Just Another Day at the Office (Track Test Day)

By Chris Haak

Last week, we described the first day of a two-day event sponsored by IMPA, the International Motor Press Association.  During Day One, we road tested nine different new or significant new cars.  During Day Two, described below, we took nine more cars onto Monticello Motor Club’s track.

Monticello Motor Club, or MMC for short, opened in 2008 to very positive reviews.  It’s a 4.1-mile asphalt track containing 22 turns in its full configuration, plus 450 feet of elevation changes.  There’s a clubhouse, pit area, garage area (where members can keep their track-day playthings), and various other amenities.  The grounds and landscaping are all gorgeous, and the track is challenging and fun for drivers of various skill levels.  Memberships start at around $30,000 upfront, plus an annual fee of $3,150 and can go into six figures; the higher your membership level, the greater your access to the track.  As a founding member, Jerry Seinfeld has almost no limits to how often he can put his Porsches on the track.  Sadly, this gig doesn’t pay enough to make MMC membership an option.

However, I’m fortunate in that I have now had two opportunities to check out Monticello’s facilities.  The first came in 2010 when I was able to sample the then-new Cadillac CTS-V with a professional driving instructor riding shotgun and helping me with the ideal racing line for Monticello’s track and giving me – a track-day novice – some pointers that videogames just didn’t seem to help me with.  The second was at this event.

The previous night, the area endured a steady rain that made the notion of driving cars on a racetrack the next morning seem to be little more than a fantasy.  The weather forecast for track test day didn’t look very good, so Kevin and I dutifully dragged our umbrellas and windbreakers on the trek from our hotel to the Monticello facility about 20 minutes away.  Two years ago, track day was held in sporadic rain at Pocono Raceway with no mishaps, but last year, the track portion of the event was completely washed out by monsoon-like rains and flood conditions on the Pocono track, so we weren’t sure what to expect.

Under light rain, we arrived at the track and attended a mandatory driver’s meeting.  The good news:  as long as there were no flooded spots on the track, we’d be able to drive.  The bad news:  the back straight would have two chicanes installed to keep speeds to a more moderate pace.  Corner monitors were also going to be keeping an eye on us to ensure that we would keep everything under control and well within the cars’ limits, with a black flag penalty and a snipped-off driving privilege wrist band coming for out-of-control driving as well.  You’d also better not hit a cone, or else *snip*.

Every driver also had to ride along on a three-tenths orientation lap driven by a Monticello instructor.  The instructor gave tips on corner speeds, entry points, apexes, and noted that Monticello’s perfect racing line was outlined by the cones at each corner.  Though I’d driven on MMC’s track before, it was a) only four laps, and b) accompanied by a Skip Barber driving instructor telling me where to point the car, when to brake, and when to accelerate.  Despite my orientation lap, I wasn’t quite ready mentally to tear the place up, so I started small.  Everyone else ran straight for the high-horsepower cars, while I had smaller ambitions for starting out in the rain.  Keeping in mind that each lap of the MMC South Course only takes about three minutes – and it’s only 1.6 miles with 12 turns – these driving impressions are, by necessity, based on a fairly brief on-track experience, but at least gave me the feel for different cars in a controlled environment free of law enforcement.  As the day progressed, the weather improved to the point where I was able to drive some cars with the windows and roof open and actually feared a sunburn.

2012 Ford Focus Titanium Five Door – Yes, when I could have chosen an M3, CTS-V, or Mustang, I picked a Focus.  First, I knew that it wouldn’t have enough power to really get me into trouble in my first in-the-rain lap at Monticello.  Second, I hadn’t actually driven a new Focus before, but the car has a reputation as being a solid handler.  Well, the Focus has good windshield wipers!  The car felt a bit down on power; it’s not a lightweight, and 160 horsepower just isn’t a ton.  That issue will be resolved with the new Focus ST, which I can’t wait to sample.  Meanwhile, it was basically what I expected – good handling, decent steering, adequate brakes.  I don’t think I exceeded 80 miles per hour in my personal orientation lap, but the car gave me the chance to stretch the next car’s legs a bit more.  I really like the interior in the Focus; it’s among the best in its class.

