By on September 23, 2011

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.

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44 Comments on “Journalists and Racetracks Don’t Mix. Should They?...”

  • avatar

    ‘Which leads to a better, broader question: Why are journalists on a racetrack at all?’
    Because-Top Gear….
    And I agree with you, competent licensed racing driver joiurnalists would be able to read a cars feedback better and be able to give a better review of most cars, even CUV’s and tiny hatchbacks. They would know oversteer from understeer ;)
    And it would save the whales.

    • 0 avatar

      Top Gear at least use a trained racing driver for the performance laps. Clarkson seems also to know who to drive fast and hold a curve – better than many journalists I expect.

      • 0 avatar

        I just think it’s partly because of Top Gear every journalist wants to go on a racetrack.
        While you mention it, I remember seeing one episode where a guy from Lotus showed Clarkson ‘how to get oversteer’ in a Lotus Elise, since Jeremy was sure it understeered all the time :)

  • avatar

    “…a maximum speed of sixty miles per hour.”
    Man. I don’t think I can handle the excitement. I guess it gives you a good opportunity to count the stitches in the seats in a real racing environment.

  • avatar

    Back in 1998 I was at a track event at the Streets of Willow and we had, among other cars, a Miata, Viper and Corvette. There were no driving restrictions on the first two, but GM required anyone driving the Corvette to have already gone through an approved training course. Only one of us there had done this, and he was the only one to drive the Corvette.

    Interestingly enough, I found the Viper to be easier to drive on a track than on the street. It just felt more at home there.

    • 0 avatar
      Matthew Sullivan

      Haven’t driven a Viper on track, but got some seat time in a Z51 C6 Vette on track and on road. The Vette was definitely not in its element on the real roads. Rough pavement was kind of scary.

      By contrast, my Evo VIII was competent on track but did not feel at home there (too nose-heavy), but it was sublime on “real” roads. No wonder Clarkson himself referred to it as the fastest point-to-point car in the world at the time. (Surely some hyperbole there, but not as much as one might think.)

      One car that surprised me with its real-world prowess was a Porsche Cayman S. It gobbled up wet and bumpy roads. I was so impressed that I wanted to make a Cayman my next car after the Evo VIII, but it would have been my only transportation and all the Porsche horror stories (IMS failure, etc) scared me off. I now roll in an Evo X.

  • avatar

    Great post, Jack. I especially liked your ‘road to Damascus’ revelation that “The track is the only safe place to examine the handling limits of modern performance cars.” The imagery there was beautiful.

  • avatar

    Jack, your suggestion regarding minimum standards to prove competence for these events is a good idea. But like so many good ideas it probably won’t happen until the number of crashes increase the cost and/or somebody gets hurt.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    …..not sure we need any more credentials and criteria at these events. Looking at it another way, what wonderful material for an automotive reality TV series….which magazine will wipe out first, cause the most damage, trade the most paint, etc ?…….bonus points for rollovers and endos. Comic relief scenes at the buffet tent, featuring chug-a-lug and canape-eating contests, but, tastefully, none of the inevitable vomiting…..somewhere in the program they could even mention the quickest lap times. Winning the chug-a-lug AND setting fastest lap should guarantee a spot in the season finale. My money’s on old JP* for grand champeen.
    *…the Heffalump boy.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Props to the Toyota people for even allowing a bunch of “unwashed” in their vehicles on a racetrack but a “WTF?” for the 60 mph limit admonition. Your general suggestion makes senses: if a company is selling a vehicle that might be used on a track (e.g. Boxster, IFA, M-BMW, etc.) then it ought to be wrung out on a track — but by someone who has more than a vague idea of what he’s doing.

    And, for everything else, an interesting ride on the public roads at more or less legal (or prevailing) speeds. Frankly, unless I were buying a trackable car (whose performance limits I was capable of exploring without putting myself, the car and everyone else at risk, I’m not even interested in how it drives on a track. Any number of track star cars suck as daily drivers. My own example is the Honda S2000, supposedly a track star but one that I found sucked as a daily driver. I did not find it enjoyable to have to rev the piss out of the car to get some acceleration commensurate with it’s apparent purpose. People give you funny looks when you’re wailing away at 7000 rpm just to get a little on people at the traffic light to get in the correct lane.

    I am certainly not qualified to evaluate the driving skills of Clarkson, May and Hammond, except to say that they do not appear to be a danger to themselves or others around them.

  • avatar

    I wish they had a racetrack at The Meadowlands,

    one that you could race something with more than 1-Horsepower at, I mean;

    like an uncrashed IS-F

    OR, they could just completely pave over Jersey City or Weehawken and put one there,

    God knows the only people making good use out of them are Goldman Sachs and a few other companies.

  • avatar

    Some kind of check-off from an independent organization.

    JB, would that be something like having passed certain courses at a school like Skip Barber or Bondurant?

  • avatar

    This reminds me, I need to take more driver training. Not that it’ll do any damn good of course.

