Updated: July 2015

What is "Droids & Friends?"

Droids & Friends is the name of our intrepid group of car enthusiasts, organizing track days in Northern California since 2011. Founded by a group of Silicon Valley engineers, Droids & Friends has since grown into a club with over three hundred members, including drivers ranging from complete beginners to professional instructors and licensed race car drivers.

Are you open to the public?

Unlike many commercial track day organizations, Droids & Friends is a private, invitation-only group. We are happy to consider personal referrals by current members, but our events are not open to the general public.  If you know someone who is already a member, ask them to refer you.

What's a "track day?"

A track day, also known as a high-performance driving event or HPDE, is an opportunity for car enthusiasts of all skill levels to experience driving their cars at higher levels of performance than is possible on public roads, in a safe and supportive environment. As the name suggests, track days take place at professionally-maintained and staffed auto racing circuits and road courses that have been designed and built for high-performance driving. In short, people have a blast driving their own cars on a racetrack!

If you've never been to a track day before and are wondering what to expect, take a look at this video from Hooked on Driving, a terrific company that is in the business of organizing track events for drivers across the United States. (Note that our events aren't run by or affiliated with Hooked on Driving; I am just using their excellent video as an example.)

Do you race against each other?

Absolutely not! Although it takes place at a venue that can be used for racing, a track day is not a competitive or timed event. Drivers are welcome to enjoy their cars at whatever speeds they are comfortable with. Drivers are grouped by experience level, and less experienced drivers have access to a dedicated team of HPDE instructors to help them improve their skills. The track won't provide or allow lap timers, as this is not a timed event. Aggressive, reckless, or otherwise dangerous driving is strictly forbidden, and anyone who engages in behavior that makes fellow drivers uncomfortable will be told to leave.

Can I drive a rental car?

No, not a regular rental car from a company like Hertz, Avis, etc., as those rental agreements explicitly forbid driving "off-road" (which in this case applies to driving on a racetrack). Even without that restriction, you wouldn't be able to get such a car to pass tech inspection, as you couldn't be familiar with its maintenance history and wouldn't be able to vouch for its safety.

There are options for renting a track-ready car. Eric from http://suspensionperformance.com has a car or two for rent, as does Larry Oka (http://larryoka.com). Other companies that rent track-ready cars include Lesher Motorsports and Dietsch Werks. Most such rentals are fully race-prepped cars, so if you are a beginner or intermediate driver who wants coaching, be sure to ask them for a car with a passenger seat. Note that renting such a car can cost many hundreds of dollars, and since they are often not street-legal, you'll also have to arrange to have them trailered to/from Thunderhill. Contact them directly for more info.

Is a track day like a driving school?

Not exactly. There is a mandatory drivers' meeting before the on-track sessions, during which the track staff and the organizers explain the rules and teach beginners the basics of track driving. Many participants are expected to be newcomers to high-performance driving, while others will be track day veterans, and a few are even SCCA licensed race car drivers. All beginners will receive in-car coaching from experienced HPDE instructors who will be on hand all day. Most importantly, everyone should have fun!

If you are interested in additional instruction in high-performance driving, check out Hooked on DrivingSkip Barber Racing School, and similar providers.

Who is paying? How much?

The registration fee for drivers is $350-$390 for each event, depending on track configuration (the 3-mile configuration is cheaper than the 5-mile). In-car coaching by an experienced HPDE instructor is available to beginners for an additional $50. Each driver is responsible for paying their registration fee in full prior to each event--registrations aren't guaranteed and are subject to cancellation until the registration fee has been paid. Non-driver guests (e.g. friends and spouses / significant others) need to pay a $35 guest fee to cover the cost of catering.

What is included in the registration fee?

In addition to the use of the track and the facilities, the registration fee includes a continental breakfast, a hot lunch, soft drinks, and plenty of iced water for all drivers and guests. (You may wish to bring additional water and snacks along, just in case.)

What is not included?

Gas, overnight accommodations, insurance, food & drinks over and above the meals listed above, etc. are not included in the registration fee. Helmet rentals for those who don't bring an approved helmet are an additional $40 at the track.

What is the cancelation policy?