2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 – Having driven this car on the roads around Monticello the day before, I wanted to see what it could do when freed from the confines of speed limits.  With the drive mode set to Sport via the interface on the navigation display, the Charger’s responses sharpen.  The big 6.4 liter Hemi is strong and boisterous, and thanks to the excessive amount of horsepower, the big, heavy car feels less big and heavy than it really is.  A bonus: the Charger SRT8 and 300 SRT8 come with a newly-fortified SRT performance computer that graphically displays g-forces and other performance metrics, including lap times.  You can’t drive this car fast quietly, but it’s also hard to drive it without giggling.

2012 Buick Regal GS – Perhaps the best-handling front wheel drive car that has ever been sold by General Motors, the Regal GS is only a limited slip differential away from being about as good as a front driver can get on the track.  However, without it, the outside front wheel tends to spin when powering out of corners, which can make the car lose its momentum.  With an LSD on the order sheet of the gone-but-not-forgotten Cobalt SS, why can’t the more expensive, more powerful Regal GS have one available as well?  Power is good, not breathtaking, and the Regal GS has a very easy-to-operate clutch and shifter.  Finally, the seats do a great job of comfortably holding you laterally.

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe 6MT – Manual transmissions and Cadillacs rarely go together, but having a third pedal [that isn’t the parking brake] on a CTS-V adds something to the experience.  Despite the 556 horsepower that it has to harness, the clutch isn’t particularly hard to engage, and the 6.2 liter V8 likes to stretch its legs.  Brembo brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport tires mean strong stops and sure-footed handling.  It’s almost a shame that the Nurburgring record-setting CTS-V was an automatic, because although my heart tells me that the computer can shift much faster than a human can, at this point, only a human knows the best gear to be in for what’s ahead on the track.  Though they’re not perfect, I wish the Recaro front buckets optional in the CTS-V and available with some CTS option packages could be retrofitted to non-V CTSs, because they’re a big improvement over the flat, short-bottomed seats in the standard CTS.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible – I’ve said before that any day you get to drive a Corvette is usually a good day.  That I was able to drive the same Corvette two days in a row (once on the road, and once on the track) made it a nice string of two days for me.  Though the overwhelming power of the ZR1 is absent in the Grand Sport, having 436 horsepower and a six-speed manual to keep things on boil is certainly nothing to sneeze at.  This particular Grand Sport had its exhaust bypass fuse removed when the pipes were open, which doesn’t necessarily make you friends on the street, but delivers some great sound effects to the driver.  Despite showing its age in terms of refinement and appearance, the C6 Corvette remains an extremely capable car that is very much at home on a racetrack.  With the Grand Sport package, dare I say the car is at home on the track.  It’s easy to drive quickly, but also easy to let the car and its high limits get the best of you, especially on a wet track.  Thankfully, while Fox News recorded video of me pulling out to begin my lap with this Corvette (on the heels of its interview with IMPA president and Jalopnik editor Mike Spinelli), I didn’t stall it or look like an idiot.  I’ll take whatever small victory I can get.

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i – One of the first of a wave of BMW four cylinders made its way under the hood of the Z4, and this strong, torquey engine will make you not miss the extra two cylinders of the former “28” six cylinder engine.  The turbo four loses some horsepower, but gains torque over the old NA six, and that torque is available in a wide plateau of RPMs.  The new engine definitely makes some different sounds than the classic BMW six did, but it’s quite refined for a four cylinder, and will not be completely out of place in the 5 Series.  The smaller, lighter 2.0 liter engine improves the Z4’s weight distribution, straight line performance, and fuel economy.  Overall, a nice update to BMW’s sporty roadster.

