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Sharing our track-day experiences and why you should do one

Chasing Cars Team

Many people participate in track days across the country, but what are the benefits of attending one? We talk to those who have first-hand experience – ourselves!

From beginner happy laps to full-blown competitive track days, getting out on a circuit can be one of the best ways to have loads of fun in your car without breaking the bank. 

We’ve gone around the office to ask each Chasing Cars staffer what their favourite experiences have been on track and how these insights have helped them become a better and more confident driver, as well as more aware on the road.

Let’s take a deep dive to find out more about the experiences of the Chasing Cars team.

JL following close behind on track
Staff Journalist Johnny Law chasing down a Toyota 86 on track

Staff Writer Zak Adkins on performance race coaching at Norwell Motorplex in Queensland 

I had a great opportunity to get half a day of race coaching with up and coming V8 Supercars driver Broc Feeney at the Norwell Motorplex circuit near the Gold Coast. 

Unlike many of my fellow colleagues, this was my first track experience. I am not a race professional in any sense of the word, so you can understand my nervousness when I arrived at the track for my coaching.

So what did I take away from the day? First and foremost, I learnt how to extract absolutely everything out of the Toyota 86 I was driving. As I pushed harder and harder into each corner – growing faster and more confident – I could begin to feel the limits of grip and how much more I could press on before the car started to rotate.

The Toyota 86 was completely stock and I was surprised with just how well it handled. I was able to understand for the first time on track what it is like to use too much throttle early on in a corner, and how to adjust to take the fastest line. I learnt to sense when the car crept into understeer and then oversteer, and it felt really awesome to feel the car working beneath me. 

Zak got plenty of seat time in a Toyota 86 with Broc Feeney – although not in snow

What Broc and I also did was an emergency stop from 100km/h, which scared the hell out of me but taught me how much stopping power a car really has if you need to brake in an emergency situation using the ABS.

I also learnt how to best use gear changes to my advantage, and the timing of those gear changes. Sometimes it was best to leave the car in second gear instead of briefly going to third before another corner – little tricks like that made my lap times quicker and quicker as the day went on. 

So how can I relate what I learnt on track to how I drive on the roads every day? The most important thing I took out of the experience was car control and learning exactly how a car reacts in certain situations. We did some wet-course manoeuvres as well, and this helped me to be able to react when the car suddenly lost all of its available grip. 

I now know the limits of the Toyota 86 but also my own car, and can appreciate just how hard you can push before things can get out of shape … but equally, how out of shape things can get if you push too hard in the wrong environment.

Zak drifting pic 2
Zak also enjoys riding shotgun in his mate’s LS powered Nissan S15 Silvia

Out in the real world, this would come in handy if you had to make an emergency manoeuvre to avoid a potential accident. I also think that learning things such as understeer and oversteer really helps, especially in wet conditions such as accelerating around a roundabout or turning a corner. If the car does step out, you can easily correct it without causing an accident. 

Drives: 2008 Ford Focus XR5 Turbo 

Modifications: K&N cold air intake, short-shift kit, symposer delete (deletes fake sound piped into the cabin), 3.0-inch downpipe and high-flow 100-cell catalytic converter, Miltek sport muffler with no central resonator, upgraded engine and torque mounts.

Staff videographer Alek Hoskins: Money makes you go faster … short term. Seat time is the best go-fast mod

I haven’t driven the Nordschleife like some of my colleagues but I’ve been incredibly lucky to spend a large chunk of my time in and around cars at racetracks over the past couple of years.

I was introduced to motorsport through a mechanic that I was working with at the time and I quickly found myself ripping the interior out of my E36 BMW 318is, installing a roll cage and fitting wheels that were far too big! 

After a couple of quick flings in other cars, I landed on my Toyota 86 and, more recently, a cheap and cheerful Renaultsport Clio 172. Owning the 86 has introduced me to so many new friends and opportunities like instructing new drivers at Wakefield Park, and helping them realise the potential of their cars. 

Alek dreams for a new 86 – although his current one is one heck of a rig!

You will be amazed at the people you meet and how welcoming the track-day community really is if you leave your ego at the gate. You’ll always find someone willing to offer help, tools or advice when you need it – that’s exactly how Johnny [Law – staff journo] and I met three years ago doing doughnuts in our dirty E36s on a wet pan!

Your car will never be “ready”, but as long as it has enough meat on the brake pads, the wheel nuts are tight (a torque wrench is your best friend) and your fluids are topped up, you’re more than prepared to have some fun.

Put the excuses away and come join us. The rabbit hole awaits you!

Drives: 2014 Toyota 86, 2004 Renaultsport Clio 172

Modifications (86): (the shortened edition) Ohlins coil-overs, AP Racing brakes, 4.56 final drive, Hardrace control arms throughout, a plethora of wheels, E85 tune, “functional” air box, Racetech drivers seat, Sabelt harnesses, Sabelt steering wheel, IRP shifter, oil cooler, sump baffle, catch can and some lovely interior bits to make the 86 feel like less of a punish on the highway including Alcantara trims out of the facelifted car and an Apple Carplay head unit.

