"Brake, brake, brake... downshift, turn-in. Don't do that! Don't do that! OK, throttle, throttle... nice!" The STi Killer was flying down the front straight. "Wait for a point-by. OK, pass him!" As we dropped another GT500, we shot under the East Walkover and positioned the Camaro far right, just enough to get it set for Turn 1 before easing on to the big Baer brakes, shedding 50 or 60 miles an hour, one full gear and then turning in to the apex, a tiny spot obstructed by the inner wall and the turn itself. "Great, nice and easy...throttle on, squeeze it, brake, wait for it...turn in. Perfect!" Three turns down, fourteen more to go, and I am having the time of my life. Brock, my instructor for the weekend, may be having a different time over in the passenger seat as I ham-fist my way around the track, but he hasn't puked, prayed, tried to escape, or told me to pull over yet so I can only assume we're doing something right. Let's back up a second and talk about how we got here.
High-Performance DrivingShort of being born into a Formula 1 family or growing up racing go-karts from the age of 3, your chances of becoming a professional race car driver are pretty slim. Fortunately, that doesn't mean you can't take your car out on the weekends and run on the same tracks you've watched on TV and lay down lap after lap like a real racer. For the price of an XBox system and a copy of Forza, you can actually be out on track with your ride, feeling the power in the seat of your pants, hearing your engine blast down the straight and smelling the brakes as they beg for mercy lap after lap, corner after corner. The best part? These events are held all over the country, every weekend and can become an affordable hobby that you, your family, and friends can enjoy together. And trust me, there is nothing like changing 1,000-degree brake pads in 100-degree weather in between rounds to tell you who your real friends are.
For our first event, we teamed up with Track Guys Performance Driving, a group that runs several track days a year under the watchful eye of Jeff Lacina and Dell Hughes, a couple of guys who have probably forgotten more about high-performance driving than some of us will ever learn. Track Guys, like any quality high performance school, rents time at a track, splits that time into run groups and then sells spots to enthusiasts. Track Guys also specializes in instruction and as such, fosters a sense of community within the paddock. If you've ever wanted to be on track, you want to do it with a group like this. It didn't hurt that we found a Track Guys event at the world famous Sebring International Raceway, which is not only close to our World Headquarters, but also offers some of the most historic, fast, and respected asphalt in the country. After a quick online registration process, a couple of long nights, and a ride down, we were ready to get on track and show our friends who had the fastest car in the office, but fortunately for everyone else on track, these events don't go down quite like that.
The ClassroomHigh-performance driving isn't secret code for racing. It is about car control, honing skills, and as such, it begins in a classroom instead of a race car. While the majority of time is actually spent out on track, getting one-on-one advice and feedback from an instructor, each Track Guys event also includes several sessions of classroom discussion, which is equally as important and valuable as the live on-track instruction. Jeff Lacina, president of Track Guys was on hand for our classroom sessions and took the time to walk beginner and novice drivers through several steps of instruction, including general track rules, vehicle dynamics, car control, situational awareness, and tips and tricks to mastering tough corners or tricky sections of the track. On top of general instruction, Jeff also spent time talking to students on a one-on-one basis, making sure they were comfortable with their run group, instructor, and the track in general. Remember, there are no stupid questions here and if you need help, chances are several other drivers do too, so don't be afraid to speak up and get help.
On TrackBeing on a world-class road course is one of the most exciting and thrilling things a car enthusiast can do. Dropping into a corner at over a hundred miles an hour, feeling the car and tires working together to pull you around the track, and then slowly applying power to pull you into the next corner is a thrill like no other. That said, it is also one of the most intimidating automotive events one can partake in and, if you're new to on-track driving, it can be a lot to take in during the opening session. When things go wrong on track, they happen in a hurry and, while rare, serious consequences are just one missed turn-in or braking zone away. For this reason, high-performance driving relies on a series of groups, the beginning of which always start with an instructor who will ride with you in your car for the entire event and help you get up to speed. Think you're too cool for an instructor? You're not. In fact, no matter how good of a driver you are, you can always learn something, and on-track this is especially important.
