I may be the last person you’d ever want on your endurance racing team. Success in motorsport comes with talent and and experience, and while I’m no stranger to the track—not always in good ways!—I’ve never done any actual wheel-to-wheel racing before. So when I was tapped to race Road & Track at Mid-Ohio with American Endurance Racing, I knew I had to prepare the right way.
Fortunately for me, there’s the Mid-Ohio School. It happens to be one of the best driving schools anywhere in the country, one with first-rate instructors and a real emphasis on seat time at the fantastic 15-turn, 2.4 mile course.
Specifically, it’s seat time mostly in a track-prepped, stick-shift Acura ILX, unless you bring your own car. It’s an Acura school because Honda’s a major partner of the track and the sponsor of their IndyCar race. Ever wonder where all the manual transmission ILXs went? Yeah, they went to Mid-Ohio. But this unloved Acura is a better tool than you think at this kind of job.
(Full disclosure: I asked the Mid-Ohio School if I could attend one of their classes in exchange for this story, and they generously agreed. We paid for a flight, motel and rental car. I have a funny story about that rental car I’ll have to tell you sometime.)
I’d be lying to you if I said the infamous Camaro crash didn’t put a huge damper on my track confidence. I’d been doing track days, HPDEs and autocross off and on for years, for fun and for work, and I did Mini’s driving school at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. I’d long considered myself at least able to hold my own in that environment.
But on-track mishaps that rack up more than 2 million hits on YouTube have a way of screwing with your head. (And it doesn’t help that I’m prone to long bouts of self-loathing. I’m Irish, after all, and while we didn’t invent self-loathing we did take it to new heights and turn it into a successful literary genre.)
Eventually, I was eager to get back on the horse and get better behind the wheel. Life is all about self-improvement and learning from your mistakes, right?
I signed up for the Acura High-Performance Driving Course. It’s not a full-on racing school, though the Mid-Ohio School does offer that. Instead, it was a packed one-day course designed to sharpen existing skills and build new ones.
They do this with some damn good instructors. It’s led by Brian Till, a wickedly funny veteran of CART, IndyCar, SCCA Trans-Am Series (and a fellow Texan, so you know he’s fast.) My other teachers that day included Tommy Byrne, an Irishman who made it to Formula One in the early 1980s, young Pirelli World Challenge Driver Jason Wolfe, and a few other hot shoes. These are people who know what they’re talking about.
After an initial cold autocross run in an automatic ILX—which I finished in a not-bad-but-not-great-either 39.54 seconds—me and the other two dozen or so students moved to the classroom to rundown some of the basics. You know, 9 and 3 on the wheel, 90 degree arms, the car goes where your eyes go, and so on. Use all of the track and think of each corner as a part to a whole. The art of countersteering. A lot of basic stuff, and things I picked up at Mini school last year. Things anyone on track should know.
But then we moved into stuff I wasn’t as familiar with, like the friction circle. To put it simply and spare you a physics lecture, this shows the limits of your car’s traction. You have acceleration, braking and left and right cornering, but you can only do so much with those things—especially when you put them together and move about the circle. Exceed those limits and you lose traction.
Ever crash on a track before, or maybe even on the street? (It’s okay, you’re among friends here.) Think of what happened in the lead up to that in those terms and you might start to understand why. I know I did.
“It’s not about being brave, it’s about being logical,” Till said. “It’s about putting the pieces together.”
You have to think of the car’s behavior on track in terms of weight transfer, how shifting weight to the front (hard braking) or the back (hard acceleration) affects your tires and their contact with the road. And most of the time, if you’re going to brake or accelerate at 100 percent, your wheel should be straight.
Much of driving fast, Till said, is fooling your brain. Your instincts will tell you you always need to turn in early. People do that on the street all the time, turning so early at intersections that they nearly take your bumper off when you’re first at the stoplight. It’s definitely not what you want on track.
This is where trail braking comes into play. The skill involves braking into a corner, easing off the brake gradually during turn-in. This way you’re maximizing the expanded contact patches of your front tires with weight shifted forward until you can smoothly get on the gas at the apex. Remember, it’s all about weight transfer and making the most of your tires.
