My First Track Day – SCCA PDX

Ever since my first experiences with autocross I knew I wanted to get more involved with motorsports and some day try road racing. This summer I made the leap and decided to take action on that goal.

I went to the SCCA website and found the next upcoming Performance Driving Experience (PDX) event and registered. The PDX is the very first introductory level event for road racing. It was my opportunity to get out on a road course with my daily driver (1999 Acura Integra GS-R) which I had autocrossed so many years back.

I found a wealth of information online both at the SCCA website but also at this site called Go Ahead – Take the Wheel. They break down how to get started road racing, the various types of events, what to bring, how to prepare, what to expect, etc. It’s an truly excellent resource that I not only recommend but will continue to reference throughout my journey.

This PDX event was held at Bremerton Motorsports Park here in Washington which is about an hour and a half from where I live. I had to get up pretty early on a Saturday morning to get there by 8:00 am with enough fuel in the car to make it through the day. You burn up fuel much faster when racing than you do driving normally so it’s good to fill up before getting to the track.

The morning started with a tech inspection of the car and getting a loaner helmet from the club. So far this was the same as it is in autocross so it felt immediately comfortable. We then went on a track walk with the lead instructor, David Jackson. Again, this was similar to autocross but now we were on a much bigger track. Interestingly, I think Bremerton is the ideal track for a first time road course experience for someone like me having previous autocross experience.

Bremerton Track Map – Click to enlarge

Bremerton is a track on an airfield and the course is defined by cones and larger pylons just like an autocross track. The difference is there were much fewer cones, not as many turns, and a very long straightaway allowing for much faster speeds. Also, there were concrete walls in the middle of the course so I was certainly keenly aware that spinning out in the wrong place would not be the same as in autocross where there is usually nothing but cones to hit. David had some great stories to tell from his many years of racing experience and he did a great job of dispensing advice.

After the track walk we went into the classroom session with the PDX group where David started going over a presentation. We then went to perform some exercises near the paddock area. They set up a coned slalom course, again very familiar from autocross. This was a two part exercise, the slalom followed by threshold braking section to stop in between two cones. Threshold breaking is braking has hard as you can at the right time to have the car stop exactly where indicated. It was fun to hear the ABS come on at the end of each run, I don’t normally get to feel that in my car. It took a couple of tries to get the car stopping at marked location as I found I was braking too early.

My white Integra on grid

From there it was back to a classroom session where we talked about flags and their meanings. It’s important to know where the flag workers are located throughout the track as you’ll have to watch for flags during the race. This was all prep to go onto the track which we did next. We each had instructors drive our cars for two laps to show us the racing line and for us to find the corner workers. Then we switched and drove the rest of the session with instructors riding with us. This is where it really gets exciting!

The first few laps were getting acquainted with the track layout, which was not that hard at Bremerton. Listening to feedback from my Instructor Harley Johnson was very helpful and I learned I could take turns 3 and 4 (see track map) in a higher gear (3rd instead of 2nd in my car) and was able to carry more speed through those corners.

Throughout the day I continued working on threshold breaking after the 100 mph straight on the track. The fun part for me was not so much going 100 mph but the change in speed threshold breaking from 100 mph down to make a tight left turn at the end of the straight into turn 1. I was still breaking a bit early and each lap I continued to brake a little later as I got closer to the turn in point. Then I had my first off track excursion when I experienced brake fade, braking a bit too late and essentially missing the turn altogether. Harley saw I was going to miss it and just motioned me to continue going straight as there was a runoff road at the end of that turn. That was totally unexpected and I wasn’t sure what to do for a moment so that mistake was a great learning experience. I went off track to a safe distance from the turn in case other cars missed it as well. I then turned the car around and waited for the nearby corner worker to wave us back onto the track (this had caused a local yellow flag).

That was the last lap of the morning run and upon returning to the paddock I was signaled to stop by the lead instructor. He wanted to “have a word” and asked me what happened. I explained I hit the brakes late and experienced fade. He said I did the right thing (of course, I had help from my instructor Harley riding in the car with me) but that was a great learning experience. I don’t plan on going off track much but now I know what to do in that situation, always focused on safety.

Later in the day it suddenly started pouring rain. We are in Washington state after all, go figure. This made things even more interesting as puddles quickly turned the track into a mess for the other prepared cars with race tires (very little or no tread). We waited out the rain a bit and David went out with safety workers to inspect the track. When he saw it had dried enough he sent our PDX group out first since we were on street tires. That would help clear the track of standing water for the rest of the field.

This was actually a blast. I got to feel the car slide around a bit but I felt I could control very precisely where I put the car just by holding the wheel steady and using the throttle (called throttle steering). This is much easier to do in the wet because you can experience it at slower speeds.

