Jeff Lacina
April 10, 2013
Photos By: Evan J. Smith

Driving fast. It's what we dream about, plan for, and accomplish with our muscle Mustang or fast Ford.

It's why we improve grip and braking performance and why we add power. If you're addicted to speed, there is nothing like pushing your machine to the limit on track.

When you get down to it, there's on-road and off-road driving. On-road consists of driving on public streets and highways—off-road driving is done specifically at a dragstrip, parking lot (autocross), or a purpose-built road course.

In this story, we tackle the ins and outs of what it takes to get on track. Becoming a road course addict is easy, and we guarantee that after just one day of professional instruction, your car control skills and will improve it's likely you'll become a "track dawg."

The best option for most enthusiasts is a "performance driving" event, where you can turn laps on real race tracks, often with an instructor in the car, using techniques required in racing, but with significantly lower risk of damaging your pride and joy—or your ego. There are many opportunities for the average Mustang and Ford owner on nearly every road course on the planet for this. Benefits include a solid driving education and more track time than you can imagine.

While you may be king or queen of the street (in your own mind), learning the finer points of vehicle dynamics (a fancy way of saying how the suspension and tires work) combined with performance driving techniques will raise your talent level, making you faster and safer every time you get behind the wheel. A professional driving school is something every performance enthusiast should consideryoung and old—even if you never plan to race in competition. It's a great idea. Learning to enhance your car control is what really makes performance driving fun.

Is It Racing?
While there are racing schools, not all road course driving is considered "racing." Yes, you go fast, but it's unlikely you'll wad up your Mustang by attending a performance driving school, either.

Of course, we've seen some idiotic driving, usually when ego outpaces talent. So the first lesson is to have an open mind. In fact, with proper instruction, you'll find speed you never knew existed and the "edge" won't seem so scary.

Once you learn the basics, you can gain or enhance your education by attending a "racing" school that holds/teaches wheel-to-wheel competition on road courses. Armed with that knowledge, you can drive a prepared car and make the move to sanctioned racing events. But let's not jump ahead.

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Getting Started
Ask any first-time participant and you will hear two things: they can't believe how much they didn't know, and most are impressed with the amount of track time. At a typical event, you can expect to drive between three and five times a day in 20-30-minute sessions, plus classroom instruction.

The basic techniques will be driving/seating position, hand placement on the wheel (often 3 and 9 o'clock is what you are told), how to manipulate the throttle and brake pedals to control the sprung weight of the vehicle, as this greatly impacts braking performance and control, cornering grip, corner exit speed and ultimatley acceleration. You will learn to dissect the track layout and run the proper driving (or racing) "line" which is the fastest and often safest way around the track. Bottom line: Performance driving is one of the most mentally and physically challenging things you can do, and the adrenaline rush wlll envelop you.

Most new drivers are amazed at how aggressively they can brake (while maintaining control), and how much speed they can carry when the apex is nailed properly. As you gain confidence and control things happening in front of your eyes will mentally slow down.

You will also learn the proper etiquette for sharing a track with other drivers. Most schools allow passing, but in a prescribed area, so you'll learn where to pass, how to signal a pass, how to let a slower car know that you want to pass, etc. You will also learn how to pit properly, and more importantly, how to "read, understand, and acknowledge" the various flags that are used by the corner workers. By the end of the weekend, you'll have a great appreciation for everything it takes to be a smooth, safe and fast high-performance driver.

As you can see, driving fast on track, is far different than ripping it up on the street.

There are several abbreviations, such as HPDE for "high-performance driver education" or "high performance driving event." Typically, if the word education is used, the event will have an established process for classroom sessions and use of in-car instructors. The best solution is to contact the event organizer and ask about the format and if classroom and in-car instructors are part of the program.

Where To Find Road Courses
Many road courses don't hold weekly "spectator" events like most drag racing tracks do. So if you don't know the names of the tracks in your area, use the Internet and, visit www.na-motorsports.com. This website isn't fancy, but it provide a way to search for all types of race tracks (road course, oval tracks, dragstrips, and kart tracks) by region.

