So you want to get on a race track.
You may be here for a bunch of reasons, perhaps you bought a fast car and want to stretch its legs. Maybe you want to become a “pro” racer. Maybe you are just a big fan of car racing and want to give it a shot. You came to the right place. This guide is for the beginner looking to get on a race track, to get started with track days, or “racing” as many call it… but mostly we’re talking about “HPDE”.
Much Like my Ultimate Spec Miata guide this page will have a good bit of information, but will also link out to other articles across my site. Bookmark this page, share it with friends, etc… This will be a living document, I’ll continue to update and add posts. Is there something you want to know that isn’t included? Leave a comment below!
The biggest hurdle to starting track days for many people is simply knowing A) that track days exist and B) How to find them.
First off, what is HPDE? HPDE stands for High Performance Driver Education. The title itself sounds a little stuffy, a little boring. I want to go on a racetrack and go FAST, I don’t want “education”. Thankfully, the reality is MUCH more fun. HPDE events aren’t timed, trophies aren’t handed out… but you are driving a race track, with other cars, driving as fast as you and your car can go. You are passing other cars and being passed (Though passing in HPDE is done after the leading car gives a “point-by” signal to pass). Beginner groups have instructors in the car and classroom sessions through the day, helping people get acclimated to something WAY different than you may have done on the street. Intermediate and advanced groups are essentially self-run. Some people just go out to turn laps, others seek instructors or hire coaches, some go out with a group of friends to all “play” on track. All you need is a Driver’s license and a car, and a helmet (Which nearly all clubs offer to rent as well). No special racing license, gear, or big car mods needed. Let me repeat that last bit, no big car mods needed.
Some people participate in HPDE events as their hobby, others use HPDE’s as a process to earn a Time Trial or Racing license. I started doing HPDE just for fun, with no intention to competitively race. But as I gained skills and got faster, the racing bug bit. Most clubs have 4 levels of HPDE: Something like Beginner, Beginner-Solo, Intermediate, and Advanced. The speed at which people get promoted through the levels varies wildly. Some people participate casually and spend years in each group, others are more serious and progress from beginner to advanced (and racing) within a single season. Some (though rarely) get bumped a group or two in a day. There is no simple formula.
*Many tracks, pro racing events, or even clubs have “Parade Laps” or some variation of them. These are indeed a cool way to get on a track, but they have a pace-car driving at “highway speed” and no passing… The line of participants often includes pickup trucks and minivans. A select few (Like NASA’s Hyperdrive) are a bit more performance focused and put an instructor in the car with you, so you can at least begin to learn a bit about how to drive a track. In my time instructing NASA Hyperdrives, everyone claimed they enjoyed it but nearly everyone left wanting a lot more. The only people who left “satisfied” were typically friends or family of full event participants who did it because they were already there and it was convenient. Most participants end up signing up for a full track day afterwards.
Price is often the easiest way to tell between a true HPDE track day and just a paced session. $50 may seem like a bargain vs a $300 track day, but you are most certainly not getting the same thing.
While there is already a LOT of information across the internet, many people struggle to find HPDE days simply because they don’t know what or where to search. MOST race track websites aren’t helpful as they usually list A) Only Professional Events on track, B) Information to INCREDIBLY expensive exclusive memberships, or C) Both. While it isn’t the case everywhere, the vast majority of HPDE events are run by clubs who rent the track facilities for a few days, not the track themselves.
My favorite way to find events is HPDE Junkie. While there are a few different options, I’ve found that HPDE Junkie is the most complete, and by far the easiest to search and navigate. You can search by track, region, date, etc.
The United States does have a pretty impressive number of road course circuit tracks. And despite Doom-and-Gloom editorials and NIMBY battles, while there are indeed track closing, the overall number of racetracks seems to actually be growing. This helpful map can help you find tracks near you.
