If you are a driving enthusiast, then there is no doubt that at some point in your life you have enjoyed the possibilities offered by an empty stretch of country road. With no other cars around for miles it is easy to give in to the temptation to put the hammer down and see just how hard you can push your vehicle. Of course, almost all drivers realize that the limits of safety on public roads are quite low - all it would take is for an animal to jump into the road, a child to chase a ball rolling down their driveway or the appearance of a stopped or slowed car ahead to turn a fun afternoon into a regrettable accident.
Trying to balance the need for speed with the responsibility you have towards your own safety and the safety of others may have led you to ask yourself where can the limits of both your own driving abilities and the performance capabilities of your car be tested in a controlled environment. Professional racing, even at the club or regional level is far too expensive for the vast majority of automobile lovers, and racing schools are often also saddled with a costly curriculum. Unrelated to costs, there are many drivers out there who may be confident in wanting to explore their driving skills, but who are intimidated by the idea of strapping into a powerful race car. This leads them to shy away from investigating either of the above options.
Fortunately, there is a level of high speed driving that is a tier below these higher intensity, competitive-style genres but which is still capable of providing the same thrills and skill-building that drivers are looking for. High Performance Driving Events or HPDE's are common around the country and are most often put on by specific automobile clubs that are determined to provide their members with a safe place to develop their driving skills in a no-pressure environment. Clubs are usually the best way to find out how to register with events in your area, although the Internet also provides some excellent websites which will let you browse a diverse range of local events and register online.
HPDE's take place on race tracks, but they are not racing schools and they are not racing events. You will find this fact stressed again and again by their organizers, both when initially advertising them and then once more at the HPDE itself. What exactly are the differences? To begin with, an HPDE is focused on one thing: helping you become more comfortable in your car in a high speed environment. You aren't going to learn how to pass, or how to race someone door to door. In fact, passing is usually only allowed in very specific, very straight and very safe areas of the track, and then usually only when the car in front of you has given you what is called a 'point-by.' This is a hand gesture that indicating that the driver is slowing so you can overtake them. Instead, you will be taught how to enter and exit a corner, how to properly and safely brake your car, and how to manage the traction afforded to you by both your tires and your actions behind the wheel.
You might be wondering what kind of a car is required to participate in an HPDE. The answer is quite honestly, almost anything - that is, as long as it is in good mechanical shape. Most types of vehicles are welcome at High Performance Driving Events, with the exception of those that have a high center of gravity like SUV's or minivans. Any vehicle that you bring to an HPDE will be thoroughly inspected on site for oil or fluid leaks, tire condition, functioning seatbelts and a solid suspension - basically, anything that could pose a danger to you or anyone else sharing the track with you. It is not uncommon to see a wide mix of vehicles at the track - anything from family sedans to exotic sports cars - so don't feel like your own car is too 'ordinary' to bring along. Do make sure that your brakes and tires are in great condition, however, as these are the components of your car that you will be using the most throughout the day. You will also need a helmet. Motorcycle helmets are usually OK if you want to borrow one from a friend, but make sure it is up to date in terms of the required Snell safety rating, which will be posted by the group holding the event. You should also bring lots of water and some snacks or food, as not all tracks have the best concessions available and events can be both hot and long.
What is a typical day at an HPDE like? Things usually start early, with the gates of the track opening between 6 and 7 in the morning. You will want to get there somewhat ahead of schedule so that you have enough time to fill out any registration paperwork or sign any track waivers that might be necessary. Once you have been let into the facility and found yourself a garage berth or parking space, make sure to unload your car and head to tech inspection. A line or two will form just behind the tech station, where your vehicle will be examined by seasoned mechanics for the previously mentioned safety concerns. Once this is done, park your car back in its spot and head over to the driver's meeting. This is where you will be welcomed and given details about the event, the track itself, and the schedule for the day.
At this point, if it hasn't happened already, you will be put into a specific 'run group.' This is a group of people with the same level of experience as you with whom you will be sharing the track throughout the course of the event. Run groups are designed so that absolute beginners don't have to worry about slowing down or getting in the way of more seasoned drivers. They are also a great way to build camaraderie with others throughout the day. You will most likely get 4 or 5 sessions on the track of about 20 to 30 minutes each by the time the event is over. That might not sound like a lot, but time on the track is fairly intense in terms of enjoyment and overall experience, and by the time you have parked your car for the last time you will be well worn out.
In addition to a run group, you will also be assigned an instructor. If you have never been on a track before, you will have an instructor sitting beside you at all times while you are driving. He or she will be able to give you tips and pointers on how to improve over the course of the day, and more importantly they will keep your driving safe and act as an extra set of eyes to help you avoid any potential problems on the track. One-on-one instructor training is almost always combined with a few classroom sessions while you are waiting for your next run where basic track driving concepts are explained and questions are encouraged.
There are two important things to remember about HPDE's. The first is that there are no trophies or prizes handed out at the end of the day. No one is timing your laps, and no one keeps track of what 'position' you are in when you come in at the end. It is not a competitive event and no one around you will be allowed to drive in an overly aggressive manner. You should never feel that you are being judged, or that you are not 'fast' enough to be out there on the track. This leads directly to the second and overarching concern when it comes to HPDE's: make sure you have fun. The whole point of taking your car out on a race course is to have a blast in an environment with no sudden dangers popping up and of course, no law enforcement offices lurking nearby to give you a ticket. HPDE's can be a great outlet for your driving desires, and they can not only teach you how to be a better and safer driver on the street, but they can also help you better control your behavior on public roads. After all, now you're saving it for the track.