It’s surprising how exhilarating it can be to drive over 100 mph. Exhilarating and addicting.
I’ll admit it: I was a little apprehensive about the idea of learning to drive on a track. But if we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing, right? So when the Midwest Automotive Media Association (nickname: MAMA, it’s a Chicago-based group of industry folks and the journalists who write about cars) offered a day at the track, I was intrigued. When MAMA said it was looking for novice drivers for its August event at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, I responded: “You won’t find anyone more novice than I am!”
So when I showed up at the event sponsored by Dodge, I was a little nervous—until my first turn behind the wheel of a sleek black and yellow Dodge Charger T/A 392. After my three 30-minute runs on the 2.25-mile Gingerman track, I was hooked.
Here are the 9 things track driving beginners need to know before heading to the track for that first lesson in performance driving.
1. Wear strong deodorant.
Really. It was a warm August day, but I’m pretty sure I would have needed good deodorant even in the middle of winter. The Adrenalin rush that comes with pushing the speedometer toward 100 would make me break out in a sweat no matter the temperature outdoors.
2. You WILL get helmet hair.
See Point No. 1. This is the most you will sweat outside a gym. Add a tight-fitting safety helmet and you will sweat even more. Don’t waste a lot of time that morning with the blow dryer and curling iron.
3. There won’t be a lot of women.
While the number of women driving on race tracks is growing, this is still mostly a man’s world. Don’t be intimated. Driving instructors say they prefer to teach women. Why? We listen.
4. Don’t be nervous—your track driving instructor has your back.
I lucked out with my instructor, Bob Ashley. He’s a 73-year-old Renaissance man who is a talented artist, children’s book illustrator and admitted Adrenalin freak. His calm demeanor, quiet instruction and constant cheerleading gave me the confidence to punch it on the straightaway and take those corners faster than I ever expected to. He said I was in the top 10 percent of all of the people he’s taught over the years. He stuck with his story, even going so far as to write a note to my husband, telling Scott I’m ready to drive his baby, a 1967 428 Cobra Jet Mustang that can hit 145 mph.
5. Hands at 3 and 9 on the steering wheel.
Remember that 10 and 2 (as in o’clock) and hand-over-hand turning you learned in driver’s ed? Fuhgettaboutit. Your hands shouldn’t move (much) when you’re driving. This was the toughest thing for me. The muscle memory of 40 years behind the wheel was tough to overcome.
6. The turns are all about the weight distribution.
Phil Mirenda, owner of CGI Motorsports Performance Driving School, used a half-full water bottle to explain what happens when you push on the brake pedal.
Read More: Why You Should Learn to Drive on a Track
7. Ask tires to do only one thing at a time.
Tires can do three things: start, stop and turn. If you ask them to do more than one thing at a time, they can flake out. So the rule is this: Take your foot off the accelerator as you head into the turn. Continue to head straight as you hit the brake, shifting the car’s weight to the front tires. Take your foot off the brake pedal as you start to turn. Rest it on the accelerator as you glide through the turn, with the weight balanced on all four tires. Hit the gas as you come out of the turn and straighten the wheel. That gives your tires “100 percent grip” through the turn, Phil says.
8. Stay on the pavement.
Catalytic converters can get so hot after running the track that they can start the grass on fire and burn up your car. This was a serious concern in Southwest Michigan in early August when hot sun and a long dry spell meant acres of dry grass around the track.
9. Leave it on the track.
At the risk that my local gendarmes might be reading this, I will admit: I am a lead foot. I haven’t gotten a ticket in years, but I used to get them regularly. I am veteran of those deadly dull driver re-education classes you have to take after you get too many tickets in any 12-month period. Bob, who also admits he has a need for speed, says the cure for what ails us is more time at the race track. Once you get that out of your system, you can drive 55 on the way home. It actually worked. I followed the speed limit all the way home!