First Track Day! Thunderhill, Hooked on Driving (HOD)

09 Jun 2019 [getting-started] [thunderhill] [hooked-on-driving]

This was my first track day or High Performance Driving Event (HPDE). I went with a friend who is familiar with one of the bay area clubs, Hooked On Driving. These events are a chance to learn how to drive a track and have fun with your car in a safe and legal way. HOD has 5 different driver registration groups based on your experience, A/A-Solo, B, C and D. As this was my first time I registered for the A group where they pair you with an instructor in the passenger seat for the entire day. After you have some more experience and are signed off by your instructor you’ll be in the A-Solo group. A-Solo is on the track together with A but they will be solo without an instructor.

The track : Thunderhill 3 mile.

Tunder Hill 3 Mile Track
Tunder Hill 3 Mile Track

Thunderhill Willow, CA

Thunderhill has several different track setups but we were on the 3 mile east circuit for this event. This is a good track to learn on as there are few if any walls to hit should you go off track. Sonoma Raceway, on the other hand, has many walls where a loss of control can be less forgiving. HOD does not allow beginner instruction at Sonoma for this reason. Thunderhill lets you get moving pretty fast from turn 15 to finish as well as clear through turns 6-9. I recommend you print the track map out ahead of time so you can keep up during the debriefs (downloads). Everyone will be refering to the track by turn numbers. While you’re printing stuff out a reference on flags would be a good idea as well. This reference card is decent but keep in mind each club has their own coding scheme but in general the flags mean similar things.

track maps

Getting ready

Any car seems legit for group A. Here were some of the cars in our group:

  • Kia Rio
  • Jaguar F-Type
  • Ford Mustang
  • Porsche 911
  • Chevy Corvette
  • Honda Civic
  • Tesla Model 3

You will also need a helmet and HOD has open face style available for rent. I have an odd headshape so I went the week beforehand to Wine Country Motor Sports to try on a bunch. I’m glad I did, the 2XL in some brands did not fit and eventually I found an HJC model that worked out. The guy on staff at the time was super helpful and also recommended to watch TV for 45minutes with the helmet on that evening to see if any headaches developed before driving with it.

I would also recommend bringing a tire pressure gauge, 12v air pump, water bottle and a box to keep all your stuff in (more on these later). If your car comes with a tow hook install that as well. Mine only came with a front tow hook and I’m looking for options to install a hook on the rear.

As I’m located in the Bay Area it is a good 3 hour drive to Willow so I opted to stay at the Holiday Inn Express and drive up the night before. The parking lot was pretty cool, saw a 911 GT2 RS and a few GT3s. Gates open at 6:30am and the hotel is about 10 minutes from the track. Breakfast wasn’t bad and they had the food out around 5:50am or so with most of the people down there about to hit the track.

Arriving at the track

Morning Schedule
Morning Schedule

Gates open at 6:30am and there was a queue ~15 deep when I pulled up at 6:25am. You sign a release waiver with the track as you get to the gate. Once inside there are two covered parking areas that were full (you can drop your car off the night before I believe). Driving past those covered areas you’ll find two more blocks of parking. There is no parking by groups A/B/etc here so just find the first available spot, closer to the clubhouse is better as you’ll have less walking back and forth to do.

Once parked empty your car out, nothing in the trunk, inside the cabin etc. This is where the having a box to set next to your car is helpful as it keeps all your stuff organized and acts as a marker so you can repark in the same spot easier. I then headed over to the clubhouse to find registration where they handed me a wristband, nametag and group number decal for the car. $5 got me a set of numbers as well (1 for each door and a smaller one for the windshield to go next to the group letter). They also inspected my helmet and gave it a sticker. At this point I grabbed some coffee and waited for the driver meeting to start per the schedule.

Group A Meeting #1 8:00am

This is a classroom session where they introduce the ciriculum, safety rules, passing rules, flags and what to expect during the day. Concepts such as handling your vehicle, weight transfer, how to enter/exit turns etc are covered. I found this section useful, pay close attention to the flags. As you proceed around the track flag stations will communicate with you via these flags and its pretty important to pay attention to them and respond appropriately. First time on the track it felt like a lot what going on at once and while I didn’t miss any flags I want to improve my awareness of the flag stations next time out. The best “line” through the track will be covered. This is the line that offers the best speed through the track and it is also a safety feature. As you progress you will have expectations of how other cars on the track with you are going to behave, typically expecting them to be driving the correct line or “on line”. This site has a pretty good break down of lines. As this is a novice group a lot of people will frankly be all over the place and that’s fine but to progress further you will need to demonstrate the ability to follow the correct line through the track. The passing rules are also a key piece to be aware of. Groups A, B and C use point by passing rules. This means the car to be passed must “point by” the car attempting to pass. No passing can occur otherwise and these passes can only occur during certain sections of the track, typically straight sections.

