Saturday evenings at the race track invariably ends up in long drawn-out discussions of car and racing related topics. There is something about the smell of racing fuel, clutch and brake linings, campfires, grilles brats and beer that turn simple topics into long winded debates - which is a far cry from those events where an impromptu concert breaks out. Perhaps it is the fact most everyone has been either smoldering in the sun all day or braving the wet chill of a rainy afternoon, that brings a very specific type of heated passion to the various point of views. Along with that passion comes a stubbornness and an unwillingness to compromise on pretty much EVERY subject that pops up, from soft springs and front bar versus stiff springs and no bar. For, if nothing else, racers and race fans are sure about their point of view on any manner of subjects – OK just admitting we are a pretty stubborn self-assured bunch. And with that as a backdrop, I present to you my personal ranking of the worst to best race tracks across the country based entirely on my own opinion with no offense to the Canadians or Mexicans. PS Your mileage may vary.
For me this topic started in September 2018 as I was getting ready to tow from Michigan to California for the SCCA Runoffs® in Sonoma. A facebook post started a huge thread where racers compared how many tracks they have raced at. In combination with driving 2400 miles mostly by myself (that is another story – ask me about the broken motorcycle and sidecar story next time you see me at the track), my entrepreneurial mind went into overdrive and some 2 weeks later Race Track Maps was born.
The original idea was a vinyl map of all the tracks in the US with colored stickers to showcase which race tracks a particular racer had visited. Just like the colored state maps one might see on the side of RVs, I expected racers to buy the kit and plaster it on the side of their race trailers. Unfortunately, that idea bombed quite spectacularly, as it turns out most racers visit very few tracks. Travel is a huge cost and vacation time is another impediment to exploring tracks across the country. And a map of 89 tracks with only 4 or 5 stickers was apparently not very interesting.
So like any good business person I pivoted. We produced black and white posters of all the tracks and sold out of every printing.
The poster had an unexpected result, it lit a fire to visit all the tracks on the map. At the time my number was 10 and Sonoma was going to be my 11th. At the age of 57 and with approximately 10-15 more years of racing, that meant a concrete plan was needed. I settled on 5 new tracks a year for 10 years to bring me to 60 and then re-assess the remaining list. Since many tracks offer track day and lapping events and no wheel to wheel racing opportunities, I figured waiting to visit them in my 70s was a good compromise. Which brings us to today, where I now have well over 30 tracks under my belt and everybody asks me “What’s your favorite?” And my response is always the same…… “It depends”.
You see, while everyone seems to have a favorite track, their measurement criteria varies as much as the different cars they race.Even for myself, I struggle with those tracks where I enjoyed the on-track experience, but not so much the off-track one.So I decided to map out the criteria that makes a perfect race track/weekend for me.And like I mentioned earlier, it is not set in concrete, it is just my opinion, and it will not be surprising if some of the things that are important to me, do not matter to others.So lets start this off by identifying my criteria and grading scale
Grading Scale is easy – I picked 1 to 5 with 5 being outstanding. I also reviewed each criteria and grade to make sure that there was a nice even distribution of scores. Lets take the category “Fun to Drive” as an example. Even a bad track is pretty much fun to drive. And if I am not careful half the tracks would get a 5 and the rest a 4. But I did stretch the ratings out so I covered the whole range. Just remember a 5 is unqualified highest-level recommendation, but even a 1 still beats a good day in the office. Also notice that while I did not weight the categories, weighting fun to drive more than off-track activities would produce an entirely different order.
1) Fun to Drive AND Race
This is the one category that will probably show up on everyone’s list; How fun is the track to drive?Certain things are important to me, does the track layout flow and make sense or are there corners that seem out of place.Is there a corner that absolutely cannot be driven correctly and always feels “wrong”.Is the track long enough to be interesting but not so long the straights get boring?Are there obvious passing zones that are easy and a few really tough ones that only experts can find?Does the track allow multiple lines through some corners and even a few corners where side by side racing is not just possible but safe?And finally for me, I really like a track that has some elevation change.If it is flat and featureless, I find that limits the experience.What is missing from this equation? Speed.Actual speed has absolutely no bearing on how much fun I have in a race car.It’s not that I derive no thrill from speed, but that I barely notice it within a race car.I am so focused on achieving the right blend of cornering and braking, that measuring my pace compared to the outside world is a moot point.I could be going 60 or 160 and I barely notice the difference.In an informal poll of some friends, my top track in this category was also picked by several others, but a couple in my top 5 were a shock to them.More on that later.
