After hemming and hawing for years about signing up for my first track day, I finally bit the bullet a couple of months ago and signed up with a Hooked On Driving trackday at Thunderhill Raceway Park. Speaking with my friends about what track day organizations I should go with, Hooked On Driving was always on top of the list for their organization and safety record. No, they’re not cheap but after completing my first track day with the organization at Thunderhill, I can say they are worth every penny. Here’s why.
Safety at every turn
My biggest concern about tracking my car was safety. My Subaru BRZ is my only car and I cannot afford to put it into a wall or have another driver push me off the track. Hooked On Driving put my fears to rest as they are extremely well organized and aren’t afraid to eject problematic drivers.
Before my track day, Hooked On Driving sent me a detailed schedule so I wouldn’t be caught off guard and miss anything. I was honestly more terrified about the logistics of the event and getting in people’s way more than I was afraid of driving on the track so the detailed schedule was a relief.
The day started at 6:45AM with driver check in. I showed up early and picked up my schedule, name tag and instructor assignment. We then had our driver’s meeting to go over what flags mean on track as well as basic track driving etiquette. Basic tips like emptying your car of loose items and not trying to race were drilled into us. Since I was in the second A group, we went over driving basics in the class room while the first A group went out to begin car control exercises.
I am not a driving god
With the driver’s class done, we headed back to our cars to line up for our turn at car control exercises. The exercises would consist of figure eights, a slalom, and panic braking. I arrived at the figure eight apprehensive. Up until now, I’ve only driven on the street and never drove with the traction control turned completely off. I figured I had a good grasp of what my car was capable of but boy was I wrong.
When it came my turn, I blew every turn-in and apex. Beating myself up, I drove to the figure eight exit to consult with the coaches. “Try turning in with a wider line and giving it more gas,” said my coach. With my coach’s advice fresh in mind, I lined up again for another go. This time, I was more aggressive with braking, turned in with a wider line, and gave it more gas.
My view of the paddock blurred as my car rotated 180 degrees. I heard a clunk as my car stalled. I had forgotten to push the clutch in the middle of the spin. With my head hung low, I returned to the instructors. Both just smiled and said, “If there’s any place to make mistakes, it’s here. Give it another shot.”
“If there’s any place to make mistakes, it’s here.”
Third time was a charm. I gained enough confidence to slip the car sideways and anticipated where to catch the steering wheel to maintain the correct angle out of the hairpin. The low speed hairpins made the steering wheel snap quicker than I anticipated, which caused me to spin that first time. But as they say, practice makes perfect. I continued practicing figure eights and my coaches were happy with what they saw.
Next up was the slalom and braking exercises on the skid pad. The slaloms were straight forward enough, allowing me to feel how the car reacted in quick transitions. The BRZ, even with stock sway bars, took the slalom without any drama.
I arrived at the braking exercise and the instructor told me to accelerate as hard as possible and to slam on the brakes to trigger ABS. This was by far the most difficult exercise of the day because I had trained myself for years to threshold brake and to avoid triggering ABS. The first time through the braking exercise, I performed threshold braking and failed to come to a complete stop.
The coaches told me to brake harder, which I did, finally triggering the brake pedal shudder, a byproduct of anti-lock brakes. “OK next up, I want you to trigger ABS and yank the wheel to the right as hard as possible,” the coach told me. Easier said than done. My knowledge of how cars react, combined with my instinct for threshold braking fought me and I failed to trigger ABS. Who knew the hardest part of the day would be deliberately trying to mess up braking?
I attempted the braking exercises a few more times to get used to what ABS felt like before proceeding to perform a hairpin slalom. This was the car control exercise I had the most with with because it forced me to power slide around each cone and to link them all together. Nailing the right amount of gas and counter steer kept my rhythm through the hairpins and it felt super rewarding. I wanted to do more but it was time to return to the paddock for another classroom session.
With class dismissed, it was time to get ready to head out to the track for the first time. Hooked On Driving provides every Group A driver with an instructor. I was paired up with a father and son duo, Jim and Cody, who were sharing track time in their Mazadaspeed 3. Our instructor, Jim Edmund, would drive the Mazdaspeed 3 with Cody in the passenger seat for a lead-follow exercise to teach us the lines for all fifteen corners of Thunderhill East. I was given a radio and earpiece, which was extremely uncomfortable to jam into my full-face HJC helmet but Jim’s voice came through loud and clear.
