And here is what I learned.
After my trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway and 159.6 mph, I thought I had missed my calling as a professional race car driver. But my first track day at Road Atlanta quickly put that notion to rest.
Now, we all know that Road Atlanta has a bit of a reputation for taking even experienced drivers and chewing them up and spitting them out. With its elevation changes, tight corners, long straights and blind crest curves, it’s almost like it was designed to kill you. I had driven Road Atlanta before in parade laps in both my 911 and my 944, but that doesn’t compare with being surrounded by other much faster cars with the ability to pass (with point by on the straights).
I was driving in the Novice/Instructed class and there were five classes – Novice/Instructed, Novice-Solo, Intermediate, Advanced and Racer. Novice/Instructed and Novice-Solo would be on the track at the same time.
The day started with a driver’s meeting. This was a loose affair where they went over a few ground rules most of which I was praying I could remember. Immediately after the meeting we were introduced to our instructors. My instructor was a great guy. He was there with his wife who was also driving. Now, I don’t know what they give these guys to be instructors, but it probably isn’t enough. The idea of getting in the right seat of someone’s 30 year old street car while they try to drive one of the most dangerous road courses in the world with no experience boggles the mind.
Two sessions of classroom instruction were also provided. But, what was a little unnerving is that we went out for our first stint prior to the first class. Presumably, this was some people’s first time driving at RA ever.
Needless to say, I was slooooowww. The turns 2-3-4 combo really flummoxed me. I kept coming out of turn four and turning in too early thinking the entry to the motorcycle course was the entry into the esses. Each time I realized my mistake, I would drop anchor which I am sure thrilled the stack of cars behind me. Fortunately, this eventually went away as I learned to just stay left coming out of four.
The next problem was the climb coming out of turn five. With only 147 Bhp and 144 lb-ft of torque, I was at a decided disadvantage compared with most of the other cars on the track (a subject I will get to in a minute).
Once on the straight between turns five and six, it was time to let everyone pass as I was helpless due to the lack of power. Turn seven is the slowest turn on the track, but once again my lack of power coming out meant that I was being overtaken by pretty much everyone. Turns eight and nine are hardly turns as you can pretty much go flat out.
The approach to turn 10A is downhill coming off the back straight and is probably the fastest point on the track. Heavy braking is required to slow down to take 10A and my stock brakes faded pretty quickly. 10A is a quick left hander followed by 10B which is a quick right. Then, it’s uphill to turn 11 and the bridge. Once again, my lack of power meant that I had cars stacked up behind me heading up the hill. Turn 11 is a crest curve and you cannot see the other side until you crest it. It also happens to be a sea of asphalt with the entry to the pits to the left and the pro pits to the right. You have to use markers on the bridge to set up and begin making the turn at the crest. My instructor told me that the last time he instructed a student in a 944, on the first two laps, they went into the pits. I think he was having PTSD style flashbacks in that zone. I wasn’t that bad, but it took a while for me to get comfortable. Then it’s downhill to turn twelve which is a fast sweeper onto the front straight where I kept imagining my left front wheel falling off. It’s possible to carry a lot of speed here, but once on the straight, it was time to be overtaken by the train of Corvettes, Mustangs and Camaros again.
After my first stint it was off to a short classroom session. It was mainly a film review of turns 11 and 12. We also reviewed the corner flags. In the second even shorter class, we watched a video of an M2 going around the track which helped show the racing line.
My instructor’s car was a fully prepped 1995 BMW M3. It had a full cage, seats and harnesses and most of the interior had been stripped. The drivetrain was mostly stock with the exception of a larger MAF, a chip, a tune and an exhaust. The brakes were also upgraded and you could really tell. I rode shotgun with his wife at the wheel during one of the intermediate session and I was impressed. I also rode shotgun with my instructor at the wheel during an advanced session and he really impressed as well. I’m not sure I am ready to unleash that level of abuse on my car just yet, but it definitely let me see some areas where my car needs improvement - particularly in safety.
As the day wore on, I got better. I didn’t exactly master 2, 3, and 4, but I did manage to at least know where I was going without being surprised. I continued to be overtaken on the straights and I think I could have gotten out and pushed the car up the hills at 5 and 11 faster than the 2.5 liter could muster. In retrospect, I probably should have downshifted to second going into 5 and 10A. I also tended to coast around corners rather than doing all my braking on the straights and driving through the corners. This is something to work on.
There is something, however, I have been conflicted about and that is the substantial differences between the cars. Here is a sampling of the cars that were on track at the same time as my lowly 944:
2016 Chevrolet Camaro, 2009 Chevrolet Corvette, 2015 Ford Focus ST, 2008 FFR Thunder Roadster, 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z51, 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar, 2016 Ford Focus ST, 2005 Lotus Elise, 2015 Ford Mustang GT, 2016 Porsche Cayman GTS, 2016 Porsche Cayman GT4, 2016 Chevrolet Corvette, 2014 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, 2008 Chevrolet Corvette, 2000 Chevrolet Corvette, 2002 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, 2014 Ford Mustang, 2016 BMW 328i, 2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, 2016 BMW M4 GTS, 2007 Audi S4, 2008 Lexus IS-F, 2017 Subaru WRX STI, 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS, 2016 Chevrolet Corvette, 1997 BMW 328i, 2008 Lexus IS-F, 2002 Mazda Miata, 1999 BMW M3, 2013 BMW M3, 1993 Ford Mustang, 2007 Nissan 350Z, 2002 Chevrolet Corvette, 2004 Dodge Viper
A 1988 BMW 325is and a 1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe were the closest things to what I had.
I felt like I had brought a knife to a gunfight. Even my instructor commented on it as he feels that speeds have gotten a little out of hand at the novice level. It’s hard to concentrate on the road ahead when there is a line of cars stacked up in your rearview mirror. I also didn’t get to work on my passing - for obvious reasons. Some of these are street cars with over 400 hp that are capable of close to 200 mph with (presumably) street safety equipment. But, what to do? These were all beginners just like me who happen in some cases to have bought their cars new the day before.
Which brings me to the 2004 Dodge Viper that was on track at the same time. From looking at the roster, this car/driver was signed up for the intermediate run group, so I don’t know what he was doing on track with the novices. He was also the only driver of the day who couldn’t wait for his point by because he was too busy riding the bumper of the corvette that I did point by. This is the kind of thing that worries me. We are all ok as long as we follow the rules – same goes for street driving.
And, as I was writing this piece, I stumbled on the following Jalopnik article which told me what I already new.
If I plan to continue doing this, I need to spend a few bucks on safety equipment before worrying about speed. I estimate that I can get a Redline harness bar, seats and 6 point harnesses and maybe a HANS for around $2,000. I know a full cage would be the way to go, but for now this is a street car and a cage just isn’t practical. These are fully reversible mods that I could install and remove as necessary. And I may go ahead and upgrade the brakes as well.
I have already signed up for my next track day which will be at Talladega Gran Prix Raceway in Munford, AL in February. My instructor suggested this track as it was designed for motorcycles and has large runoff areas and no walls. It is also short at 1.33 miles and 9 turns and is better suited to my (slow) car. Because of this, at least according to my instructor, it is shunned by the bigger horsepower guys.
One of the best things I can say about the day is that the $600 Porsche survived and did quite well. The only failure of the day came when the outer windshield molding came loose on the passenger side. My instructor held onto it outside the window and I finished the stint. Some duct tape later and I was back in business – just like a real race car.