Episode 1: An Introduction to Lapping Days
Throughout my career I have had to opportunity to participate in just about every level of driving – from defensive driver training for the streets, taking road cars on race tracks, working at rally schools, skid schools, drifting schools as well as racing everything from karts all the way up to the professional formula and sports car ranks in Canada, the United States and England. Along the way I have coached thousands of racers, worked with some of the best mechanics and engineers in the world and been privy to extensive studies in sports psychology.
My goal with this column is to share my experiences and act as a friendly reference for any and all questions or comments you might have!
For my first article I would like to discuss the subject of lapping days. For those unfamiliar with the term, lapping days refers to time alotted to regular folks to take drive their road cars on race tracks!
For many these days are the first step towards performance driving or ultimately racing. Over the past five years I have watched these events grow in number with more participants and I feel they are a great way to enjoy the full potential of your vehicle (legally!) and in a relatively safe environment, i.e. - no one is coming the other way (we hope!). It is also nothing short of a true privilege to drive on some of the very tracks that our racing heroes have, and continue to, drive on. Places like Mosport, Mont-Tremblant, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock park, Mid-Ohio, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca, Daytona and VIR among others.
What I would like to do over the next few articles is dive deep into this topic –for there is much to consider for both the first time lapper as well as a veteran of many lapping events.
The 3 main areas I would like to address are:
- AWARNESS AND SAFETY
- PROPER INSTRUCTION
- MODIFYING YOUR CAR
For my first article let’s look into -
Awareness and Safety:
Long story short, all it takes to drive your favorite track is a few hundred bucks (around $300) and a valid drivers license. Some events require you sign up for instruction with a professional instructor, some off free instruction from volunteer instructors – we’ll get more into this in part two.
The first step is to be fully aware of what we are getting ourselves into and managing our expectation levels to get the most from it. Let’s call this awareness and safety.
There is a big difference between driving on a race track and racing on a race track and it is a difference that we all need to think about every single time we go on a circuit.
Motorsports has made huge leaps in safety in the past five decades: Roll cages, rubber fuel bladders, on board fire extinguishers, fire retardant suits, helmet technology, the HANS device, 6 point seat belts, SAFER barriers, run-off areas, extended gravel traps, on site doctors, med-evac helicopters – the list keeps on growing. All of these things have helped drastically improve the sports reputation for safety. In relation to lapping days, though – two big things come to mind:
A) Most road cars do not come equipped with roll cages, rubber fuel bladders, fire extinguishers, six-point harnesses, racing helmets, a HANS device and a three-layer fire retardant suit.
B) Many of the tracks we use for lapping have not been updated to current top safety standards. (There is a reason F1, Indy Car, ALMS do not frequent many of the circuits they used to, just ask Danny Sullivan.)
There is a third thing I want to mention while on this train of thought: Power.
These days, getting your hands on BIG horsepower is easy and relatively inexpensive. Remember when 300 hp was the realm of serious performance cars?? These days you can find a host family sedans that make that kind of power and more, and you need not venture into exotic car territory to find 400 even 500+ hp, not to mention how easy it is to install a computer chip to boost these numbers.
All of these factors came together forming a bit of an epiphany for me one day back in 2005. I was at Mosport acting as chief instructor for a Kensai Lapping Day event. The day before I was competing in a professional Grand Am Cup race driving for the Kensai Racing Team (it was a great moment for us, as we finished 3rd in our series debut!). Our race car was there on display right in front of the drivers meeting and, as usual, I was emphasizing that it was a lapping day not a racing day.
Then it hit me: The safety difference between the two was huge:
Our front running professional race car produced about 245 hp. I asked the crowd to raise their hand if the car they were about to drive on the track had more than 245 hp. Every single hand went up. I then asked the crowd to raise their hand if they had a full roll cage, fire bottle, racing suit, rubber fuel bladder, etc. – all of the hands went down.
So basically everyone there would have a higher top speed down the straight away than my race car, but without any of the race car safety equipment. Were the walls and barriers any farther away? No. Was there a medical helicopter on site? Nope. Tracks with no walls? – Great, considerably safer, but I’ve seen many a car end up on it’s roof after hooking a rut in soft grass. I’ll never forget the day a Pontiac Sunfire clipped a large apex curb, took to the air, caught fire and flew past me upside down in the air! But that’s another story….
This story brings me to my point – the first and most important thing we must always do when going to the track is to be realistic about where we are, what we are driving and enjoy it within those limits.
Driving a car at speed, feeling the G-forces build through a corner, seeing your speedometer soar past speeds that would normally land us in jail are among the most amazing sensations that can be experienced in a lifetime. Not to mention induce a level of adrenalin that rivals being shot at. As Hemingway once said, “there are only two true sports, auto racing and mountain climbing – the rest are merely games.”
And believe me my friends; once the adrenalin kicks in, it’s a whole new ball game! The power of that adrenalin has led many a good man down the wrong path and borne witness to many a car going home on the back of a tow truck. I’ll never forget facing my team owner after ending a race buried very deeply in a gravel trap at Brands Hatch – my was car missing a very important wheel or two – and the owner proclaiming to the entire crew – “Now that boys was ambition with a capital A!!” ) Good old adrenalin – can make a sane man do very very silly things. It is a fact that when I’m on the radio coaching professional drivers I am often simply there to provide a calm voice and keep the adrenaline in check – something I could have very well used that fateful day back at Brands Hatch.
Constantly reminding ourselves of what a privilege it is to drive on a race track, respecting the inherent risks and keeping the adrenaline level in check are the first and most important steps to getting maximum enjoyment out of your motoring.
Apply, rinse, repeat
I look forward to hearing your questions and comments!