The track hobby has a way of “recalibrating” what participants consider as “local”. While people who live close to a track are more likely to start doing track days, it isn’t too long before they consider a 3hr drive “not too far” and a 5 hour drive “long, but still local”. It helps that track events are usually 2 or 3 days long (With load-in another day earlier, and camping or hotels), so the long drive makes much more sense if you’re going out Thursday afternoon until Sunday, vs driving out Sunday morning. Trust me, it gets easier… the only issue is if you drive your car to the track and it breaks. While it is not uncommon to see friends going to great lengths to get people home, a AAA Platinum tow membership is a very good idea if you drive your car to the track.
Next up is the green elephant in the room, Sticker Shock. This is NOT a hobby for the faint of wallet, a typical single track day is in the $250-350 range. The costs to run/build/maintain facilities and put on these events is astronomical (and rising), so unfortunately, admission isn’t the same $20 you’ll pay for a few passes at the drag strip on Friday night. However, if you’d like to do the metal gymnastics to justify the added cost: A $20 drag strip admission for ~45 seconds of total track time is about $25/minute. A $300 track day admission for 75 total minutes of track time is $4 per minute. Now THAT is value!
A note on the high cost. It sucks… Sure, this is a “Rich person’s hobby” BUT there are still many participants who work average jobs (or even less) and find ways to make it out. It may be expensive to participate but the resounding opinion is, it’s worth it… and if you make wise choices with your spending, it doesn’t need to suck up all your money! (Sharing this concept is the core purpose of this entire website)
But wait, there are ways to get on track for less, or even totally free! Track Days require a lot of staff to fulfill many roles and ensure a smooth-running event. In lieu of paying workers, many clubs are run with volunteer staff, who earn FREE track time in exchange for working various jobs at the event. I began doing track days right out of college with an absolute mountain of student debt. I still wanted to have fun, but there was no way I could afford it. I began by volunteering with my local NASA region and have worked in various roles all around the org. Beyond simply being “work” it’s also very fun to see and be involved in all the different aspects of a HPDE and Race weekend. I’ve worked anywhere from Race Grid, to Technical Inspection, to Post-Race impound and compliance. Even got to stand on pit lane and “split” the racecars as they made their way out for a race. Finding ways to make yourself useful to the club and work off your track time is the #1 money saving tip (Tied with picking the right car to take on track). Once you build enough experience and skills, if you have the right personality and mindset, you can become a HPDE Instructor. HPDE Instructors ride with beginners and guide them through their early track days. As Payment for their Instructing work, HPDE Instructors are typically allowed to drive for free.
I must admit, to say I do this hobby for cheap is coming from a place of real privilege. Even when I started doing general track days, underemployed, on a shoestring budget, I still had a healthy safety net. I tracked my only car, my Daily Driver, But I still had an old truck I could borrow from my parents to get to work if I broke my Daily Driven track car. I had a background in working on cars and could cheaply fix (and/or have friends help fix) most anything that broke. I still had a family AAA towing card (though I never needed to use it). I didn’t have any big responsibilities like kids or jobs that made me work odd and weekend hours. Hell, to someone struggling to pay rent, replacing $600 in tires every other year is far from insignificant. This whole blog was created as a way to help you participate in this hobby, spending as little of your hard earned cash as I see possible… but this still isn’t what I’d call a cheap hobby. Are all these costs/commitments seeming like too much for you? You can absolutely still get involved. If you can’t handle taking your car on track, volunteer without taking track days. Go to hang out, help as crew with a race team, etc. Borrow a helmet to take rides between your work assignments. At a minimum, volunteers get fed, so that’s covered. Participate on whatever level you feel comfortable, even without driving I’ll wager that you have a blast.
This article is a mix of beginner and more advanced tips (including some already mentioned above), but is a good checklist for keeping spending in check: The 15 MOST effective tips to SPEND LESS on Track Days and Racing. Maximize your Track Time.
How about the car?
