These days there are plenty of ways to learn a track you haven’t been to before. You have YouTube, video games, Google Maps, driving simulators and digital track maps available online. The first time I took a car on a closed course, I had only two things to help me learn the track: my left and my right eyeballs looking through the windshield. And on that day, heading out on an unfamiliar track at speed without knowing if the next blind curve was a left or a right, besides my eyeballs, I did require the use of a different set of balls. Of course, I am referring to the steel ball bearings in my CV axles. What did you think I was talking about?
In the mid 1990s, I was an undergrad student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and we had an autocross club — one of the reasons I chose to go to Cal Poly rather than Stanford, which didn’t have an autocross club. Oh, and also I wasn’t smart enough to attend Stanford, anyway. One weekend the Cal Poly Autocross Club rented what we thought was the parking lot at Buttonwillow Raceway for an autocross. We all made the long drive from San Luis Obispo to Buttonwillow for the event. When we arrived, our club president came out of the office and said, “Uh, I have an announcement. Apparently, we didn’t rent the parking lot, we rented the whole track. So … if nobody is opposed to it, we are just going to run the Buttonwillow road course. Any objections?” Nobody said a word. In that instant, we all just graduated from autocrossers to track day fiends.
I had never been on a road course before. I had never been to Buttonwillow before, and the next thing I knew I was on a completely unfamiliar track going as fast as I could. This was all pre-Internet. Buttonwillow is relatively flat, but the elevations that do exist, completely hide the direction of the exits of the corners to a newcomer. I was absolutely lost on those first few laps. The adrenaline was intense, but after a while I learned the track organically and luckily somehow didn’t end up on my roof. To bring things strangely full circle, 20 years later I was back at Buttonwillow racing in the NASA Western States Championships and won the Honda Challenge 4 class on the same track I was so unfamiliar with in the 90s. Who could have known?
The good news is now you don’t have to suffer through those first few scary laps on a track you have never been to, like I did back in the 90s. The Internet and technology can help you learn a track before you arrive. These tools are not only helpful for making you faster on your first outing, but it also is safer. You can learn where corner worker stations are, where the pit entrance is and, of course, what directions those sneaky blind corners exit.
If you are heading to a racetrack, I guarantee you that someone else has been there before you, strapped a GoPro camera to their car and posted it to YouTube. Before I go to a track, I watch video after video of people running the course. Small warning here: Not all of these YouTubers know the racing line. You will see a lot of bad driving, but you are still seeing what the track looks like before you get there. I try to find someone who is driving the same car as me. That will tell me what gears they are using and where their braking zones are. I use that information to set myself up for the first time I arrive at an unfamiliar track.
Nowadays, if I am going to a new track I have never driven, I start with a good track map from the webpage of the track itself. I have found most tracks offer an accurate and comprehensive free-to-download track map. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca even includes a racing line version of the track with turn-by-tun instructions of how to get around the course. Previously, we have covered in Toolshed Engineer how to take a track map and create a white board track map you can make notes on.
If you don’t see the pre-made track map you are looking for online, or you want more detail, go to Google Maps and zoom in to your heart’s content. The entire planet, including every race track, has been photographed by satellite. Here you can look at topography and even find out how far away the nearest Autozone is. It is an outstanding resource I wouldn’t overlook.
VIDEO GAMES/DRIVING SIMULATORS
Driving simulators and video games are real game changers here. You can learn an enormous amount by running laps on a simulator. The entire film, Gran Turismo, shows what a simulator can do for a gamer who never drove a real racecar before. The trick is finding the video game or simulator that has the track you are looking for. For many years, we relied on Play Station’s Gran Turismo, but it didn’t always have the tracks that NASA racers competed on. Assetto Corsa includes way more tracks and iRacing has almost every track NASA runs. We previously covered how to build your own inexpensive simulator here on Toolshed Engineer.
These games — I know when I call them games, some of you will get your noses out of joint, “They’re simulations!” — are unbelievable in their detail. I raced the tracks before I ran the simulations and what blew my mind were the small bumps, the small drainage grates on the tracks and the visual cues that the game— OK, simulation — had, which I relied on in the real world. Not only will these games teach you the track, they can teach you where you will hit your brakes and make gear changes. The detail is incredible.
Even after watching YouTube videos, studying track maps, and running laps on the simulator, I still like to walk the track before I drive on it. I also like to walk it after I drive on it. Walking the track lets me slow down and see details I am missing at 100 miles per hour. What is the runoff at the exit of Turn 2? Will I lose an oil pan if I fall off the pavement into the dirt shoulder? How much of the corner exits have been damaged from the current weekend’s racing? How much grip is there in a portion of the track? Will I get stuck in a gravel trap? I use this information to decide where I can take chances the next time I get behind the wheel. Every single time I ran the NASA Championships, I walked the courses before the Championship race.
RACING SCHOOL/DRIVING EXPERIENCE
Most tracks have their own driving school or driving experience on site. Those schools are taught by people who spend most of their waking hours running laps around the track where they teach. We can all learn from these folks. For Circuit of The Americas and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course NASA National Championship events, I flew out a month early and entered the schools. Yes, it was expensive in time and money. Yes, it was priceless in the information I learned. Not only did I get turn-by-turn instruction from professionals, but I also recorded my laps so I could go home and watch them over and over before the big event. When I showed up for the NASA Championships, I felt extremely comfortable around both tracks and set pole positions at each.
Technology is your friend. Use it to your advantage. With the 2024 NASA Championships scheduled for Utah Motorsports Campus — formerly Miller Motorsports Park — a lot of NASA racers will be looking for detailed information about that track before the big event September 5-8, 2024. The information is just a few clicks of the mouse away and its free. Take advantage and learn as much as you can before you arrive at a new track.
Rob Krider is a four-time NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Champion, the author of the novel, “Cadet Blues,” and is the host of the “Stories and Cocktails” podcast.