Fun Way to Kill a Tuesday: SCCA "Track Night in America" With Bark M.
Some ink has already been spilled on TTAC — and elsewhere — about the SCCA’s new Track Night in America program. I won’t rehash the the excellent overviews of the program that Jack and Bark M. have already provided, so any reader unfamiliar with the program should avail themself of the linked articles before diving into mine.
I picked up a 2015 911 GT3 in late June and resolved to put my new toy on the track, with some helpful nudging from my buddy Bark. Bark’s job brings him through Atlanta with some regularity, and we’ve met up every few months over the past couple of years to talk cars and eat overpriced Mexican food. Atlanta Motorsports Park had a Track Night event on August 4th, and Bark would be in town that day; I had no excuse not to go with him and try it out. You can read Bark’s thoughts on the day at Jalopnik.
My Driving Experience Thus Far:
I am 26 years old, and have been driving for the last decade, although exclusively on the street. Despite my obvious automotive enthusiasm, I had never turned a wheel in anger on a racetrack in anything more powerful than a rental go-kart until recently. I lacked many necessary ingredients during high school and college: appropriate vehicle, sufficient cash, free time, fully-developed instincts for self preservation, etc. Adoption of the track driving hobby became a realistic proposition after I had graduated from college and found a paycheck, but I still had some trepidation. My first 911 — a 1996 Carrera — was old and prone to break in new and highly exciting ways at the most inopportune moments, whereas my second 911 — a 2007 GT3 — was still an older, used car that might wilt or suffer some unforeseen issue under track usage. Furthermore, neither car was particularly forgiving after physics overwhelmed talent.
However, my new (to me) 2015 911 GT3 is very easy to drive, very forgiving, and equipped with the latest, best electronic safety nets and the finest performance tires that Michelin has yet made — the Pilot Sport Cup 2 — all of which provided me with enough confidence to put the car on track. The preceding description likely makes me an ideal target customer for this new SCCA program: Young, (very) limited track experience, and willing to give it a try.
Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) is a private, country club-style racetrack situated about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta, right outside Dawsonville of Bill Elliott fame. The venue is just over 3 years old and makes excellent use of a small patch of land in the Appalachian foothills.
The two-dimensional map understates the tight and technical nature of the track; the terrain undulates severely, the Armco barrier is never far away, and blind corners and brows abound. Perhaps Bark said it best: “Man, there are a lot of places to destroy a car here!”
The Event Itself:
Bark and I arrived early, at about 3 PM. Bark helped me fill out our tech sheet and I went to the novice driver meeting, which was populated mostly by young men who looked eager to extract “Today’s Maximum” from their Miata, S2000, BRZ/FR-S, Mustang, Camaro, etc. Fortunately, the SCCA and AMP personnel present created an environment that minimized red mist. Before the event proper began there were a set of Paced Laps designed to acclimatize unfamiliar drivers and warm up cars. Bark ran several sessions in the Advanced category in my car with me in the passenger seat. He drove at “80-85 percent pace,” per his admission and talked me around the track, pointing out optimal lines for my car, anticipated obstacles, pitfalls, risks, opportunities, etc. Then he handed the reins to me in the novice sessions.
Despite us running 5 sessions in 100+ degree heat, the car was rock solid and temps never ballooned; a low oil light cost us the last session, but that was my fault as I know that the onboard idiot light is very sensitive. I should have planned ahead and brought a quart to add. When I added oil the next day, I was low by a modest amount — perhaps two glasses of wine.
Here’s a video of my buddy Leh Keen driving the track in a heavily modified Nissan GT-R:
Reference the video and the two-dimensional map above for my thoughts on a lap of the track.
As we came across the start finish line, I carefully stayed toward track right in the braking zone for Turn 1. The road falls away on entry and there’s a sizable armco fence protecting the pit exit, so it’s not a good place to gamble; that said, we were well into fourth gear on most of my laps, and Bark redlined it several times. The Porsche’s relatively low torque peak of 325 lbs-ft coupled with foot wide Michelins with a compound resembling a PaperMate Pink Pearl Eraser made corner exits easy for me — but frustrating for Bark, who is accustomed to the torque of his ‘stang.
After tracking out of Turn 1, running up on the kerb, and hugging the pit exit blend line, we were hurtling toward a tricky complex of S curves leading into a long left that allegedly references the Carousel at Der Nürburgring. I struggled through the S curves because I was:
- too chicken to stay far right and swing left at the last possible moment at the highest possible speed, and,
- too chicken to brake almost hard enough to engage ABS while navigating the lateral transition from the left to the right.
