When you’re on track, you can pretty easily tell when you’re driving poorly. Everything becomes a thousand times harder, the tires are always squealing, you’re hitting curbs that shouldn’t be hit, and you’re having to re-correct your steering or braking almost constantly while moving through a corner. During Jalopnik’s big track day test last week, I knew I needed to be a lot smoother than I was—I just had no idea how to get to that point.
Luckily, I had an instructor sitting next to me. And whether you’re a novice like I was or pretty seasoned at this, it really is the best way to learn to go faster. If you get that chance, do not pass it up.
(Full disclosure: Jalopnik wanted to do a track day and Monticello Motor Club generously granted us access to its facilities for a whole day. BMW was also kind enough to loan us its car for a week and provided a full tank of gas.)
Until last week, I’d never done a track day. Minus a brief experiment learning stick behind the wheel of the Veloster N on an autocross course, I’ve never actually driven on a track. I’ve been driven multiple times, but I just haven’t been the person behind the wheel.
So I was very incredibly happy when I learned that Jalopnik was going to have an instructor—two in fact, for the day—riding along with us when we got out on track. I was confident that I’d be able to set laps solo, but there was absolutely no way I’d be able to it well.
I’ve raced on video games and I’ve done karting, and I always knew I was doing it wrong. Because I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but it was easy to feel and, honestly, even easier to see in my shitty lap times. I’d gotten better about improving by figuring out my racing lines. I was, however, very far from good.
Knowing that, my husband was determined to get me to experiment with iRacing before my track day as a way of preparation so that I could (and I quote), “Show up for your first ever track day and kick everybody’s ass.”
He set me up with a Pontiac Solstice in hopes that it would be easiest for me to control, then he turned me loose on the full Watkins Glen International course.
Now, I can see how iRacing would be helpful for someone with a little track experience already—or even experience driving cars at fast speeds. But I’m too tactile. I need to know what the car feels like, how it physically responds to my actions.
While iRacing is a great simulator, there’s also the part of your mind that’s saying “yeah, but it’s still a video game” because there weren’t repercussions to terrible driving behavior. It’s kind of impossible to feel yourself starting to lose control behind the wheel when there’s no physical responses in the sim.
It did well to teach me the racing lines around the track, and I did manage to figure out how to attack corners without completely binning it and making a fool of myself. But there is nothing that compares to actually getting behind the wheel of a real live actual car with a real live actual instructor.
My first lap out was behind the wheel of the BMW X4 M Competition and I’m pretty sure I was a hot disaster (in multiple senses—it was a mere 65 degrees inside the car, and I was already sweating). I’m certain Trent, the driving instructor who was accompanying me out onto Monticello’s racing surface, could sense my very palpable anxiety.
Turns out, I wasn’t braking hard enough or turning late enough. Who knew!
That kind of surprised me, I can’t lie. I’m criminally bad at braking very late and very hard—something that my husband absolutely fucking hates. Here I was thinking that I’d be totally fine and dandy with braking hard on the track. But traveling at a higher speed outside of my comfort zone, there I was, braking so early you’d think I was somebody’s grandma.
“You have to brake like you really mean it,” Trent told me. “You have to commit. Right now, you’re getting on the brakes and then letting off—you can’t do that.”
“Got it,” I said.
“You want all your braking done before you turn.”
On the next sharp corner, I tried it out. Braking hard, all at once, and then turning. Which... brought its own set of challenges.
Taking a hard right-hander after coming in hot from a straight at upwards of 80 mph requires a pretty massive stomp on the brake pedal. Once I figured out how to stop braking so early, I realized I wasn’t slowing down enough.
My primary mistake was that I was thinking I could carry a ton of speed into a corner. When you watch race car drivers do their thing, you’re thinking “damn, I also can turn super fast because that looks easy and cool!” It is not easy, actually! Race car drivers are probably carrying a lot more speed than I am, yes—but they’re also slowing down a lot more than I imagined. Running through a corner full tilt is exactly the kind of thing that’s gonna send you spinning out or heading for a wall. The faster you’re going, the easier it is to fuck up.
That also means you have to turn a lot harder than I’m used to. I already thought that I was turning in late. Turns out, I needed to be going in a hell of a lot deeper. Monticello was great in that they had cones set up along the track for us novices, red ones to tell you when to turn and white ones to show you how far you should go when hitting the apex.
I found it super hard to actually turn when I was supposed to—I kept turning too early, realizing I wasn’t at the cone yet, and then trying to correct myself after I’d already started making the turn. While I never wobbled around too bad or went off track, I could definitely tell how unsteady that was making me, and I knew it was shaving seconds off my lap time.
The cones in and of themselves were great, but having an instructor with me actually helped me understand what I was doing and what I should have instead been doing so that I could correct it.
“You’re moving the wheel around too much,” Trent told me after I’d cursed myself out for turning in too deep yet again. “At high speeds, you want to move the wheel as little as possible. It should be a smooth, consistent motion.”
On the next turn, I tried it out. Even though my brain was telling me, “brake brake brake, turn now!” I waited until the front end of the car had reached the cone before I turned in hard and held the wheel steady as I arced through the apex of the turn.
“See how much better that felt?” Trent asked.
I had to admit, I did. I was still working to process a ton of new information all at once, overthinking everything, and getting pretty damn overwhelmed. But there was a noticeable difference in how quickly my brain calmed down when I was taking the right line around the track. There was no more mid-corner “ah, shit, I turned too early, correct it, no, don’t correct it, let off the gas, no, get back on the throttle!” All I had to do was turn. Easy peasy.
I noticed marked improvement from my first to my final laps—mostly in terms of how much less brain noise I was dealing with. My head finally shut up and just let me respond to what Trent was telling me, and I was able to figure out why I was having such a rough time figuring out the whole fast driving thing.
One thing you don’t realize until you’re out there is how hard driving is when you’re driving far faster than the speed limit. When I rolled back in the pits, I was absolutely drenched in sweat despite the fact that I had the air conditioning in the X4M cranked. I’d only done four short laps in the course of ten minutes, and it felt like I’d been out there for much longer. My body wasn’t sore, exactly, but my brain sure as hell was tired.
Driving on the track is easy, but driving on the track well is a lot harder than you think. And the worst part is, there’s no real way to know what you’re doing if you’re not driving with a trained instructor in the passenger seat. I’m sure you could figure it out eventually, but why not just take advantage of the trained professionals instead of just riding the strugglebus around the track the whole day?