Registration fees are non-refundable unless we find another driver to take your spot. Droids & Friends is a non-profit operation organized by volunteers. The registration fees we collect from drivers cover track rental, safety, catering, and other expenses with no funds left over. The large fixed cost of each event has to be spread across all participants to make each event economical.

If you have to back out, let us know ASAP so we can contact drivers who may be on the waitlist for your event. If there are no drivers on the waitlist, and you are unable to find another driver to take your place, you'll forfeit your registration fee. Historically, we have been able to refund registration fees to most drivers who canceled 2 weeks or more in advance of an event, but drivers who waited longer to cancel lost their money. Please plan accordingly.

There will be a required drivers' meeting in the morning to explain the rules and the flags. If you miss this meeting, it is likely you will not be allowed to drive, unless you are a veteran driver with several track days at Thunderhill under your belt--ask the organizers or the Thunderhill staff for details.

Where are these events held?

Thunderhill Raceway Park is a fantastic road circuit just a few miles west of Willows along Interstate 5 in Northern California. It's set in the middle of low rolling hills, surrounded by pasture land. It features a number of elevation changes, challenging high speed and off-camber corners, and the famous "Cyclone", a 90-degree left-hand corner that apexes on the top of a hill. Most parts of the track have acres of run-off area, and unlike other nearby race tracks, there are very few places where a spin could result in hitting a hard object. It's a great place to learn and practice high performance driving.

How safe are track days?

For liability reasons, we can't make any representations on safety. Both we (the organizers) and Thunderhill staff will ask you to sign legal waivers before you can drive or ride on the track. The biggest factors in safety are under your control: the condition of your car, whether you follow the rules, and whether you pay strict attention to track workers who are there for you safety, and stay within the limits of your driving abilities.  

If you follow the rules and don't try to drive over your head, you will probably be much safer on the track than you will be on the drive to and from the track. The track workers keep a close eye on things and will flag down anyone they think is a danger to themselves or others. They will also signal you if there is a situation you need to be aware of, such as a car that is stopped on track. Unlike your daily commute, there are very few hard objects to hit if you do spin or go off track. And if things do go wrong for someone reason, you will be wearing a seat belt and helmet to protect you.

What if something goes wrong?

Thunderhill staff have over a decade of experience running track events ranging from small private track days like ours to full-blown spectator racing events. The venue will be fully staffed during our events, including an EMT crew. In the extremely unlikely event of an accident or other emergency, Thunderhill staff will respond appropriately. Always be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to the corner workers who will use flags to signal if there is trouble on the track (see next question).

Flags? What's this about flags?

Corner workers use flags to communicate with drivers on the track. A Thunderhill staff member will explain the meaning of the various flag signals during the mandatory drivers' meeting before the first session. There are many flags, but the most important ones are:

  •  Yellow : There is a car ahead that may have spun or gone off-track. Don't stop! Keep driving, but take it down a notch, exercise caution, and do not pass other cars until you clear the next flag station without a yellow flag. The session is not over, keep going.

  •  Black  (pointed): If a corner worker points a furled black flag at you, you've been misbehaving. Don't stop! Keep driving, but take it down a notch (or several notches, depending on how crazy you've been driving), and exercise caution. If you continue to misbehave, you may see a waving black flag from the starter stand. In this case, return to the pits as soon as possible to see the pit boss or one of the organizers. You may or may not be allowed to complete your session.

  •  Black  (waving): If you see a waving black flag at all flag stations, the track needs to be cleared as soon as possible. Don't stop! Keep driving, but take it down a notch, exercise caution, don't pass anyone, and return to the pits as soon as possible. Remember, the idea is to clear the track of cars, so don't slow down to a crawl; you want to reach the pit lane as quickly and safely as possible. Depending on how soon the situation is resolved, your session may or may not be over.

  •  Red : Immediately slow down, move over to the right side of the track, and stop safely in sight of the next flag station. Don't drive into the dirt, don't get out of your car, don't do anything until you're instructed by a Thunderhill staff member that it's safe to drive back to the pits.
It's important to remember that a red flag is the only flag that means "stop." All other flags require you to keep driving, but at somewhat reduced speed.