Modifications (Clio): Some cheap and quite nasty coil-overs, brake pads, engine mounts,  Yokohama A052s and a naughty intake that screams when the little four-banger gets on cam. It really masks the rattles from the non-existent interior!

Do: Research your trackday provider especially for your first outing, ask questions and make friends.

Do not: come with an ego, drop your road tyres below 35psi, or fall into the trap of adding power or grip when you’re yet to reach the limit.

Staff Writer John Law: you don’t need to be going fast to be having a blast

I’m no Ponch, but I’ve done a few performance driving events, trackdays, and even competitive super sprints. It all started at Wakefield Park in (my evidently overly-trusting) dad’s Renaultsport Clio 182. Having done countless laps of the Nurburgring Nordschleife on Gran Turismo, I was of the opinion my driving was hot stuff. I’d never put a foot wrong on the road, and could keep up on social road drive days without a problem.

The real racetrack is a different beast, of course, and the first mistake I made was chasing times. Looking for measurable improvement is part of the fun, but take it easy on your first day out. I elected to use instructors – a good move for sure – but where I fell wrong is when hot brain and hot tyre syndrome combined for a nasty surprise.

After coming in from a session, an instructor gave me some good advice: “pump the tyres up a few pounds to stop the car hopping”. I then headed straight back out (it was an open pit-lane day), but forgot that I’d been lapping for 20 minutes prior.

JL in the yellow BMW on track
Johnny has spent plenty of time finding the perfect way through an apex

With my brain hot and rubber cooking, I headed out to set a PB – deciding not to brake around the top on my first flying lap. Next thing I know, I’ve plough-understeered over the outside kerb at turn four and now have a gear lever that will only give me second and fifth… I limped the poor Clio back to Sydney in miserable silence (though it turned out to be a good excuse to swap the ropey old ’box for a fresher one anyway). 

I learned a lot that day, but chiefly I wish I’d started my journey with a session trackday or motorkhana to give me more space to comfortably learn about vehicle dynamics – hindsight is a wonderful thing. 

I’ve since returned to trackdays and motorkhanas with renewed respect, and even stepped into more competitive events like Super Sprints with the NSW BMW club – the joy of extracting as much potential I can from the car hasn’t faded a bit. Hitting the track has also taken me across the world, and I’m always pleased to say I’ve safely completed six laps of the Nordschleife. Nurburgring 24 Hours, here I come… 

JL on the Nurburgring
Johnny also got the opportunity to drive on the Nurburgring in Germany

All up, this hobby is a pretty awesome one: you get to have fun and meet great people (including videographer Alek) – all while improving your awareness, control and maturity levels in a car. 

Drives: ‘Banana’ BMW E36 323i

Modifications: Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers, adjustable camber top mounts, Sparco sprint seat, Ferodo DS2500 pads, DBA slotted rotors, Federal 595 RS-RR

Do: Come with a car that’s had an oil change (and no leaks!), fresh brake pads and fluid, tyres with life left in them and a relaxed attitude. Use the instructors!

Do not: Muck with your car too much, especially power mods (speed = seat time), racing boots and suit in a road car is a no-no too – just wear Gazelles.

Staff Writer Tom Place’s experience with his Mazda MX-5 on track

My first experience driving a car ‘hard’ started in the same place as it does for many hot-headed teenagers: flying up and down a mountain road in the dead of night like an absolute wanker. 

Moving to Sydney solo in 2019 brought on a big change in perspective from my end and a desire to actually learn how to drive properly. So I said goodbye to my old Honda Civic and broke the bank on a 2015 Mazda ND MX-5. It was the best mistake I ever made.

Armed with a highly regarded rear-wheel-drive car and nervous ambition I headed out on my first track day at Pheasant Wood Circuit in Marulan when a freak weather event flooded the track with inches of rain for the entire day. 

TP Mazda MX-5 rear end angle
Tom Place loves an MX-5 on a wet day

To say I was petrified of smashing into one of the many concrete walls would be an understatement but in a matter of hours I found myself equipped with a new set of reflexes and a sense of when the car was going to break loose, and why.

The skills and knowledge that I came away with on that day formed the basis of the driver I am today and gave me the hunger to keep coming back for more to refine my skills.

Becoming a motoring journalist opened the door to far more rapid metal than my MX-5 and I’ve since spent track days trying to extract performance out of a Mercedes-AMG C63 S and a GT-R – none of which I would feel comfortable in if I didn’t have those ingrained fundamentals. 

Track days can go wrong, and they can be dangerous if you behave stupidly. So my advice to any newcomer is to begin the day with your ego left at the door and spend as much time as you can with an instructor. 