First off: With Track days and Racing, 99% of participants use their own vehicle. For Track Day beginners, 95% are using regular street cars, most of which are daily drivers. There are Track Car rental options and outfits, but for many… the cost is prohibitively expensive (Think an average of $800 per day for car rental alone).
What is the best vehicle to start doing track days? THE ONE YOU HAVE.
While there are a few exceptions high rollover-risk SUV’s, most vehicles are allowed to participate in track days with zero modifications needed. Most Convertibles Require adding an approved roll bar (Including Miatas, sorry). In fact, beginning with stock, unmodified cars is preferred over heavily modified ones. Just bring any car in decent mechanical position, with newer (<5 year old) tires, fresh brake pads, and fresh brake fluid. Track specific pads are a GREAT idea, but aren’t always a requirement before your first time on track. Some people get through their first day just fine on newer street pads… but most will start to have issues pretty quickly on fast brake-heavy tracks. On the odd days I’ve brought a full street vehicle on track, I lift early on the straights to keep speeds down and save the pads some.
The criteria for what makes a good track car varies greatly based on your own preference and goals, but no matter who you are, overall budget should be a primary concern. I’ve seen plenty of well-off people start with an expensive car and quickly either a) Run themselves totally out of disposable income or b) Start spending more than the hobby was worth to them… and leave.
Few people realize that things like consumables (Tires, brakes, fuel, etc) and maintenance requirements rise exponentially as cars get faster and faster. A new Mustang GT350, Civic Type-R, or C8 Corvette might be an absolute track WEAPON, but if you’re planning on participating frequently, they’ll often run you out of cash.
That said, if you own one of these incredibly fast cars, don’t sell it for a Miata, 90’s civic, or E36 before your first track day. Take your fast car out and enjoy it! You’ll have a blast and learn to handle your car much better. But if you wish to participate in track days regularly, know that many cast cars burn more consumables in a 30 minute session than a Miata will in a full season. A Z06 Corvette may be going 50mph faster than a Miata at the end of a straightaway, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having more fun. It DOES mean, they’re burning WAY more consumables. Why? A car with more horsepower is going to be going faster and need to brake more. It will also typically be heavier, so the brakes and tires will have to work even harder to slow it down. With acceleration and cornering the tires will be working harder, and on and on. All these factors build up on each other to make some cars eat significantly more brakes and tires. If you wanted to take that even further, as cars get more heavy duty their individual components need to be beefier, stronger, and heavier… And all the sudden you’re looking at things like auxiliary differential fluid coolers…
If/When you are looking for a car to buy as a dedicated track car, LOOK AROUND THE PADDOCK. There will be a wide range of cars, from common and expected to rare and surprising. There are always a few that dominate the landscape, and this is usually for good reason. Affordable, well mannered, RELIABLE cars are natural favorites. Not only are these driving endorsements helpful for picking a car that can get the job done, having a common car opens you to a world of firsthand knowledge, repair help, and even spare parts at the track. All that means you spend MORE time on track and less time chasing down issues and replacing parts.
How to prep your car?
Okay, so you have a car now, All you need to do is show up? For the most part, yes. Cars do not need any special modifications or upgrades before going on track, in fact, modifications are discouraged. There are multiple reasons for this, check out this article – The 6 most important reasons why you shouldn’t modify your car before your first track day: Post 26
While specific procedures vary between organizations, most clubs do on-site technical inspection the morning you arrive at the track. These are not exhaustive inspections and don’t take the place of your own pre-track once-over, Their primary focus is usually to look for incorrectly installed components, large leaks, obvious weakpoints, and loose items.
What about YOUR gear? What else do you need?
For your first track day all you typically need is long pants and closed-toed shoes. A Snell-rated helmet is required to get on track and you should own one, but if you’re trying a track day for the first time and aren’t keen on spending $200-2,000 more before you even try it; Most clubs offer rentals for first-timers. If you’re planning on doing this, definitely reach out to to the club well before your event date and confirm they have rentals.
