Last month, three members of the Motrolix team ventured out to Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, with several other members of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. The occasion: a track driving school put on between MAMA and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles. Not only did we not burst into flames, ensnare ourselves in mangled metal and die, but we also learned a thing or two on how to properly wheel performance cars on the track more effectively. Read about our experiences below…
If only you’d been present at Gingerman Raceway on July 21st, between the hours of 9am and 12pm, you might have seen a painfully average driver out on the track, struggling at every corner to nail the correct braking and turn-in points, making a mess of every improper line, and generally failing in spectacular fashion to keep proper form on the 1.88-mile road course.
Although, if you’d stayed and watched long enough, you’d also have seen him gradually improve in each of the aforementioned areas.
That painfully average driver was me, because like most civilians — even those who love performance as much as I do — my past track-driving experience has been limited. In fact, the vast majority of it has been virtual; an analog joystick standing-in for a steering wheel; left and right triggers taking the place of brake and throttle pedals. And unfortunately enough, while perfectly apt for entertainment purposes, video games with traditional controllers are perhaps ill-suited to the task of making one a better track driver.
So, I — along with two of my colleagues — found myself in a track driving school hosted by the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA), lapping Gingerman Raceway in two of the hottest Fiat-Chrysler products available, being molded into a decent driver by an instructor named Kirk from CGI Motorsports. Over the course of driving both a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, around the bends of Gingerman Raceway, here are the three most important things I learned:
1. Look as far ahead as possible.
On a road course, not only must one see the entire corner as a whole, bearing in mind the ideal braking, entry, apex, and exit points through the turn, but one must also realize that no turn can be taken in isolation. In other words, the ideal line through a corner might be different depending on whether a straightaway or another turn follows immediately after. This is because in order to set up for the ideal line through that next straight or turn, one must exit the present corner in the right place.
So, they say, you should be looking as far ahead as possible, at where you want the car to go rather than where it’s about to be within the next few fractions of a second. This is the aspect of performance driving which gives me the most trouble still, because if your peripheral vision is as shoddy as my own, it’s like asking for a trek through the grass, or a pilon under your car. As with all things, I expect that practice makes perfect in this regard.
2. Brake late, and hard, before you ever turn in.
Threshold braking is an art form. Of course, we all know that in a performance driving situation, one ought to be as smooth, composed, and gentle as possible (while being quick about it) in order to avoid upsetting the car’s balance. That goes from ideal style to essential survival skill as soon as you step into a 707 HP pony car that will spin you around just as quickly as you can blink.
But simultaneously, there’s great importance to scrubbing off as much speed as possible, as quickly as possible, as it allows you to keep going faster for longer. To do this, one should learn both the track and the car as well as humanly possible, gradually feeling out the latest moment one can hit the brakes hard to lose a lot of speed quickly before the corner arrives. Rather than being parabolic with one’s brake actuation, then, the driver should squeeze the pedal very hard initially (while in a straight line!), and then ease up as the corner approaches.
3. Ergonomics are critical to fluid motion.
When taking classes in-preparation for our driver’s licenses, most of us are taught that “10 and 2” are the appropriate places for one’s hands upon the steering wheel – meaning, of course, the imaginary 10-o’clock and 2-o’clock positions. But while out on the track, 9 and 3 offer a far better range of motion, and facilitate more easy, fluid manipulation of the wheel.
Seating and wheel positions become integral parts of achieving this sort of driver placement; the driver should have no trouble pressing each pedal to the floor, and his or her arms should be bent even with the steering wheel is turned 90 degrees in either direction. Also, his or her shoulders should rest against the seatback, encouraging the manipulation of the wheel not with the shoulders, but with the wrists. His or her butt should be firmly within the pocket between seatback and seat bottom.
That might take a lot of minute adjustments, but it’s well worth the time investment. As I discovered, though, the only real test of whether you’ve nailed the proper seating and wheel positioning is out on the track; sport seats most often have large, obtrusive side bolstering to keep your body in place through high lateral Gs. While stationary, a given seating position might check all your boxes; while driving, you might find that those bolsters prevent you from turning the wheel as far as you sometimes have to.