This first session was all about learning about lines. It wasn’t until the second session that we perform passing exercises. We practiced using our hand signals and swapping places with our teammates. This instilled in us track awareness and the ability to know where it was safe to pass and to be passed. Hooked On Driving drilled into us track awareness, which was extremely important as there were over 20 cars on track at once with tremendously different power levels. I was painfully aware that I was driving the least powerful car on the track that day.
After our passing exercise, I was allowed to do laps solo. I started looking for reference points for braking and turn in. I continued working on my lines until the checkered flag came out, signaling the end of our session. It wasn’t until I returned to the paddock that I found out Cody had gone off the track at turn 14. His foot had slipped off the brake. He was dejected but his dad checked out the car, which was OK, and we headed back to the club house for another classroom session.
The classroom sessions went over basic driving concepts like braking zones, apexes, turn-in points, driving the friction circle and various tips to stay safe on track. These lessons were basic, but great for drivers with no performance driving experience. It was a bit basic for me but I found it good review regardless.
Now serving humble pie
With class dismissed, it was time for lunch but I had other things on my mind. Our coaches were taking to the track and offered ride-alongs to any one who wanted one. Jim brought his gorgeous Datsun 240Z he had since high school. After sitting and rotting for years, he restored it with a fresh coat of yellow paint and turned it into a non-street legal track day weapon. The interior was gutted, the seats replaced with racing buckets, five point harnesses, and a roll cage. Jim popped the hood to show the triple Weber carbs, which sounded glorious at full chat.
I couldn’t help notice the Ferrari decal on his side window that read, “In loving memory” of a name I can’t quite recall.
I got in the passenger seat with Jim, buckled in and we made our way to the starting grid. The Datsun’s locked differential clunked loudly and had us bouncing around the paddock. We headed on the track and I began soaking up every bit of information I could. Where was he braking? Where was his turn in point? His line into the Cyclone was completely different mine. What gear should I be braking into turn 9?
“Don’t try and add speed now. I just want you to learn your lines and be safe on the track.”
Before I could process what I saw, my two laps with Jim were up. Cody took the seat next as I returned to the paddock to try and remember what I saw. If it wasn’t clear, I was bit by the track bug. I wanted to go faster, brake later, turn in more aggressively. I kept thinking about how to go faster as I ate the provided lunch outside in perfect 75-degree weather, admiring the green hills of Willows.
After lunch, I met up with Jim and began picking his brain about braking points and lines. “Don’t try and add speed now. I just want you to learn your lines and be safe on the track. Get more experience before you start adding speed,” he said.
Jim was right. I wasn’t ready to start setting lap times just yet. It was my first track day after all and I’ve only been on track for two sessions. The last thing I needed was to spin off the track or to smash into someone’s car.
My parents would be so proud if it weren’t for the fact I was doing something “unnecessarily dangerous.”
I ate my slice of humble pie and took it easy in the third session, learning my lines and getting comfortable with pointing people by. Although I only had two sessions with Jim, he was confident enough with my abilities to let me drive solo for the third session, placing a “+” next to my A group sticker. A+. My parents would be so proud if it weren’t for the fact I was doing something “unnecessarily dangerous.”
For my last and final session, I took it easy, learning my lines, braking points, and where to turn in. I didn’t realize how mentally and physically exhausting driving quickly was. My goal for the last session was not to crash and to get me and my BRZ home in one piece. I managed to get in a couple of clean laps, which you can watch below.
Bit by the bug
I didn’t want the day to end. I just wanted more seat time to learn the intricacies of Thunderhill, which there are many. I was bit by the track bug. Hard. All I could think of was when I could get back on track.
Before the day ended, Jim handed back to me my Driver’s Logbook where coaches could make comments to their students. “Good listener. Drove the line safe and aware. Work on being smooth – continue working on your line,” were the comments Jim had for me. I looked further down and there was a check mark next to “OK FOR SOLO.”
On the long drive home, I reflected on whether the experience with Hooked On Driving was worth double what other organizations were charging. With instruction and lunch included, as well as Hooked On Driving’s commitment to safety, I can wholeheartedly say that it was worth the price. The staff was incredibly friendly and well organized so even newbies like me felt comfortable doing something as intimidating as track driving. If you can afford it, Hooked On Driving is the best way to start your high performance driver’s education.
Bucket list: check.