What’s It Like Out There? Find out at Track Night in America

Monday, Jun 07 269
By David Phillips
IMSA Wire Service
 
“What’s it like out there?”
 
Thanks to the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Track Night in America Driven by Tire Rack, any race fan with a valid operator’s permit and licensed automobile can answer that age-old question for themselves by turning hot laps on road courses across America.
 
OK, it’s not quite like going wheel-to-wheel with Pipo Derani and Katherine Legge at 165 mph, but you can get a taste of what it’s like to tackle the Big Bend, the International Horseshoe, Oak Tree and other legendary chunks of American racing pavement, many of which are negotiated annually by IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competitors.
 
And some that are not. Nelson Ledges Road Course near Youngstown, Ohio, for example. Best known as home of “The Longest Day” 24-hour showroom stock races in the 1980s and ‘90s, the track has primarily hosted SCCA club level competition for more than 60 years. Indeed, many memorable (and forgettable) moments in my undistinguished racing career took place there when I raced a Royale Formula Ford in the ‘70s.
Thus, I registered for a Track Night at “The Ledges” both with anticipation and trepidation. Anticipation in returning to my field of dreams in a Hyundai Veloster N on loan from my new BFFs at Hyundai; trepidation in that I hadn’t driven on a racetrack at eight- or nine-tenths in some 40 years. 40 years? Time flies.
 
Online registration proved painless. The cost is $165 ($155 for SCCA members) for an hour of track time, divided into three 20-minute segments apiece for novice, intermediate and advanced drivers. Tech inspection and insurance waiver forms are downloadable; there’s even a link to Hagerty Insurance for special event coverage, and a list of approved helmet certifications. Yes, you’ll need a helmet – in my case a Bell Star – but there’s no need to invest in a firesuit, gloves or fancy driving boots.
 
Now to the existential question: Should I register as a novice, intermediate or advanced? OK, no false modesty or bravado. I check the intermediate box.
 
A few weeks later, I arrive at The Ledges during the appointed hour – between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. – where a scan of the paddock reveals an assortment of about 50 cars including Corvettes, Mazda MX-5s, an S Class Mercedes, an Acura RLX, a Ford Transit van ... wait, a Ford Transit? Yes, the one with an SCCA Rallycross decal on the windshield; the one parked next to the Camaro with its rear window festooned with track layout decals of VIRginia International Raceway, Gingerman and Mid-Ohio in addition to Nelson Ledges.
 
Next, I turn in my tech form and do a helmet check, followed by a briefing on flagging basics and overtaking procedures led by Dan Dennehy, who coaches Track Night novices by afternoon/evening and serves as SCCA manager of partner relations by day. Dennehy discusses “point-by” overtaking, where the driver of a slower car sticks their arm out the driver side window and points to the side on which the following driver is to pass. Dennehy also notes the two passing zones at Nelson Ledges on a track diagram and says there are but two passing rules.
 
“The first is that all passes are point-by only. The second is that all passes are point-by only,” he deadpans.
 
After the briefing comes a follow-the-leader session where another coach, Daniel Griewisch, and his Honda Civic lead participants around the track on the racing line in single file at modest speed for five “familiarization” laps.
 
Although the pavement is directionally familiar to me, some of the visuals are not. Gone is the stand of trees on the outside of Turn 2, the inside of Turn 3 (aka Oak Tree) and the Carousel. And once my intermediate group is turned loose, I realize the gear selection from a Formula Ford’s four-cog Hewland gearbox bears little resemblance to the Veloster’s quick throw manual (hallelujah!) six-speed.
 
I also face an “unlearning” curve as what had been a flat-in-third Turn 1 in the Ford is now a fourth-after-a-stab-of-the-brakes in the Veloster. And where the Formula Ford racer in me went down to first gear for the final corner, I take the same turn in third as there’s plenty of torque from the Veloster’s lusty 2-liter turbo to launch me onto the start/finish straight.
 
The first 20-minute session offers ample time to take those changes onboard, develop new visual references and practice both sides of the point-by, first overtaking a courteous MX-5 and then returning the courtesy in the instants before the Mercedes and a Mustang blast past.
 
The ensuing 40-minute break (while the advanced and novice sessions unfold) offers time to mentally rehash the first session and for organizers to make adjustments. For example, the Mercedes and Mustang are promoted to the advanced group, owing to a combination of driver ability and car performance. 
 
'We observe the sessions closely,” says Dennehy. “We see if a driver is markedly quicker than most of the others in his session (or markedly slower – Ed). The idea is to have everyone in their comfort zone so everybody can maximize the amount of fun they have playing with others.”
 
Sure enough, I am more or less alone on the track throughout the subsequent two sessions. Oh, I see cars far ahead and behind, and there are a couple of point-bys per session. But mainly I just have a blast hurling the eager Veloster into Turns 1 and 2, feeling the lateral Gs through the slightly banked Oak Tree, and the longitudinal Gs – thanks for the great grip, Michelin Pilot Sport tires – when I plant the throttle exiting the Carousel or incrementally move my braking points closer to the turn-in points elsewhere. 
 
If the abundance of smiles in the paddock after the sessions is any indication, I am not alone in enjoying myself. Nor do the paying customers have a monopoly on grins.
 
“I so enjoy people experiencing the culture of Track Night in America,” says Dennehy, who reckons he coaches or is the event leader in 10 or more Track Nights a year. “What better way to see what it’s like driving their special cars on the country’s greatest racetracks than by doing it in a friendly, supportive, non-competitive environment?” 
 
And what better way to honor dear old Dad this Father’s Day than gifting him a Track Night in America? It’s guaranteed to generate a bigger smile than (yet) another tie!   
   
Learn more about Track Night in America at tracknightinamerica.com. To learn more about becoming an SCCA member and participating in its many events, visit scca.com. IMSA and SCCA have formed a partnership to grow the following of both organizations dedicated to the needs of motorsports professionals and enthusiasts alike.
Adam Sinclair

Adam has been a race fan since the first time he went through the tunnel under the Daytona International Speedway almost 30 years ago. He has had the privilege of traveling to races all across the state of Florida (as well as one race in Ohio), watching nearly everything with a motor compete for fame and glory, as well as participating in various racing schools to get the feel of what racecar drivers go through every week.  

Adam spent several years covering motorsports for Examiner.com., where he had the opportunity to see the racing world from behind the scenes as well as the grandstands. He invites everyone to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus, and looks forward to sharing his enthusiasm for all things racing with the readers of SpeedwayDigest.com.

Be sure to tune in for his sports talk program, Thursday Night Thunder, where he discusses the latest in motorsports news with drivers, crew members, and fans. The show takes place (almost) every Thursday at 8:00 pm EST on the Speedway Digest Radio Network. 

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