I got my share of blue flags (faster cars coming up behind) and practiced point by’s (sticking your hand out of the window and pointing another car by so they can safely pass). The format of the event is strictly about learning and not racing other cars so there was no pressure there and could just focus on being a safe driver and learning the track.

Another flag I experienced was a red flag, meaning come to a complete stop off the side of the track near the flag station. It turned out a deer came out of the woods and ran onto the track so they had to stop the whole field to ensure nobody hit the deer or got their car hit by the deer. I’m told you don’t normally get a red flag on course unless something really bad happend so this was a good one to experience without someone being hurt or cars being damaged.

Overall this PDX was a great experience and definitely got me ready for the next time I could get on a race track.

My Forza 4 Simulation Setup

After doing quite a bit of racing in Forza Motorsport 4, I decided I wanted to step it up a few notches. I started doing some research online in the area of driving simulation and found that people were putting together some pretty serious setups for games like Forza and iRacing.

I found everything from full metal cockpit cages with multiple monitors and racing seats to a basic wireless control steering wheel from Microsoft. The handheld wireless wheel controller is nice but not as precise or immersive. It’s probably a step up from the regular controller but not by much. I don’t have the room for a full simulation setup so a cockpit was out of the question and my budget for something like this. My friend Mark had played around with some of the setups from Fanatec and after looking into them I decided these would work best for me.

I decided to go with the Fanatec CSR wheel and Rennsport wheel stand. I ended up ordering their combo setup which includes the wheel, CSR Elite pedals, and shifters (H pattern and sequential). The wheel stand is great because it folds and allows me to move it out of the way when not in use and is quick to set up yet sturdy. I already had a race car gaming chair that works perfectly with this setup.

I found this setup works great and really changes the game and how I play. I changed the game setting steering to simulation and controller type to wheel with clutch. Now I’m able to drive with a real brake/gas pedal, shift with a real clutch and shifter and get force feedback from the wheel when driving. This all comes together to give you an even better and more immersive experience when racing. The biggest thing I noticed is how much smoother you can be using the wheel and pedals. I always found it hard to give it just a little bit of throttle with the controller triggers, now I have a much better range of control. Also, holding the wheel steady or making minor corrections is much much easier.

The setup is not cheap, and it’s certainly a big expense for a “game”. Sure, I could have gone to a couple of track events for that price but with this setup I can practice every week  and even work on things like heel toe downshifting when I’m not in my car. It makes my participation in the weekly series feel like much more of an event as I bring out the setup before the race and get myself into position.

Of course this setup can be used with other racing games as well. Forza Horizons will be coming out soon so I’m looking forward to trying it with that as well. I’m still pretty addicted to Forza and recently picked up the Porsche expansion which is great. They keep adding content like the new Dodge Viper so this setup will definitely keep me satisfied in between real life driving events.

Forza Motorsport 4

So I’m big into games, always have been, and I spent many hours with the original Gran Turismo on the PlayStation. That’s the game that really started it all for me, the first game that had great car physics and a variety of production cars to choose from and customize. Ever since GT things have just gotten better and better for gamers who love racing.

The latest and greatest in my opinion is Forza Motorsport 4 on Xbox 360. It really excels in vehicle dynamics simulation, attention to detail in everything from the cars themselves, cockpits, tracks, and customizations. There are plenty of game review sites covering the game itself and why it’s so amazing so I won’t rehash those aspects here. What I do want to talk about is how this applies to racing (great writeup here) and can aid in driver skill development.

Although there is no substitute for what racers call “seat time”, time spent sitting in the seat of a car on a real track, there is something to be said for simulation. Pilots use simulators for training as does the military and as computing power and capability increases we’re only going to see more of this in different fields. For sports like auto racing this is particularly helpful as track time and attending events is not cheap. Firing up your Xbox for a quick game on the other hand is a great supplement (not alternative) to real life racing.

In particular, the game has a good level of customization with regards to settings to aid in your driving skill practice. To get away from the more arcade feel of the game be sure to turn off all assists (except maybe ABS brakes initially) and you can start to really get a feel for how different cars behave at speed. You’ll start to notice you can’t just throw the car around or brake at the last minute and expect to make a turn. Just like in real driving you’ll want to practice you look ahead skills and smoothness with the controller. Start by doing hot laps on a track you know well until you feel comfortable with the car and how it handles. Also, to start, pick a lower horsepower car and try to make it go fast. Just like in real life, you’ll learn alot more about carrying speed through the corners from your technique rather than from the car’s ability to accelerate fast.

I’ve been having a blast with this setup and after completing the career mode I’ve been focused on online multiplayer circuit racing. This can be a mixed bag depending on who you’re racing. Sometimes you’ll have a very clean race with drivers who treat it like a simulation rather than an arcade game and this is when it’s really fun.