Additional Online Resources
www.speedwaysonline.com
www.racingin.com/tracks
www.racereview.com

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Registering for the Driving School
Okay, it's time to register. Simply emailing or calling the event organizer and telling them, "yep, I'll be there" isn't enough. Most performance-driving schools require pre-registration and can have a limit on the number of drivers they can accommodate. Many are online, however some prefer the information sent via traditional mail.

Typical registration forms ask about previous driving experience, how long you've been driving, what tracks you've driven, and what car you'll be bringing (unless the school provides cars).

Some driving events allow for registration the day of the event, but don't count on it. Event organizers rely on this information to place you in the proper run group. If you're a first-timer you'll be placed into a run group with other first-time or novice drivers. And while you may be the next Parnelli Jones, when starting out it's best to first learn the basics. Trust us, you won't be able to concentrate and learn if you are being passed 15 times a session because you thought you could run with a quicker group. If you are constanly being overtaken, your eyes will be glued to the "rear-view" rather than the racing line

Naturally, some of you will have raw talent, so fast drivers fret not,. If the instructors see you've got mad skills, they will move you up accordingly. They're not there to hold you back, but to see you succeed.

You may also need:

  • Form of payment (credit card or personal check
  • Proof of insurance
  • Driver's Medical Form
  • Proof of a valid driver's license

Vehicle Inspection
Most likely, you will be provided with a "vehicle safety inspection" form. These forms make sure your car is ready to be driven in a "spirited fashion" for one or two days. The event organizers want you to focus on driving technique, not vehicle maintenance or repair while at the event. Chances are, you're going to be some distance from home, so it makes sense to have your Steed in top mechanical condition. The other reason to inspect your vehicle is for safety.

Bring your completed vehicle inspection form with you to the event. This is the only indication that you have inspected or had your car inspected prior to the event.

Many groups will do a "quick tech" at the track, checking items like battery hold-downs, look for obvious leaks or other underhood issues, throttle return springs, brake lights, lug-nut torque (yes, they'll use a torque wrench), and they'll also inspect your helmet, looking for that all-important SFI SA-rating decal (more on that next).

Also, remove all loose items from the interior of the car before taking it out on track, including floor mats, cell phone chargers, empty soda/water bottles, etc.

Chances are, if you're driving your car on the street every day, you've got a pretty good start.

Safety Equipment
For most events, the factory seat belts (and air bags if so equipped) are perfectly fine. You don't have to install aftermarket or race-type harness' or seat belt system, but you can if you so desire. The same can be said for a roll bar. It's generally not required, but if you want to run one, you certainly may.

The only safety equipment needed for sure is a helmet that meets the group's requirement. Track Guys requires either an SA-05 or SA-10 rating. They do not allow helmets that carry a DOT or M- rating. SA-rated helmets have met manufacturing and testing criteria established by the Snell Foundation for automobile racing.

Brand new SA-10 rated helmets start around $165 for an open-face model and go up from there. You only get one head, and the level of protection is your choice. Some groups may have rental or loaner helmets, but your best bet is to purchase your own helmet and bag.

And no, you don't need a driver's suit. At most events students and instructors can wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and closed-toe shoes while driving on track—think jeans, a long-sleeve denim shirt, and good leather or canvas shoes.

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Safety & Performance Items To Check
In general terms, these are the important items on your car to inspect:

Brakes
(If you are uncomfortable in performing your own brake inspection, have a trusted brake shop or Ford technician inspect them for you). At an on-track event, your brakes are the single most important component. Closely inspect your brake pads for proper thickness—if your pads are more than 50-percent worn out, replace them before the event. And, if you're putting in fresh brake fluid, you will need to "bleed" your calipers and brake lines. Again, if you're not comfortable in doing this, please see a qualified technician.

Brake Rotors
Brake rotors need to be in top condition, free of deep groves, cracks or any unusual wear patterns.

