I’m on the third or fourth lap of my afternoon session on the second of my two track days. It been a steady progression learning the track both in classroom sessions and in practical instructed twenty minute on track sessions. I’m in fifth gear heading down the front straight of Watkins Glen International with my braking section rapidly approaching, when I glance at my digital speedometer in the center of my wheel. It reads 100mph. I’m coming into a ninety degree corner that falls away from you at one hundred miles per hour! Lesson learned, do not look at the speedometer. Worry about what the car is doing. WGI has large signs on the left side of turn one as you enter the braking zone, 500, 400, 300 – Hard but smooth on the brakes, 200, at 100 I release the brake pedal and turn in to the apex of the corner. Physics and my throttle carry me out to the left side of the track. I’ve all ready had two wheels totally over the curb on that side of the track earlier today when I muffed my braking and carried far too much corner speed into the turn. Your instinct in fact every fiber of your being wants you to turn in to the slide but that’ll make you spin. Des my instructor has beat it into my head over and over, “Open up the wheel, keep your hands straight and the car will come out of it.” But this is my fifth session on this track and I’m finally getting the hang of dropping through turn one. I nail my braking and drift out just enough under throttle to the track out point of the turn where my left side wheels just kiss the paint of the curb.
Watkins Glen is labelled as the favorite track of NASCAR and I can see why. As with any new experience it was scary at first as I was taught how to tackle its twists and turns and changes of elevation. It’s a much more technical track than Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park). You reach the same top speeds on WGI even though it is a longer track but regardless of that, it feels faster. You shift more, you brake more and if you muff it, there’s a good chance you’re going into a wall. That’s not hyperbole, turn 9 terrified me at first because it’s a diminishing radius to the apex and the track out point is a very solid looking bit of concrete. Still, at this point, I’m deep into it and confident of my ability to string the corners together. Confident enough I’ve held off the advances of the ZX-1 Corvette in my rear view for the last three laps. Obviously my 2016 JCW Mini doesn’t have it in the horsepower department against such a beast on the straight sections but lap after lap has shown he can’t touch me in the bits that twist and turn. I also suspect his suspension isn’t as dialed in as mine feels and lastly, my instructor Des races Minis and tests at this track. I listen to what he has to say and try to apply it to the best of my ability.
The map above gives you a pretty good idea of the turns and elevation changes of WGI but it’s one thing to look at a picture, it’s something else to drive it. Which is why track days are always best with a sponsored group who look after tech inspections and make sure skilled corner workers are manning the flag stations and the different skill levels of drivers each have their dedicated track times. I was down at WGI with Infinite Motorsports who were working with the NEQ Audi Owners group. And I can’t say enough good stuff about both groups. NEQ hosted a great track event and Infinite really looked after those of us who put the money out to be down there and while yes, it can be a bit pricey, it’s good value for the money and if you have a performance vehicle, you owe it to yourself to see what your car can do in a place where you can legally and safely do it. Everybody I saw or talked to was very happy to be there and I didn’t see a single incident of anybody getting bent out of shape from anything that went on on the track. It hard to be stroppy when you’ve literally just gone 120mph. The guys and girls in the really high end cars going even faster had even bigger smiles.
The map above shows the turn numbering, for clarity.
In the interest of safety there’s a standing yellow flag (no passing under yellow) for the warm up lap. Once the first car hits Turn 11 everybody is good to accelerate to speed and the passing zones are open. There’s a strict protocol for initiating a pass. The car in front indicates with their turn signals which side they want you to pass on. This can get pretty exciting as our Novice group can really only pass on the straight bits. So coming out of turn 11 on the front straight you’ve got to give it everything to get past whoever you’re passing and then get back on the racing line prior to hitting the braking zone. I always found it easier on my nerves to pass past Turn 4 and Turn 7. This being an Audi Club event the majority of cars were european. Lots of Audis, BMW M class and Porsche was also well represented with Bob one of our group members being the only Mercedes on the field with his tuned AMG GT S (600+hp under his hood). Anytime I saw him in my rear view I just got over on the next straight section and let him by. What American iron that was there was four Corvettes from a car club in New York and a lone Dodge Charger, though to be honest I only saw him for a second. The Corvette guys were interesting. They actually had driven up on race slicks and like I said, they were formidable on the straights (providing they’d managed their corner getting to the straight section). Any Porsche was a monster with the exception of the single red Cayman S in our class who I was able to hang with through a whole session, even though he tried mightily to shake me. No, it’s not a race and yes, it is just for fun but I’ve got to say when somebody in a car worth over twice the cost of yours and with 325hp under the hood compared to your 240hp can’t break away, it’s a deeply satisfying feeling but then the whole experience was deeply satisfying in the end. Each lap is just over two and a half minutes long but it always seems a lot quicker.
There was one casualty of this experience, well four actually. My brake pads were at about half thickness which the tech inspection prior to getting on the track confirmed. After the very end of my last session on the track as I rolled back into the Pits, I got dual warnings front and rear on my brake pads and my car informed me I had 400km left on my rear pads and about 1200km left on my front. Enough to get me home and drive around for a bit while we wait for the new performance rotors and pads to arrive. It’ll be the first real money I’ve sunk into my car to improve performance.
“And so it begins…”