Trackday Diaries: All Those (Not So) Stupid Rules, Explained

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
trackday diaries all those not so stupid rules explained

“Why can’t we have coolant in the car when we’re racing?” It was getting close to midnight and I was still trying to get the undertray off our MX-5 Cup car so I could drain the distilled water and get coolant into the radiator. There was a bit of a time factor involved; the temperature was scheduled to dip below freezing in the hours to come, and if the water froze in the engine block we would have serious problems. Danger Girl understood perfectly well why we couldn’t let our little Mazda make it through the night without coolant in the engine, but she didn’t quite understand why we didn’t have coolant in there to begin with.

In her honor, and for the enlightenment of every would-be track rat who has been afraid to ask why such-and-such a rule exists, I’ve picked seven slightly opaque trackday or racing rules and explained them below. Even if you never plan to set foot or tire on a road course, this might still of be of interest… or not. What can I say? I tried to get you to click the jump. Click the jump already!

Why can’t we have coolant in the race car? And why doesn’t that rule apply to street-car trackdays?

Conventional coolant/water mixes are extremely slippery when they escape a car and find their way onto the racing surface. It’s a safety hazard to have coolant on a racetrack, so virtually every sanctioning body out there bans its use. Instead, you have to put distilled water in the radiator, usually with something called “water wetter” that raises the boiling point a fair amount.

Why don’t regular trackdays enforce this rule? ‘Cause if they did, nobody would show up. Also, the kind of metal-to-metal collisions that tend to release coolant onto the track are (supposed to be) rare in non-competitive open-lapping days. There’s an exception to this: if you bring your motorcycle to a trackday, chances are that you will be required to run plain water.

Why do I have to have padding on my rollcage or roll bar? It’s really far away from me.

In a crash, your head and body will go places you can’t predict. I have in-car video from when I was hit at Laguna Seca a few years ago where you can clearly see my head move maybe three feet over and hit a rollcage bar. I’ve dented my helmet on rollcage bars before. And both of those incidents were with a five-point harness and a HANS device. In a street car with an add-on rollcar? Expect your head to bounce off it the minute you get into serious trouble.

Why can’t I have floormats in the car? Why can’t I have my phone in its suction-cup holder? Why do I have to empty out the door pockets and center console?

It’s annoying, right? I felt the same way, right up to the moment one of my students had his “un-detachable” cellphone holder detach itself from the windshield over the “ski jump” at Summit Point Shenandoah. Both phone and holder disappeared into the driver’s footwell. The next braking zone was pretty exciting, to say the least. We got off track pronto and pulled the now-cracked phone out from between the brake-pedal hinge and the master cylinder. Anything that can detach in a car during a trackday will detach, and Murphy’s Law says it will end up beneath your pedals.

Why are they making me drive my convertible with the top up? It doesn’t increase the rollover protection.

You’re correct. However, the top will prevent your hands and arms from being forcibly shaved off when you roll the car. We use arm restraints in our MX-5 to prevent just that. Open-wheel racers do the same thing. And don’t think that you’ll just be able to keep your hands in your lap; a high-speed rollover could increase the force tugging at your arms to twenty times the power of gravity, or more. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be a little distracted at the time.

Why would I want an auto racing helmet for trackdays when my organizers are happy to take a Snell “M”-rated helmet? Don’t they provide the same kind of protection?

I have to admit I am the all-time offender for using motorcycle helmets in cars. More specifically, I’ve used my Arai “Oriental” helmet for the last few years of Road & Track’s road-course testing, because it’s extremely comfortable for long periods of time and retains less heat than my real race helmets. That doesn’t mean that you should follow my example. A Snell SA-rated helmet offers fire resistance that you don’t get in an M-rated helmet. That can make a big difference. And although this is not guaranteed to be the case, most auto racing helmets offer more coverage for the back of your head and neck because they don’t have to be usable in a sportbike heads-up riding position. Last but not least, a quality helmet designed for use in a car is usually tested for impact with steel bars… like the ones you’ll find in rollcages.

Why I do have to wear long cotton pants, long cotton sleeves, and closed-toe shoes?

Not every organization requires all three of those things, but virtually all of them require closed-toe shoes for driver and passenger. That’s to ensure that your shoes stay on when you’re exiting the car in a hurry. The requirement for natural-fiber long pants and long sleeves? It’s supposed to give you a critical fraction of a second to escape in case of fire.

Bonus question: Why can’t I take a passenger in the groups below “instructor” or “advanced”?

For the same reason your parents didn’t want you taking your friends around right after you got your driver’s license: you’ll crash the car showing off. Even Formula One drivers are susceptible to his impulse.

Hope all of this helps. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, where we will tackle the burning question: “Should I run R-compound tires in the novice group?”

[Image: Jack Baruth]

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3 of 16 comments
  • Syke Syke on Nov 06, 2017

    There's a reason synthetic fibers aren't allowed in historical reenactment, and it's not just authenticity. Keep in mind all those women doing American Civil War (Rev War, etc.), tending the campfire and cooking, in those big, voluminous skirts.

  • Matt Foley Matt Foley on Nov 06, 2017

    Bonus Bonus Question: I have an NA Miata. If I drop $700 on a Hard Dog Hard Core Double-Diagonal Roll Bar (including padding, cover, and shipping), spend a Saturday installing it, and show up at an HPDE with an SA2010 rated helmet, will I be allowed to run? Or will somebody produce a broomstick and tell me I'm half an inch too tall, or my helmet is too old?

    • JMII JMII on Nov 07, 2017

      Depends on the group doing the event. I've run with one group that checks everything. They actually make your car go thru a real tech inspection to ensure it meets every last rule. For example (and not mentioned by JB) your battery should have a cover over the positive terminal and 2 bolts holding it in place. However my normal group has self tech - so you just fill out a form, sign it and you done. Nobody checks anything, its your responsibility to ensure your car is safe. And our Miata guys are allowed to run with the top down. Most of them go top up, but I believe that is for aero reasons.

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