I had my first track driving experience ever this past Sunday at the Streets of Willow track at Willow Springs Raceway.
The track is a 1.8 mile street course that was very technical in a couple areas. We ran the course clockwise, which is the slower direction because the 1000 foot front straight away ends up being uphill in that direction.
There were a lot of crazy cars there. Some very highly modified EVO's, S2000's, and some STI's also. The iwsti.com project STI was there briefly also. I work for an auto insurance company as an auto damage estimator at a body shop. The owner of this shop is a fairly wealthy amateur race driver, and I met him up there. He brought his 2010 BMW M3 with racing slicks and upgraded brakes pads and rotors. I was the only person with a stock WRX, proud to represent! There were also 2 stock STI's there also, both 2011's.
My impressions of the event were overall very positive. The people running the show were really cool and knowledgeable, and made it abundantly clear that safety was their #1 priority. There were 80 cars total, and we were divided into 4 groups, Advanced, Intermediate, Beginner, and "never done this before" beginner. Each group was allotted 5 different "heats" of 25 minutes of track time, which translated into somewhere between 5 and 7 laps per heat depending on how fast the groups were. I thought it was going to be pretty quick, but it’s crazy how much longer time felt when you were behind the wheel.
Track driving is very, very difficult. I had one of the 5 lapping sessions with a race instructor in the car trying to show me the correct lines to take on the course. It really took a lot for me to fight my instincts and drive the course the way the instructor was recommending, but when I did hold the right line, it was amazing how much faster I could actually go, and how much smoother everything felt. On the back end of the course there is a huge long 180 degree banked turn that goes into a straight away, and before driving with the instructor, I was hitting just above 90 MPH before braking at the end of the straight. After learning the line into the banked turn, I hit 105 MPH before the end of the straight, which is a HUGE difference made possible just by being able to put down power in the correct area of the banked turn. The best comparison I can think of is that driving the line perfectly is tantamount to hitting a golf ball perfectly. For those who golf, you know exactly what I'm talking about. This picture is on that banked turn.
My impressions of my 2010 WRX hatchback were not as favorable. The only changes I made to the car to "get ready" for the track day was swapping out the stock brake fluid for MOTUL 600 to avoid boiling the fluid. While I had a huge amount of fun and relished in the insane intensity and adrenaline, obviously I had to drive the car home after the track event. So unfortunately, having that in the back of my mind the entire time probably didn’t really help me out a whole lot in my driving quality. I burned through 3/4 of a tank of 91 Octane Premium, and the car survived the day of very hard driving WITHOUT ANY issues. My wife and I were able to drive the 150 miles back to San Diego. I'm very proud of my WRX in that sense.
But that was only a small part of the story. The WRX in its stock form is definitely not a car that is made for the track. All of the car magazine articles that highlighted the extreme body roll and understeer in the WRX are 100% true. The car did not handle very well. My front tires took a huge beating just from plowing through so much of the course. Fortunately, the course was not long enough or fast enough to feel any real brake fade, but the brakes got really really hot. This picture shows my rear right tire almost off the ground...not good when trying to go fast.
Early on I started up a conversation with one of the 2011 STI owners who was in the same group as me. His car was completely stock, base STI. While it was also his first time on the track, he was much faster than I was based on the suspension setup on his vehicle. I don’t really think the advantage was based on the increased power output of the STI, but more based on how he was able to hold speed into the turns and put power down better coming out with much less body roll and understeer than my stock WRX.
Would I ever do this again? Absolutely. But, a huge caveat...not unless I made some pretty serious suspension changes to my vehicle. I would assume with some reasonable $$$ (not thousands) I could get much thicker sway bars front and rear with end links and that would certainly help. In addition, I think I would want to have a set of wheels and tires dedicated to going on the track, but of course, that is just more dough I would have to shell out.
If anyone would like to do something like this but has reservations, I would recommend it very very highly. It was really cool to be able to drive my car at its absolute limits, something very difficult, dangerous, and illegal to reproduce on public roads. Here is my favorite picture. The pics were all taken by a professional photographer that was at the track for the event. Thanks for reading.