On Track: HPDE to Time Trials (Part 1/3)
Words & Photos: Richard Graves
Racing against the clock, Time Trials occupy the on-track niche between non-competitive track days, and wheel-to-wheel racing. Time Trials (aka. “Time Attack”, “Solo I”, or just “TT”) offer the thrill of competition with fewer entry barriers than full-on racing. Car preparation falls close to the basics required for any track day, and regulations typically do not require full roll cages, fires systems, or harnesses.
Events boil down to essentially day-long “qualifying” sessions with each driver’s single best lap recorded and used to determine their “finishing” position.
In short: Fastest lap wins….period.
Sounds fun right? So, how does one get started?
Well, most sanctioning bodies won’t let just anyone out on the track in a competitive environment. Even though track position doesn’t matter, TT does not have strict passing rules, and open passing can be intimidating at first. As a result, you need credentials.
So, how does one go about acquiring a license to run Time Trials?
Sign up for HPDE-1, learn to drive, advance to HPDE 3/4, get a check-ride, fill out an application, class your car, get an inspection, pay some fees, don’t wreck in your first event, Done!
Long version follows:
Starting from the perspective of someone’s first-ever track event, we’ll cover the path to TT in three sections over the next week or so, addressing how to approach your first track event, advancement through the HPDE system, and finally the licensing process. I’ll attempt to make this as easy to follow as possible, but don’t think of this as a rigid plan.
Let me start with a little helpful hypocrisy: Do as I say, not as I did. Did I end up where I wanted to: Yes…eventually. To say that I, “Took my time” is akin to saying that Mrs. Earhart is running fashionably late. Everyone learns and progresses at their own pace, but 5+ years may have been excessive.
Also, I should point out that each sanctioning body will have their own sets of rules with respect to licensing. For the purposes of this article, I will be using NASA’s Southeast region as a model since that allows me to speak from experience.
Now, with those little qualifying statements out of the way, let’s dig in.
Part I. Getting Started:
Easy! Buy a NASA membership and sign up for an event. Job done, moving on.
We’re good here right?
Ok, I suppose that does make a few assumptions. I don’t like assumptions…we all know what those do.
Let’s break this down into a few steps covering what you’ll need to take that first step of getting on track at an HPDE event. This follows the sequence in which i would recommend doing things.
Step 1: Procure Safety Gear
This step is pretty simple: Buy a Helmet.
Let’s be honest, if you’re going to make driving a car fast your hobby, this is a good investment. You can quit mooching loaners at autocrosses (and hoping people bathed the night before) and it’ll make a good conversation piece around the house.
- If you just plan on running HPDE and non-competitive track days, then an M (motorcycle) helmet will probably do. That said, it does need a SNELL “M” rating. A DOT brain bucket will not pass tech.
- If, however, you plan to progress toward getting a competition license, I’d advise going ahead and spending a little extra for an “SA” rated helmet.
- Check with your region or sanctioning body about the currently acceptable “dates”. Both M and SA ratings get updated every 5 years or so and helmets do “expire” within the scope of some groups’ regulations.
- Check with your region or sanctioning body about M Helmets before buying one. Some entities require SA
What’s the difference? Primarily fire resistance. The SA helmets are fire rated, M helmets are not. (You’re not likely to be “trapped inside” a burning motorcycle after a wreck).
Other safety gear is optional at this point. Beyond a helmet, most organizations only require long pants/sleeves of a natural fiber (cotton, wool, etc.) and close-toed shoes. That said, if you can afford a fire suit, gloves, shoes, and a HANS, then by all means go for it, but no one will turn you away from an HPDE event for not having those things.
Step 2: Look at your car.
Now look to mine, now back to yours, now…back. to. mine. Sadly, yours isn’t mine….
…Ok, I’m done now.
Step 3: Answer the following questions:
- Does it leak significantly?
- Does it smoke?
- Does it burn oil?
- Does it make disconcerting noises?
- Do parts tend to make inconvenient bids for freedom while driving?
- Does it overheat in traffic/on the dragon/during an autocross?
- Have I ever changed the brake pads or fluid?
- Are the coolant hoses older than I am?
- Is it a rag-top with no roll-over protection?
- If it is, you may want to e-mail the NASA region or other sanctioning body you plan to run with to make sure this is acceptable.
If you answered yes to any of those questions you may need to do a little work or ask a few more questions before putting money down on an event.
If you answered no to all of them, then we can assume your car is in pretty good nick and you’re probably safe moving to step 4.
Step 4: Sign up for an event.
NASA events, particularly HPDE 1 and 2 can fill up quickly. Sign up a month or more in advance if possible. You may also benefit from some savings by signing up early.
- You can find a list of events at www.nasaproracing.com.
- You will need to buy a membership in order to sign up for an event.
- Dues currently sit at $45/year.