I don't have a supercar. Is my car good enough to drive on a track?

You don't need a supercar to have fun at the track! One of the most common misconceptions is that you need a high-horsepower sports car in order to enjoy a track day.  Nothing could be further from the truth! You'd be surprised how much fun your daily driver can be once you've learned how to drive it fast (but safely) on a road course.

Any street-legal, well-maintained car in good mechanical condition should be just fine (see the tech inspection checklist for a detailed list of things to consider). That said, heavy vehicles with a high center of gravity (minivans, SUVs, trucks, off-road vehicles, etc.) are generally not safe to drive on the track. In addition to the usual suspects like Audis, BMWs, Porsches, Ferraris, etc., affordable cars such as the Honda Civic, the Mazda 3, the VW Golf, and the Ford Focus make excellent, fun track-day cars. Drivers driving a Honda Civic Si, a Honda del Sol, and a Toyota Corolla S all had a great time at our past events.

In addition to street-legal, daily-driven cars, we also welcome well-maintained racecars in our intermediate and advanced group, so long as they pass tech inspection and the 103dB sound limit. On the other hand, LeMons cars (which are valued at $500 or less) are no longer allowed in any run group. When in doubt, ask!

Who can help me perform a tech inspection for my car?

If you aren't comfortable doing your own tech inspection, your dealer/mechanic may be able to do it for you. Other options in the Bay Area recommended by Droids & Friends members include Z Car Garage (Nissan, Infiniti, and other Japanese imports), Borelli Motorsports (all makes), EDGE Motorworks (BMW, Mini, and Subaru), Trackstar Racing (BMW), and Suspension Performance (Lotus and other high-end makes & models). When in doubt, post a question on the mailing list or the G+ community, and a Droids & Friends member will help you.

I have a convertible. Can I drive it on the track?

(Updated March 17, 2018)

Rollover accidents are rare, but when they happen, they are especially dangerous if the car involved is a convertible. At Droids & Friends, our policy governing convertibles is designed to mitigate the inherently greater risk involved in driving a convertible on a track at or near its limits. Specifically:

  • Convertibles in all run groups must have aftermarket rollover protection (roll bars or a roll cage), except as noted below.
  • Convertibles in groups A & B are only allowed to run on treaded street-legal tires. This means no slicks, no shaved R-comps, nothing but treaded street-legal tires.
  • All drivers and passengers in convertibles must pass the broomstick testif you were to lay a broomstick across the top edge of the windshield and the top of the fixed roll hoop/roll bar, would you be able to sit in the driver's seat with your helmet on without touching the broomstick? If not, your convertible isn't safe to drive on the track, as in the event of a rollover accident, your head would bear the brunt of the impact, with predictably horrific consequences.
Only the following convertibles are allowed without aftermarket rollover protection: Porsche 911 (996 or later), Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, Audi TT, Nissan 350/370Z roadster, BMW M3 and 3 series (E90 or later), Audi Convertible, Honda S2000, and Mercedes-Benz S, SLK and CLK. Mazda Miata owners, please note: Mazda makes no claim that their bars on 2006 and newer Miatas offer rollover protection, therefore aftermarket rollover protection must be installed.

Please note that this policy only applies to convertibles. Targas and t-tops with a structural B-pillar, including the Lotus Elise, are fine without aftermarket rollover protection. Drivers of exotics (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, etc.) please contact the organizers for more information; these cars are generally fine, but better safe than sorry.

We will strictly enforce this policy for all convertibles. No exceptions.

What about insurance?

Your regular insurance will most likely not cover anything that happens at an HPDE. As track days started gaining popularity in recent years, insurance companies added language to policies to specifically exclude track day use. Some insurance policies may, however, provide coverage as long as the event isn't timed or competitive. Contact your insurance provider for details.

Although your regular insurance may not cover any damage sustained during track use, you should know that since HPDEs are conducted with everyone's safety in mind, accidents that result in vehicle damage are exceedingly rare, and you're more likely to get into a fender-bender on the way to and from the track than at the event itself. For those who want it, Lockton Motorsports, a reputable provider of HPDE insurance products, now offers single-event insurance for Droids & Friends; go to this page, and follow the instructions to buy a single-event policy for the Droids & Friends track day of your choice.

