Some drivers are perfectly content to motor leisurely from point A to point B. Others yearn to push a vehicle to its limits. Unfortunately, those of us in the second category rarely have a chance to do so without risking our very privilege to drive, let alone the safety of ourselves and others on our roads.
But experience with performance driving can actually improve a driver’s skills, providing him or her greater ability to control a vehicle in emergency situations on the road. Lapping a closed course at high speeds, therefore, is more than just loads of fun. A track day – or in this case, a track night – is a hands-on lesson in vehicle dynamics that can help you drive more safely every day.
Thanks to Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), you now have an opportunity to attack the twisting pavement of a racetrack in your own road car. The 60,000-member motorsports organization teamed up with TireRack.com to create Track Night in America. The program is specifically designed to make road courses accessible to more enthusiasts. You need no previous performance driving experience. You just need to be at least 18 years old, have a valid driver’s license and a safe car, and pay a $150 entrance fee.
That’s a bargain for some track time. You get three 20-minute sessions in addition to paced laps to familiarize yourself with the course. The weeknight events are held at 20 road courses around the country, including Atlanta Motorsports Park in Chase Elliott’s hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia, site of the inaugural event. We stopped by to find out if Track Night in America offers a real, high-octane thrill ride or just a watered-down imitation.
From novice drivers with no previous track time to those with autocross and weekend racing experience, the responses from the drivers I interviewed were overwhelmingly positive.
“Once you do this, you don’t go to Six Flags anymore,” said Chad Burdette of Cumming, Georgia, the particularly quick driver of a gray Nissan 350Z.
Unlike Burdette, Ben Leoffler of Atlanta had never driven on a track before. He said his previous experience driving at the limit consisted largely of slinging his car around a wet or snow-covered empty parking lot. He brought his 1984 Mazda RX-7 – with 173,000 miles on the odometer – to Track Night and quickly improved his skill. I watched from the flag stand as Leoffler steadily increased his mastery of Turn 1, lap by lap.
The three classes – novice, intermediate and advanced – seemed effective at keeping drivers of similar skill levels on track together, even though vehicle performance varied widely in each class. Four-cylinder cars ran hot-laps alongside more powerful V6s and V8s. Passing is allowed in certain zones and with the “point-by” from the driver being overtaken, keeping the pace quick.
The joy of the drive seemed to linger past the checkered flag that marked the end of each session. In the paddock area, drivers were all smiles as they recounted the lessons and thrills of their seat time. First-timer Omar Lee said he “had a blast” in his 2001 Honda S2000. But seeing this grown man giddy with excitement, I hardly had to ask.
Find a Track Night in America event near you. Sign up and, if you don’t already have one, get an approved helmet to wear on track. Those on a budget should check out the Run/Work program that gets you one session for $35, provided you put in some time helping out. If you’re under 18 or prefer just to watch, all events are free to attend. And if you just want to see what it’s like out on the track, you can probably find someone who will let you ride shotgun on a paced lap.
If you have to rationalize slinging a car around at high speeds – to yourself, your spouse or perhaps a parent – remember that Track Night is not just for fun. You’re improving your ability to control the car, making you a safer driver on the road.
Ready to go? Here’s what SCCA recommends you bring. Hit your local NAPA Auto Parts store for any tools and supplies you need.
- Torque wrench or lug wrench (we recommend a cordless impact wrench)
- Basic tools
- Jack (we recommend jack stands, too)
- Glass cleaner
- Oil and other fluids
- Towels or wipes
- Tire pressure gauge
- Tub or tarp
- Closed-toe shoes
- Long-sleeve shirt and pants
- Rain gear
- Tow hook
- Drinks and snacks
A 12-volt air compressor is not on SCCA’s list, but several Track Night participants relied on one to inflate tires in the paddock area.
Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on SCCA Track Night in America, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Nick Palermo is a freelance automotive writer and NAPA Know How blogger. Since becoming an auto news and reviews contributor at AutoTrader.com in 2011, he has broadened his coverage of the automotive industry to include topics like new car technology, antiques and classics, DIY maintenance and repair, industry news and motorsports. A committed advocate for automotive media professionals, Nick is a member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.