Stepping Outside My Wheelhouse: My First Track Day Experience

Life is too short to walk the same paths over and over again. Decades of our lives spent on the same routine while being too lazy or scared to branch out of our usual wheelhouse sounds a little dull, don’t you think? I certainly did, yet that’s all I’ve done. The same damn thing. But no more. The past year or so has been spent broadening my automotive horizons bit by bit, and it culminated in the most thrilling day that anyone with a pulse could have: I knocked out my first track day.

Conquering the crucible of the road course had always been a bucket list item I yearned to cross off since I took delivery of my Little Blue Car in late-2017. The apparent financial handicap of being a dealership porter and full-time student dragged that horse around back and put it down faster than I could fail a Math 124 exam. I had my fun here and there as I tackled the then-new quest of adulting, canyon rips and local meets, but that was about it. Eventually, I stopped altogether as school demanded more brain power, and National Guard duties called for more manpower. But my recent trip to Salt Lake City was the perfect opportunity to smash my bucket list for the Mustang.

The trip was full of your fairly standard sightseeing plus nights out to Salt Lake’s impressive metropolis with good friends, but Wide Open Wednesday at Utah Motorsports Campus was the cherry on the cake. I traded my self-filled tech inspection sheet for a rental helmet and made my way to their West Track for an hour-long beginner session. My Mustang was brimming with go-fast goodies that should, on paper, make it a champion in its class. If only the cars in its class were indicative of the word, beginner.

What do you normally think of when envisioning an amateur track session? FR-Ss and BRZs? How about built Miatas or even just another Mustang? Nope. Try a C8 Corvette Z51 on R-compounds, a race-spec Ariel Atom, and a couple of Porsches for good measure. The prior amateur session had a Camaro ZL1 1LE and an AMG GT C. Come on, you guys. I’m looking for a fun time on circuit, not to be dragged by my hair to the Casting Couch.

Fortunately, they were going to space the few of us out just enough so each car essentially had the track to themselves. I was too amped up on a cocktail of adrenaline, fear, and excitement to care much, anyway. The air reeked of hot rubber and hotter brakes, and the cool weather was perfect for triple digits with the windows down. After a short driver’s meeting discussing flag colors and how the primary goal was to “have fun,” the pace car took us for a grand tour of UMC’s West Track before cutting us school kids loose for recess. 

My goodness, what an inconceivably-thrilling joyride to the uninitiated. I admittedly had a hint of racetrack experience and instruction from supercar track rentals back home in Vegas, but nothing beats the freedom of shredding your own car at your own pace, especially when an entire sector of the circuit is yours and yours alone. 

Second gear. Rip. Third gear Rip. Stay flat through the slight bend and grab fourth right as it straightens out and aims you towards the hairpin. What made for long gearing on the street is perfect for West Track if you’re new or lazy as you only ever need third and fourth gears; first and second are for launching away from the green flag. I would nudge on the brakes early, cautious as to not overcook the pathetically small rotors but knowing my fresh pads and fluid will stand strong. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, God’s gift to the world, means that my Mustang had more grip than power, so corners were a simple matter of chucking it in as hard as possible and rocketing out with a boorish stab of the throttle. An overhauled suspension setup plus a great alignment equals a glorified rental car that reacts surprisingly well to mid-corner inputs, which this author made a ton of in his first laps.

I felt like a million bucks in an aging S197 Mustang Blue Book-valued at ten grand. It was a rowdy few laps that had me drowning in the moment with a Dominic Toretto-esque mindset of being free for just these laps. But a quick pit to allow the brakes to simmer down (and give the rapidly-gaining C8 Corvette more room to boogie) had shown me how the car gods can giveth and how the car gods can taketh away. 

I peeked around the car, eyeballing the pad condition and tires and gawking at the strips of melted rubber before noticing. My Gift-From-God tires had been blemished by a gift from Satan in the form of a teeny nail (not visible in the photo). It was an oddity unlike any nail I had ever taken before. The minuscule head mushroomed in a way that nearly filled the entire crater in which it sat and was wedged deep enough so that the rubber impacts the asphalt first. Had I picked it up in a construction zone earlier that day? Or was it from one of the many crap-tastic construction zones leaving Vegas days prior? I was seething, and my head was spinning with possibilities of how it could’ve happened. But it all meant little and changed nothing. There was a nail in my tire. 

After weighing my options, I did what any sane enthusiast did: I ran another round of laps, drove it back to the AirBnB, and drove it six hours back home. As of writing, the nail is still there and holding air, and the rubber strips had flattened over the hole, essentially plugging the tire twice. Ain’t that some shit? 

Shhh, I’m a professional idiot, I’ll get it fixed. But damn, I paid for that track day, so you bet I was going to use that track day! Either that nail kept cosplaying as a tire plug or I was going to send that Michelin to the gates of Valhalla! 

In the months before and after my first military deployment, I was seeking something new. New people. New car shows. New roads. I was on a hunt for experiences less known to me in the pursuit of growing as a car enthusiast and perhaps as a person overall. This experience cemented what it is that I want and the kinds of gearheads I want to surround myself with. From the rookie in his raucous Ariel to the mad lad Boomer who unironically flaunts his appreciation for sport compacts with his Kona N on the autocross course, I was taught extraordinary things by folks I had only known for thirty seconds. I’m glad to have stepped outside my usual wheelhouse of Forza nights, and I strongly encourage anyone to take a crack at it too.

And I don’t necessarily mean track days, although you should totally give that a shot. I know that it can get seriously pricey, especially if you let yourself fall far down the rabbit hole. I mean to shed your reservations and don’t be afraid to try something new. Go somewhere new, drive something new, or meet someone new, it doesn’t matter. Try it all! Life is too damn short to do the same crap over again as you ride the fine line between a well-practiced routine and insanity. I promise you that you’ll be surprised at what you can learn and what you’re capable of when let your horizons expand. I definitely was. And I can’t wait for the next chance to carve up more apexes or, better yet, top that experience with something even greater.

Live free, and drive hard.

Published in Car Stories

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David Olsen-Fabian
2 years ago

Live free, and drive hard.

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