It’s a beautiful evening. The sun is disappearing over the mountains and the high desert heat is beginning to dissipate. The sunset casts a glow on the region that the great poets could get lost in, the romantics would be inspired by - and all I can think about is how I will take the chicane and next section of the Streets of Willow flat-out…
Tonight and many late afternoons and evenings across the United States the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is taking a fresh perspective on generating interest in high-performance driving. A new department, “Experimental Programs” in concert with TireRack and a grant from international racing sanctioning body, the FIA, led to the creation of SCCA Track Night in America. The program allows novices to experts the ability to run their street cars on a road racing circuit.
For more than 60 years, the SCCA has been the leading organization for auto racing, from grassroots to professional, in getting the dreamers behind the wheel. In these cars and races, stars have been made, and others found endless frustration. Like golf, watching the pros gives everyone the false sensation of “I can do that!” Once swinging the club or turning the wheel though leads to a life of lessons and equipment to drive that extra 10 yards or shave that tenth of a second. Some will be incapable of achieving any as so many bags of clubs end up in the 17th hole pond and race cars end up on eBay.
The traditional way into racing has been, in recent years, karting and autocross. These lower buck options exposed a few people to high performance driving—but that too is in decline. In seeking a way to expose the general public and casual fan to the joys of hitting that apex, SCCA Experimental Programs director, Hayward Wagner introduced the Track Night concept which run this year at 20 tracks around the US—at a convenient time to try.
“Traditional road courses have always been a secret-society,” assessed Wagner. “We wanted to open the doors so everyone could come and play.” In so doing, hundreds of otherwise armchair fans have flocked to the events on weekday afternoons, when perhaps golf or other stick-and-ball games would occupy free time. For just $150 (with many coupons available), the participant enjoys three 20 minute sessions with instruction on a real road racing circuit. The vehicles themselves vary from hi-performance Corvettes to the FIAT 500 that I brought, in hopes to develop speed techniques for the otherwise underpowered car.
The idea that participating in an event like this does not eat up your weekend, or force you to take off of work broadens the portion of people who can fit it into their schedules. I myself left the office a tad early, but still managed to get the work done before heading out to the track. Check in and tech was at 3:30, with sessions and instruction beginning at 4 p.m. and going until 8 p.m. Most race circuits today are sometimes a bit away from civilization as urban sprawl has swallowed some of the great tracks—and Southern Californians know that Willow Springs is away from the densely populated Los Angeles Metropolitan area—but still not that far.
The participants are then divided into three groups: Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced. In the instruction, participants learn the aspects of cornering and even etiquette. Instructor Jon Krolewicz advised, “You are not racing for a championship out there. If a fast car comes up on you, point them by.” None of the laps are timed, so the “red mist” that so many drivers experience when the visor goes down, is limited to your own laps on the track. Your fellow drivers are more “teammates” and adds another dimension of safety—making sure that the “run what you brung” car can bring you back home at the end of the event.
Having been around the sport for all my life and having some competitive driving under my belt, I still opted for the novice level. This entitled me to garner the entire experience, including the debriefs after each session. Being in an underpowered car that had never seen track time, my goal was to be as quick through the corners as possible, making up for the shortcomings of horsepower on the straights. My car, a 2012 FIAT 500 pop, with cold air induction and timing advance, from Road Race Motorsports in Santa Fe Springs, dynes at about 122 bhp. On the hilly, twisty Streets of Willow circuit, the handling plays nice as I developed a technique of limiting downshifts beyond third gear and carrying speed into the next corner. The long 180 degree right-hander leading to the straightaway scrubbed most of the speed away and forced me to build up a head of steam, finally upshifting to fourth for the long right hander with a quick blip back to third as the corner closed up.
Overall, this is a really fun event and exposes enthusiasts to the viral-bug of high performance driving—without the threat of traffic tickets. All the participants were cool to be around—a few friendships were even forged between sessions. The best part is that anyone can do it. For those not wanting to compete, there is spectating (including lead-follow street speed parade laps), photography opportunities, and the kinship of the car culture in a very low pressure situation.
SCCA PR guy Jim Lewellyn and I joked that “perhaps this is the new, friendly side of the SCCA.” But that aside, both the SCCA and new enthusiasts can hope that this program has long legs—and provides an opportunity for the modern day dreamers to "turn a wheel in anger." Check out SCCA's site tracknightinamerica.com to find an event near you!