“It was such a chill atmosphere full of people who just wanted to help each other get better.”
My friend Josiah’s Facebook post after we attended Track Night In America at Thompson Speedway couldn’t sum it up any better. The SCCA intended to create a low key track event that is as much a fun social occasion as a driving experience. After going to the first one in New England and seeing it for myself, I think they’ve hit the ball out of the park - er, track.
(Full Disclosure: The SCCA wanted me to attend a Track Night so badly that they held one near me and allowed me to register for it. I did get a $25 discount for signing up during a one day special, which happens from time to time. Later they made me a Track Night Champion, which gives me swag to talk about the events and my experiences at them.)
My previous experience with the SCCA has been varied and mixed. Although I have a trophy bookshelf filled with mementos from various forms of motorsport, I’m really in it for the fun, not for the hardware. The SCCA autocross and road race events I’ve been to are more serious and competitive than I am. The first stage rally I attended was as a volunteer at the Maine Forest Rally in 2004, back when it was still under SCCA sanction, and anyone who knows rally knows it’s pretty hardcore. But it seems the SCCA is trying to broaden their offerings and audience a bit, and have created the Track Night In America program to enter the track day/high performance driving school arena.
In the early 2000s I did a few track events with BMW CCA and SCDA, so it was their model that I was most familiar with. The Track Night model differs in some interesting ways. For one, it takes place during the afternoon and evening hours, not requiring a 7am arrival at the track or a full day off work. I actually worked a half day and grabbed lunch before driving to Thompson Speedway.
Another major difference is that unlike traditional HPDE events, Track Night does not put an instructor in the car with you, not even for novice group drivers. Instead they use a novice pace lap session to show you the track at lower speeds, plus a number of briefings throughout the day to teach, keep everyone on the same page, and address any issues that come up. Traditionalists will probably react the same way I did when I learned this. “What?!?! Novices on track with no instructors?!?! It’ll be total chaos!!! They’re all gonna die!!! Just like my Dungeons & Dragons campaign!!!” (Ok, maybe not everybody thought that last part.) But in practice, it seemed to work rather well. I saw sane driving, frequent point-bys, and overall good behavior. There were occasional offs and yellow flags, but no more than the experienced run groups. Congratulations, SCCA - you’ve changed my mind on this.
I suspect this may be part of the reason for another big difference from other track events - the price. $150 gets you three 20 minute sessions. That’s less than half the price of other local track events I checked. Perhaps not putting instructors in students’ cars reduces the event insurance cost? By my calculations, Track Night is the most cost effective way to drive your own car fast that there is. Other track events typically provide four track sessions instead of three, or sometimes just an open track, so you do get more seat time elsewhere. But more track time also wears out your tires and brakes faster. Plus you can work a half day on your Track Night to help cover the cost of replacements.
If you’re really strapped for cash, there’s a Run/Work option, too. For just $35 and volunteering to be a corner worker most of the event, you can drive one track session. That’s cheaper than most autocrosses these days, and gives you more seat time. It’s perfect for getting a first taste of track driving on a seriously low budget.
But more than anything, I noticed a far more relaxed atmosphere than nearly every other track event I’ve been to. Mr. Regular’s “Track Day, Bro!” doesn’t really apply here. I felt the need to convert my sticker into something more appropriate for the occasion. Fortunately, Mr. Regular didn’t seem to mind.
After finding a place to park, I got in the registration line. Quickly I was checked in electronically, signed the waiver, got information and swag, and got my bracelet. After emptying out my car I had some time to relax. The first track session was pace laps for the Novice group, but the announcement on the loudspeaker invited anyone who was unfamiliar with the track to join them. I’d never been to Thompson Speedway before, so I did, and my girlfriend Elana hopped in with me. We were restricted to no passing and 45mph, but that was still fast enough to start feeling how the car would handle each turn, and get that oh so sweet sensation when you know you got it right. I’d watched a lot of in-car video from Thompson, especially one from an FR-S, but there’s no substitute for seeing and driving it for yourself, even at low speed.
After a few slow laps I came in and parked, knowing from the printed schedule that the Advanced group was going out before my Intermediate group. But then my friend Allison (who took these awesome photos) told me they’d called both groups to grid while I was out on pace laps. I was confused, but got myself together quickly enough to be the last car in line just before heading out. They had split the Novices into two run groups, since there were so many of them, and merged the experienced drivers into one group. I missed recording my first session between the hurry and a dead GoPro battery that I didn’t have time to check, but I got out there.
I’d autocrossed my BRZ on its original Prius tires once last year, and decided there was absolutely no point in doing it again until I had real tires. I haven’t gotten to an autocross yet this year, so this was the first test for my Michelin Pilot Super Sports at speed. It was also my first time on a track in 12 years. But in a few laps it came back to me, and the stress of rushing to grid had melted away. I picked up my pace a bit, and soon I was going fast enough to get a point-by from a classic Porsche 911. (Sorry, Stef.)
An FR-S gained on me quickly coming onto the front straight. I pointed him by, then stuck to him for several laps, watching and learning how he had been going faster than me. Our pair of 86s caught up to a pack of traffic, and got separated there. We talked afterward, where he complimented my driving, even though he was the faster one, and without prompting he gave me some tips on some different lines that most people don’t use, but that work well for our cars.