2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 – Rarely do I drive a car that impresses me so thoroughly that I exit the car and heap effusive praise on it, but that’s what I did after a lap in the Boss 302.  I once wrote a college essay about why the Camaro is better than the Mustang, but if I were 18 years younger and comparing a 2012 Boss 302 against a contemporary Camaro SS, that paper would have very different results.  Even without the Boss 302 Track Key (they seemed to have no idea if this car even had one), it sounded great (heck, the Mustang GT’s regular 5.0 sounds great – turn that up to eleven for the Boss 302), handled flat, steered quickly and accurately, and braked well.  Literally, there was nothing about this car that I didn’t like, including its “wow, you get a lot of performance for that price” price.  Too bad, then, that my wife almost laughed me out of the living room when I showed her a few photos of of the car and told her I’d like to trade my CTS in on one.  It didn’t help that the first few press photos were silver with orange wheels; this particular tester was the much more subdued Kona Blue with white accent stripes, and in fact, exactly the way I’d equip my own.  An amazing car, and although it wasn’t the most powerful car, nor the most expensive car I drove on the track, it was the car that seemed to be most in its element there.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG – What could you buy for $123,525?  Well, with exactly that sum, you could buy a Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG in a completely-impractical matte gold paint.  Though I’m not as good at keeping up with waxing my car as I should be, I think I’d be terrified to drive a car this expensive, knowing that I’d make the matte finish shiny by touching it too many times.  The interior is gorgeous, loaded with technology and luxury, and reasonably spacious for four lucky souls.  On the track, the car is an absolute beast, with its 5.5 liter biturbo V8 jacked up to 550 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque thanks to the AMG Performance Package (if you’re buying a new CLS63 AMG anyway, you might as well spend the $7,300 to go from 518 horsepower and 516 lb-ft to the big numbers.)  With the car is in dynamic mode, it more or less keeps its big power in check, but like the Corvette, it’s easy to let this car get the best of you (waiting in line to drive the Boss 302, I saw two different drivers allow this car to get away from them for split seconds).  Keep your steering, braking, and throttle inputs smooth, though, and you’re rewarded by an extremely fast executive express that just loves to go fast.

2011 BMW 1 Series M – There will be no 2012 BMW 1 Series M, at least in the US.  That’s a shame, because everyone should get the chance to drive this car.  After a day of driving high-horsepower cars like the CLS63 AMG and the Boss 302, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 1 Series M.  But I should have known; years ago, I was impressed by the torque of the 135i coupe at any spot on the engine’s powerband, so adding another thirty horsepower, bigger tires and brakes, and M-specific interior and exterior details (such as the obnoxiously large, yet charming fender flares) makes driving this car just about the most fun I’ve ever had in a BMW.  It may not look like much (it’s small and has goofy, ugly-duckling proportions), but the little bugger knows its way around a racetrack far more than I do.

2011 Mazda MazdaSpeed 3 – This car is almost too performance-focused to reasonably live with on a daily basis.  It rides harshly, it’s noisy, has really bad torque steer, and the engine is a bit peaky.  To wit: when I had a MazdaSpeed3 for a weeklong review a few months after having a “regular” Mazda3 2.5 liter hatch, I preferred the regular Mazda3.  That just doesn’t happen normally; when I drove a CTS-V for a week, I wasn’t anxious to lose the extra 252 horsepower and hop back into my 304-horsepower daily driver CTS.  But on the track, the Speed3 is more at home.  When the asphalt is well-maintained and fairly new, and with lots of curves, a harsh suspension becomes “firm” instead, and becomes a virtue.  Noisy exhaust isn’t an issue – you want your car to make a racket on the track.  If only the torque steer issue were better resolved, and the Speed3 didn’t have a somewhat-balky shifter, it might be even more fun, but it’s a fun ride considering that at 263 horsepower, it produces less than half of what some new cars do.

2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 – Yes, I took an SUV on a racetrack.  Don’t get me wrong; the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is still a blast to drive, but in the quest to make it more civilized, it’s lost some of the ridiculousness of its predecessor.  The old one was a little lighter on its feet and to stop, steer, and accelerate better than nearly any SUV on the road.  The 2012 GC SRT8 is much, much more comfortable, but it’s hard not to notice that you’re driving a porky vehicle.  I did like the ability to activate Track mode to sharpen the Jeep’s responses, and the ride is more compliant than the old one’s, but it almost felt like a regular Grand Cherokee with just a really big engine and lowered suspension.  If I could afford the fuel (and the guilt in using so much of it), I’d be happy to use one of these as a daily driver; its passing abilities on a two-lane are outstanding.

Any day that you get to drive cars on a racetrack rather than going into the office, even if the track is hobbled by chicanes and somewhat-wet conditions, you’re ahead in the game.  I learned that despite record-setting horsepower levels in many new cars, efficiency has become a priority of automakers as well.  That’s great news for enthusiasts, because the last time efficiency became important 30 years ago, nobody knew how to make cars fun to drive while still sipping fuel.  A car like the CLS63 AMG aren’t anywhere close to being labeled “fuel sippers,” yet it’s significantly more efficient than the old CLS63 AMG while being more powerful and having a flatter torque curve.  Isn’t technology great?

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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