by Mike Reynolds, GPR Member
There are a few notable milestones in Porsche ownership. There’s the lust followed by the chase. There’s the purchase followed by the satisfaction. There’s the membership to the local PCA followed by friendship. Then there’s the track day.
Taking any car to the track is an exciting affair. Taking your Porsche is practically a rite of passage. These cars were built for the track. They came out of the factory ready to be tossed about and put through the paces. Some cars are better equipped and some drivers are better prepared. Regardless, virtually everyone starts at a driver’s education sponsored by your local PCA. Fortunately for Porsche owners, PCA has one of, if not the top Drivers Education programs of its kind. Their instructors are also the cream of the crop, frequently getting asked to lend their expertise to other car club events.
For a novice such as myself I knew I would be in good hands but I still didn’t know what to expect. This is a brief overview of my first track day held at Raceway Park of the Midlands in August.
In preparation, I poured over the Tech Sheet to make sure I was covered. Brake fluid was changed, thanks to great products from Competition Motorsports. Tires were replaced (more on that later) and one by one I ticked all the boxes to make sure the car was ready. My preparation was enhanced by watching YouTube videos from Larry at AMMO NYC on his track days. I highly recommend them. YouTube search ‘AMMO NYC track day’ for more. I packed up water/food, a torque wrench, a tire pressure gauge, a tarp for the ground, a chair, extra clothes, my helmet and a few other miscellaneous tools I might need (I didn’t). I would say I got plenty of sleep the night before, but I’m not going to lie. I was nervous.
Tech opens at 7am and not knowing what to expect I got there shortly after. I prepared my area making sure to leave enough room for fellow drivers and then got my registration done and began speaking to other drivers as well as my instructor.
Within 5 minutes of meeting fellow drivers, it was brought to my attention that my new tires were not properly sized for the wheels. In hindsight this was obvious, but this was how I bought the car. To account for a wide body kit the previous owner had added spacers and wider wheels, but had kept the tire size stock which resulted in the rear tires being uncomfortably stretched. I had simply replaced worn rear tires with new ones the same size. My initial worry was that the car would be unsafe and I would not be allowed to drive on the track, but others confirmed I’d be ok for that day but not to push it too hard and to look into replacing them in the near future. I should also note that everyone who mentioned this was very helpful and polite about the issue and overall very complimentary of the car in general.
So now I know I have the wrong tires on the car and I’m about to drive it harder than I ever have before. My anxiety was rising. During the drivers’ meeting (as a novice) you’re asked to step out and the chief instructor will take you on a slow driving tour of the track. This is your first time seeing the track up close and you also get a chance to step out of the car and feel the road and check the surface. Following this trip it’s time to get in the car with your instructor. First they will drive two laps at highway speeds to show you around and get a feel for your car then you will drive two laps. After this it’s back to the classroom.
What will become quickly apparent is that this is a long day and the schedule is packed. For a novice, you drive every hour at the same time, sometimes for 10 minutes and then later 20 minutes and after each session it’s back to the classroom. The classroom is really where PCA sets themselves apart with extremely good materials that take you through everything from what the colored flags mean and correct track lines, to passing and the do’s and don’ts on the track.
We were lucky to have John Krecek as our classroom instructor. John also serves on the National Drivers Education Committee and for our session he was deploying some of the newest PCA materials that will soon be rolled out nationally.
In this day and age you can buy a Porsche that is more at home on the track than on the street (GT2, GT3, GT4, GTS, etc). You can learn in these cars with things that make it really easy and smooth: PDK transmission, sport mode, etc. Or, you can learn like me in a 30 year old air-cooled 911 with no power steering, no ABS brakes and a stock gearbox setup. How hard could it be?
Driving on a track is nerve wracking to begin with. The straight-line speed is nothing too crazy; most won’t be going too fast on this day and certainly not in a 30 year old car. The cornering speed is another story.