As a data point, I've been taking my daily driver to track days since 2003, and never bought track day insurance. Your risk tolerance may vary.

Will high-performance driving hurt my car?

If you drive within the limits of your and your car's abilities, and your car is well-maintained and in good overall condition, it is very unlikely that driving it on a track would result in any mechanical damage. Note, however, that your brake pads and tires will experience higher-than-normal wear at the track, and may therefore require service or replacement sooner than usual. Some vehicles have additional service items recommended by the manufacturer if they are driven at a track. The area where Thunderhill is located can experience extreme hot weather during summer months, and forced-induction cars (e.g. supercharged or turbocharged cars) may overheat and require cooldown laps to prevent damage. When in doubt, consult your owner's manual or ask your service professional.

How are we getting there?

Thunderhill Raceway Park is located off I-5 a few miles west of Willows. Click here for driving directions from Mountain View to Willows. People often drive as a group to & from Thunderhill, which can be a lot of fun, but keep in mind that the CHP and local law enforcement are always on the lookout for track day participants near Willows. Save the high-speed driving for the track itself!

The main gates open at 7 AM, and the mandatory drivers' meeting starts at 8 AM, so most people arrive the night before and stay at a local hotel. The Holiday Inn Express offers a discount rate for Thunderhill drivers (be sure to ask for it). Everyone is free to make their own travel arrangements, so long as they arrive in time for the 8 AM drivers' meeting.

Who is attending?

Droids & Friends track days are private, invitation-only events for members, their friends, and their guests only. We open up registration to regular participants first, then to our friends from around the Bay Area to fill up available run group spots if needed. As a private event, we reserve the right to select participants at our discretion.

If you want to experience more track time, consider a commercial HPDE package offered by companies such as Hooked on Driving, Speed Ventures, TrackMasters, etc.

What should I bring?

  • A car in good working order (please see the tech inspection checklist as well as the note above regarding convertibles). You can complete the tech inspection checklist yourself if you know what you're doing, or bring your car to a qualified mechanic to do it for you. EDGE MotorWorks in Mountain View and Z Car Garage in San Jose can perform tech inspections for our events for all makes and models, but make sure to call ahead to make an appointment.

  • An SA-rated auto racing helmet (SA2010 or later) if you have one, or rent one at the track for $35 if you don't. Motorcycle helmets are not acceptable. Should you decide to buy a helmet, Wine Country Motorsports, located at Infineon Raceway, sells a wide range of auto racing helmets.

  • Suitable attire: cotton pants, cotton shirt, cotton socks, and closed-toed shoes. Long pants and long-sleeve shirts are safer in the (extremely unlikely) event of fire, but shorts and T-shirts are also acceptable, and you may prefer to wear them in the 100-degree summer heat.

  • A towel. Seriously, a towel. To quite the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "A towel [...] is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." You can use it to wipe yourself off after a long session in 100-degree heat, and you can use it to wipe off your seats and dashboard after a long session in the pouring rain, as you still have to drive with the windows down... Either way, bring a towel!

  • Sun block, a hat, and anything else you might need to protect you from the sun. There will be plenty of covered space for parking and hanging out, as well as an air-conditioned meeting room, but you'll probably want to spend some time observing other cars on the track. A folding camp chair is also nice to have. You will need to empty your car of any loose items, so you may want to bring a tarp along to set them on.

  • Bring lots of water to keep hydrated. It can get hot at the track, and days in the 100s are not unusual. Your windows need to be down while you are on the track, so A/C isn't all that effective. Note that there will be plenty of free water and soft drinks available at the clubhouse.

  • Snack bars or other items to keep your blood sugar up are also a good idea. High performance driving is surprisingly physical--don't be surprised if you come off the track feeling hungry and thirsty. Note that breakfast and lunch are included and will be served in the clubhouse.

And don't forget your enthusiasm, although you probably won't be short of that once you've done your first couple of laps. :)

What about fuel?

