Journalists on Racetracks: Good Idea Or Not?
By Chris Haak
Several of us here at Full Metal Autos are members of various organizations for automotive journalists. The organizations, such as the one I belong to – IMPA (short for International Motor Press Association) – serve the purpose of connecting journalists (both print and online, in most cases) with PR people and manufacturers. Also, a journalist who is a member of IMPA or other auto-journalist organizations who reaches out to an automaker can at least give some comfort to the manufacturer that the person they’re talking to actually has some bona-fides and is not a fly-by-night blogger sitting in his parents’ basement. We’re fly-by-night bloggers sitting in our own basements, but who take this hobby seriously and value our professional reputations.
Earlier this week, Full Metal Autos’s Kevin Gordon and I attended an IMPA event at the spectacular Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York called Test Days. This is the first time that IMPA’s annual Test Days event has been held at Monticello; most recently, it was held in the Poconos. Monticello is a three year old facility designed as a country club for wealthy individuals who love driving. A “gold” membership will set you back more than six figures (plus annual fees), but gives you considerable and frequent access to the facility. The track has expansion plans focused on attracting a competitive racing series, residences, and additional driver amenities in the coming years.
Many of auto websites over the past few days have spoken about an accident at this week’s event in which a journalist drove a Lexus IS-F beyond his or her abilities and mangled the left side of the car by hitting the wall. Discussion focused on whether these events should even exist, and whether journalists without racing accreditation should even be permitted to drive on a racetrack. As someone close enough to actually hear the squealing tires and see the yellow, then red flags through the trees, perhaps I’m a bit more qualified to comment than someone who is hearing about the event second- or third-hand. I also saw the damaged IS-F in person. Apparently, despite a mandatory driver’s meeting prior to hitting the track, three or four people blasted past a waving red flag immediatly after the Lexus kissed the wall.
I will be the first to admit that I have had the benefit of basically no professional driving instruction and hold no licenses other than the one I earned at age 16 to drive on Pennsylvania’s roads. And yet, I felt perfectly safe driving on Monticello’s lovely track on Thursday. Know why? Because I was cautious and stayed within the limits of my (and the cars’) capabilities.
The environment was fairly controlled until you factor in driver overconfidence or idiots who think they’re Senna. Everyone was required to ride along with an instructor for a familiarization lap, and the longest, straightest part of the track (no idea where it was in relation to anything – front, back, whatever – because of all the turns) had two chicanes. They also helpfully laid out cones to show the ideal racing line for Monticello. If you hit a cone and a corner worker saw you, they revoked your driving privilege. If you drove a car in a manner that was not in control and they saw you, you lost your privilege. Cars hit the track about 20 seconds apart (give or take a few seconds, depending on the likely performance differential between the cars).
That being said, there were no speed limits, and I was able to get nearly every car that I drove to 90 mph, and hit 100 in one or two. In the CLS 63 AMG, I hit 90 three times, despite the chicanes, yet never even drove beyond probably 6/10ths. I never even heard a tire squeal from that car. I respected the car and its capability and didn’t want to be “that guy.” Despite rumors to the contrary, we were never told anything about keeping it under 60.
Being a bit nervous about driving on a wet track I’d only taken three or four laps on before (previously in perfect conditions, with an instructor), rather than running for the M3, IS-F, Corvette, etc., I took my first lap in a Focus automatic. With more practice laps and a drying track, I gained more confidence, but still ensured that I kept things under control and within my abilities.
Despite what Matt Hardigree said in his piece at Jalopnik on Thursday about there being no consequences for wrecking a press car at a track event, I drive at manufacturer-sponsored events assuming that if I smash a car because I’m being an idiot, I may not be invited again, and then Full Metal Autos suffers because there are fewer interesting cars to cover in person. Whether that’s actually the case, I don’t know, but I certainly did not assume that there were no consequences.
To me, events like IMPA Test Days are a good way for small-time guys like myself to experience big-time cars that we otherwise wouldn’t get to drive. The track portion also gives a controlled environment in which to drive differently than would be prudent on public roads and get closer to the limits on some cars. I’m not sure what the solution is for keeping egos in check, though, because I don’t think that requiring a racing license is necessary, considering the racing line was laid out and – oh yeah – we weren’t actually racing, with 20-30 second spreads between cars.
Figure out a way to keep egos in check – both on and off the track – and we won’t sacrifice any more cars to the wall at events like that one.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for some driving impressions from the track within the next few days.