2) Technical to Drive
Let’s start with a not so obvious statement: Technical to drive is NOT the same as fun to drive. I have been racing on and off since 1988, and now have over 300 races under my belt, along with numerous track days and high performance driving events. One thing that has changed over that time is I find lately I prefer tracks that are HARD. In other words, those tracks where finding pace is difficult, because either the line is so precise it is hard to achieve, or the eyes lead a racer to follow a line that is not ideal. That mental effort required to overcome outside stimuli is exciting for me. It makes me sweat and makes me work and makes me concentrate, which is like my zen place. I famously ran an endurance race one time and keep driving the car until it ran out of gas. I was so focused on making my laps consistent I missed both the gage, warning light, and my crew’s desperate attempt to signal me to come in for a fuel stop. OK, maybe that describes a lack of focus.
3) Competitor Atmosphere
Talk about starting some drama – let’s go straight to the one thing that separates a fun weekend from one that is not…..PEOPLE. Give me the most fun to drive track in the country that is perfectly technical, and populate it with a group of people who are neither friendly, nor welcoming to newcomers and I will NOT be back, ever. Now, I am not saying I have ever visited a track and participated in an event where this has been that bad. But I will say for sure, some groups are more open and fun that others. It appears a lot has to do with how many people are local to the track, which affords them the opportunity to head home as soon as their race is done. Or how many people are “regulars” and find it easy to stay within the groups of people they know. It also has a lot to do with the environment at the track geared towards keeping workers, racers, volunteers and crew engaged at the track after the racing is done for the day. Either way, it matters to me, and a great track is nothing without great people. To be fair, I have been to many of the tracks on my list only one time, so my data may be improperly skewed. So allow me the right to adjust, change and otherwise modify this list over time as I have more experiences.
4) Paddock Atmosphere
This one is likely to invoke a “huh?” from some of you, but hear me out. I am not a fan of paddocking in garages, or on hot asphalt, or in between a bunch of large semis and haulers, no matter how easy it makes car maintenance . Nope, non-paved paddock spaces are my jam. And the best ones are flat, with thick grass, easy access roads, and the piece de resistance, a view of the course. Of course I prefer pavement over gravel if those are my only choices – and no one likes grass that turns to mud when it rains. I dislike nothing more than being paddocked somewhere away from the action, hidden behind walls and buildings. Electrical connections are also a nice bonus but a small quiet generator takes care of that issue. And oh yeah, facilities with sufficient and clean bathrooms and showers are also important. By the way, this is the only category where no “5” was awarded for many years, till I visited a new track this year (more on that later). I guess we still have an opportunity to create the world’s greatest track by starting with a great paddock.
5) Off-Track Attractions
No truer words have ever been uttered than “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy”. In today’s politically correct world that saying is probably due for a makeover but I hope the non-sexist point is properly communicated. It is easy to bring your car loving friends along for a weekend of racing. But if your race schedule is filled with weekends away from family, it is likely a very sparse calendar. In my experience, sprinkling in a few events that are in “destination” style locations, does wonders for the attitude of the family. Race tracks tend to be in the middle of nowhere, because they annoy neighbors. And those around larger cities where sufficient hotels and restaurants abound are few and far between because the property values are to high to justify hundreds of acres for racing. So my list of favorite tracks is highly influenced by what is immediately and conveniently located around the track, starting with the ocean, but really any nice body of water. As a family we tend to avoid touristy destinations on our vacations, but for a short weekend racing, touristy things are a welcome break from the on track activities.
I tried to get away with grading tracks in only 5 categories, but one bonus category cannot be ignored. Does the track have a history and does that history come across in the aura of being there? Case and point. Its no secret that the road course at Indianapolis is not the most fun track to drive. But you can never replace the feeling of the first time you drive across the bricks and see the checkered flag. Or the feeling of sitting in the dark under the pagoda hanging out with friends. Indy is not the only track that gets points here, by the way. But on a scale of 1 to 5, it probably deserves a 6.
On a separate note, I have added our TrakPAX rating to each track. What is TrakPAX?
TrakPAX is our proprietary rating of a track design that attempts to categorize a track as one that rewards horsepower and power/weight, or one that rewards sheer handling capability. We use the ratings to change setup and alignment accordingly, and having a rating for a track we have never run before allows us to setup the car before we leave the home office. Each track is compared to the middle, what we consider the perfect combination of both ends of the spectrum. Mid Ohio is given a rating of 100 at the center and the range extends from Fontana at a 104.4 to Waterford Hills at a 92.5. Learn more at www.grasspaddock.com
Alright, the stage is set, the categories are defined and the grading scale is clear.
Let's start with #31-34