You will probably use a lot of fuel. If you drive anywhere near the limits of your car, you will be getting about 6-8 miles per gallon, so going through 2 full tanks in one day isn't uncommon. Both 91 octane premium and 100 octane race fuel are available at the track, or you can drive 20 minutes to downtown Willows and buy cheaper gas--just make sure you have enough in the tank to get there!

Please note that naturally-aspirated cars that are tuned for regular (87 octane) or premium (91 octane) gasoline will not benefit from higher-octane gas, so save your money. :)

Can I bring a guest?

Driving is fun, and car enthusiasts love to share their passion with their friends, significant others, spouses, etc. You may bring a guest to Droids & Friends, so long as they are your close friend, coworker, spouse, or significant other. Please don't invite guests whom you don't know very well and can't personally vouch for. Also, please note that all guests must be at least 18 years old to be able to ride in a car on the track. We have different policies for guests who are just there to spectate, and guests who are drivers themselves.

Non-Driver Guests

There is a $35 fee for each non-driver guest, which covers meals, drinks, snacks, iced water, and full use of the clubhouse and paddock area. You must buy a guest registration for each of your guests at least a week prior to the event in question, so we can finalize the catering headcount. If your guest would like to experience track driving, please note that drivers in Group A (Beginner) aren't allowed to take passengers on the track. If you are a beginner and you brought a guest along to experience high-performance driving, ask an intermediate or advanced driver or a coach to take your guest around the track for a demo ride. Even for intermediate and advanced drivers, Thunderhill staff will carefully monitor everyone's on-track behavior, and reserve the right to order anyone driving recklessly or showing off to a passenger to end their session immediately, and possibly lose the privilege to take any passengers for the rest of the day. We will not allow beginner drivers to take passengers on demo rides--no exceptions! Last but not least, everyone on track (all drivers and all passengers) must wear appropriate attire and an SA-rated auto racing helmet.

Update (July 9, 2013): Drivers who spin and/or go 4 wheels off while giving a demo ride to a guest lose their passenger privileges for the day, i.e. they won't be allowed to take passengers on demo rides for the rest of the event.

Guest Drivers

If your guest is a driver, and is bringing his or her own car to drive on the track, they must fill out the registration form including your name as the person referring them, and must buy a spot in the appropriate run group. Email us if you have any questions.

Guest drivers are subject to the same rules and restrictions as other drivers. In particular, they must provide the same registration information, sign the same liability waiver forms, complete the tech inspection sheet, attend the mandatory drivers' meeting, etc. along with all other drivers. As their host, you are responsible for making sure your guest represents their skill level accurately, and that they sign up for the correct run group. In the interest of everyone's safety, the organizers and Thunderhill staff reserve the right to revoke your guest's on-track privileges at their sole discretion.

Car Sharing

If your guest is a driver, and the two of you want to share the same car, you only need to buy a guest registration for him or her, but you will each get less track time, because you'll be sharing a single run group spot. You may not share your car across run groups. For example, if you are a beginner and your guest is an intermediate driver, you can only drive your shared car in Group A (Beginner) sessions.

A guest driver who is sharing your car is subject to the same rules and restrictions as other drivers. In particular, they must provide the same registration information, sign the same liability waiver forms, and attend the mandatory drivers' meeting along with all other drivers. As their host, you are responsible for making sure your guest represents their skill level accurately, and that both of you sign up for the correct run group. In the interest of everyone's safety, the organizers and Thunderhill staff reserve the right to revoke your guest's on-track privileges at their sole discretion.

What run group should I sign up for?

The purpose of having different run groups is to ensure that all drivers in a given session have similar skill levels and drive at similar speeds, which results in a safer and more enjoyable experience for everyone.
  • Group A (Beginner) is for drivers with fewer than 10 prior track days, including complete newcomers. Drivers in Group A must drive with a coach in the car until the coach signs them off for solo driving. Drivers who haven't been signed off for solo driving yet must pay an additional $50 at registration time to cover the cost of coaching for the day. Once they are cleared for solo driving, drivers may choose to drive solo or request additional coaching for as long as they like. To advance to Group B, drivers must ask a coach to observe their driving and sign off on their promotion to the Intermediate group.