Through Turn 4 — aka the “Carousel” — most drivers take the tight line that Leh does in the above video, but Bark advised me to make it a double apex turn so that I could make the run from the exit of Turn 4 all the way down to the slow Turn 6 as fast and as straight as possible. Interposed between Turns 4 and 6 is the gentle Turn 5, which gave me fits setting myself up for Turn 6.
Turn 6, a right hand hairpin, is the one of the slowest corners on the track. Bark lit up the rears on exit more than once. I was, mercifully, more judicious with my throttle inputs. After Turn 6 comes the back “straight,” which, in a feat of nomenclatural irony, encompasses Turns 7, 8, and 9 despite being a very, very short piece of real estate. I racked up point-bys and stayed left on the back straight, although I struggled mightily from Turn 8 to Turn 10. Turn 8 is over a blind brow, and I had to fight the urge to lift since I had no clue what I might encounter in front of me. (Slow car? Sideways car? Deer?) After Turn 8, the optimal line runs straight across the track and hugs the right side of the track through Turn 9 and Turn 10. The proper, safe way to tackle this section is to brake in a straight line (we’re in a 911 after all) and then turn in. Instead, I was dangerously trail braking at high speed on a section of track with essentially no run-off. Good thing Bark killed that bad habit quickly.
Turns 10 through 11 represent one of my favorite sections of the track. Come into Turn 10 after
trail braking in a straight line, chop off a big piece of the kerb, track all the way out, swing back across the track as it plunges downhill to Turn 11, clip the kerb on the left of the track, and apex Turn 11. When done right, I’m sure it would’ve made my high school Trigonometry teacher proud. The next piece of the Hermann Tilke-penned track is another alleged homage, this time to Le Circuit de Spa Francorchamps. If you were hoping for the chance to enjoy a karaoke version of Eau Rouge and Raidillon in North America, you’ll be disappointed. The track simply juts sharply uphill after Turn 11, feeding into the entirely blind Turn 12, a sharp right with a tricky, uphill braking zone and a difficult, fairly late apex. I got the car sideways a few times on the exit of Turn 12, but I gathered it up before Turn 13.
Turns 13 through 15 comprise a very, very long left-hand turn. I don’t particularly care for the turn because it’s an exercise reaching an appropriate speed for a given car and then maintaining it for 10+ seconds. I felt comfortable at 90-100 mph, but frequently got stuck behind slower cars that could only manage 60-70 mph (recall that I could only pass with a point by and only on the straights). After Turn 15 comes Turn 16, a high speed, left-right sweep across the track. I wanted to use all of the track, but Bark demanded that I take the more conservative line and stay track right through the entirety of Turn 16. After that, it’s across the line and the next lap begins.
In the (likely) case that I’ve conveyed the experience of driving the GT3 on track poorly, revisit my new karting buddy Mental Ward’s thoughts on the 991 GT3 as a track tool.
Lack of Instruction – Good or Bad Thing?:
Answer is, it depends.
I completely understand why the SCCA eschews instructors for Track Night events, as the decision makes the events cheaper and more accessible, especially to the young(er) audience the program is designed to court. Of course, any participant can bring along a qualified, experienced instructor, but that’s rarely as easy as it was for me as Bark was willing to sit right seat in exchange for track time and I knew my car could handle the additional sessions.
Our event went by very safely and efficiently — as have other Track Night events across the country this year, per the SCCA — but I would have felt much less secure without Bark next to me. I realize there is no way to express this concern without presenting myself in an unfavorable light, but I was constantly mindful that the GT3 would attract considerable attention and scrutiny at the sold-out event, as it was likely the fastest car present “on paper,” as well as the most expensive.
No pressure, then, for a total noob who wanted to avoid reading a Jalopnik headline that goes like this: “OMG Watch This Douchebag Porsche Driver SMASH His GT3 On Track!”
For those reasons, which are admittedly unique to me and not necessarily representative of other attendees, I was very, very gratified to have Bark as my copilot as a completely novice track driver. I was concerned that the car might create a large target for other drivers eager to exhibit their off the charts testosterone levels, or that I might become an unwitting participant in someone else’s collision. And also that I might become acquainted with the barriers of my own accord. Of course, instructor quality varies widely across events, but Bark served as an excellent, trustworthy coach, who encouraged me where appropriate and prevented red mist, hubris, or my lack of ability to compromise my day.
I’m already planning to attend more track events, and I’m crossing my fingers that the SCCA will bring Track Night to Road Atlanta next year. That said, I not personally comfortable flying solo (yet).
Nota Bene: The opinions I have presented in this post are mine, and mine alone. I paid the full-freight cost of the event out of pocket, and no one at the SCCA has a clue who I am.
David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.
David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.
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