You finalized your registration for your first ever event with NASA and you checked the box for a weekend of on-track driving in HPDE1. And it hits you: This is going to be an experience like no other. Everyone in HPDE1 will have the same level of experience — or lack thereof — as you and even after you have completed your registration, you aren’t all that sure what that means. Experience? Sure, I can go fast! Of course, there will likely be a number of participants with a couple of years of karting under their belts. You can always spot them early. They’re the drivers with the ratty Miatas.

No worries, because by the afternoon they most likely will have graduated to HPDE2 and then you won’t see them again! As for the rest of us, the initial intimidation from entering a hot track is palpable. The questions every HPDE1 driver asks as he or she enters the track for the first time: Aam I fully prepared? Will it all work for me?

Considering how little contact there is between a car and a track’s surface, you would think tires would be the first thing HPDE participants would check, but oftentimes, this isn’t the case. What to put on for your first track outing? Having no experience whatsoever, you should stick with a good set of street tires. Take it from me, until you make it all the way up into HPDE3, or have joined a racing program, slicks are the last thing you need first time out. On the other hand, your wheels should be in good condition, and there should be a lot of tread left on the tires. Just as important, an alignment close to factory spec is the best option your first time out. Setups will change with time and experience, but initially, it’s all about coming to terms with that car you drove to the track! It’s also the one you want to drive home.

And let’s get serious here. Check all your fluids. First time out, you just need to have engine oil topped off as well as brake and clutch fluids looking good. Don’t forget power steering fluid, either, because I boiled mine on one occasion. No need to upgrade to more track suitable fluids just yet, but in time that will likely be the case. The mantra of HPDE is to go fast and to have fun among similarly skilled drivers all heading in the same direction. It seems counterintuitive, but learning to go fast takes time – a lot longer for some than others.

When I was in Sydney, Australia, I had the opportunity for a ride-along in a Ferrari F430 for a couple of laps around Sydney Motorsports Park in the hands of a Red Bull hot shoe. That was eye-opening. Nothing, though, compares to time spent in your own car on an equally famous track like Sonoma or Big Willow. Even for novices like me, the HPDE sessions end all too quickly.

Pulling back into the pits after a session, grabbing a Gatorade and heading to the HPDE1 download, there is an undeniable sense of relief and a small sense of accomplishment. Yes, it’s a small accomplishment and no, not everyone will want to come back the following month, but for those in HPDE1 who become terminally hooked on the fun, it’s the beginning of a long journey. For me, it will be 10 years with NASA, and the emotions return each time I check a region’s schedule.

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