The passing protocol is as follows where car B is attempting to pass car A

  1. Car B gets close enough to car A to be clearly visible in the rear view
  2. Car A acknowledges the faster car by tapping their rear view mirror. I found this somewhat hard to see but this says “I see you want to pass and will give you a point by during the next passing section.
  3. At this point car B should back off a bit and be ready to overtake and pass car A once the point by is given in a designated passing area.
  4. Car B holds their hand clearly out the window and maintains or slightly backs off throttle and stays “on line”
  5. Car A passes if it is safe to do so and you’re in a passing area. I had several students attempting to have me pass in non passing areas and I had to ignore these.

The goal here is not to get into a drag race with the passing car, a few students would give the point by then smash the gas, making a pass difficult. Another point to note here is that some cars are faster on the straights and you can “out motor” someone but they can be stronger in the turns. This can create a YO-YO effect where a slow driver will have a conga line behind them and then pull away in the straight away due to a more powerful car just for the faster drivers to catch up immediately in the turns. If someone manages to get on your butt, they’re probably faster and you should let them pass.

Get in the Car! Novice car control

You will have been introducted to your instructor during the Group A meeting and you’ll now meet them at your car. For this part you’ll be driving in a sectioned off area with a figure eight course setup in cones. The students will line their cars up and one at a time enter for 3 laps of the figure eight. The idea here is to get a feel for your car, feel a push, oversteer etc. If you read the racing line link above this exercise gets you familiar with braking, turn in and apex. The other goal here is to get a feel for your car as it surpasses traction limits in a safe environment (you’re on a flat surface by yourself with nothing to hit). I kept all my traction control feature enabled for the first few runs as that is how I wanted to drive on the track the first time out. I did do a run with traction control off to get a feel for that as well. Try to come to a complete stop before exiting the course and let the other driver completely clear the course before you enter. A few people were coming out of the course HOT and having to break hard as there are other vehicles in the parking area moving about. Several cones were crushed this day.

First time on the track, Group A Orientation

For the first time on the track your instructor will do two laps with you in the passenger seat. This gives you a chance to focus on locating the flag stations and seeing the track and the line through it. Once in your car you will drive over to the grid or pre-grid. This is where cars about to enter the hot pits line up, more on this later. Once lined up in grid they will signal lane by lane to enter the pits and you will drive into the hot pits then onto the track. After two laps you will re-enter the hotpits and swap into the driver’s seat. You will now drive the course for the rest of the session. Remember it isn’t a race, focus on getting the line right, observing the flag stations and awareness of the other cars. When the checkered flag comes out you will complete the current lap, slow through turn 14/15 with your arm out the window shaped like an L to alert other drivers you are slowing and will be exiting into the hot pits. You will then be waved out of the hotpits back into the parking lot. After parking and debriefing with your instructor you’ll head back to the 2nd floor meeting room for your first “download”.

First Download and Summary

You head back up to the 2nd floor and debrief on the session. More discussion on turn geometry, car handling theory etc with supporting slides. Q/A from the other drivers was useful. The rest of the track sessions and downloads were much like the first.

A quick note on tire pressure. During the day as it got warmer and the tires and track heat up the tire pressure rises. As a tire becomes over inflated the contact patch shrinks as the center of the tire pushes out. My instructor felt this was happening to my car but when I checked the pressure I misread my manual. I only checked a single front tire, I read 37 psi and thought I was fine. Upon further reading the next day the correct pressures for my tires are 37psi in the rear and 31 psi in the front. I will be checking my tire pressure properly and bleeding them as they heat up throughout the day.

Felt like a very productive day and really enjoyed the track, the HOD program and all the drivers and staff. Definitely will be there for the next event.

If this post was useful or you have questions around other areas let me know via email, driver at durandal * org