Teaching a not so old dog new tricks
It's been awhile since I sat behind the wheel of a vehicle with a driving instructor in the passenger seat. Still, after 20 years of driving, I consider myself a good driver. That was until I headed to track school at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, and traded in the Chevy Lumina equipped with a high school driving instructor for a 2018 Jeep Cherokee SRT right-seated by CGI Motorsports high-performance driving instructor.
The Midwest Automotive Media Association invited me to attend its 4th annual track school and I'm grateful for the opportunity. This program, sponsored by Dodge and Jeep, was developed to better prepare media for high-speed on-track driving of new vehicles. Upon arrival, new drivers received a racing helmet, vehicle/instructor assignment and a crash (no pun intended) course on track driving. Vehicles included Challenger Widebody Scat Packs and Charger Hellcats and a host of SRT offerings. I was assigned one of the two SUVs ... a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT.
And so the day began with an instructor driving a couple laps while demonstrating where to brake/accelerate, when to turn, and how to do the 'driving ballet' as my instructor, Mark, referred to track driving. As we switched places and I took the wheel, that teenage excitement of learning to drive along with the fear of flipping a car flooded back in my head. We spent 30 minutes on the course at a time and then took breaks. It's surprising how mentally exhausting it can be behind the wheel on a race track so the breaks were welcome. Over the course of my three sessions my driving continued to improve as Mark offered tips on general track driving as well as pointed out ways I could improve as a driver.
Basics included identifying the racing line and braking points. As we drove around the track, cones and other landmarks helped identify the apex (inside of a track turn) and braking areas that would generate a smooth and fast lap. Another key was altering your driving perspective to always look ahead at the upcoming apexes to best get from Point A to Point B. With each lap on the track the ride was smoother and speeds increased. Topping out in the 90s on a straightaway was satisfying considering the track had been wet from morning rain and I was driving a 5,000-lb. Jeep. Throughout the day, I learned a lot, much of which I've summarized below.
I drive like a Chicagoan ... quick to accelerate and quick to brake. On the track it's essential to find the right balance between acceleration and braking forces to allow the car smoother handling and a more balanced weight transfer.
Look ahead ... it's important to train your eyes to see as far beyond the racing line as possible. Knowing what turns are ahead and where your car will need to be makes for a much more relaxed and smooth drive. This is challenging compared to daily driving habits of constant obstacles such as traffic, pot holes, people, constructions, etc. in which it's hard to look too far beyond a car length or two in front of you. However, this lesson has a lot of merit in street driving as well. It increases your reaction time to potential issues ahead making a more proactive driver versus a reactive driver.
Hands at 9 and 3 ... I remembered this from drivers ed. and rarely drive like this on the streets. On the track, this was essential in having full control of the vehicle. It provides for better stabilization and safer steering. You should also be sure to adjust your seat so that your arms are extended where your wrists rest comfortably on top of the steering wheel -- for most people, it's a lot closer to the wheel than you normally sit. As your speeds increase, your steering wheel inputs are more gradual and precise allowing the car to tell you what to do. As Mark said "Don't tell the car what to do, ask it nicely! Make the car your dance partner."
Do one thing at a time ... only do braking, OR turning, OR accelerating, to ensure maximum grip. This was something that improved as I became more comfortable with the Jeep. The sensation of weight transfer in a 5,000-lb. SUV on a track was both mentally and physically challenging at first. Once I found that sweet spot in the Jeep and allowed it to transfer its weight around turns before accelerating or braking, the ride became smoother proving that a Grand Cherokee was fully capable on this track.
"When your hands are straight, gas is great, but when your wheels are turned, you can get burned" ... this quote from the day is pretty self-explanatory, but it's definitely worth highlighting that maintaining a proper throttle is a key element for a smooth run around the track making it truly look like a ballet in action. When turning, gas should only be used to maintain speed and weight balance. When you're coming out of a corner is when you should slowly add gas as your hands get the wheel straighter.
While initially I wasn't thrilled about the Grand Cherokee SRT assignment, I walked away a better driver because of it. The Grand Cherokee SRT is solid SUV that can pull double duty of being both a family and fun vehicle. With a 6.7-liter V8 generating 475hp and 470-lb. ft. of torque, it propels the Grand Cherokee from 0 to 60 MPH in a scant 4.4 seconds. All the while, the Grand Cherokee SRT can tow 7,200-lbs. and take the family camping. As the number of laps had increased, so did my confidence behind the wheel of the Jeep and I'm now I'm thankful to be one of the few journalists that can say that they had a track driving education in a Grand Cherokee.
The day was filled with squealing tires, loud exhausts and lots of smiles as drivers emerged from the various Dodge and Jeep vehicles in the line-up. One might be surprised to learn that track driving can also be somewhat draining. It takes a lot of mental and physical concentration to drive with such precision safely. So, after a day full of high horsepower, twists & turns, the 4th annual MAMA track driving school came to an end and with a large coffee I was back on the road to Chicago a better educated driver, but still needing to be ready to hit those brakes quickly for the unexpected obstacle.
Kudos to all of the instructors from CGI Motorsports on helping coordinate an exhilarating 'ballet' on the GingerMan Raceway. This is a great program that wouldn't be in place without Dodge and Jeep providing these fun vehicles to learn in.
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