Track Days (Here and There)

Lots of people have travel blogs. I hoped to do something a little different, and make a motorsport-oriented travel blog, but that hasn’t quite come together like I wanted. Between the shipping delays and a couple of abortive attempts at track days last year, I’m about eight months behind on the track-touring experience I wanted to pursue. But finally I’ve had a mostly successful day driving at Zandvoort, so things are getting underway, and boy is it a different experience than going to tracks in the US.

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Back in the States, I went to to 5 track days at 5 different tracks with 5 different organizations. So far in Europe I have done 4 track days at 3 tracks with 1 organization. And even though two of those have been largely unsuccessful, with one noise violation and one minor accident, it’s enough for me to be able to spout some more-informed-than-average nonsense about it on the internet.

Doing track days around the incredible tracks in Europe, like Spa and Nurburgring just down the road, is the main reason I moved (with my car) to Europe instead of just doing a couple long vacations. So that made it doubly disappointing that my car showed up too late to get on track before August. And quadruply disappointing when I ran into a wall at the Nurburgring, on the first lap of the day, on my 30th birthday [SADFACE].

(That incident itself was a bit of a strange one, with some outside factor suddenly robbing my front wheels of traction in the middle of a turn and sending me gently into a wall. Not hard enough to be serious or stop me driving home, but enough to put the alignment out of whack and end the day on track.)

Anyway, after my first try at Circuit Zolder in August got cut short because I was 0.1 dB over their noise limit (95.1 dB, monitored from inside the cabin! And I’d never been measured above 87 dB before…), I tried again a couple weeks later during the 24-Hour race weekend where they were holding sessions with no noise limit (what convenient timing!). These sessions were actually on the Zolder 24 Hours event schedule as “VIP Laps.” Which, FYI, “VIP Laps” at a 24-Hour race weekend is probably the coolest possible name and place for a track day. While I was on track, spectators of the 24-Hour race were still watching and taking photos, and while I was off track, professional racing drivers were practicing for what might be their biggest race of the year. I almost felt like a real racing driver myself!

And because Zolder is so close, I was able to just take a half-day off of work, go to the track in the afternoon, and be back home in time for dinner. Finally, I have convenient track time!

Then came Nurburgring. As stated above, what was anticipated to be a super great day turned out to be the opposite of that. And because the wreck was caused by forces outside my control, it broke my confidence in a whole different way than if I had just made a mistake. A mistake I can learn from, and just not do that again. A track hazard or mechanical failure I can only hope doesn’t happen next time, which doesn’t exactly improve my comfort level with pulling lateral Gs at 100 mph.

So going to Zandvoort (my 3rd former Formula 1 track!) to start the year, I was a bit nervous to start the day. Fortunately an instructor was available to give me a confidence boost, and I got through the day without any trouble. (Well, except for the very end when my exhaust sprung a small leak, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.)

So what makes a track day different in Europe than in the US? It can be summed up by saying a European track day has a lot less structure to it. The track opens for the session you signed up for, you do as much driving as you want during that time (1-4 hours), and the track closes at the end. There are no run groups, no fixed schedule within your session(s), instructors are not required for anyone (sometimes not even available), and passing happens…whenever it can. If you’re a complete novice, you only need one half-day “circuit experience course” before going solo. The briefing is quick and casual, and there is not even a tech inspection!

Altogether, this makes things slightly more terrifying. You could have someone, or group of someones, out there whose first track experience was two weeks ago, without instructors to keep them sane, and you don’t know if they have the awareness to know you want to pass them inside on the next turn. At the same time you can have someone in a race-prepped Saker RAPX with years of experience showing up at your side almost without warning.

Open passing does allow a bit more satisfaction than point-bys, as you can take a late-braking lunge down the inside of a turn to pass a slower car, plus you’re never held up very long behind an unaware slowpoke. But it gets fairly nerve-wracking and chaotic when you get sandwiched between three slow guys and three fast guys (AAAAAHH, WHEN DO I PASS, WHO DO I LET BY?!). Point-bys are much more comfortable.

On the other hand, you do get more bang for your buck in European track days, in terms of seat time. You basically buy track time buy the hour, or by half-days, and you can do as much driving as you like in that time. Calling it a track day is a bit of a misnomer. For the cost of one American track day which usually offers between 100 and 120 minutes of seat time, you can get up to 240 minutes of seat time in Europe! And need I mention again the quality of said tracks? Such value!

Then there’s the fact that when you buy a four-hour block of track time, you feel like any time not spent on track is wasted. Want to recharge your GoPro batteries? Well, you could be on track instead. See a cool car? You could take some photos…or get back on track. Want to compliment someone on their driving (like that BMW driver I spent a few laps chasing)? Too bad, they’re still on track! Hungry? NO TIME FOR THAT, GOTTA GO FAST. Occasionally there’s a red flag to take the pressure off, but for 600 bucks, you better believe I’m gonna try to make the most of my time.

American track days, with their run groups and broken up schedules, make for a much more relaxed and social experience. The people in your group are all on and off track at the same times as you, so you can get used to their driving styles and strike up a conversation between sessions. There’s more downtime to wander around shooting photos (or the breeze) and rig up GoPros just so. It’s genuinely my favorite car-related activity to do, and probably still is, despite having less seat time.

But for now I’ve got my confidence back, and a brand new four-point harness to boot (long overdue, really), and I can’t wait to take my revenge on the Nurburgring.

Author: haveracecarwilltravel

Moved from America to Belgium in early 2016 (mostly for the racetracks) and brought my Lotus along for the ride. I also enjoy putting my D7000 to good use.

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