I’ve recently joined a weekly series with guys from the Grassroots Motorsports website forums. They’ve organized an SCCA B-Spec series that’s been a blast so far. The B-Spec series is a real life series with cars like the Honda Fit and Mazda 2 (that’s a picture of my in-game Mazda 2 spec car at the top). It was created as an affordable entry into road racing competition. Mirroring this in the game was a great idea as there is a specific customization setup for each type of car that makes the races very competitive and alot of fun.

So if you’re looking for another way to practice driving I’d definitely recommend Forza 4. Setting up the difficulty towards simulation really opens up another aspect of the game, one that can help you in real life.

How I Got Started

I’m going to go back in time about 10 years to share with you how I got started and introduced to the world of auto racing.

My friend Kenny told me about something called autocross with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) back in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up. Technically, this is called Solo2 when you look at the SCCA website. I learned that this was an affordable way to take your car “out to the track” without much risk of damage.

In autocross the track is made up of traffic cones and cars run one at a time pretty well spaced apart so it’s one of the safest environments to test the limits of your ability with your daily driver. A weekend event would run about $35 at the time plus a yearly SCCA membership which is under $100. Overall this was the least intimidating way to get started and still one of the best values around.

One of the most beneficial aspects of this program is just getting out there and meeting others in your local area who are often very helpful and willing to help beginners learn the ropes. If you love cars it’s a great place to go and see what types of cars people race. You’ll find everything from daily driven Honda Civics to race prepared Corvette’s with full roll cages and other go fast customizations. Walking around the paddock you’ll likely find other drivers with the same type of car you have so it’s a great way to get to know people.

The SCCA provides a structured environment for learning and competition. During a Solo2 event you’ll also work the track and learn about various positions such as starter, timer, flagger, or help with registration. This arrangement keeps the event costs low for everyone but also gives you great experience and understanding of what goes into running one of these types of events.

As I got into Solo2 I learned about the various aspects of car control such as looking ahead on the track, looking where you want your car to go before it gets there, smoothness of steering inputs, and vehicle weight transfer. I was racing my daily driver, a 1995 Honda del Sol SI, at the time and was having a blast. Cars are grouped by class based on their performance characteristics so the competition is close. I got to experience the adrenaline rush of acceleration and speed and enjoyed competing for points throughout the season. I did this for two seasons and in between switched to my next daily driver, a 1999 Acura Integra GS-R which I’m still driving today. I placed 3rd in the GS-N (G Stock Novice) class back in 2001 which was quite a thrill.

After a while other priorities came up and I stopped participating in autocross but looking back it was a great foundational experience for my development as a driver. For those wanting to get started in motorsports I’d definitely recommend giving autocross a try. There are other clubs in addition to the SCCA that offer such programs. National Auto Sport Association (NASA) is a similar organization as well as manufacturer specific clubs (Porsche Club of America, BMW Car Club of America, etc) that you may want to look into.

Fast forward to today I’ve come full circle in a way. I’ve got the itch to go racing again but this time in a different format, road racing. This is something I’ve always wanted to do as I learned about the various motorsports styles and I’ll be posting my progress towards that goal here.

Intro


Welcome to My Racing Journey. I’m starting this blog to document my adventures in motorsports primarily to help me see my progress over time. My hope is it will also be of interest and helpful to others who want to get into the sport or are already on that path.

As I share my experiences and take the time to write down my goals, mistakes, and what I’ve learned, I hope to gain insight I might otherwise miss. I also look forward to interacting with readers and learning from you as well so please feel free to comment.

To give you a bit of background on how this all started, I can look back as far as growing up and really being into cars. I suppose most kids are into cars at one point or another and it’s just a phase of we go through as boys. In my case I feel as if that little boy who was fascinated with fast cars never left. Although I did “suppress” it for a number of years as I focused on other things like school, work, and life only to have it resurface with a vengeance now.

What is so interesting about cars after all? What most people see as a means to get from point A to point B, I’ve always seen as much more. It starts with the aesthetics of automotive design. It’s what sets apart a sports car like a Porsche, Ferrari, or Corvette silhouette from one of an average economy car. It’s artistry at it’s best, where form meets function to create a complete experience for the driver. Then there’s the engineering of sports cars; the combination of mechanics, dynamics, and technology to produce something meeting performance, safety, and reliability requirements. These are things I can certainly appreciate as a software engineer myself.

Now take those elements that appeal to me and add skill, competition, adrenaline, and comeraderie found in organized sports and you’ve got the formula for an addiction. I look forward to sharing how I’m feeding my addiction with you in future posts.