All photos credit: Kurt Bradley

I’ve been to Austin’s Circuit of The Americas more times than I can count. I’ve covered major motorsports events there since high school, and I’ve said what I thought might be my last words on the back of a racing motorcycle on the track, but never had I actually driven it—until a few weeks ago.

And I can tell you that going from understanding a course intimately as a spectator and a journalist to actually navigating its corners is an interesting experience.

(Full disclosure: Cadillac invited Jalopnik out to Circuit of The Americas for its V-Performance Lab driving school, which was an all-day affair, at no charge. I made the multiple-hour commute to and from the track myself, but might have eaten a brownie provided by the school because my stomach was about to eat itself by the end of the day.)

For the first time, I was driving up to Circuit of The Americas with a helmet of my own, ready to get in a race car myself. I was out there for a one-day course at Cadillac’s V-Performance Lab, a driving school that uses the CTS-V and ATS-V sedans. The latter can be had with a manual gearbox, but all of these happened to be automatics.

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It didn’t take many runs to realize that it’s funny how well you can know a race track you’ve never actually done yourself—how many times you hear about the uphill first turn needing so much brake that you could bash your teeth into the wheel if you took your eyes off the track (of course, that’s only if your seatbelt isn’t on properly), or about how the second long straightaway takes you from what feel like drag-strip speeds to a near standstill for a left-hand corner.

When you get out there after hearing and seeing all of that again and again, it’s weirdly... familiar. Even when you’ve never weaved through the esses or around the carousel turns yourself, you know where they are, you know when they’re coming and you can prepare yourself far better than you would’ve thought.

But driving a track you know so well for the first time is more than realizing how eerily familiar it may be. It’s a reminder that, yeah, this stuff is incredibly hard and that rounding all of the turns at a Formula One race track—20, in COTA’s case—is more intense than we often, probably ever, give it credit for.

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And at a Cadillac driving school that uses stock street cars for sale to the general public, you can bet I wasn’t going nearly as fast as professional racers do.

I learned and relearned a few things throughout the day at the driving school, perhaps most importantly my dependence on constant water and the fact that my cheeks will never not get sore from a racing helmet.

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Alright, maybe those weren’t the most important. But they were up there.

Switching From Simulator Driving To Actual Driving Can Be Rough

Most of my high-performance driving experience to this point had been in rally cars on rallycross courses, which warrant completely different driving styles and definitions of car control, and take place on far more confined tracks than a nearly 3.5-mile F1 circuit.

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But I do have asphalt experience, sort of, in the form of my iRacing simulator. I have yet to purchase Circuit of The Americas on there, but I can drive, as hard as I want, on plenty of virtual road courses whenever I so desire. The problem on a virtual simulator is that driving hard has almost no consequences.

In iRacing, you have all the freedom in the world. Went into that corner too fast? Hit the escape button. Start over. Overcorrected it worse than the folks in the YouTube videos? Hit the escape button. Start over. Knocked the back end out midway through a turn? Hit the escape button. Start over.

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You can’t hit the escape button in a $100,000 sedan.

So, when I got out on the track, the majority of my thought pattern was “Don’t come into this corner too hot, do not come into this corner too hot, do not come into this corner too hot.” It actually made me overly cautious and slower to get around sometimes, because I was so worried about cooking it into the turns.

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If you’re a driver who races regularly and uses simulators to practice what you already do all the time, it can be easy to see why that wouldn’t be a problem.

But for me, still trying to perfect how much I can carry into a corner with a high-horsepower car and where exactly to hit the apex, a sharp dividing line in my brain is necessary since I make more virtual track outings than actual ones.

Not Having One-On-One Instruction Takes Some Getting Used To

Racing school requires less thinking when you have an instructor in the seat next to you, telling you exactly where and when your braking zones are, when to get back into the gas and when to shift, if applicable. When you go from a 135 mph straightaway into a 34 mph sharp turn, that kind of immediate feedback can provide comfort.

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We didn’t have that comfort.

On every run we made on the actual track, we were in groups of three plus an instructor. We traded positions in those groups as the laps went by, and the instructors talked to us all via walkie-talkies that sat in our cars.

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So, all of the directives and tips from the driving instructor applied to parts of the course you hadn’t gotten to yet, and were sometimes pretty far away from—we were supposed to keep tight groups, but things go by quickly when you’re looping a race track and flooring it when you can. Processing that information in a delayed manner was something you had to get used to.

I wasn’t super fond of the idea when I first realized what we were doing. Not going out alone with an instructor in the car meant you didn’t get the same individual feedback that I’m used to having, your runs kind of depended on the people in your group, and if the instructor needed to tell someone to speed up, everyone in the group was going to hear about it.

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But in a way, it kind of helped me to focus more. I wasn’t just robotically following the instructions of a person who’d raced this track a million times over—I had to think about when and how to apply what that instructor was saying, because in this kind of format, my reactions to his (they were all dudes) words couldn’t be immediate.

Other than the “young lady” remarks and hearing “We looked in the rearview mirror and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a girl!’”, it was a helpful day and format.

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The school reminded me that no matter how comfortable I may be with certain types of driving, changing things up a bit—no one-on-one instruction, asphalt instead of dirt, real cars instead of virtual ones—can really make you hesitate. And when you’re trying to go fast, hesitation isn’t ideal.

But hesitation can keep you from cooking it into the sharp corners, and at least I managed to keep that in line.

So if you want to learn new skills, hone existing ones or just drive these fast cars, Cadillac’s V-Performance Lab is highly recommended. They do several one-day schools at various tracks throughout the year. Go here if you want to see what you can do out there.