Most auto journos think they are very good drivers. In reality, few of them actually are as good as they think. I’ve found low interest in attending schools with track instruction. In their own mind, these folks are as good a driver as the instructors. For very few, perhaps they’re correct. The majority of the time, however, that’s not the case.
This can lead to folks with little actual driving instruction served their way being handed the keys to immensely capable and powerful machines. One of the organizations to which I belong, the Midwest Automotive Media Association, has seen this trend and is trying to do something about it. Now in it’s third year the school has had good reception for those who have attended, now myself included.
The class is broken up into morning and afternoon sessions. The morning is for the “beginner” group, while the afternoon is for “intermediate and advanced”. The school is sponsored by Dodge, and by sponsored I mean they paid to rent GingerMan Raceway and brought a fleet of SRT vehicles for us to drive. We had a variety of vehicles to choose from, SRT 392 Challengers and Chargers, the new 475 horsepower SRT Durango, a couple Hellcat Chargers and Challengers and three widebody Hellcat Challengers.
This should be good.
I rate myself an average driver, but I have road raced motorcycles for a number of years. It’s fair to say I have basic on-track knowledge and also have some experience driving cars on a track.
For those not familiar with the name, GingerMan Raceway is a track situated in the Southwest part of Michigan. It’s about 15 miles East of the town of South Haven, 175 miles West of Detroit, and 60 miles North of South Bend Indiana (home of the University of Notre Dame and Tire Rack). The track is eleven turns and 2.14 miles in length. It’s been expanded from its original length of 1.88 miles, which is the configuration I know best from my time racing motorcycles. This circuit is fairly tight, and it rewards nimble vehicles. Big horsepower isn’t necessarily the best recipe for quick lap times here.
Knowing all of this, which vehicle did I choose to do my three session stint? The widebody Hellcat Challenger of course! Here is a car that isn’t well matched to the track, so let’s see just how well it can do regardless. Whatever voodoo the chassis engineers did to the Challenger worked spectacularly well! There is no way a 4,300-pound vehicle should be able to brake and turn as well as this one does.
Ok, sure, the car is 3.5 inches wider than a standard Hellcat Challenger, and it’s square stanced on 305/35ZR20 Pirelli P-Zero tires. That extra width and tire area make a huge difference. On the quick transitions, you can feel all of the weight move around, but there is still a ton of grip. Another surprising revelation? The car I drove was equipped with the eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission, and it was damn good! There was no using the paddles. Just leave the transmission in drive. It bangs upshifts when I would have pulled the lever and it was well-timed on the downshifts. Was it Porsche PDK good? No, but what is. The keyboard commando crowd will certainly dismiss this with “should have been a manual”, “f**k any autotragic gearbox”, or “not enough talent to drive a manual”. You know, the usual arguments from people who criticize but never do.
A major benefit in running track teaching sessions with an automatic-equipped car is taking out having the part where you deal with gear changes. Instead, I’m left to focus on the things I personally wanted to work on and that will help make me a better driver. Being fluid and smooth with the inputs and learning to really feel braking into a corner and feeding power out of a corner are areas where you become smarter and faster behind the wheel of a car on a track.
The one shortcoming of the widened Hellcat was the brakes. The Hellcats and widebody Hellcats could not be run in back to back twenty-minute sessions. The cars come with standard DOT3 brake fluid, and the first thing you should do is change that out to DOT5. The pads seemed okay, but it wouldn’t hurt to upgrade those and then look at some additional brake ducting. Again this is a 4,300-pound vehicle on a tight track with hard braking areas. On a longer more open track you might not have these issues. If you pushed hard for five or six laps, you could feel the brake pedal get soft and wind up with much more travel before engaging. Slowing down for a lap or lap and a half was usually enough to cool the brakes to finish out the session.
While having the track time was great, the two instructors I worked with were very good and gave excellent feedback. These were the wrong cars for a driving school unless of course, you have purchased the car, then it’s a different story. Despite that, everyone in attendance learned a lot.
For those who didn’t have experience in driving on the track, it’s way too much car. For those that do have experience, it was a difficult car to learn in or to work on improving skills specific to Gingerman. The perfect car would ideally be something with 200-250 horsepower and 2,700-3,200-pounds if you are running. It’s enough power for beginners to push without getting in trouble and for intermediate and advanced drivers they can push the car closer to 10/10ths and explore more deeply into refining existing skills and working on new ones.
Dodge and MAMA have teamed up for a great school here. If they hold it again I’ll certainly be back. I learned (and relearned) a lot. I also better understand the things I need to work on the next time I get on a track. For the non-journalist consumer, if you’re serious about wanting to improve behind the wheel then I say spend the $1,000-$4,000 and go to a good track school. Go ride right seat in a car with a good driver and you will see just how much you can learn. If you think you are pushing hard driving on the streets and canyons, you are in for a shock as to what a car feels like at the limits on a track.