Track Night at Thompson Speedway

BRZ at Thompson Speedway

I packed my tools, cameras, and helmet into the car, double checked that I had everything I needed for a track event, and then… I went to my day job.

Unlike other such events, the SCCA’s Track Night In America doesn’t require you to wake up before dawn, show up to the track bright and early, and get on track earlier than I have my morning coffee. A common complaint about autocross and traditional track days is that it takes the entire day, but not so with Track Night. Like the name suggests, it runs from mid-afternoon into evening, meaning you don’t have to devote the day solely to motorsport activities. This works well for working stiffs like us, who can take twice as many half days off as we can full days. It can also be good for those with child rearing responsibilities, taking an early shift and then running off to the track for an afternoon of freedom.

P1000338Or you can just take the kids with you. My other half, Elana, came along to my last Track Night in May, and thought her boys Joe (who was off checking out cars when I took this picture) and Alex were gearheads enough to come along and check it out for themselves. So she brought them down in her Focus, which, unlike my BRZ, actually has usable back seats.

My own Track Night experience went ahead as usual. I arrived earlier than last time to secure a good parking space. I unloaded the car, then went to schmooze with the other drivers. Since this isn’t a marque event, like BMW CCA or PCA, there is a wide variety of cars that show up. On the high end are Porsches, Corvettes, a Cadillac CTS-V that sounded awesome blasting down the front straightaway, and a couple of brand new Mustang GTs. I was curious to see how the Mustangs handled Thompson’s twisty bits. On the opposite extreme was a 24 Hours of LeMons car that I think was an A2 Jetta, but I couldn’t tell for sure under all the gawdy bodywork, and a slightly beat up EK Civic hatch. Most cars were somewhere in between – a VW GTI, a pair of black Fiat 500 Abarths, some older Mustangs, an Eagle Talon race car, newer and older MR2s, a fleet of Miatas, and an almost as large fleet of FR-S/BRZ twins.

P1000385aTrack Night runs a tight ship, and at precisely 4pm the Novice run group headed out for 45mph pace laps (with me riding along in the pace car, but that’s a story for another time). Another big difference between Track Night and other track events is that they don’t have in-car instruction. Instead, Novice drivers get a pace lap session to familiarize themselves with the track and learn the proper line. This is backed up with instruction in between sessions, but it’s a big departure from standard practice. Also unusual is that drivers are allowed to ride with other drivers, so a Novice driver could take an Intermediate or Advanced driver for a ride and get some tips, or ride with them to see how it’s done. There was no dedicated group of instructors to ride with you like at most other HPDE events. At first I had my doubts that this was wise, but after seeing two events where Novices did not spontaneously fly off the track, hit the wall, and explode, I’ve changed my mind – this actually seems to work pretty well. And when they took their regular track sessions, the Novice group wasn’t exactly slow.

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After signing up for the Intermediate group last time, then running in a combined Intermediate/Advanced group due to an overflow of Novice drivers, I decided to give the Advanced group a try this time. I try to be vigilant about pointing by faster drivers, and I figured there was less chance of me getting stuck in traffic like I did in the Intermediate/Advanced group last time. But once I got on the track, I realized that I was one of the slowest drivers in the Advanced group. Note that I said “drivers,” not “cars.” There were many faster cars, of course, but even my fellow Toyobaru twins caught and passed me quite regularly. I left stability control in VSC Sport mode since I’m still learning the car, and I noticed it kicking in a lot more than last time. Every time it engaged was a time I was overdriving the car, trying in vain to keep up with the brisk pace of the Advanced group. Even an NA Miata caught me, which is way down on power compared to me. So despite being slow for this group, I still stand my earlier statement that my BRZ has enough power. The car wasn’t holding me back – the driver was.

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I don’t regret my experience in the Advanced group. The entire track being a passing zone was a new experience for me, and it was fun to pass and be passed in places I’d never done it before, including corners. I also got to see some excellent driving by other people. After pointing by one of the new Mustang GTs, I watched as we went through one of the more technical parts of the track, and he hung right with that Miata through the turns. A Mustang, formerly regarded as a rather poor handling car, had no problems keeping up with a Miata, one of the best handling cars out there. And with about three times the horsepower, when the Miata pointed the Mustang by, he was gone.

I learned a lot by following the cars that passed me and watching to see why they were faster. I remember pointing one particular FR-S by, and though he gained about ten car lengths on me, I learned enough from watching him to match his pace for the rest of the session. We met in the paddock afterward and exchanged compliments and a handshake. But I’ll be punting myself back to the Intermediate group next time. The slightly slower pace will let me focus on improving my skills, which is what I really need, rather than trying to keep up with one eye on the mirror and one arm out the window giving frequent point-bys.

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Have I forgotten about Elana and her kids? Nope – they enjoyed watching me (and taking many of these pictures) from various vantage points around the track. Thompson Speedway is great for spectating because most of the track is visible within a short walk of the paddock. They could look at the other cars, and other people had brought the family along as well, so there was plenty for them to do and other kids to hang out with. But for them, the best part was when we all piled into Elana’s Focus to head out for the open pace lap session. At 6pm, anyone – I mean ANYONE – can jump in line and take 45mph pace laps of the track. This was what the boys had been looking forward to all day – the chance to ride on a real race track with me at the wheel. The main straight took forever, of course – I’m normally touching triple digit speeds here – but 45mph is still a good speed for the corners. The Focus has a lot more body roll than my BRZ, especially being a base model, the least sporty version you can get. Within the speed limit, I was still able to get the tires to squeal in the tighter turns, demonstrate the racing line and weight transfer, and run over the curbs just a little bit more than necessary to give them a fun ride.

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I drove one more session in my own car soon afterward, and then it was time to pack up and head home. I had a great time, as usual. Elana and her kids enjoyed it too, even though they weren’t driving. A little while after our pace laps were over, I found the boys sitting in my car, one of them wearing my helmet, pretending to win a race on some imaginary track. It reminded me of a time when I was their age, and did almost the same thing behind the wheel of an MG Midget. I only consciously remembered this recently, but clearly it left an impression on me, considering that I’ve owned three Miatas and would enjoy yet another someday. Maybe I’ve left a similar impression on them.