For my sessions, Track Guys paired me up with Brock Ivers, a long-time high-performance driver and someone with a ton of experience wheeling a high-horsepower rear wheel drive car around a racetrack. Brock, like all of the Track Guys staff, is an enthusiast who blends driving skill, years of knowledge, and hands-on open track experience into a scientific formula, which he slowly reveals lap after lap. During our first session, Brock actually drove me around in the STI Killer, taking two slow laps around the course to familiarize me with the environment, show me the corner workers, the lines, and the lay of the land. After that, I jumped in the driver's seat and took it slow for a while, working on finding my marks, understanding the corners, and getting a feel of the car on the racing surface. These slow intro sessions are a great time to talk to your instructor and let them know what you would like to focus on during the event. Everyone learns at different speeds, so don't worry if it takes you a couple of sessions (or events) to get everything working. Remember, it takes a lifetime to master a track; you're not going to get it in a weekend, so take your time, listen to your instructor, and learn at your own pace.
Up to SpeedWhether it is your first day on track or your 50th, there will come a time when you fall into a rhythm, a string of corners hit one after the other in perfect (well, almost perfect) succession, lap after lap. If I was an actual racer instead of a lucky photographer, I would call this "the zone" and it is one of the most wonderful moments of any track experience. As we made progress through the day and I applied Brock's lessons through each section of the track, my headphone instruction from Brock became less and less frequent. On one lap, after really settling in to my rhythm, Brock even let out a small "WooHoo!" exiting turn five, a fast on-throttle section that leads into Sebring's famous hairpin. I was really getting it! A couple laps later, while considering going pro, reality set back in as I missed a braking zone and gave Brock the scare of the weekend as we blew through the cones and off across the back straight runoff. The lesson here is that you can't ever let your guard down on track and you have to drive within your limits. Lucky for me, Jeff Lacina and Brock Ivers had done a great job of instructing throughout the weekend and the missed braking zone turned out to be little less than a solid wakeup call, instead of a panic-stricken nightmare.
Ready to Sign Up?If the idea of taking your car out on track excites you (how could it not?) and you're ready to get out there and have a blast, there are just a couple of things you need to know. First of all, make sure your car is in good working order before you commit to hitting the track. A 20-minute session on a world class track will test components and systems that the street and dragstrip have barely even used and you need to make sure your cooling, braking, and suspension systems are in perfect shape before heading out. Now, this doesn't mean you need race-prepped parts or expensive gimmicks to make it happen; you just need to make sure everything on your car is in working order, all the belts and fluids are fresh, and the brakes have at least half of the pads left in tact, although we recommend starting with fresh pads before you do anything. Remember, no instructor wants to hear, "we just put the brakes on late last night and we're not sure they are going to work" (sorry Brock!), so make sure you test everything out well in advance of your scheduled track day.
Besides a car in great condition, you need a quality helmet and long pants, along with a long sleeve shirt. If you currently own a helmet for drag racing, it may work, but be sure to check that it is SA00 or SA05 rated and in good shape. No M-rated (motorcycle) helmets are allowed, since they usually aren't built to offer any fire protection, so don't bring your friend's bike helmet if you want to get a chance to drive or ride around the course. Luckily, Track Guys brings spare helmets that people can borrow if need be, so check with your track group to see if they offer the same service. Long pants and a long sleeve, 100-percent cotton shirt are also required (in case of a fire), but you can certainly bring a drag race style drivers jacket and pants if you have access to them.
With a car, a helmet and some long outerwear, you also need, in no particular order, a positive attitude, two ears, a brain, and a couple hundred dollars. The money may take some time to save up, but the attitude and the ears are the most critical part. Your instructor, the corner workers, the folks on the grid, and those in the classroom are all working to help you drive better and have a great time. It's not a race, it's not an ego contest, and it certainly isn't meant to be a place to show off. If you're anything like this author, it's hard not to get competitive or to think you know more than you really do, but please go in with an open mind and you'll be golden. After the first session, you'll probably be hooked for life. I know I was...now I just need to check the Track Guys schedule and find the money for another weekend. Trust me, this type of driving is a blast. You won't be able to get enough of it!