Brake Fluid
Brake fluid should be clean and fresh. Brake fluid should not look like coffee. With use, brake fluid becomes cloudy and dirty. It can also draw moisture, thereby reducing its boiling point. If your fluid is more than a year old, you'll want to fill your master cylinder with fresh fluid and bleed the brakes.

Cooling System
Your engine's cooling system is very important, especially at driving school events, as you will be working your engine very hard and if your cooling system isn't up to snuff, neither will be your fun.

Power-Steering Fluid
Using the recommendations for your specific vehicle (found in the owner's manual), check the level of the fluid in your power steering system. Make sure the fill/inspection lid is closed properly after your inspection.

Battery terminals and hold-down
Make sure the factory terminal connectors and their covers are in good condition. Most late-model Ford products have a rubber cover over the positive (red) terminal connection, make sure this is in place. If your vehicle is older and you've replaced the battery cables, place a cover over at least one of the terminals (preferably the positive (+) terminal or at least, wrap the post and cable end in electrical tape. The purpose of covering one or both of the terminals is to prevent an electrical short caused by a piece of metal coming in contact the one or both of the terminals.

Belts and Hoses
Do a visual inspection of the engine accessory drive belts and all hoses, especially the coolant hoses. Look for signs of leaks or seepage from any of the hose clamps. This is also a good time to make sure all the hose clamps are tight and in good condition.

Throttle Return Spring(s)
This is one item you just take for granted. Screaming down the front straight at 120-plus can be unpleasant with a broken throttle return spring. Make sure that your stock spring is in good condition and attached to the throttle body/carb linkage properly. Also, check the throttle cable and make sure that it is free of kinks and moves without binding or sticking.

Tires
Take a good look at the condition of your tires, paying special attention to the sidewall and the "shoulder" (the area where the sidewall transitions into the tread of the tire.) Make sure your tires don't exhibit unusual wear patterns and they are free of any bulges, cracks or cuts. If you are unsure of what to look for in making a thorough tire inspection, most tire retailers or Ford dealerships offer some sort of "tire inspection" service. And, while you're checking out your tires, give a good look at your wheels, checking for cracks, and also make sure the wheel weights are securely fastened to the wheel. If you have aftermarket wheels that utilize "tape-on" weights, it's a good idea to run a length of duct tape over them.

Lug Nuts
Yes, all of them have to be there… and secured properly.

Exhaust System
Make sure all the hangers are in good shape and doing their job and that the entire exhaust system is in good shape, free of any cracks, leaks or excessive corrosion.

Suspension System
Make sure none of your shocks or struts are leaking, all of the bolts are secure and that none of the components exhibit damage or excessive wear. Pay particular attention to the tie-rod ends, ball joints, and sway bar end links, as these items get a lot of use in everyday driving, let alone a track weekend.

What to take to the track
Road course events run rain or shine, so there are a few extra items that you may want to pack up with you. Everyone has different levels of prep, some have a motorhome and a trailer with a shop inside, some drive their cars to the events with the minimal stuff.

Here is our list of things to bring and some extra tips.

  • All registration materials the event organizer sent to you
  • Vehicle inspection form
  • Medial information form
  • Driver's license
  • Helmet (SA-10 or SA-05)
  • Long pants and long-sleeve shirt
  • Shoes, regular and driving
  • Sunglasses
  • Driver's suit – optional
  • Driving gloves – optional
  • Proper Attitude
  • Attend all the meetings / classroom sessions and listen to your instructor
  • Ride with an instructor
  • Get your instructor's name and email
  • Talk with your fellow drivers – compare notes
  • Folding camp chair
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Cooler – bring water or sports drink (avoid caffeine)
  • Change of clothes (for the drive home: post-sweat)
  • Small floor jack
  • Lug wrench/torque wrench
  • Small toolbox
  • Spare brake pads
  • Extra brake fluid and engine oil
  • Gallon jug of water/coolant
  • Tarp/garbage bags (keep stuff dry)
  • Rain jacket/umbrella (rain or shine, baby!)
  • Notebook/pen
  • Camera/video camera
  • Sunscreen/umbrella (did I mention we run rain or shine?)

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