TP cornering in the MX-5
TP concentrating hard for the corner in his ND MX-5

As for my weapon of choice? Well my Mazda MX-5 has been thrown some Yellowspeed coil-overs to counter some of the body roll along with better brakes and tyres, but the ND is just about perfect in my opinion and gives me brilliant driver feedback lap after lap.

I should also mention – it’s the best fun I’ve ever had, pure and simple.

Drives: 2015 Mazda MX-5 GT 2.0-litre

Modifications: Yellowspeed coil-overs, DBA slotted rotors, Hawk street pads, Yokohama AD08R tyres, the courage of a Samurai forged into each and every panel 

Editor and founder Tom Baker on track driving on the job

Generally speaking, I drive on track five to 10 times each year – nearly always in somebody else’s metal. This is my job, but the privilege to be driving someone else’s tyres and brakes isn’t lost on me (though the pressure of not cocking it up is always in the back of my mind). Motoring journalism is a small profession. Mistakes happen, but 200km/h mistakes aren’t forgotten quickly.

I love to drive on track because the limits of so many modern sports cars are way too high to be experienced on the road – for better or worse. Tracks offer you space, room and security – not just for professionals to evaluate a quick car properly, but for anybody to learn about their driving ability. All of us should strive to keep building our skill behind the wheel.

Audi Driving Experience Tom Baker
Tom Baker looking very pro at the Audi Drive Experience

Some of my experiences on track have stuck with me. Thundering over Phillip Island’s dramatically crested straight towards turn one, well into the two-buck zone, in an AMG GTR Pro – heart pounding – is up there. So too is receiving instruction from affable Nascar pro Scott Pruitt in a Lexus RC-F Track Edition at California’s famed Willow Springs.

Ours is the best job in the world and we drive great cars – but anyone can experience most of this magic without having to turn in 1500 words and a 20-minute video at the end of the day!

Tom Baker Chasing Cars 2021
Tom Baker at Willow Springs raceway with Lexus in the US

If you love driving, you should consider buying an affordable track hack and getting out on a circuit like Wakefield or Winton. Accept some instruction and you will learn to be a far better driver in a controlled environment without re-mortgaging your house (and endangering other road users). You will be a safer and calmer driver on-road to boot.

Drives: Volvo V60

Modifications: Ceramic coating, cooled Nappa leather, Bowers & Wilkins stereo. Wait, you think this thing goes on track?

Deputy Editor Nathan Ponchard on his experiences with track driving as a ‘seasoned’ motoring journalist

My very first car launch – a dual event for the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Passat V6 Syncro, held on the skidpan at Oran Park Raceway – was an eye-opener for me because I’d never driven a ‘slalom’ before (witches hats evenly spaced in a line that you snake the car around). Not only that, it was a timed event and had an audience – every other Australian motoring journo!

Needless to say, my ‘theatrical’ display at the wheel of a Mk4 GTI involved knocking down more cones than were left standing, and plenty of squealing tyres and brow sweat. I simply tried to drive as fast as possible, but quickly discovered that less is definitely more – especially where smooth steering inputs, subtle throttle control, and patience are involved. It was a succinct (and very public) lesson about feeling a car, working to its strengths, and controlling your aggression.

Despite what the younger guys may be implying, I’m not a track-day star, let alone a race driver! But the thing I’ve taken away from driving on circuits all over the world (though never the Nurburgring, unfortunately) is that remaining within your limits is to the advantage of all concerned, and keeping your vision high – looking at where you want to go, not the ground directly in front of the car – is key to stringing swift, safe laps together.

Hyundai i20 N 2022 on track
Ponch has driven many new cars on track including the wonderful i20 N

The ultimate benefit in driving on a racetrack though – aside from getting expert tuition in how to do it well (thank you John Bowe!) – is that you learn where a car’s limits are in a safe environment. When you know what you’re working with, you then know where the safety margin is on the road, and what to do if things start to go pear-shaped. You also very quickly discover your own limitations, and how easily a vehicle can turn feral in inexperienced hands…

A common argument against driver training and indulging in track days has always been that it gives drivers too much confidence. But I reckon that’s rubbish! I would suggest it makes you hyper-aware of the realities of car control and the value in a smooth, considered approach.

Drives: ’63 Ford Galaxie Hardtop, ’66 VW Beetle, ’69 Peugeot 404, ’90 Audi 100 Avant manual

Modifications (Galaxie): Power front discs, heavy-duty springs, Koni dampers, 16-inch Superlite rims, refreshed V8, sports exhaust – essentially the entire running gear!

Do: Have an open mind and a willingness to learn; check your car’s tyre pressures and vital fluids before arriving; remember you might have to drive home at the end of the day!Do not: think you know everything; bring a car that’s too old and unsuited to on-limit racetrack driving (it may roll over)