Socially-Distanced Tracking Is Strange

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
socially distanced tracking is strange

I almost turned the invite down.

In early June, Ford lit up my inbox with an invitation to head to Joliet, Illinois, to drive the Shelby GT500 on track at the members-only Autobahn Country Club.

Ah, Joliet – best known for the now-defunct prison featured in The Blues Brothers and other media. Also home of the Chicagoland Speedway, where NASCAR has a Cup race most years, as well as the Route 66 drag strip, which hosts NHRA events. Too bad we couldn’t turn the Shelbys loose on the oval. Or the drag strip. The latter was actually part of the plans. More on that later.

I hemmed and hawed for quite sometime before RSVP’ing “yes.” Illinois was just beginning to reopen from the COVID-19 shutdowns, and the idea of doing anything in a crowd, even a small one, during a pandemic didn’t sit well with me. I’d been pretty good about avoiding people and staying home, only going out for groceries, home necessities, press-car swaps, walks, and drives/photo shoots.

Even as the state reopened, I wasn’t mentally ready to dine in at a restaurant or drink indoors at a bar, or go to the gym. Of course, only outdoor dining and drinking was allowed at that point. I did, with apprehension, get a haircut as soon as I could, though. I was shaggy.

I did eventually do a socially-distanced visit with my dad for Father’s Day, and days later, after taking him to routine doctor’s appointment, he treated me to lunch at a restaurant with outdoor seating – my first time at such an establishment since March. I was nervous about it, for sure.

Given all my newfound apprehension about being around people – I used to be pretty comfortable in crowds, before all this – could I handle being around people at a track?

Yes, I’m still sort of young(ish), but that hasn’t kept me from worrying about catching the coronavirus. This thing is no joke, so I’ve tried to take it seriously.

COVID or no, there was also a time issue – was it worth it to take half a day and spend it away from the desk just for some laps in a car I’ve already driven? Even a 760-horsepower monster (for full specs, go here)? I was hesitant.

That said, living as a shut-in for the better part of a year doesn’t seem like a great idea, either. And some activities are low risk, if you’re masked and maintaining social distance. I mean, I’m considering playing in a late-summer softball league, just to rejuvenate my physical and mental health a bit. Would a track day be one of those “safe” activities?

Yes, I thought. We’d be outside for the majority of the time, and Ford’s team appeared to be taking the threat seriously. The initial email laid out the safety plans and the rules for participants – masks, social distance, don’t come if you feel sick – in detail. We were told there’d be hand sanitizer everywhere, they’d give us masks, they’d disinfect each car and helmet between track sessions, and they’d even give us a small bottle of hand sanitizer. We were also emailed most of the necessary waivers to fill out and sign digitally.

(Full disclosure: Ford gave us the aforementioned masks and hand sanitizer, along with a goody bag with a paperweight, sunglasses, and a hat).

We were also told, in vague terms, that there might be other screening measures in place, and that it would depend on local guidelines, as well as the discretion of the track. And we might not be allowed in if we showed signs of illness. I took “screening” to mean digital temperature scans.

Finally, us shrimp-eating journos were told there’d be some packaged snacks and bottled/canned beverages available. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but it was clear there would be no group breakfast before and/or lunch after. Arrive, drive, don’t give the virus a chance to thrive.

When I got there, things were a little more normal than I expected, and I think that’s because Illinois is in a better place than other states with regards to viral spread, at the moment, anyway. There was the usual sign-in process before entering the property – the only difference is I did it through a window as opposed to going into the building. Temps weren’t scanned, and after parking, I had to do a second sign-in, specifically for the event. Not unusual. What was unusual is that they were throwing pens in a “dirty” pile after each participant used them. The only other thing that struck me as odd in this new world was a bowl of fruit sitting out. Who knows who touched that banana? Ed. note – *giggle*.

Dots marked the spots where we should stand to maintain social distance, and Ford’s speakers offered to keep their mask on while on the mic if we asked. They also wiped down the mic after each speech, then wiped down all the displays in the garage tent. We were shown the spray gun that would be used to disinfect each car, and told that under both Illinois order and the track’s rules, we’d be required to keep our masks on when within six feet of anyone and not driving. Want to take your mask off? Fine, but distance yourself from the rest.

We’d only be going inside to use the restrooms, and even then, capacity was limited and every other urinal was taped off. No precaution spared, if you’ll excuse the paraphrase of a catchphrase.

As much as I was concerned about virus risk, the least worrisome part was the driving. We’d be alone in the cars, with no right-seat instructor. We’d be doing lead-follow, and we’d have audio hookups so the instructor in the lead car could talk to us. We were offered the chance to right-seat-ride with a pro on a “hot lap”, and I was willing to take the risk to do this, but it was nasty hot and humid out, and even after being in the air-conditioned car for my run, I wanted nothing more than shade and cold water. So I begged off.

