First Track Day at Sonoma Raceway with NASA (1)

Ever since I bought the Porsche 911 Carrera S, I’ve been so tempted to take it on a racetrack. The Academy program at Porsche Experience Center in LA gave me about 7-8 hours experience on the track, which is really short – only about 1.5 miles. And they don’t host track days, which are dedicated to car racing. Their programs are more for educational purposes and experiences with Porsche cars. Shawn who owns a Porsche Boxster has been going to track days a lot, and I asked him what organization I should go as a beginner. He said NASA.

NASA stands for National Auto Sports Association. I’ve been looking at their website for a while and they have an event at Sonoma Raceway. I watched some YouTube videos about track days at Sonoma, someone said it’s too technical and the walls are kind of close to the track, so it’s not the best track for beginners. However Shawn said beginners wouldn’t drive so fast, and NASA is famous for good instructors and enforcing safety rules. So I finally signed up for one day. I figured I was gonna just tread the water and see if I like it or not.

NASA HPDE (High Performance Driver Education) has 4 groups – HPDE 1 as beginners group, where an instructor is mandatory in the car, or in a lead-follow manner. HPDE 1 doesn’t allow passing except on straight lines, only 3 places in Sonoma Raceway. HPDE 2 is basically similar to HPDE 1 but drivers can drive without an instructor. HPDE 3 and 4 are truly high performance driving. Passing is allowed almost everywhere on the track, so it’s more dangerous.

On the Wednesday before the track day weekend, I received all the info I needed for the track day. Basically:

  • Tech form: my car is a new 2020 911, so I can fill up and sign the tech form myself.
  • Helmet: Snell SA2000 or M2000 above
  • Car numbers: I bought blue tape but I realized it looks so ugly on the picture. So I decided to try to buy it at the track.
  • Print out track map and schedule.
  • Study the parking map. Different groups park in different places on paddock. The parking map is not very easy to read, I had to compare it with Google Maps satellite image to know exactly where I should park.
  • Email and name of my instructor – Geoff. I sent an email to him asking how the tutoring was going to do. He replied and said we’d do in-car and then lead-follow.

The drivers meeting was at 7:30AM sharp. And Sonoma Raceway is about 1.5 hours away from San Jose. On the track day we got up at 5:15 in the morning and had a cup of coffee and then drove up to Sonoma.

I was still a bit early when I was there, and there was a white shirt red hat guy directing me where to park. There was a vendor in a trailer near the parking lot selling numbers. It was approaching 7:30, so we headed to the driver’s lounge.

After some basic introduction, all drivers were divided into 4 groups, like HPDE groups for individual instructions. For HPDE 1, an instructor mostly spent all the time explaining different flags. And he also pointed out where passing is allowed for group 1.

  • Between T10 and T11
  • Before T7, only pass on the right side
  • After T11, before T1

Then I got matched to my instructor – Geoff. He seemed to be very nice and friendly. We headed to my car while we were talking, and he gave me a map and schedule, which I already printed out. He asked me about my car, like tire pressure and stuff. I was sure that my tire pressure was fine, although I didn’t even have a tire pressure meter. One problem though I didn’t tell him, is that my car was showing maintenance was due at that time. My car was bought 1 year ago, but it only had 6000 miles on it. So I’m sure it’d be fine.

Track map for Sonoma Raceway

First session of HPDE 1 was called “Progressive Laps”. I watched a video on YouTube and it was very chill, mostly for education purposes – identifying flags, apexes, and learning the line. Helmet was not required for progressive laps. Geoff was very helpful and friendly to help me identify apexes I need to hit and what line I should drive. He was also very encouraging. I turned on the Porsche Track Precision app to record the data and video.

After a long time wait and lunch, session 2 was up. Session 2 was a normal session, so helmet was required. But Geoff was missing. He was supposed to show up at pre-grid but he didn’t. While I was rolling out I was freaked out. He suddenly jumped in front of me and moved to the side of the car and opened the door. He apologized many times.

But session 2 was fantastic. There weren’t too many cars blocking me and I felt very comfortable passing them on straight lines. Most of cars on the track are not as nearly powerful as mine. Geoff got excited too. There were several times approaching T4, T7 and T11 I thought I was not gonna make it, but I did. The brake of 911 was just fantastic. Geoff also gave me very excellent comments. He asked me if I’ve driven this track on simulators or video games, I said no. He thinks I drove like someone who has been to this track several times! As a beginner I felt very happy and flattered!

For this session I turned on the Porsche Track app too but the phone got overheated. It was 100F at Sonoma that day, and I turned it on while I was waiting on the pre-grid. So it didn’t record any video, but it recorded my fastest lap time – 2:17.

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