We like cars and we really love driving them. But unless your name is Sebastian and you pilot an F1 Red Bull Infiniti, there’s always room to improve one’s skill behind the wheel. At AutoGuide, we are no exception to the rule and any time we get a chance to sharpen our talents, we jump at it.
After all, you trust us to not only review each car for value, interior materials, ride quality and real world fuel economy, but also to differentiate the handling characteristics of every car we test. That said, we better know our understeer from our oversteer.
There’s no better way to do this than seat time with an advanced driving instructor on a closed circuit racetrack. That is why we have come out to Calabogie Motorsports Park in outside Ottawa, Canada to spend a day of learning with the En-Track Experience.
RENT A CAR OR DRIVE YOUR OWN
Offering courses where you can drive your own car, or a track prepared Ford Mustang, we’ve decided to try out one of each. I’ve signed up for the ‘Rental Car’ program called the Mustang Experience Explore Your Limits – Level 1 that gives me my own track prepared Ford Mustang GT to drive for the day with an advanced driving instructor. My course costs $1,599.00 CAD and includes a catered lunch.
News Editor Luke Vandezande has signed up for the Bring Your Own Car Experience that requires you to arrive with your own set of wheels and, at a cost of $600.00 CAD, also gives you an advanced driving instructor for the day as well as lunch. Wanting a perfect track tool to hone his driving skills, Luke’s ride isn’t actually his own. Instead he’s exploited his auto journalist connections and borrowed an MX-5 courtesy of Mazda.
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The day begins bright and early on a Sunday morning with a brief drivers meeting to go over track safety and paddock protocol. After that the drivers who have spent a lot of time lapping this track previously head out for their first session of the day. The rest of us, the “Calabogie Noobs,” are given an overview of the track and pointers on how to tackle some of the trickier corners on the circuit. Despite only being 3.05 miles in length, the track has 20 corners, which makes it more than difficult to figure out in a few laps; the instructors told us it would take most of the morning to learn all the turns and they weren’t lying.
SHOTGUN IN A PORSCHE
For the first session we strap ourselves in the passenger’s seat of our instructors own personal car as they lap the track showing us the proper driving lines and braking points. Luke has to suffer being chauffeured around the track in a 996-generation Porsche GT3 while I am forced to head out in a Porsche 993 Carrera. Ok, neither of us mind this one bit; nothing beats starting your day in a 911 on a racetrack even if you are not the one driving.
After our introduction, it’s time to strap ourselves behind the wheel of our respective track weapons. There is a good mix of rented Mustangs and personal vehicles out on the track during our session including a Nissan GT-R, Nissan 370Z, 964 Porsche 911 and a 700 hp Lamborghini Aventador.
NOT YOUR GARDEN VARIETY MUSTANG GT
The Mustang I am driving started out life as a regular fifth-generation (2005 and newer) GT, but has since been heavily modified. All carpeting and seats have been stripped out of the interior and only the basic shell remains. The stereo and speakers are also removed, but power window and power mirror controls remain. Two racing seats have been installed, a full roll cage equipped and secondary ignition switches and gauges take the place of the stereo.
When I ask about the engine I am informed it is the 4.6-liter V8 making ‘a lot more than the stock 300 hp.’ Each Mustang is independently owned through a car pooling service that has them rented out to users such as myself. All revenue acquired is split amongst the owners after maintenance, which is performed on site by a set of mechanics. Since each Mustang is independently owned the brakes, transmissions, gears, etc. may have been upgraded.
1. The Mustang is powered by a 4.6L V8 making roughly 350hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. 2. Weighing roughly 3,400 lbs, upgrades include a Steeda racing wing and front splitter, Ford Racing performance clutch and handling kit, short throw shifter, Stoptech 4 piston big brake kit and more. 3. It runs lap times on par with 911, Cayman and Corvette. 4. You can even buy one of the track Mustangs here.
The changes performed to the Mustangs really do transform these Fords from sports cars to track cars. The sound, feeling and response is razor sharp, but still forgiving enough for a novice driver. The transmission features short throws that are exact and the throttle response is instantaneous.
LEARNING THE TRICKY TRACK
Familiarizing myself with the vehicle, it’s now time to learn this confusing track. With so many corners similar in appearance and more elevation changes than a Cessna flying through a thunderstorm, it takes a while. Speeds are slow at first as I try to master tricky corners: 3, 8 and 14.
While driving around, I am constantly creeping up on slower vehicles, while faster cars materialize in my rear-view mirror. It is an ebb and flow as we take turns passing each other in the designated areas. However, every once and awhile one of the purpose built BMW race cars that participate in a local touring series descends on me out of nowhere and is all over my rear bumper as if I am a left-lane hog on the highway. Well, I guess I kind of am and I quickly move over as they thunder out of view in no time.
Luke’s day is a little bit easier. His car doesn’t come with as steep of a learning curve and while it can’t compete with my Mustang’s output, he gets the chance for some seriously technical instruction.
With only 167 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque, he doesn’t need to be nearly as ginger on the throttle as I do in the Mustang. Even with the convertible hard top, his car only weighs 2,562 lbs, which will hopefully be the perfect learning tool. After a few laps, Luke discovers he is only using the first four gears with the odd shift up to fifth.
Luke confirms the lightweight, well-balanced sports car feels at home on Calabogie’s many undulating corners. From the vantage point of my Mustang it doesn’t look it, however, tipping from side to side with melodramatic body roll. Still, it hangs on through the twisties.
SMOOTH IS FAST, VISION IS KEY
As the day continues I familiarize myself with the track and speed begins to increase. Like most advanced driving courses I have attended, the instructors really put a large emphasis on vision and smoothness. Most drivers on the street do not look far enough down the road and, on a racetrack, this is even more important. Trying to look off to the next corner instead of directly in front of you takes some getting used to.
Attacking corner three proves to be tricky. It is semi-blind when coming out of corner two and must be set up well in advance to take correctly. Being unfamiliar with the course, I take the corner painfully slow most of the day as I am building up the courage to enter it properly. My instructor finally tells me to go for it and I hit the corner at speed, praying the car will grip enough to keep me off the wall on the other side. It is about midway through the corner that I’m thinking this is not going to end well; I’m going to leave the track surface on the other side. But, as I exit the corner, the Mustang’s left side tires graze the curbing and everything is fine – phew.
WHEN IT ALL COMES TOGETHER
As the lapping sessions and technical debriefings continue, we both find our driving is improving drastically. Smooth driving makes sense. Seeing through the track seems possible, despite the many blind turns. Luke is appreciating the “him-sized” MX-5 rather than the raucous Mustang racecar, and is learning how to rotate the Mazda by lifting his foot off the throttle while exiting a turn.
I am hitting the majority of the apexes, my trail-braking is fairly successful, my vision into the next corner is less suspect and my driving feels as smooth as 20-year old wooden handrail at an amusement park.
An experience like this may seem a bit pricey, but it’s more than just a thrill of a lifetime. It teaches you better car control and allows you to realize where your limits are behind the wheel. By the end of the day, Luke and I were sure of two things. First, we are better drivers now than when we began the course and second, there’s still so much to learn.