  • avatar

    I guess journalist need to be in the track because it would uncover handling defect like that of the Corvair. But today’s cars does not suffer those kind of handling defects anyway, pretty much all cars will handle in a predictable manner in an emergency, that testing it on the track is not neccessary for most cars. THough the old TT does have a tendency to losing traction in the back due to its shape, that’s the kind of things that would (should?) be uncovered in the track, because it does end up taking the life of a customer. And the kind of cars that would probably see some track time (sports cars and such) probably need some track testing. Not the Camrys of the world, though.

    Do journalist need to drive a car so hard that he lost control of it (on the track!)? I think it’s mostly newbies with overinflated ego and “I’m Senna” opinion of his driving skill trying to impress others (preferably other female journalist). I think they should be banned from any auto event that requires driving. Unfortunately, that’s not the criteria that will get a journo banned. They can wreck as many cars as they can, as long as they write positive stories about the product. If they had any shred of decency at all, they shoud’ve commited seppuku

  • avatar

    Is the 90mph Tail of the Dragon video online? I’d love to see that.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      It was a photo I took, and unless it is still up on the old forums somewhere, it is dead and gone. If I have time, I’ll run down next spring and do it again :)

      • 0 avatar

        Ha, well that makes sense, doing 90 and shooting video was perhaps too much to expect. A video sure would be nice though… having recently picked up a Cayman, I’d love to see what someone with actual skills can get out of the 987.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        If you can afford the expense, Roadhawk video cameras are pricey but very good: I’m using them to keep myself honest as well as provide an impartial electronic observer in the vehicle. The only downside to posting video clips from that device is its damning full telemetry included with the video stream.

        It was a bit of city driving which caused me to start using one: a late night near-hit as a bar hopping young man crossed against the light directly in front of my monster Buick wagon. I’m certain it was my tendency to drive 5 under the posted downtown limit at night which kept me from moving that particular pedestrian down.

      • 0 avatar
        Matthew Sullivan

        I got my Evo VIII up to 80 on The Tail, so I can believe Baruth doing 90 without seeing the picture.

        It was on a section of road that was kind of like a mellow “Lazy 8”. Hella fun, but the cliff on one side and the dropoff and trees on the other side didn’t leave a lot of room for error.

      • 0 avatar

        Honestly, I’m shocked anybody would doubt 90.
        I was knocking on 80mph in my mostly stock RX8 this year on one stretch. (While trying to hang with a buddy of mine in an STi, who was hanging on to the back of Killboy’s S2000.)

        Heck, there was somebody who broke 70 in a naturally aspirated 2nd Gen RX7 this year, and even better than a picture, he has the documentation from a Tennessee State Trooper to prove it.

      • 0 avatar

        Without concealed install and high grade encryption, aren’t you just providing evidence on a silver platter, and opportunity for harassment, to law enforcement.

        Camera evidence can cut two ways.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        Agreed: the camera is there to protect me, as well as them. It is also my direct record to provide or keep to myself. As far as the harassment is concerned, police in my current state know they have no expectation of privacy once they bring a video camera to the party. MA and OH will just need to repeal their laws criminalizing citizens armed with video cameras now this ruling has been handed down, although to be safe I’ll be giving both those states a wide berth until news of the repeal is in print.

        Having been wrongly accused of moving violations in several cases in the past, and having the police officer’s testimony weighted higher than my own provided evidence to the contrary, I’m more than willing to admit when I was truly in violation of the laws and when the officer’s claims were false or fabricated. An impartial recording including video, audio, gps and accelerometer readings should be enough to offset the specious “I’m a trained observer” claim.

  • avatar

    I call these “Bail Money Cars”, as in you need $1k in the console.

    Getting near 5/10 of any of them is 11/10 for the camry jockey in the next lane.

    Pass someone a lane away at 130/70, and they will flip their driving hand up to check the speedo.

    Wonderful devices, mechanical futility in most driving situations.

  • avatar

    That like saying Mid-Ohio is like driving on I-71. The latter is more like Nelson Ledges.

  • avatar

    Think journos are incompetent drivers? I bet they look like The Stig compared to the mouth breathers I have witnessed at manufacturer sponsored “ride and drive” events for dealership sales people. Yeesh…

  • avatar

    I’ve been to a Lexus event at Monticello, and there is one place where you can definitely lose control. If these journos were driving on the southern course, then as they finish the lap there is a right hand sweeping turn over a brow which then dives down onto the starting grid. Get this turn wrong by not redirecting the car before it gets light and you can go off left into the armco.(we do see in the photo that it’s the left side of the car which is mushed) At the event I went to, we got to drive ISFs, thought not at high speed. Still, I tested the stability controls of the car by deliberately upsetting it; the computer saved the car pretty nicely, so this journo must have really overcooked it.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    …….looks like the journalist incompetence bar has now been set a little higher…..just read on another site that an Austrian hack recently demolished an AVENTADOR press car. Top that, fearless lead-footed journos of the world!