With this in mind we moved to braking drills out on the autocross course—hard braking and trail braking before cornering in the ILX to Till’s satisfaction as he supervised from the sidelines. Second gear, full acceleration, brake hard until ABS is going crazy, trail off while turning into the apex, gas. Easier said than done, but after a few passes we figured it out.
At this point I should probably say something about the ILX. Acura’s compact sedan wasn’t the Integra or RSX replacement we all wanted, and it wasn’t as superb as the old TSX, either. The car very much feels like the slightly dressed-up Honda Civic it is rather than a legit entry-level luxury sedan. Its sales numbers have reflected that too, even after some mid-cycle improvements last year (which sadly came at the loss of the six-speed manual option.)
But the Mid-Ohio School’s ILXs have high-performance tires and brakes, stiffer springs, bigger sway bars and other improvements, and with those, by God the cars are surprisingly decent on track. The now-dead six-speed manual is a precise, crisp delight to use in typical Honda fashion, and the 2.4-liter iVTEC inline four from the Civic Si is smooth and happy to live at 7000 RPM all day. It may not be as sharp as the old-school Si-s and Type-Rs, and the steering is frustratingly light and numb, but the little car is solid with this setup. There’s real potential here, I wish Acura had realized it a bit more for enthusiasts.
Next up—a few rounds of full-course autocross in the ILXs, followed by time on the same in some tough old war horse Honda S2000s.
That was a real highlight. If you’ve never driven an S2000, what you need to understand is that it lives up to its reputation as one of the best sports cars ever made. Shit gets real, and fast. It’s like mainlining heroin after you’ve spent most of your adult life smoking cigarettes occasionally. Afterward the ILX felt like the Buick your grandma drives to church.
After that, our group moved on to the skid cars—you know, front-wheel drive cars with “training wheels” to make them simulate driving in slippery conditions. I did this last year at the Mini school but here they had Honda Civics, one of which had the training wheels on all four corners to mimic driving in snow. Or as people in Ohio call it, “driving.”
Obviously that’s the harder car to drive so I started there before moving on to the one with just two skids. I got pretty good at getting the Civics sideways, countersteering and working the throttle to right them after a corner.
Easy enough. Doing it there at maybe 15 MPH was one thing, but what about at much higher speeds on track?
“Everything happens at the same speed in the car,” instructor Max Gee told me. It’s all about early detection. “As soon as you start to feel a slide and begin to countersteer, the less work you’ll have to do.”
Again, easier said than done, but this is where the building blocks come from. Evidently it worked because at one final round of autocross in the ILXs I posted a time of 35.66 seconds around the course. Hey, I thought, not bad. I may not be the fastest but I’ll take a four-second lap time gain.
By then the end of the day was approaching, but it came with the moment all of us (or me, at least) were waiting for: time on the actual track. They don’t mess around at the Mid-Ohio School. These aren’t brief stints on abbreviated sections of the track. They’re full-length lead and follow sessions behind an instructor so we could learn the proper line.
We put about 20 laps out on the course, learning where to brake and apex in the chicane before the legendary Keyhole, through it, uphill at Turn 5 (a personal favorite), through the esses and finally into the Carousel before the finish line.
It’s a great track, complex enough to be a challenge without being insane like Circuit of the Americas, which I’ve also done a few times now. Consistency is the key to being fast, and at Mid-Ohio, I feel like I have a pretty decent idea of what to expect out there and how to navigate things.
Am I some kind of pro racer after doing this? Hell no. That’d be arrogant. But I certainly feel more prepared than I did. My goals with the Mid-Ohio School were to gain back some confidence, brush up on old skills, learn new ones, get faster and most importantly, learn the course. I did all of those things, plus I was reminded how much I enjoy doing track days and how I want to get faster and better.
And you can too. For $650, or $775 if you choose not to bring your own car, it’s one hell of a value. Eight hours of hardcore instruction, including a full hour on track, make it a fantastic experience and definitely the most focused driving school I’ve done so far. Maybe I’ll come back next year for the three-day racing school.
Let’s hope it’s enough for now. I’m feeling good about things. Plus, I’ll be in a race-prepped BMW E30. Decent as the ILX is out here, I’m guessing that will be even better.
Photos credit Patrick George, Jason Torchinsky, Wikimedia Commons
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