My hesitation and concern was two fold. First, would I damage the car in any way? My 1987 911 Carrera is in good shape and I wanted to keep it that way. Secondly, I just had no clue how hard I could push the car. How hard could I brake? Could I hold these turns? Would the gearbox hold up? Fortunately, more than one instructor reassured me that these cars were built for the track and that they can do these types of events all day long. The only things to worry about wearing down are brakes and tires, and for my air-cooled car, burning a little oil. John, having previously owned a 1987 Carrera like mine, proclaimed that the 3.2 flat six engine is one of the better ones of that era and that there were few people, certainly few in attendance that day, who could really push the car to its true limit.
With my anxiety and nervousness lowered, it was time to focus on my driving. Everyone, including myself, wants to go fast but what instructors stress the most is smoothness. Smooth is fast. Smooth on the throttle, smooth on the brake and smooth in the turns.
What’s interesting about driving on the track with different instructors is that there are multiple lines to take. There’s not one correct line but slight variations. Fortunately there is ample time to test these different lines out. I’m a data guy and one of the ways to tell if I’m improving is by lap times. However, my instructor noted not to pay attention to my watch and focus on the lines. The track time is good feedback if I’m improving, but to his point there are more crucial things to focus on. Smooth is fast. Smoother on the track equals faster times. Don’t worry about being quick, worry about being smooth.
Though my tires were narrower than they should have been, and I was down at least 100hp from any other car out there, I found that my car did perform well on the track. Thanks to an after-market exhaust by Bisimoto Engineering in California it sounded like it belonged there.
One issue I had was down-shifting. Down-shifting on the track at high speeds is very different than on the street. I ran out of gears on the straights, but was still quicker than when up-shifting on the straights and down-shifting in the turns, mostly because my shifts were so poor. Multiple instructors and drivers coached me on the proper methods (heel/toe) but it was apparent that I could not reach the accelerator from my brake to blip the throttle, and more importantly this was an advanced maneuver that should be perfected on the street before being relied upon at the track. With that in mind it was back to hitting the right lines and not worrying about brake, clutch, throttle, shift, release clutch, turn, hit my lines all at speed.
One of the key takeaways was the concept of keeping the car stable via the brake/throttle. When on the track the car is constantly shifting weight from the back (under power) to the front (under brake). To keep from unsettling the car, you once again need to be smooth and resist coasting and making unnecessary weight shifts. To wit, the car needs to either be under full throttle or full brake. Properly rotating your car into corners before acceleration gives you a much better chance of hitting the turn apex and achieving a proper exit of the turn.
It’s important after each session with an instructor to give and receive feedback on the session. My biggest jumps were between the 2nd and 3rd sessions. Sometimes going with different instructors will provide you additional feedback and tips to improve your performance. During the lunch break they will have parade laps where you can ride with anyone at highway speeds and no helmets. This is a great time to grab someone different to either have them show you their line or critique your laps. Also, be sure to check your tire pressure and lug nut torque after each session to make sure everything is in a steady state.
By the end of the day they let me drive a session solo which allowed me to test out a few different lines and also prove that I could be trusted on the track. By 4pm I was exhausted and many of the other drivers had cleared out. Early in the session they said if you were tired or distracted, going on one final session would be unwise. Although it would have been nice to get a few more laps in, I knew I wouldn’t be at 100% so decided to start preparing to leave. I packed up my gear, added some oil to the car, checked the tire pressure and torqued each lug nut one last time to prepare for the journey home. Goodbye and thank you’s were said and as I headed home my mind was full of mental notes. There were things I needed to adjust on the car and many things to practice and focus on for next time.
Overall my first track day was exciting and full of knowledge. Thanks to the Drivers Education of PCA I felt I was well coached throughout the day. I would like to thank John Krecek, Bob Lynch and Sally Knapp for riding with me, as well as everyone at the Great Plains Region PCA who participated and helped a novice like myself. I look forward to participating in more track days and learning from all the great people in our club.