To read up more on track and racing related safety gear, check out this post:The Budget Safety Gear YOU need for Track Days and Racing: Post 31
A VERY important note about helmets: That cool looking old motorcycle helmet you bought at a garage sale for $5 is not acceptable for track use. While it varies a bit between clubs and regions, most events require a helmet that is less than 10 years old and rated either SNELL-SA or SNELL-M. “DOT” ratings mean nothing for the track.
To read more bout helmet ratings, what is acceptable, and what isn’t… check out this post: How long is my SA2010 Helmet good for Track Days and Racing? When the new SNELL ratings take effect and what you should know.
So you signed up!
Read through this Checklist: – Simple First Trackday checklist: Don’t forget these important items for your big day! (And some to NOT stress about)
Here you go: What to expect leading up to your day, and a minute by minute guide of your average track day! What to Expect at your first Track Day – “A Day in the life” – A Beginner’s HPDE Guide
Where to stay? At or near the track?
Camping at the track has always been my primary lodging on track weekends. At the track, sleeping arrangements vary as much as the cars. People sleep in cars, trucks, tents, campers, enclosed trailers… even (in some inclement weather) on the floor of the garage or in an unlocked registration building.
Over the years there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve stayed at local hotels for various reasons. Beyond the money of hotels (I’ve turned down offers of free hotel beds more-often than not), if you leave the track to go shower and lay in bed watching TV, you miss SO much of the track weekend experience. The paddock comes alive in the evenings. Parties, BBQs, people thrashing to repair broken cars, telling stories of the day, etc. In my old age I try to turn in a bit earlier, get a bit less rowdy, but in my earlier days we had plenty of evenings end late enough that we had to be careful to be in fighting shape for the next morning’s sessions. The bonds I’ve created (And continue to create) at the track will last me a lifetime. Trust me: If you want the full track experience, try camping. If camping is absolutely not for you, another newer option rising in plurality is renting an RV from a site like RVshare. Finally, Airbnb is another popular option, a few friends will often band together and rent a local house.
After all this, you still want a Hotel? Ask the club or track for their preferred options. Often, local hotels will have a special rate for the track or car clubs. Depending on the track, they may have a hotel on site, 5 minutes away, or 30 minutes away.
Can I come alone? I don’t know anyone! This has come up in a few different articles around the site. Most track participants come alone, at first… but the community in general is quick to embrace newcomers and with so much common ground, friends are made naturally. Our campfires and garages are always welcoming and open for new people to come say hi.
But what about bringing family? If this hobby becomes a large part of your life (as it has done for so many of us) It would be very cool to share this with friends and family. So many aspects of these events really need to be experienced firsthand to really understand… but at the same time, road course tracks aren’t exactly fantastic spectator venues. Long, winding tracks mean people can usually only see one corner at a time. The distance spectators are from the track also often make your “hair in fire, fast as possible” driving look more like any standard highway cruise. Below is a few ways to keep family entertained and get the most out of their time at the track.
Whether you should come alone, with friends, or with family is largely a personal question. As a generally outgoing person, coming alone was a great choice for me. The people I met in this hobby have become my closest friends. The “first say of school” aspect of your first track day encourages (forces) you to get out and meet people, whereas with family at the track you’ll be spending your spare time entertaining them. I definitely think you should bring family and friends to the track… but maybe after you’ve established yourself within the hobby a bit.
Ready for the next read?
Check out this post about the 15 most commonly asked questions before attending your first Track Day. Top 15 “First Track Day” FAQ’s – All you need to know in order to get yourself driving on a race track.
As I mentioned earlier, I will continue to add to this page as I can – Keep an eye out for some future articles, including:
“I want to go pro!” (Trust me, you don’t)
Recording Video – What camera to use and how to mount it
Which club should I run with?
How Dangerous are HPDE Days, and should I get Track Day Insurance?
I hear DATA is necessary to go fast, is this true? When do I need it?
Where should I buy my gear?