This may sound crazy, but as a rally driver who has been competing almost exclusively on loose surfaces for the last six years, I was afraid of grip driving. Aside from the occasional tarmac rally stage, all of my racing experience has been on gravel, sand, dirt, snow, or ice. I’ve found comfort in the uncomfortable and through long hours in wild conditions, I have learned the only thing you can expect in rally is the unexpected.
I’ve always felt that track drivers seem so polished, clean, and professional, and by comparison, as a rally driver, I see myself as wild, dirty, and rough around the edges. Just as my track friends have a hard time picturing themselves on a rally stage, I’ve had a hard time picturing myself on a track.However, lately I’ve been spending more time at the track taking photos or assisting my SCCA region with organizational duties. It’s difficult for me to be near the sound of a wide open throttle and not want a taste of the action myself. Back in July, I dropped by the STL SCCA Performance Driving Event to snap a few photos. My friends, sensing my interests had been piqued, talked me into signing up for the next event. One of those friends is Peter Zekert and he’s been doing cool stuff in cars longer than I’ve been alive. He’s served as a source of encouragement and inspiration throughout my motorsports career. Since this would be my first track experience, I was placed in the novice group and assigned an instructor. When I saw that Zekert would be my instructor for this event, I was relieved. He’s won SCCA national championships and coached numerous world-class drivers. What really eased my fears was the fact that he’s even trained those serving in the U.S. Special Forces how to drive whilst under duress. If anyone could tame my wild ways, it would be Zekert. The night before the event, I laid awake while ridiculous nightmares about being black flagged for taking a corner too sideways, corner workers pointing the blue flag at me while I’m repeatedly lapped, or getting the meatball flag thrown at me because clumps of mud and dirt were flying off my car, kept me awake.
The great thing about a track day or high-performance driving event (HPDE) is that you can bring a stock vehicle in good working condition—you don’t need a prepared racecar. And because they are not competitive or timed events, they are the perfect learning environment for folks of any skill level. The only additional safety equipment required is a helmet, and many programs even have loaner helmets should you need one. So, for this event I used my mostly stock 2001 BMW 325i Touring—the same vehicle I wrote about in May after taking it rally crossing. It’s still sitting on the same tired old struts and worn all-season tires from that RallyCross, but I did wash away the layers of caked-on mud and replaced the boiled brake fluid.
I arrived at the World Wide Technology Raceway and parked in the garage next to my instructor. After double checking all the items on the self-performed tech-inspection sheet, I went inside to sign the waiver and prepare for the drivers meeting. During the meeting, the instructors emphasized to all drivers that HPDEs are learning experiences and not races. They went over the passing zones, flags, and other rules. Each novice, intermediate, or advanced group would go on track for four sessions that last twenty minutes each.As the advanced group flew past the checkered flag, I stuffed my helmet on, buckled my seatbelt, and nervously adjusted my seat. Zekert hopped in with me and we lined up in the grid to start the first novice session. I could tell he was trying to distract me from the anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach by asking me questions about stage rally. We went out under double yellow flags (no passing) for the first five laps so that we could learn the lay of the land. As I tootled around the first few laps, he reviewed the number of each corner, pointed out each of the apexes, and gave tips on corner entries and exits. Once the green flag dropped, I timidly picked up the pace. I gave a couple point-bys and before I knew it, the checkered flag waved and the first session was already over. I survived without any of my nightmares coming true, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I looked forward to the next session.
During the second session, I was instructed to use more of the track and that, in my excitement to hit those apexes, I was finding them too early. There is a saying in rally about how a track driver sees one corner 100 times, but a rally driver sees 100 corners once. Being able to go around and around was so rewarding. If I struggled with a corner, I could come back around and give it another try. Even so, focusing was a bit difficult because I had to keep giving quicker drivers point-bys and I worried more about staying out of the way than using the full track.
I joked with Zekert that rally driving has given me trust issues and that I had a hard time trusting the track and the car. To help me work through these issues, Zekert asked if he could take my car out for a couple laps during the advanced session so I could ride along and see that I had nothing to fear. With an expert at the wheel, my little wagon grew wings and flew around the track. I could clearly see all the places I was losing time by meandering off the line, entering a corner too early, or by not using the full width of the track.
The World Wide Technology Raceway road course is only about a mile and a half long with seven turns. It’s an easy track to learn, but difficult to master. Watching someone else so confidently handle my car gave me the assurance that I had a long way to go before I would find its limits, and should therefore really push my own.During my last two sessions, Zekert said he would allow me to point out my mistakes as I was making them. I love learning and no teacher has ever been harder on me than I am on myself. I decided to go out and really push myself and commit to following the instruction I had been given throughout the day. Before I knew it, I was not only pointing out my mistakes and correcting them, but also giggling and celebrating my successes. Instead of constantly giving point-bys and watching others fly past, I was not just keeping up but confidently making a pass or two myself.
The whole experience was exhilarating and confidence inspiring. Though I didn’t receive any lap times or look down at my speedometer often, I didn’t need to. I could clearly see the improvements I made through the day reflected in the massive and goofy smile on my face. My day went from anxious to awesome after just 80 minutes of driving, and I won’t be stopping there! I signed up for the remaining HPDEs this season where I hope to not only improve myself, but my car, too. Even in its tired state, my E46 3 Series wagon felt happy and at home on the track. I destroyed the old set of all seasons, but now I’m even more inspired to get it in the garage and get to work, making improvements. If you’ve been on the fence about signing up for a track day, I hope this helps inspire you to to get out there and try it for yourself! —Kelsey Stephens