anywhere near what I had experienced.  I knew what the limits of the car were at high speed now … if there was a need to be worried, I would know it now.

Summary

All in all, I found the experience rewarding and expect to do it at least a few more times.  I feel like my driving ability has increased significantly from one session and will be hammered in solidly in a few more.  On the back end, the mechanical learning I've done on the car has been very helpful to me as well.

Racing is mentally taxing.  However, like everything, it's a matter of pattern recognition.  The initial inputs are overwhelming and you get tunnel vision just focusing on the road.  Experience under fire will turn that into a wider field of perception and muscle memory will simplify the process.

On the other hand, it's clear to me that racing as a hobby is quite a money pit as well as a time investment.  I spent 500 bucks overall just for the one day event itself, not to mention the time to drive back and forth.  Consumables like tires/brake pads/brake rotors and risk of damage to the car + towing costs, etc, also have to be factored in at some point, which just means it really costs even more.

I honestly have drawn some sort of mental analogy right now where cars are a real life version of Pokemon for many of these folks.  The machine is an important part of the equation and that is massively affected by the money involved.  The bottom line is that I'm skeptical that I'll willing to invest either on a long term commitment basis.  But I'm keeping an open mind for now.

We'll see how it goes … my intention is to engage right now at a moderate level until the important learning tapers off.  If I enjoy it more to continue beyond that … then so be it.

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