If there’s one piece of knowledge I’ll take to my grave, it’s this: Never, ever be a passenger in a car on a race track.
I came to this realization on the third lap of a sprint around a California track in a Mini Cooper. Alternating between speeds of up to 180 kilometres an hour and braking abruptly to make hairpin turns had taken its toll on my stomach, sense of equilibrium and desire to live.
It’s worth noting that the driver of the car I was in, a fellow journalist, was fine. He was too focused on the road to feel anything. Drivers have that weird resistance to G-forces.
The ordeal finally came to an end after seven laps that felt like many, many more. I somehow managed to avoid tossing my cookies – a small victory considering I’d actually eaten cookies earlier – but I knew this was not something I’d ever try again.
The Mini lap sprint is the main attraction of the BMW Performance Center Drive, one of a host of programs offered at the German automaker’s test track in Thermal, Calif., a small town about 200 kilometres east of Los Angeles.
The track is attached to the Thermal Club, a resort community for motorsport enthusiasts where you can buy a luxury villa overlooking the track and watch cars speed by all day. The average enthusiast, meanwhile, can sign up and become a race car driver for a couple of hours with programs starting at US$299.
Our course starts with an in-class lesson on safety and proper driving techniques. Our instructor is Adam Seaman, a tall, well-tanned gent from South Carolina who has competed in Drift races and performed stunts on NBC’s /Drive TV show.
He introduces us to the details of angles, turn apexes and exit points. He warns us against getting overconfident, which often happens around lap five. “You can usually come back from one mistake,” he says. “But when you make three, four, five consecutive mistakes, you’re probably not coming back.”
He also stresses the point of the experience – to have fun – by channelling Will Ferrell from Talladega Nights. “What do you do when you hit the straightaway?” he asks rhetorically. “Full-throttle shake and bake, baby!”
With that, we hit the track – but the shaking and baking will have to wait a bit longer.
First up is learning how to do a reverse J-turn, a stunt manoeuvre that involves backing up at high speed, slamming the steering wheel to abruptly spin the car around, then continuing forward, all in one smooth motion.
It’s James Bond stuff. It’s also nerve wracking. Not only is backing up at full throttle extraordinarily unnatural, so is not turning your head around to see where you’re going. Instead, I’m told, I have to keep my attention on the pylon in front of me to ensure I’m reversing in a straight line.
Going against all instincts, I slam on the gas and peel out backward. My left hand is glued to 12 o’clock on the wheel and my right is white-knuckle gripping the gear shift.
All of a sudden, the instructor pipes in over the walkie-talkie: “Now! Turn! Turn!” I slam the shift into neutral and jerk the wheel down, prompting the car into a violent swing. I pull the shift again into drive and correct the wheel – the car stops turning and begins inching forward slowly.
I wish I could say I did this all with Bondian smoothness, but virtually no one in our group gets it right the first time. Some of us start getting the hang of it after a few tries.
Once you get past the instinctual revulsion of it, it’s exhilarating. The instructor tells us we’re ready to freak out our spouses at home by reverse J-turning out of the driveway. I laugh, imagining the divorce that would ensue.
From there, it’s onto the track proper where, again, it’s better to not be the passenger.
The near-barf experience is enough to make me think twice about the program’s third part, a single timed-lap around a shorter track. Having had a few minutes to regain my bearings, I decide to give it a go.
I take it easy on my first effort, the Mini’s tires only slightly chirping as I take the turns cautiously. I gun it on the final straightaway, then brake hard to stop inside the designated zone and end with a 28-second lap.
Feeling a little more comfortable the second time, I crank the gas a bit more. The wheels squeal a little harder and my stomach churns a bit, but it’s worth it as I managed to shave a full second off my time.
I finish dead last in my group, but getting back on the track after my first harrowing experience is a victory nevertheless.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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