LSR Performance '10 Camaro at Sebring
By Scott ParkerWhile Justin was working up a mental sweat in the classroom, I was kicking the tires on LSR Performance's Velocity Yellow '10 Camaro SS. The crew had graciously invited me to get a better feel for it on Sebring's more substantial road course. On our tight test track at Gainesville Raceway (see May 2011 issue), we found ourselves pushing the brakes hard and scrubbing the tires quite a bit to better a stock Camaro by a full second. However, Sebring's 3.7-mile course would really let us stretch its legs, and push LSR's tuned suspension at high speeds. Prior to the track day, LSR outfitted the Camaro's BBS wheels with Nitto NT05 275/35/20 and 315/35/20 rubber and swapped to Hawk HPS pads (available in their catalogue). Of course the usual maintenance items like bleeding the brakes and topping off the fluids were also done. I've done open track days before and spent all night prepping the car, and then the next day being my own pit crew. Not to say that it isn't worth it, but this was a welcome change. All I had to do was focus on my driving and staying hydrated, which was key. Even still, by the end of the day it takes quite a bit out of you. In addition to attending various open track days, I have also been to a few different driving schools, which got me a golden ticket to run in either of the top two groups without an instructor in the car. But never having been to Sebring before, I opted to have LSR's incredibly skilled test driver Glen Vitale ride along for the first session and even take the wheel for a few laps. Glen has got more track hours than most people I know, including at Sebring--though his home track is Palm Beach--so he definitely had some valuable tips.
By the end of the second session I had made the corrections that Glen suggested, plus a few of my own, and I really started to feel comfortable on track and able to push the LSR Camaro pretty hard. Coming down the straightaway and into Turn 1 is a total rush, the LSR Camaro settled in easily and made this high-speed turn a breeze. The LSR suspension and Nitto tires made it easy to find the limit, and easy to recover if you went beyond it. In Turn 1 you can push the Camaro to the threshold of your upchuck reflex (and grip, which is substantial). Once you really let go of the fear and start flying through this turn, it can be challenging taking Turn 3 because you are coming in so hot. Turn 3 is a bit of a sacrificial turn--though you know that you can take it much faster, doing so puts you out of position for 4 and 5 (see Sebring's track map to see what I mean). This section is where the Camaro shows its size and weight, but pulling out of 5 and into 6 (and into the straight) the Camaro shows its power. I caught several smaller, lighter, and mid-engine cars there after losing them through 3 to 5. Turn 7 is deceptively sharp and is hard on the brakes. Though the HPS is a great street pad it showed some fade after this turn as we got later in the day. The Camaro is sure footed enough to power through turns 8 and 9 without a problem (without braking). I was able to catch a surprising amount of people through this section. Going from the northeast to the southeast portion of the track, it seemed the harder I pushed the Camaro the more it had to give. It was balanced, fairly neutral and communicative yet incredibly fun to drive. Skipping ahead to Turn 17 just after the last straight, where I saw quite a few people spin out, the Camaro seemed to eat up the uneven pavement and never unsettle--turning into a missile on the front straight.
Though it lacks the elevation changes of Road Atlanta or Laguna Seca, Sebring is definitely a thrill to drive, filled with challenging corners, long straights, and the facility is top-notch. The layout is ideal for a rear-wheel drive V-8 like the LSR Camaro, which makes it exhilarating yet safe. This was easily my best open track day experience, in part due to the track, but mostly due to the crew at LSR and Track Guys. The event was well-run and organized and filled with knowledgeable and helpful staff. The four sessions per day were long enough to get into a groove, yet not too long where your typical streetcar will be overheating, annihilating the brake pads, and burning oil. Whether it is a regular Track Guys event near you, or Camp Steeda in Florida where you can get a chance to rub elbows with Glen Vitale and the crew at LSR Performance, I highly recommend checking it out.