  • avatar

    Since I know I didn’t inspire the name, I proudly claim “John Pigboy Heffalump” as my own. My wife may not like being married to Pigboy, but my kids are going to love it.

    By the way Mr. Baruth, I can’t truthfully comment on how press association track days are run simply because I’ve never been to a press association track day. When I wreck test cars, I prefer to do it on a lonely back road in privacy. I then torch the car and hitch a ride back into the city before reporting it stolen. It’s been my M.O. for years.

    As a former member of MPG out here in California, I can however attest to the worthlessness of these sorts of organizations. As a freelancer, they do nothing to improve my business or my professional relationships. Plus I never want to show up at a meeting and discover that I fit in.

    You know, us Heffalumps have our pride.

    — John Pearley Huffman (for the time being)

    • 0 avatar
      dvp cars

      ……so you’re the prototype for Jack’s J “Pigboy” Heffalump. I shall have to do some googlewicki research on your (presumably) autojournalist history, as you sound like a pretty witty writer yourself. Don’t be surprised if your new moniker takes on a life of it’s own, as I’ve already seen it used a couple of times on this site, including once by me. The only downside of learning that it’s a made-up name is my personal disappointment……I had hoped you were a long lost relative of Blind Pigboy Heffaboy, whose scratchy 1930’s records I still treasure.

  • avatar

    Racing should be left to racers.

    Just like surgery left to surgeons!
    I hope at medical shows and conventions journalist are NOT allowed to try out the instruments!
    “Here is the new K99 eye laser. Anybody want to take it for a run on this volunteer out behind the booth curtain?????”


  • avatar

    A tick over eleven years ago now Car and Driver’s Technical Editor died in a high-speed accident in a RennTech Mercedes. Back then I bought into the idea that every car mag editor was at the very least competent behind the wheel. After reading Jack’s article, I wonder what really happened to the poor guy.

    • 0 avatar

      If memory serves, I believe I read that the accident was chalked up to a wheel bearing failing/disintegrating at near 200mph. I remember Mercedes being distinctly interested in the crash, even though the car belonged to RennTech. No idea if the wheel bearing was the actual culprit, and even if it was I’m sure all related parties are banned from talking about it as part of a settlement arrangement.

    • 0 avatar

      Don Schroeder was an engineer by training and a precise, phenomenally talented test driver.

      I worked with him at Car and Driver and remember driving around Honda’s test oval in California at 150 mph in a supercharged ’99 Civic Si — a car that had no business going 150 mph. But Don handled with casual matter-of-factness even as the low pressure zone around the car threatened to suck the side windows off the car. I’ve watched him lap tracks like Willow Springs Raceway in cars that SCCA champions would have a hard time taming at speeds that would impress Indy Car drivers.

      What happened to Don was mechanical failure. That’s it. There is no mystery.

  • avatar

    How much damage is that? Looks like everything is of the quickly swappable type. Lucky way to be reminded not to play with fire.

  • avatar

    That was the aforementioned Don Schroeder at C/D. I googled his name + journalist, and read his obit on the mag’s website. Well worth reading.

    No determination as to what actually happened. But pretty obvious that our JB would have to be in rare form to keep up with Don on a racetrack, all bluster aside.

  • avatar

    Corpse and Droner seems to hire people who can race, or at least try to. Bubba Fedda raced in 15 24 hour events and backflipped a race prepped Firebird at 200mph. Anthony Schwann is listed as the “old boy racer” and at one point raced a Quad 442 and an NX 2000 for Poplar Mekanix. Johann Phelps drove a Boss 302 that liked to fart sparks on the track. John Pigboy Heffalump’s “tour” of the Ferrari plant is quite memorable. As for Rodent Track, Automobrie and Moto Rooter, don’t know, don’t care.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    This is not accurate. I was there, and there was no mention of a speed limit all day long. I personally topped 85 mph in probably 9 or 10 of the 11 cars that I drove, and I topped 100 in one or two. It would have been possible to go well beyond that but for the two chicanes installed in the fastest part of the track. Also, I’m certain that many drivers went a lot faster than I did. Of those who went faster, some were probably better drivers and some were probably more foolhardy or overconfident.

    I’m far from God’s gift to driving, but I didn’t see yesterday’s event as a race; I saw it as an opportunity to drive some really great cars in a controlled environment. I used common sense (and took my first lap in a Focus automatic at a moderate pace to familiarize myself with the track). I stayed well within my abilities the entire day; obviously the IS-F driver did not.

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    I’m a little surprised so many journos don’t develop at least rudimentary track skills, though I guess I shouldn’t be by now. I know if my job involved taking some of these high performance cars on a track I’d at least sign up for a Skip Barber type class early on in my career. I understand they don’t have to be truly competitive at it, but it seems to me basic track skills would be a pre-requisite.

  • avatar
    ken wagon

    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.

  • avatar
    Byron Hurd

    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.

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