Being in the car alone, at speed, phone off, is a great way to forget about the state of the world. All that matters for the next 10 minutes is braking zones, apexes, accelerating at the right time, not hitting the car in front of you, and getting as much speed as you can without going eleven-tenths and doing the walk of shame.

As for the car itself, well, it’s a goddamn Shelby. It hasn’t gotten worse since our first drive. It’s a friggin’ blast on track, even for a middling journalist. Fire it up, and it sounds more like a NASCAR stocker than any car currently in production. It’s loud, crude, and not sorry. It’s so American that the exhaust might as well burp bald eagles.

It makes short work of straightaways, and the brakes are stout and hold up well under repeated lapping. I was a bit too cautious on my first two laps when approaching the scariest braking zone, which is before a slow and tight right-hander after a long, wide-open throttle straightaway. This was in part because of lead-follow, and my desire to give the car in front of me some space.

On the final lap, which should’ve been a cooldown, our instructor kept his foot in it, and so did we. I kept my foot to the floor for two more markers before pegging the whoa pedal hard. No fade, no ABS, just the right amount of pushback as the car slowed enough to keep me out of trouble.

Pulling into the pits, there was some confused, urgent discussion, and I belatedly realized the crew wanted to check brake-fluid temps on my ride, as apparently some smoke was being emitted from the rotors, but I’d already killed the engine. I inquired if the car had a mechanical issue, but one of the pit crew waved me off. Said something about how heating the brakes that much meant we were driving the car the way it was meant to be driven. Left unsaid was the weather’s effect.

I later talked with the current Shelby boss about this, and he, though no doubt biased, reminded me that the brakes are meant to withstand a lot of punishment. “Repeatable” is the word he kept, well, repeating regarding the brakes’ ability to hold up to multi-lap track abuse without problems.

The Shelby’s steering is easy to deal with – heavy enough to give feedback, but still light enough for quick transitions. The car goes where it’s pointed with no drama, and getting on the gas too early is less scary than one might think in a car with this much thrust – although impatience can still lead to the rear waggling.

We hustled into the cars too quickly for me to get a good look, but I assume Ford’s crew had each car raring to go in track mode before each run. I wasn’t able to confirm this before press time.

There was one other COVID-caused bummer. Ford wanted us to experience line-lock on a drag strip, but its plan to have us rip off a few runs at Route 66 was killed because that facility wouldn’t open, due to coronavirus. But hey, Ford did bring a new Mach 1 for us to gawk at.

At the risk of this sounding like a self-serving justification of my decision to attend, I do think tracking a car is one of the lowest-risk activities one can do during a pandemic. And it’s likely even a lower risk if you’re driving your own vehicle. Your interactions would be very limited and almost certainly all distanced.

That’s not medical advice – I’m not qualified to offer that. I’m just making a guess based on common sense.

So if quarantine has got you down, and you need to get out of the house, and you have the car and bank account required for track driving, do it. It’s almost certainly safer for you than drinking in a crowded bar, while providing a mental boost over staying home and burning through Netflix again.

Sure, it’ll be weird. Far from normal. But what isn’t weird these days? Still, there are ways of finding joy during a shitty new normal, and letting the ponies run at full whomp on a track is a pretty good stress release.

Wear your mask. Wash your hands. And make sure you hit your apex.

[Images © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Join the conversation
3 of 15 comments
  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Jul 14, 2020

    So, how hard is it on the rotors to run hard and park it with them that hot? You have pads covering part of the rotor so it will cool at different rates this way.

    • Tim Healey Tim Healey on Jul 31, 2020

      All I know is that they were smoking a bit, and I think the problem with me killing the engine is that it turned off the dash display, which might show brake temps.

  • -Nate -Nate on Jul 15, 2020

    Sounds like a fun day out to me . Here in Southern California I choose to be more careful as the infection rates are going up not leveling off . I drive by my self and avoid crowds, I went on a social distancing group drive a while back, that was fun and no one ever got close to me even in the parking lot , I'd like to do that again . I can't imagine having a vehicle with 700 + horsepower ~ I know it'd be great fun but I also think I might kill my self or wreck it through inexperience before I got far =8-^ . -Nate

  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.
  • Paul Mezhir As awful as the styling was on these cars, they were beautifully assembled and extremely well finished for the day. The doors closed solidly, the ride was extremely quiet and the absence of squeaks and rattles was commendable. As for styling? Everything's beautiful in it's own way.....except for the VI's proportions were just odd: the passenger compartment and wheelbase seemed to be way too short, especially compared to the VI sedan. Even the short-lived Town Coupe had much better proportions. None of the fox-body Lincolns could compare to the beautiful proportions of the Mark was the epitome of long, low, sleek and elegant. The proportions were just about perfect from every angle.
  • ToolGuy Silhouetting yourself on a ridge like that is an excellent way to get yourself shot ( Skylining)."Don't you know there's a special military operation on?"
  • ToolGuy When Farley says “like the Millennium Falcon” he means "fully updatable" and "constantly improving" -- it's right there in the Car and Driver article (and makes perfect sense).