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Tips for your first HPDE event

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Mail’s here! We’re talking track time, HPDE (high-performance driving events), and what it all entails. Will be a fun one.

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Question

Mike – taking my E46 M3 to my first HPDE track event at NJMP (New Jersey Motorsports Park- Mike), and wondering if you have tips or suggestions for a first-timer? I’ve come across other articles, but I’d like your take because you seem to have more experience than some unknown on Jalopnik.

– Ed

Answer

Ed, buckle up and be excited, because an HPDE event is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Now before we begin, please know that I have not attended a track event in about 8 years (I know, I know). But I’ve still been around many, and used to do it all the time, so like the Terminator says as he holds out his hand, come with me if you want to live.

HPDE tip 1 – Track insurance

Corvette
Protect it because that wall is awfully close.

Ed, the first tip I can give you doesn’t even involve driving, but it’s the most important thing you can do.

Please, for the love of God, take the track day insurance.

Readers might be aware that if it all goes boom on track, then Aunt Flo, Pedro Cerrano, or that weird Emu from Liberty…none of them are going to help you. Car insurance ends the moment you turn a wheel on a track.

Ah, but I can hear you already, “I know how to drive.” Or, “I’ll be really careful”.

Have you watched any professional race ever? Notice how a crash is not always up to the driver? Accidents absolutely happen.

A personal anecdote since you’ll be on NJMP, where I have run many times before. There is a blind, uphill right turn that requires you to keep your foot in it. It’s terrifying if you’ve never done it before. It’s uncomfortable if you’ve done it 100 times. This is because you can’t see what’s over the hill. This time, what was on the other side was a Corvette that crashed and spilled oil all over the track. The flag workers didn’t react in time for me to become aware of the danger, and I slid in my M3 as I went through the oil slick.

Like Maverick in a flat spin, I recovered before I introduced myself to a wall, but it was a scary event that pretty much made me decide “I’m good” for track days.

Take the insurance!

HPDE tip 2 – Get a grip

BMW M2
Whatever you have from the factory – it’s fine.

Screeeeech!

Yea, you’re going to hear that a lot. And that’s good. Great actually. Because street tires are designed to make that sound as they reach the limit of their grip.

There are a million things you need to process from behind the wheel while at high speed, and you might not always be aware of the nuances of your car’s handling at the limit. Tire squeal is a way to ensure that you know you’re reaching that point without going over it.

“But I want to put on Sport Cup 2s!”

No, you really don’t. Not as a beginner. Of course, use a good set of performance tires, but really, stop at a set of Pilot Sports, refine your driving, and then as you advance, try stickier rubber. Because as you get softer compounds with larger tread blocks, that alert sound goes away, and suddenly you’re barreling down that turn with a rear end that just quits on you. Boom.

HPDE tip 3 – Actually, don’t touch your car

BMW M4
Until you know how your car handles, wait to modify it.

Tires are the most important part of your car’s handling, but not the only thing that determines grip. So before you reach for that set of sway bars, install a roll cage, or lower your ride so it’s a millimeter off the ground, try it stock.

A regular M3, like most BMWs, is designed to understeer at the limit. That means you turn the wheel, and the car continues to go straight until the front tires can get enough grip to make the car go where you want. Sounds scary, but it’s easier to control than oversteer, where your car’s ass hangs out and yours puckers up.

Just get a feel for your specific car, see what it (and you) do at the limit, and then adjust the car’s handling to suite your style. Any competent shop can dial it in properly if you tell them what you’d like.

HPDE tip 4 – Instructor roulette

Driving instructor
We’re not exactly parallel parking here.

The first driving instructor I had, Steve, was also a co-worker, and we had a comfort level with each other that allowed me to really enjoy my first HPDE.

Steve told me I could go out alone on my next event, but I felt I wasn’t personally ready yet, so I took another instructor that day. He was not nearly as accommodating.

Now remember Ed, they have a tough job. You’re a newbie. They have no brake or way to control the car. They don’t know you.

At the same time, if you feel they are holding you back, talk to them about specific turns on the track, or ask for another instructor. Don’t be shy here. They can make you more anxious, and in turn make things worse.

HPDE tip 5 – Random rules

BMW M3
You will need gas. Lots of gas.
  • You will use a lot of gas. Bring extra, or plan a pit stop mid day to refuel. 103 octane on track is expensive.
  • Learn what the flags mean, and know when to give a point by to faster cars. No shame in letting people go around you.
  • At the same time, respect the space of others on track. No random passes. Sometimes people are nervous and aren’t even aware of what’s behind them.
  • Do NOT use the parking brake after a session. It will fuse the brake rotor and pad together. Just leave it in gear.
  • Relax while you drive! Take deep breaths. Wiggle your fingers on the steering wheel when you reach a straightaway. It’s a very intense experience, so remember to pace yourself.

Driving tips from the BMW Performance Driving School

M4 GT4

I’ve picked up a few tips over the years from the pros.

Look out!

BMW M4
Wait a minute…Derek is looking right at me?!

I’m hoping you’re not the kind of driver that’s texting and whatnot, so hopefully you know that you go where you look.

But on track, everything happens a lot faster, so you need to look a lot farther down the road. Making a right turn? You should be looking out the passenger window, not your windshield. Yes, that far ahead.

This is the most important element of your HPDE day – look at something on the side of the road, and that’s where you’ll go. Look at the point right above your hood, and you lose the ability to both react quickly and plan ahead.

CPR

BMW 3 Series
Notice how the wheels are turned in the direction the driver wants to go, even if the car itself is pointed another way.

Correct. Pause. Recover. Simple right?

Not really, because when you’re out there, you might have a tendency to hack away at the wheel if you’re oversteering. Panic sets in. Don’t scream.

Instead, correct. Point the steering wheel in the direction you want to go. Now, pause. It’ll only be a second or two, but it’s a long two seconds. If you want the car to turn left, and you’re turning the wheel left, it will go that direction, I promise.

Once it does, you recover. What a thrill. You’ll feel the tires hook up again, and at that point you probably don’t want to be going left anymore. Recover the car by putting it back on its intended path. Off you go.

This goes back to tires – you should feel the back end of the car slipping before it completely slides, so use the force and go easy on the inputs.

Smooth operator

BMW M3
Instructors talk with their hands.

Like Carlos Sainz, you must be smooth.

Sometimes I see beginners really sawing away at the wheel. Why are you doing this?

Going fast doesn’t mean everything must be fast. Unwind the wheel as you come out of a turn, don’t snap it. The throttle is a rheostat, not an on/off switch.

Just be smooth with everything you do to control the car, and soon you’ll develop a rhythm. It’ll come, just relax.

Breaking (boom) point

BMW 3 series
Don’t drag them – step on em.

Want to know how I learned about understeer? On my first lap at Pocono! This butt-puckering moment happened because I thought braking on the street is like braking on track, so I gradually stepped on the brakes from 130 mph. Surprise – they overheated and I was going way too fast. I had boiled the fluid in my E92.

What did I learn from this? That you should be firm  and deliberate in applying brake pressure. Go, go, go until it’s time to brake – there is no coasting on a race track. Once you’ve taken off enough speed and begun your turn, get back on the gas as the weight transfers to the rear. This will ensure the brakes will be there when you need them.

Speaking of weight transfer, braking causes the nose to dive, which brings the weight of the car forward onto the front wheels, which in turn helps them grip and steer.

So Ed, have fun! Remember, it’s not time to impress Toto Wolff, simply a way to make you a better driver, learn more about your own car, and keep everyone safe.

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