- Event costs vary by venue (typically between $250 and $400/weekend)
- …..or about the same as a 20-over speeding ticket in TN. One is more fun than the other.
Step 5: Prep your car for the track
“I would, but my car’s not ready. I still need to install my flux capacitor / harmonically balance my ECM / tune my samoflange / etc. ”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard something like that…….
I’m going to say this once:
YOU DO NOT NEED: NEW WHEELS, 16-WAY ADJUSTABLE COILOVERS, A BIG BRAKE KIT, A TURBO, TWO OF “THE BIG ONES”, A SHORT-SHIFTER, MORE STICKERS, RACE TIRES, A WING, A PERSONAL INVITATION TO RACE WARS, LOWERING SPRINGS, A CARBON DIFFUSER, A NEW EXHAUST…..ETC. YOU GET THE POINT.
You really only need: Good Brakes, tires with some tread on them, and as mentioned above, a helmet.
Lets go over some key points:
First: Start EARLY! You REALLY want to start this process at least a month before your event, especially the first few times. This way, if anything comes up, you have time to react without having to mash the panic button.
Second: BRAKES!!!! The results of brake fade/failure range from “less fun” to abject terror. The most common points of failure: Pads and Fluid. Even if it’s your first weekend, you don’t want to have flaky brakes getting in the way of your fun and learning.
- You’ll want good fluid. You’re most likely to cook your brakes your first few times at the track. Don’t skimp here. The higher the boiling point, the better.
- Castrol GT-LMA: Good enough for your first weekend or light cars, not as good for heavy/fast cars that will be hard on brakes.
- ATE SuperBlue: Good enough for about anyone. I’ve used this and ATE Type 200 in the NSX with no issues
- Motul RBF 600/660: A little pricey, but an incredibly high boiling point. If you’ve got a lead-sled, lots of power, or a car with notoriously questionable brakes, this might provide more safety margin
- Castrol SRF: Well, if you must have THE Best, and have money to burn..
- You’ll also want decent pads. This is FAR less important than fluid, but still significant. I did my first few HPDE events on chain-store pads. They work on light/slow cars, but better pads are definitely advisable.
- Hawk HPS (or equivalent): Probably good enough for your first weekend/light car.
- Axxis Ultimate (or equivalent): Better
- Hawk HP+ (or equivalent): What I currently use. Good enough for about anything on street tires and some cars on race tires.
- Hawk HT/DTC (or equivalent): Srs bsns
*I’m referencing Hawk/AXXIS pads because that’s what I’m familiar with, insert your own preference for Carbotech/Pagid/EBC etc.
Third: Get an inspection!
A non-mandatory inspection before my first-ever track day caught a failing brake master cylinder and a blown strut. Would I catch these things myself now? Maybe. Was I ever going to catch them amid the anticipation preceding my first-ever event? Hell no.
- Even if it’s not mandatory.
- At least 2 weeks in advance.
- At a shop familiar with motorsports…..not your dealership
*Once you’ve learned the ropes after a season or two, this becomes less necessary, but a second set of eyes never hurts.
Fourth: Pack tools/spare fluids
- At least enough tools to change a tire and replace brake pads.
- Torque Wrench
- Basic wrenches & sockets
- A flashlight
- One of those cube thingies for screwing the piston back into the rear caliper
- Pack extra oil and brake fluid
- Even if your car doesn’t burn oil around town, it may at the track
- Your brake fluid level will drop as you wear through the pads. This is normal, but you will need to top it off occasionally.
*The above represents a “bare minimum” in my opinion, anything you do beyond that is up to you.
Step 6: Get to the Event and get situated.
- Arrive early
- Find a Flat, Shady, Dry, etc. place to set up in the Paddock
- Ask about a tech inspection
- You may not be required to go through tech in HPDE 1, as your instructor may tech your car before your first session.
- Find your instructor
- Generally, he or she will take it from here answering your questions and pointing you in the right direction (literally and figuratively).
- Listen to your instructor
- Go to class
- Stay in school kids….no, seriously, the classroom sessions are both mandatory, and worthwhile in most cases
Step 7: Take care of yourself.
Driving may not seem like hard work, and unlike autocross you aren’t working between runs, but you will still expend a lot of energy during a 20 minute session on track. It’s critical to stay hydrated and fed throughout the weekend to stave off mental fatigue, and potentially dangerous conditions like heat exhaustion.
See, it’s really not that bad. We’re just a page into it and we’ve already gotten the hard part out of the way. Now that you’ve taken the plunge, and are no-doubt hopelessly addicted to track days it’s just a matter of stepping stones from here. We’ll cover those figurative stones in the next installment as we climb the HPDE ladder.
Here’s a Video from a few years ago of a relatively lazy HPDE-2 session at Road Atlanta, taken in an MR2 Turbo: