THRILLS ON FOUR WHEELS
Busting Speed Limits On a Pro Track
Imagine charging down the straightaway of a big-league racetrack. Your heart is racing.
Adrenaline is pumping. Mounted behind, a raging engine is winding down and blipping its throttle as you flick back on the finely brushed aluminum, F1-style paddle gear shifter. Hard on the brakes, you try shaking off speed before the next corner in a mid-engine supercar worth more than most houses. Sounds like a spine-tingling fantasy right?
Not quite. Having a need for speed can be difficult to curtail, at least without the risk of landing you cuffed in the back of a police car, or worse, an ambulance. And experiencing thrilling speeds in a car most can only dream of owning isn’t exactly common.
To the benefit of thrill seekers, however, there are legitimate ways to safely get your speed fix. And you don’t have to be a wealthy hedge fund manager or a video game aficionado stuck playing racing simulators.
Consider Exotics Racing, one of many companies offering the unique experience of driving automobiles at their fullest potential. With its own fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches, ten-year-old Exotics Racing allows anyone to hop in and lap a 1.2-mile sectionalized portion of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, its main location, and feel the tremble of a 500-plus horsepower machine.
When professional racing isn’t in session, racetracks and private road courses draw extra revenue by opening up the track to the general public for track days and experiential driving programs. Most public programs are regimented and cater to those with no experience driving fast.
There are hundreds of motorsports tracks around the United States and abroad, each with a variation that makes it unique.
In the hills of Monterey, California, is WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway. Known for its crucial role in the American Le Mans series and its signature downhill “corkscrew” turn, it offers one of the most dramatic elevation changes of any racetrack. Then there’s one of the world’s most famous oval loops, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indianapolis 500. In Georgia, the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta has its history as a key track in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.
Among lesser-known tracks is one run by New York’s exclusive Monticello MotorClub in the Catskills, a playground for wealthy car lovers who shell out six figures annually for the privilege. Offering a premiere country-clublike experience, Monticello features a 4.1-mile racetrack with tricky elevation changes instead of a world-class 18-hole golf course.
Regarded as a gem in the region, it combines some of the most iconic and challenging features and corners from other racetracks around the world in one location. It’s got chicanes—a complicated S curve; increasing radius curves—and an S curve that’s wider at certain points and may have elevation changes; and more. It’s so intricate, it’s been certified by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or International Automobile Federation) as an official venue for professional racing.
As part of the International Motor Press Association, members local to the New York area can sample the latest automobiles at Monticello every fall. I’ve wrung out all 840 hp from a Dodge Challenger SRT Demon on its main straight. I’ve also tested the nimble Toyota FT86’s sports car worthiness through the track’s tightly banked hairpins. Monticello Motor Club is a track I’ve found to be as versatile as speedways get.
In contrast to the exclusivity of the Monticello track, New Jersey Motorsports Park’s 2.25-mile road course in Millville, in the flat Pine Barrens, is open to anyone as long as the weather permits. Similarly, Mid-Ohio Speedway is known for its close ties with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), the hub for amateur and grassroots motorsports.
All these locations have one thing in common: most if not all offer programs that let the average driver live out a fantasy, at least for a little while.
More Than Driver's Ed
Not all driving experiences are created equal. Some tracks, in addition to offering lap-driving experiences for a few hundred bucks, let drivers take their skills to the next level: They provide special performance driving lessons from professional instructors, ranging from beginner to advanced.
Many of the luxury and performance automakers—including brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Jaguar—offer their own driving experience and education programs. BMW offers one- and two-day M Performance Driving lessons at its centers in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Thermal, California.
Alternatively, Mercedes-AMG has the AMG Academy, hosted at four major racetracks: Laguna Seca Raceway, California; Circuit of the Americas, Texas; Road Atlanta, Georgia; and Lime Rock Park, Connecticut. Porsche has its Driving Experience at its headquarters in Atlanta, or at its second location in Los Angeles. Hotel and meals are included with most of these programs.