I found my friends Josiah and Jonah, also in my run group, and we arranged to head out together for our second session. I ended up sandwiched behind Jonah, in his ugly Saab 9000 Aero, and ahead of Josiah in his Mazdaspeed3. I knew both of them had a power advantage on me, and I fully expected them to walk away from me.
Following Jonah’s Saab was hilarious. It leaned like a sailboat in the turns, with massive camber changes on the front wheels that would kill one of his tires by the end of the day. But he muscled the car around quite well, and especially once he got past some slower traffic he put some distance on me.
That same traffic also separated me and Josiah, but point-bys were given, and he caught back up to me for the last several laps. I kept a close eye on him in my mirror, since I knew he had 263hp as opposed to my 200, and didn’t want to hold him up. But I found I was able to get on the power much earlier in the corners than he could, and that built up a speed advantage that he couldn’t quite overcome. He told me afterward that during the entire session, he only had to slow down for me twice. Take that, “FR-S/BRZ is underpowered” suckers.
At 6pm, it was time for the open pace lap session. This allows anyone, registered driver or not, to drive anything, teched car or not, for some slow laps on the track, including passengers, without helmets. Since Elana rode with me during novice laps, she hopped in Allison’s Miata, and I invited them to follow me since I knew the track by now. On a whim, Jonah hopped in with me, and we were off. He and I got to discuss different cars, different lines, and what the heck that Evo ahead of us was doing in turn 7 that seemed to be working so well.
Meanwhile, the ladies behind us seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Allison and I used to co-own and co-drive a Miata at autocross and track events. She’s no slouch behind the wheel, and I could tell she was enjoying some of the tighter turns where the car would still dance a little despite the 45mph speed limit. When we the session was over, the first thing Elana said was that riding in the Miata was more fun than my BRZ. I find both cars fun, but on a perfect spring day I can’t argue that lapping a track with the top down has some appeal. And Allison now seems convinced that she needs to do a little work on her Miata to get it into shape for a future Track Night. That’s a very clever bit of marketing - give them just enough of a sample to get them hooked.
Playing with friends is fun, but I found myself alone for most of my final track session. I started with faster cars ahead of me and a Cobra behind, which I pointed by as soon as the yellow flags went away. I felt more comfortable pushing a little harder, and delaying my braking a bit more, with nobody nearby to mess up if I blew it. Where my top speed only reached high 90s by the end of the front straight in my first session, I was touching 105 regularly now.
I must admit to being a wuss, and leaving stability control in VSC Sport mode rather than turning it off. I’d never pushed this car so hard in this configuration before, it’s my only car, and there were more solid things than cones to hit. But my strategy worked in a way I didn’t expect. As I increased speed, I’d occasionally notice the “you idiot, I’m saving your butt” light on my dashboard flash when stability control kicked in, which I couldn’t always feel in the car itself. That told me I’d overcooked that corner, and next time around I should ease off a little. If I didn’t see the idiot light again, I got it right. It’s not the same as shutting everything off and letting the car move around a bit, but for my first time on this track in this car, it was a good way to learn. Next time I’ll probably try turning it all the way off.
Merging the Intermediate and Advanced run groups was an interesting experience, and not normal for Track Night. I had no trouble telling who belonged in which group. The Evo, the 996, the Eagle Talon race car, the Cobra that lapped me - they definitely belonged in Advanced. And the way they caught up to me so quickly and hung right on my bumper until I pointed them by could definitely intimidate a less experienced track driver. But we were all experienced. I had no problem letting the faster people by, and slower people had no problem letting me by - even if that Mustang GT that let me by ought to be faster than me. It’s not a race, so no one had anything to prove. I definitely prefer the slower pace of the Intermediate group at my current ability and car prep level, but mixing in the Advanced drivers with us was no problem at all. That’s pretty impressive, considering that our group had everything from a Talon race car to a bone stock Ford Fusion and everything in between.
Most of all, I’m impressed with my car. With nothing more than minor upgrades, it handled the track beautifully. It was wonderful to finally unleash the great handling car that I knew existed beyond those crummy Prius tires it came with. I didn’t even need to adjust my tire pressures from the stock 35psi. They rose to 42psi when hot, and the tread wear was perfect. Though the stock suspension is a bit jarring over the pothole filled roads of New England, it was a joy on the track. Since I’m not chasing lower lap times, I don’t think I need to change a thing.
That’s more than can be said for some people. Jonah was using ancient Sumitomo tires he happened to have kicking around his shop, and he corded the outer edge of his left front tire, which takes the most abuse on this track. Fortunately he had a spare with him. Many people I talked to also told me their brakes were feeling the hard use, and not working quite as well as they were. Track driving is harder on a car than autocross, so it’s worth making sure you car is up for the challenge before you try it. I wrote a series of articles in three parts on that subject.
I believed in the concept of Track Night before I attended an event. Now that I have, I’m a true believer. The fact that there were so many Novice drivers that they split them into two groups tells me that Track Night is achieving its goal - getting more people out on the track, including many who have never done it before, while giving experienced drivers a good time as well. When’s the next one? I’ll be there.
(Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen - more here)