Journalists and Racetracks Don't Mix. Should They?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Does the above car look familiar? It should; we tested it earlier this year. I noted the IS-F’s desire to step sideways in wet conditions when the eight-speed autobox clunked through the gears, but honestly I thought it was more annoyance than danger.

Turns out I was wrong. Yesterday, a journalist put a halt to the fun of the “International Motor Press Assocation” Monticello track-and-buffet-day when he crashed on his very first lap. When my spies at IMPA (as you might suspect, I’m not a member, the same way I’m not a member of the Midwestern association) told me about the crash, I was surprised. Not because some hammerhead drove off on his first lap to the track — that’s virtually mandatory at these events — but because there’s almost nothing to hit at Monticello. That track has been engineered in a cost-no-object fashion to prevent even the biggest idiots from stuffing their cars into a wall.

Oh well. Make something idiot-proof, and IMPA, MAMA, or (especially) TAWA will engineer a bigger idiot. Apparently the rest of the event was conducted with a maximum speed of sixty miles per hour. A maximum speed. Of sixty miles per hour. On a racetrack that I drove in wet conditions and saw speeds of 140+, while I had a helicopter flying overhead. Why bother to have journalists on the track under those conditions? Which leads to a better, broader question: Why are journalists on a racetrack at all?

The number of competent, currently competing auto racers in the field of automotive journalism is between three and ten, depending on how broadly you define “competent” — (should a guy who runs LeMons exclusively be considered a “racer”?) — and “journalist”. Ex: Is Randy Pobst a “journalist” because he writes for the SCCA magazine? When a manufacturer holds a press event at a racetrack, it’s not uncommon for half of the invited participants to stay at the buffet table for the whole event. Of the half who do participate, most are simply abysmal. At Chrysler events, as an example, the cars are usually spaced out by between ten and twenty seconds; I usually catch the guy ahead of me on the first lap out. Sometimes it’s in the first half of the first lap. There are so few non-racers in the business who would qualify for, say, NASA’s HDPE4 level that I can think of them by name, right now. It’s a short list.

You get the idea, right? I repeat it about once a week on TTAC, so you’re probably sick of hearing it. Autojournos are painfully slow. This is well known. But why does it matter? Who cares if John Pigboy Heffalump (just to make up a name that has no relation whatsoever to any existing automotive writer) can crank out a track record on demand? It hasn’t affected his career one bit. The free meals still arrive on time and the checks still appear in the mailbox.

I would suggest that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know how to drive very well in order to review a Camry or an SUV. Those buyers want to hear about trunk space, interior space, features, pricing. As long as a journalist can detect unsafe handling at normal-speed operation, that’s as high as the bar needs to be set. It’s nice to know that the Chrysler Town and Country can haul ass on back roads, but most buyers don’t care and won’t make that part of their purchase decision. Look at a list of the top ten vehicles sold in the United States on any given month, and you will see that no more than two or three of them have any appeal whatsoever to “performance drivers”. There’s no reason to have a racetrack available at the press events for these vehicles, although occasionally a manufacturer will book a track to make a point about a non-sporting vehicle’s handling, as Acura did with the BeaveRun Road Course introduction of the current-gen MDX.

Performance cars are another matter entirely. If the current Town and Country is really too fast for public roads, and it is, how can anybody possibly evaluate a BMW M-car or Corvette there? If a plain Boxster can reach 90mph in-between turns at the “Tail Of The Dragon” (a claim I made about my Boxster, to much derision, and then proved by holding a camera while I did it), how the hell are you going to test a 911 GT3 on the Angeles Crest or the PCH? I had a moment of what the Buddhists call satori at a recent West Coast event. I was clearing 135mph on a long downhill curve, on an unknown road, and I suddenly thought: I have a son. I’d like to be there for his first day of school. This so-called “fear of death” was so interesting to consider that I almost missed the next braking point, simply out of navel-gazing self-absorption. Hoo boy. That would have been more ironic than rain on your wedding day.