At the end of the day, MAMA’s track driving school likely won’t prove to be my ticket to the world of professional motorsport, nor will I find myself effortlessly passing 90 percent of the traffic the next time I’m at the track. But driving Gingerman Raceway in two mighty fine, capable Jeep and Dodge products – each with far more horsepower than one should ever “require” – has given me a professional’s unfiltered perspective of what I can improve to squeeze more time out of my next lap.
Yours truly has very limited track experience. Granted, it’s easier to take your set of wheels to your local drag strip for a few passes then it is to head out to a local track for a few laps. Luckily, MAMA (Midwest Automotive Media Association) was kind enough to put together a track-driving school for novice drivers like myself.
Upon arriving, I was astounded that Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles had brought not a handful, but twelve examples of their hottest cars. I opted for the Dodge Charger and Challenger 392, Dodge’s self-described sweet spot of the duo’s performance hierarchy.
Myself and my instructor strapped in and we headed out onto Gingerman Raceway for my first heat.
I was terrible.
That’s at least how I would describe my braking, racing line and control of the car. I was braking extremely early, treating the pedal as if I had small children with me, and a trunk-full of groceries in the boot. My instructor had two very important words for my second heat: “brake hard.”
So I did, working the brakes for all they had. And they withheld. After earning the Charger and Challenger’s trust, I began to really feel I could push the cars faster, and harder. With proper instruction, I was taking the car out, using as much of the track as I could, keeping hands planted firmly on the SRT-branded flat-bottom steering wheel.
By heat number three, I was earning praise for a precise racing line, picking up speed out of the corners, and seeing triple digits on the back-straight before braking hard into the final corner. And I did all of this within three sessions.
Am I a professional suddenly? No, not even close. But, when getting behind the wheel in a track scenario, I can feel that much more confident knowing how to properly control a car in track racing scenarios.
Driving the 4,449-pound Dodge Challenger Hellcat around the narrow pavement of Gingerman Raceway is like trying to steer an off-shore Cigarette racing boat through a creek. This makes the margin of error slim, but thankfully buffered by Gingerman’s generous runoffs. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that point where the runoffs were needed. Truth be told, I’ve driven Gingerman on a few occasions, and I’ve gotten down the gist of the track’s racing line by now, though I could still be sharper. I already understood proper seating positioning (low, “in the car,” with wrists able to rest at the top of steering wheel comfortably), and to keep the hands at 9- and 3-o’clock on the steering wheel.
So, with 707 horsepower charging rhinoceros in my control, the goal of the day for me was to improve my understanding of vehicle dynamics, and to sharpen the skills needed to push a car to the limit.
The high-powered Challenger Hellcat forces its driver to stay honest in both braking and powering out. One general no-no is to turn in while the brakes still have a ways to slow the car down to an ideal cornering speed. To keep the brake pedal pressed down while performing a turn upsets the car in a variety of ways, such as forcing the tires to *try* and hold a line in a lateral direction while momentum is still pushing towards a longitudinal direction. The higher the speed, the more this error is amplified. The shift in weight balance also unloads the rear tires, leading to loss of grip, and therefore can induce a spinout. A miscalculation here can have serious consequences in a Hellcat. Or at the very least, embarrassment in front of your colleagues. And with 707 supercharged horsepower, throttle application is required to be linear and gradual upon corner exit. Just like an actual race car. Otherwise, oversteer is induced, and increases the risk for a spinout.
Finding a line that keeps the Heavycat flat as possible in the corners took some adjusting, but it’s important to keep the chassis of a vehicle happy, even if that means slightly adjusting the racing line. For instance turn 2, a looping right-hander with a double-apex, is where the Challenger Hellcat liked to run a little wider while maintaining speed. Turn 6, a left-hand curl, also proved tricky in a car with these dimensions. But as the day went on, my lines cleaned up and my speed improved, as did my reflexes. Which could only mean one thing: I was learning.
We would all like to thank the Midwest Automotive Media Association and Dodge for teaching us young-gun auto writers here at Motrolix on how to prevent ourselves from crashing at high speeds in expensive cars more effectively than before. We hope to apply this knowledge again, real soon.