Learning to drive on a track will make you a better driver–and a better person.
There’s this thing about driving on a track. It’s really fun. Two thousand pounds of powerful, finely tuned machinery in your hands, no other cars, straightaways designed to thrill; turns, curves and zig-zags that are the ultimate video game come to life. It’s really fun. Did I say that already?
Rule #1: Don’t be intimidated; be curious, be smart, be empowered when it comes to driving, even if you’re the novice in the group
In this job, I occasionally get to drive on a track. I had never been on a track until this job and truthfully, the first time was intimidating: I was with a group of about 150, mostly men (like, about 145 of them) and most were not only experienced, but had taken lessons. I sheepishly got in line about 15 minutes before the track closed and drove around twice.
Big mistake. I shouldn’t have been intimidated. Turns out, being cautious and responsive, two traits that women tend to master better than men when it comes to driving, are hugely valuable on the track. Also, I was afraid of driving too slow. Another misbelief: the purpose of the track is to learn how cars handle, how to use their technology and how to get the most performance out of each car driven. It’s not simply to drive the fastest.
Rule #2: Take all the expert advice you can get
It was another track drive opportunity when I had an instructor in the seat next to me that I finally learned what track driving is all about: Safety and performance. This next opportunity was at a drive event with FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) which owns the Dodge brand of cars. That day I had the opportunity to take some of Dodge’s muscle cars out on the track. And on that day, the track was rain-slicked pavement. The guys out there were bummed, but not me: with professional drivers in the passenger seats of all cars, this was a chance to really learn something.
I took a few laps around the track in the Dodge Challenger with driving instructor Bob in the ‘right’ seat, as they call it, and he taught me a few really great things:
- Let the car’s traction and stability control do some of the work for you; the car will send power to the wheels where it’s needed, power to the brakes when its needed and help to keep the car stable on the road
- Use all the pavement you have in front of you: we tend to stick to the center of the road or get over to the left or right before we really need to be there. By using all the pavement, we actually put the car’s speed to work, using less fuel and less braking
- Keep your hands at “9 and 3,” as in o’clock; I was taught to use “10 and 2” but that keeps our hands too high on the wheel to adjust when you need to turn the wheel. Also, with an airbag in the steering wheel, ’10 and 2′ can actually be a dangerous place for your hands
- When I needed to turn the wheel into a turn or curve, Bob instructed me to shift my hands up to the top of the wheel or down to the bottom (always keeping my hands opposite of each other). I never crossed my hands, which, he explained, can be dangerous
- Relax and breathe. This one surprised me a bit, but Bob was right: when I relaxed my hands and my posture and allowed my breathing to take an even pace – even when approaching a curve and braking – I was in better control than if I was tense and holding my breath
Rule #3: Learn to avoid oversteering and overbraking
It’s natural. You start to lose control of the car and you react hard to get it back. Slam on the brakes. Steer hard to get away from another car. But that results in overbraking and oversteering, and this is where drivers get into real trouble. So what should you do? On the track we were able to let the Challenger get away from us (just a little bit) and then recover. Here’s what I learned:
- Ease off the gas, be prepared to brake and if you hit the brake, don’t brake hard. Braking too hard–overbraking– results in loss of control and possible skidding or sliding.
- Harness the power you have to regain control. Slamming on the brakes reduces your power; by easing off the gas you keep your engine’s power up, giving you the option to either regain speed and quickly steer away from danger or brake to slow or stop the car.
- Decide where you want to go and look there. Your hands on the wheel will follow. When you start to lose control or are reacting to danger on the road, look up, see what your options are and take control of that path. Unfortunately, it often happens that when drivers start to lose control they look where the loss of control is taking them: into a tree, a ditch or another car.
Rule #4: Have fun
Driving should be fun. OK, sitting in traffic on the highway isn’t. But there will be days and roads that it is, and even within the speed limit. And then, there’s the track. You can take your car to a track and learn to really drive it. Dodge is a big believer in this; the company has put a lot of time and effort into designing cars that can live a double life as a track car and a daily driver.
I drove the Dodge Challenger ‘Shaker’ Scat Pack, a powerful two-door coupe that carries a price of about $39,000 (base price starts at about $26,000); the Challenger also comes in the even more powerful SRT (which stands for Street and Racing Technology) edition, which starts at about $49,000 and goes up to about $65,000 for the 707 horsepower Hellcat version. After a trip around the track in this car, I can see why it’s so popular: It has a muscly bad-boy look on the outside, but inside it’s comfortable and modern, with all the tech, amenities and conveniences you’d expect–great for a daily driver. If a two-door isn’t enough room, Dodge has an answer for that: the Charger, a 4-door sedan version with all the engine sizes including the 707-horsepower Hellcat.
Rule #5: Believe in yourself
Before most of us got into cars that day, the very first driver on the track was a fellow who, like so many in the group, was salivating at the opportunity to drive the Dodge Viper. A pedigreed performance car, the Viper certainly attracts those with a need for speed. And just two minutes into our day, it happened: the guy went too fast around a curve, oversteered and slammed into a wall. No more Viper for anyone that day.
So, after several trips around the track, when I was starting to feel comfortable, confident and learning to corner and maintain control the way Bob had taught me, Bob shared his most priceless observation. “Women are always better drivers on the track because they listen,” he said. That made me smile. Because for me, track time isn’t about testing my machismo. It’s about learning to be the best driver I can be.
Disclosure: I was a guest of FCA for this event; FCA provided my travel and accommodations. Opinions expressed are all my own.