The track is the only safe place to examine the handling limits of modern performance cars. Period, point blank. Twenty years ago, the racetrack performance of bone-stock production automobiles was more of a bench-racing topic than anything useful to know, but given the number of enthusiasts who are tracking their cars on the weekends, it’s not just an intellectual exercise anymore. When I review a performance car, at least a few of my readers will be people who are potential purchasers for that car and who will take it to the track the minute they can find a set of Hawk or Pagid brake pads for it. I’ve had TTAC readers come up to me at trackdays and offer their opinions on how their car handles on-track compared to my published impressions. Those are always great conversations, and they underline an important point: the racetrack is an accepted part of the modern street-car performance dialogue.

We now find ourselves on the proverbial horns of the proverbial dilemma: it’s important for certain cars to be evaluated on racetracks, but most journalists have no business on-track. What to do? Motor Trend offered one answer to that question recently when they performed their “Best Track Car” test. They sidelined the journalists and let Randy Pobst drive. As a result, they got consistent, qualified results and opinions. Since Pobst is a competent writer, one wonders if MT couldn’t just fire the buffet-browsers and let Pobst write the whole test next time. Cheaper and better.

Randy’s a busy man, however, so don’t look for him to waste his time at press events any time soon. Nor are his competitors eager to stop racing for real so they can attend three-hour product previews. We can’t make journalists out of full-time racers.

My suggestion: there should be a minimum standard for participation in racetrack events. That minimum standard could be one or more of the following:

  • Current holder of a competition license from a major sanction — SCCA, NASA, Grand-Am, IMSA, et al
  • NASA, SCCA, PCA or BMWCCA Instructor status (that kind of scares me, given the legendary incompetence of some of those d00dz, but they’re all still better than J.P. Heffalump and crew)
  • Some kind of check-off from an independent organization.

Initially, enforcing such a restriction will keep the idiots off the track. In the long run, it may force journalists to take driver training from a respected organization just to keep their jobs. That would be a good thing. It would significantly increase the quality of the driving impressions delivered to the readers. It would improve safety at press events. It would keep the mommybloggers and newspaper morons out of my way at Laguna Seca. In short, it would accomplish many good things. It would even save the whales!

Wait. It wouldn’t save the whales. It would, however, save the whale-nosed Toyotas, and as the nice people who run that particular company’s press fleet can currently attest, that isn’t a bad thing, either.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Ken wagon Ken wagon on Sep 24, 2011

    Are performance car producers actually interested in fostering an informed opinion? Perhaps a more informed opinion would be as welcome as a more honest one. Maybe they want someone that reviews camcords to say that the power, ride and opulence of, say, the Panemera, is almost overwhelming (when compared to a camcord). Also, everyone would miss that paragraph about the novelty of having to put on a driving suit and helmet for the 'serious business' ahead.

  • Byron Hurd Byron Hurd on Sep 25, 2011

    I like the idea of needing a comp license to drive a press car in anger. I'd be willing to shell out the dough and the time. Hell, in my position it could only help my credibility. Unfortunately, exposure trumps talent at every level of this game. Wouldn't want to let a pesky thing like competence get in the way of added coverage.

  • Wolfwagen What I never see when they talk about electric trucks is how much do these things weigh and how much does that detract from the cargo-carrying capacity?
  • Wolfwagen I dont know how good the Triton is but if they could get it over here around the $25K - $30K They would probably sell like hotcakes. Make a stripped down version for fleet sales would also help
  • 3SpeedAutomatic You mentioned that Mitsubishi cars had lost their character. Many brands are losing that that element as well. GM is giving up on the ICE Camaro and Dodge on the ICE Challenger. There goes the Bad Boy image. Might as well get your teeth pulled and dentures put in place. Would like to see a few EVOs with cherry bomb exhaust and true 4 cylinder BIG blower turbos; 4 wheel drift capacity is mandatory!!🚗🚗🚗
  • Tassos Here in my overseas summer palace, I filled up my tank twice in May, at 68 and 52 euros (a full 90+ liter tank fillup has taken 130-135 Euros in the past, and I am 23 miles from downtown here, while only 1-2 miles in the US)Still, diesel here is MUCH cheaper than gas. Yesterday, I paid 1,488 a liter while gas was at least 1,899 (regular).Multiply by almost 4 for gallons AND by an additional 1.1 for $.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic IIRC, both China and the EU use a standardized charger connection. About time the US & Canada to follow.Would take some of the anxiety out of an EU purchase and accelerate adoption. 🚗🚗🚗
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