While gunning it for the fast and expensively thrilling exotics programs seems ideal, there may be more benefit to attending driving schools like BMW’s Performance M Driving School.
In 1999, BMW opened its first US-based Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina, complementing its only manufacturing facility (which opened five years earlier) based in this country,. It’s been the home of BMW’s performance driver education and special delivery programs.
Attending its one-day option, I joined a private group to get behind the wheel of some of BMW’s fastest and most expensive M cars for fun and lessons.
Perhaps the least-exciting yet most important part of the day, BMW’s performance driver education starts with some classroom time. Before hopping into the hot seat of a two-ton-plus, 600-horsepower, $102,700 BMW M5; or roasting tires going sideways in a $69,150 M4 coupe; or slipping at the limits of grip in a $58,900 BMW M2 Competition, there’s a lot to learn—vehicle handling dynamics and track driving theory, for instance—driving on a closed course without speed restrictions or police to ticket you.
“Eyesight is perhaps the most important skill to develop when driving on the track,” veteran instructor Derek Leonard emphasized while kicking off the day’s lessons. “Training your eyes to look where you want to go is key to proper car control. By envisioning where the car goes, you can then train your body to act accordingly, adjusting the steering and throttle positions to execute that corner.”
Our group of 15 left the classroom for BMW’s 1.7-mile multi-configuration track. The air was mildly cool and humid, while the threat of rain lurked from overcast skies: Typical conditions for a mid-late southern winter air as we split up among three exercises.
But the weather didn’t dampen the excitement for our group. BMW’s driving school happens rain or shine, and rain can be better for the lesson of how to react to a vehicle losing grip when there’s less of it.
The fun portion of the school began with seat time in that M5 to learn the importance of timing one’s braking and steering inputs. Unleashing over 600 raging horses from a twin-turbo V8, we hit 115 MPH in the straights, as our instructors critiqued us through our performance as we drove. Their goal: to see how much knowledge was retained from the morning’s lecture by translating the lessons and theories into actions.
The viscerally dramatic, heart-pumping, spine-tingling sensation of screeching the tires at the limits of adhesion may seem intimidating if you’re not used to this experience. Being able to normalize these unique sensations of a powerful car exerting significant G-forces upon your body is part of the lesson of being able to safely drive fast. And that’s what you learn when hustling cars like the M5, the M4 and the M2 Competition around the tight, undulating and narrow surfaces of BMW’s handling course.
The rain-washed track glistened as we moved onto a different winding road course with an integrated slalom. This time we swapped the M5 for the compact but equally fast and much nimbler and livelier M2 Competition Coupe. The air went from damp to heavy with a hint of the sweet smell of burned gasoline. The lesson here emphasized the correlation between eyesight with body action, which determines when to brake and steer.
The last exercise involved the midsize 425hp BMW M4 coupe for a demonstration in skid control and a lesson on understeer and oversteer. Understeer is the tendency for a
vehicle to lose steering grip and control under speed, leading to the sensation of turning the wheel with nothing happening. Oversteer is the vehicle’s tendency to lose grip at the rear, causing a sideways drift. Whenever there’s a loss of grip—and there can be a lot of that in performance and track driving—it’s important to know how to react.
We deliberately pushed the M4s into both understeer and oversteer conditions, their turbocharged I6s screaming from bouncing off the redline, tires screeching and chassis shuddering from going beyond the limits of adhesion. It’s a sensation that’s important in understanding how to recover a vehicle during a loss of grip.
The rain became torrential but integrally welcome to this lesson of throttle and steering control. If you want the lesson that comes with the most grins, the time with the M4 on BMW’s skidpad loop is the one.
“We’ve got a name for ourselves,” says Daniel Gubitosa, manager of BMW M Performance Center East. “People come here because they know we go beyond what you’re going to learn in driver’s ed.”