Cars these days are just too powerful to be driven any where near the limits on public roads. Take the upcoming Corvette Z06 with its 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. You'll either lose your license or end up dead trying to drive it fast on the streets. Fortunately, it's easy to safely and legally drive your high-performance car fast on track these days thanks to High Performance Driving Events (HPDE).
There are many good articles on preparing for your first HPDE event so I will focus on a few specific aspects of HPDE that those generic articles don't cover.
- San Francisco Bay Area Tracks
- Track Insurance
- Bay Area Clubs
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to three great tracks. About 2 hours south of San Francisco in Monterey is world-famous Laguna Seca. An hour north of San Francisco in wine country is Sonoma Raceway (previously Sears Point and Infineon). Finally, in the middle of nowhere, also about 2 hours from San Francisco, is Thunderhill. When I say in the middle of nowhere, I say it with fondness so please don't be offended if you are from Willows.
My perfect weekend would involve driving Laguna Seca and playing golf at nearby Pebble Beach. But I don't want to recommend Laguna Seca for your first time on track. Instead I would recommend Thunderhill. It's a farther drive, temperatures are not as pleasant, your wife and girlfriend (because you can have both, right?) can't enjoy Carmel-by-the-Sea while you're having your own fun; but, Thunderhill has tons and tons of run-off room, because it's in the middle of nowhere!
I have no actual stats to back this up and I've only driven Thunderhill, but of the three tracks, I feel Thunderhill is the safest, both for you and your car. You are not racing in HPDE but you are driving (relatively) fast and anything can happen. With so much run-off area and relatively few walls/barriers, I feel very safe on track at Thunderhill. If you are conservative like me, I think starting out at Thunderhill then eventually driving Laguna Seca and Sonoma is the way to go.
All of this leads to the inevitable question, what happens if you crash your car at the track, will your insurance cover? Fortunately, I do not have first hand experience so I cannot definitely answer. From all my research, the short answer is "maybe". If you are being timed or racing, the answer is a definitve no. But HPDE is a driving, educational school so your insurance may cover damages.
However, insurance carriers have started adding exclusions for track related activities, even if it's not for competitive racing. When I did my first HPDE event years and years ago I was driving an old 1994 RX-7. It was paid for and I could deal with a total lost. These days I'm making monthly payments on my car so can't afford a big wreck, rolling the dice with insurance coverage. Luckily there are companies like Lockton and OnTrackInsurance offering HPDE insurance. There are others but I mention these two because people have made claims against them and have been paid. HPDE insurance is not cheap but is worth the peace of mind.
Time to find a club/organization to do your first HPDE track day with. Luckily there are many groups in the San Francisco Bay Area who run HPDE for beginners. You can try one of the car marquee clubs like Porsche Club of America (PCA). I've heard only good things about PCA and did an autocross school with them last year. Other marque clubs I've heard great things about are the Lotus and BMW clubs. Some are exclusive (you must drive the marquee) while others are more inclusive as long as you are a member.
Then there are groups who soley focus on HPDE and track days. The four that I am familiar with, either personally or through research, are TrackMaster Racing, Northern California Racing Club (NCRC), National Auto Sport Association (NASA) and Hooked on Driving (HOD).
The first thing to know is how each group approaches beginning instructors. NCRC seems to be alone in that there is no in-car instructor. You can request a private, in-car instructor for an additional fee, but the base driving school does not include in-car instructor. NCRC's driving school is a mix of lead-follow and in-class sessions. The other groups will pair you up with an instructor/coach/mentor. He (or she) will sit next to you in your car on track, giving you instructions and guidance. Then, when they feel you are ready for solo driving, they'll let you loose to drive solo.
Which approach is better? I suppose having an in-car instructor is better. Imagine getting golf lessons on the range and having the coach take you out to play a round. The downside is probably getting a bad instructor. If for some reason you don't get along with your instructor it can make for a bad/long day. In theory you can request a different instructor but are you really going to do that half way through? I've mostly heard good things about instructors from these four clubs, but then again, the bad experiences may be underpresented.
The other thing to think about is the run group size. In a dream world I'd be by myself on track. No one to slow me down, no one for me to slow down. No chance of me crashing into someone, no chance of someone crashing into me. I'm not here to race anyone, see how many people I can pass, etc. But the economics of renting out a track requires sharing the track. This is where the interest of organizers and the drivers conflict to a certain extent. The more paying cars, the more the economics work out for the club.
I've heard most clubs do a good job of limiting the number of cars to avoid traffic and safety issues. The notable exception seems to be NASA. I cannot speak first hand since I have not ran with NASA (was suppose to do HPDE this weekend with them but my run group was closed for registration by the time I got my car back from the shop) but the consensus seems to be they run more cars in their beginner HPDE sessions than any of the other clubs mentioned. I don't think it ends up being a safety issue, otherwise they would probably have changed it by now. It probably just means that there will be more traffic compared to the other clubs.
Hopefully this answeres some of your questions, particularly if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area.