How to Not Die of Exposure at Track Events

High performance driving is mentally and physically exhausting. Don't compound these by coming to the track ill-prepared.

Track days are physically and mentally demanding whether you’re really racing or just out for fun. By the time you wake up early, do last-minute mechanical work, and spend hours driving hard, you’re going to get tired. If you want to have the best time, being able to relax is almost as important as keeping your car from breaking. Feeling good helps maintain attention, and prevent mishaps from happening on track.

Mazda2 Sunset
Image: Peter Nelson

You don’t want go home sitting next to a tow truck driver who reeks of stale cigarettes and loves small talk. Or, maybe they have a fine sandalwood musk, and regale you with stories of working in Cold War-era espionage; that might actually make going home with a broken car worth it. But probably not.

Regardless, there’s a lot to have on one’s mind when you’re trackside. Track events also require being out in the elements, at the will of what Mother Nature has in store. Extreme heat, unseasonable cold, unseasonable snow flurries, gusty winds – all that that can compound the day’s difficulties. Especially while operating on a less-than-ideal amount of sleep.

Having spent enough time exhausted, freezing, and overheated trying to have fun playing with my car on a closed course, I’ve collected some tips about how to weather the, uh, weather and have a better time at track days myself.

Luckily there are easy ways to come prepared and adapt to whatever the forecast throws at you (quite literally, if you’ve ever been on track during a hail storm). Coming with the right equipment, the right clothing, or even the right data can change your experience dramatically.

We’ll skip talking about enclosed trailers this time; this is all about being prepared on a budget, especially for those who drive their track cars to and from the track. And if you’re rolling up with your own motorhome, well, you probably already have a decent idea of what a track day is like.

Check the Weather Forecast

I’m not using any hint of sarcasm here: check the weather forecast before you head out! I’m a number-one offender when it comes to being ill-prepared for atypical California weather, such as winter mornings at Willow Springs International Raceway. It’s easy to forget that it can get quite cold in the desert. Especially deserts at 2,400 feet or more above sea level. Wearing layers is a good idea, especially with a good windbreaker or rain jacket as the outermost layer; it’s an easy way to keep the cold out and body heat in.

The more layers the better, you might even make an ill-prepared person’s day by lending a jacket. Typing layers more than a few times conveniently brings me to my next item:

Dorky Men Standing In Cold
Image: Peter Nelson

Wear A Good Base Layer

Having a comfortable base layer makes staying warm easier. I like a long-sleeve shirt made up of cotton or moisture-wicking materials that effectively keeps body heat in. Or, if it’s a more breathable material, it can be comfortable in warmer weather, too, and keep you protected from the sun’s harsh UV rays.

And speaking of protection, most track day companies and racing sanctioning bodies require a cotton long sleeve shirt as as a form of potential fire protection. Take it one step further, and wear a base layer made of actual fire retardant material. Keep in mind that they often fit a bit tight, so its not uncommon to go a size larger.

Wear A Big, Floppy Hat

On the opposite end of the weather spectrum is the bright sun, and its extreme heat that it bestows upon us during summer months. That said, the sun’s out all year, so a hat can help during the day even in months when the sun sets early. Wearing a big hat that covers the ears and neck helps keep you cool, as well as prevents sunburn. Sure, you might look like some kind of Canadian diplomat, but you’ll feel a lot more comfortable throughout the day, will more effectively combat heat stroke, and your friends won’t make fun of your sunburn.

Bring Sunscreen

Again, obvious, but worth mentioning because it’s something I often forget. I’ve been sunburned at Gingerman Raceway in June, as well at Sonoma Raceway in October. If you’re going to be out in the sun all day, its worth taking the precaution.

Taking ten minutes to amply slather sunscreen on one’s ears, face, neck, arms, and more means you won’t be hating your life later in the day when the burn starts to set in. This includes driving in afternoon session, driving home, and later getting a night’s rest. Plus, you might not be too concerned with skincare, but most people want to stave off looking like a deflated basketball for as long as they can.

Friends At The Track
Image: Peter Nelson

Bring A Tent-Style Shelter

A pop-up canopy tent -you might have heard called an EZ-Up, one of the more ubiquitous brands that makes them- is a portable tent with extendable legs that opens up and comes in all shapes and sizes. “EZ-Up” is certainly EZ-er than saying pop-up canopy tent; “Hey man, are you going to Streets of Willow on Sunday? I’ll bring my pop-up canopy tent!” It sounds awkward and nerdy, though honestly, something us dorks at Car Bibles would say with affinity.

Anyway! They’re nice because they provide shade from the sun, and shelter from the rain, snow, and wind. Larger ones are useful for keeping cars cool in the Summertime, too; hopping into a hot car that’s been stripped of its interior is much more pleasant if its been sitting in the shade, not becoming a pre-heated oven.

You can get small cheap ones, large cheap ones, and expensive ones of all sizes. How much you pay has a lot to do with portability –cheap canopies weigh a lot and are unwieldy. They also tend to bunch up if any sand gets into their mechanisms. But I’ve seen small ones squeezed in the back of CRXs and belted into the passenger seat of NA Miatas. That probably gets awkward looks from passers by who aren’t familiar with our fun little hobby.

Having something to keep the tent tied-down is important, too. I’ve seen a fair amount of tents lift up and slammed down by the wind, as well as sail high into the air. Legend has it Willow Springs International Raceway has the largest EZ-Up graveyard in the world. A lot of pop-up canopy tent companies sell fill-able sandbags that quickly Velcro to the legs, though a spare wheelset, a couple cinder blocks, or gym weights also work well.

Bring A Camping Chair, Or Several

Foldable camping chairs are an excellent addition to your track day gear. They don’t take up much space, they’re very light, and effectively help take a load off. Walking to and from drivers’ and download meetings, walking to different parts of the track to watch other run groups-it might be a driving-centric event, but you’ll also find yourself walking a ton.

Camping chairs are also cheap and plentiful. It seems like everyone’s got them sitting in a corner of their garage, ready to lend or sell for a few bucks in a garage sale. They sell for cheap at most major retailers, too. However, cheap is also a downside as plastic bits break easily, the cloth parts often rip easily, etc. I know for sure there are bits of camping chair cupholder in the hatch of my Mazda2 at the moment.

Bring several camping chairs – like I mentioned above about sharing layers, providing a place for a buddy to sit down could really improve their day.

Donut Delights
Image: Peter Nelson

Bring Snacks And Water

Whether you’re inclined to do a full spread with a grill and cooler full of drinks, or stop at a gas station en route for a couple bottles of water and a bag of chips, have some kind of snack on hand. Water is also very important. Even if it isn’t necessarily that hot outside, maintaining focus and attention on track is way easier when we’re hydrated.

I’m not really going to get into nutrition here, calories are calories. Having something in your stomach, just like staying hydrated, helps with focus. Though, eating something heavy or greasy and then pulling some lateral-gs on track promptly afterwards might be a poor decision. Especially while wearing a closed-face helmet. I’m not the poster child of “eat great, feel great!” but nutritious foods like fruits, granola bars, lighter sandwiches, etc. are a better and, well, safer bet.

There are certainly more ways to ensure a painless, enjoyable day at the track. These are just a few of the key ones that I’ve learned from friends I’ve been at the track with, or through my own trial and error. I haven’t barfed into a helmet before, but I’ve been close. There are also a bunch of tools that one ought to have on hand, but that will be a post for another day.

Peter Nelson

Peter NelsonPeter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.