  • Group B (Intermediate) is for drivers who are very comfortable driving solo, typically after 10 or more prior track days. Coaching isn't available in Group B, so drivers who still aren't comfortable driving without a coach should stick to Group A. To be considered for Group C (Advanced), please contact the organizers.

  • Group C (Advanced) is for drivers with significant track experience, typically 20 or more prior track days, and experience with open passing (no point-bys). To drive in Group C, drivers must demonstrate excellent track awareness and be comfortable with passing without point-bys. We reserve the right to ask people who aren't quite ready for Group C to move down to Group B instead.

  • Group X (Coach) is for experienced HPDE coaches only. You can request to be considered for a coaching spot by filling out the registration form accordingly.  Coaching is by invitation only, and we reserve the right to offer you a spot in Group C instead.

What if I end up in the wrong run group?

After you finish a session, you might decide that you'd be more comfortable in a different run group. You may move down a group anytime, e.g. decide you want to drop down from Advanced to Intermediate or from Intermediate to Beginner. In order to move up a group, you have to have one of the coaches vouch for you. Either way, you must let the organizers know, and ask for a new run group decal and wristband.

It is also possible that the organizers or Thunderhill staff ask you to change run groups even if you'd prefer not to. Your safety and the safety of your fellow drivers always comes first!

How can I move up to a higher-level run group?

(Updated April 2013)

"I need to be moved to the fastest run group!"

At Droids & Friends we focus on safety above all, erring on the side of caution when it comes to promoting drivers to higher run groups. Here's what you need to do to move up a group:
  1. Meet the minimum required experience for your new run group (at least 10 prior track days driving solo for Group B, and at least 20 prior track days for Group C). Only Droids & Friends track days and other track days with a similarly high standard of instruction (like Hooked on Driving) count towards this number. Note that this is a minimum requirement; it doesn't guarantee that you're ready for promotion, only that you're eligible to try.
  2. Ask an instructor to go for a ride with you in your current run group (A or B) for what we call a check ride. The instructor won't be coaching you; they'll be observing your driving, your line, your consistency, and most importantly, your track awareness. At the end of the check ride, ask the instructor whether they think you're ready to move up a group, If they say yes, then you should proceed to the next step.
  3. Ask the group lead for the new group (B or C) to join you for a check ride in the corresponding higher-level session. As of this writing, the Group B lead is Andy West and the Group C lead is Dave Sparks, so A drivers moving up must ask Andy for a check ride in a B session, and B drivers moving up must ask Dave for a check ride in a C session. Note that the group leads are busy and may not be available to ride with you right away, or at all if it's late in the day, so you may have to wait until the next event for this check ride. Sometimes group leads may ask another senior instructor to do the check ride in their stead. The Group B and Group C leads have the final say in whether an A or B driver is allowed to move up.
  4. Ask the organizers for a new wristband and new run group decal for your car if you passed the check ride. Congratulations--you can now drive in a higher-level session!
As always, the group leads, the organizers, and Thunderhill staff reserve the right to ask any driver to change run groups at any time, even if the driver would prefer not to, in order to ensure everyone's safety. It doesn't matter whether you've just been promoted to a higher run group or whether you've been running in that group for a while, you may be told to move down a group if deemed necessary based on your driving and on-track behavior. Thank you for your understanding.

I know it's not a race, but will I be allowed to pass other cars?

Yes. Rules for passing will be explained at the mandatory drivers' meeting before the first session.

Do I need to tape up my headlights?

No, we don't require that you tape up your headlights.

Does my car need to have a number?

No, but we encourage it, and in any case, we provide removable vinyl decals for all cars. So if you have a race-prepped car with a permanent number, you're all set; otherwise we'll give you a number to stick on your windshield during registration.

What do I put down for "Competition License Type" and "Car or Bike #" on the Thunderhill form?

These items aren't applicable for HPDEs, so you should leave them blank unless you're a race-licensed driver and actually have a competition license and a permanent number on your (presumably race-prepped) car.

What if I have additional questions?

Join the Droids & Friends Community on Google+, and post your question there. Or you may email me directly, though I may take a day or two to respond.