Nissansportz Forum Member Lesmo Reflects on his Performance Driver ‘Track’ Day on Sunday 30th August 2015
I will start by saying I don’t want to do track days, they don’t appeal to me personally. But members of this forum have long raved on about the CAT driver training days and respecting those opinions, when a date was released for August Bank Holiday we quickly signed up, for this would be a event to be enjoyed by Caroline in her mini and me in the Zed.
The communications and information over the following weeks were extremely professional, a list of items to pre check on the cars. Emails and personal messages answered quickly, you were left feeling you were dealing with an extremely professional outfit.
So on a damp Sunday morning in August we all arrived at the Millbrook proving grounds
6 cars arrived at the entrance. A mighty GTR also joined our fold from another forum, and 5 nissansportz members. We were in for a real treat – the GTR, Audi RS 4, Three 370z’s and Caroline’s Mini Cooper S.
Jo who had been behind all the communications turned up, with the first and most important rule of Millbrook, absolutely no Photography, our Camera phones would be covered with stickers – this is understandable, we were about to enter the secret world of vehicle testing. As we drove into the site, you would have been mistaken in thinking you were going onto a Military base carrying out chemical warfare testing. Turning left we had our first glimpse of the 2 mile banked oval, on it were two test cars running feet apart on a long term test. But more of those later.
Arriving at the CAT Base, we were immediately welcomed with Coffee and introduced to our two instructors for the Day, Colin and Paul. Completing the check on cars and licences. We listened to a overview of the day and a briefing on Safety. It is clear CAT take this responsibility very seriously. We sat and evaluated our driving, it was refreshing to hear the honesty in the group, content I was not sitting in a room with this years Le Mans winner. I heard the thing I most wanted to hear – Colin calmly spoke, we will not ask you to do anything you are not comfortable doing, we will try and stretch you but only if you want it. You could almost feel the anxiety drop. It was clear the main intention was for us all to have a good time. We now split into two groups Paul taking one and Colin the other. Both Caroline and I were in Colins group.
As we headed off down what we didn’t realise was the alpine course to the mile long straight, you started to understand the sheer magnitude of the proving ground. Arriving at the Straight the desolate Sunday morning was soon awake with the noise of our cars.
As with each of the sessions Colin and Paul took us through the steps, the things we would learn they showed us in their cars the steps we would ourselves be undertaking.
Caroline was out first, she came back with a smile on her face – you could see the confidence building. Then my turn. completing the first pass, with Colin next too me, I felt safe. The instructions were reassuring and clear. As we came back a pack of Porsches arrived. What is the term for a pack of Porches… Anyway, I waited for them to sort themselves out and steadily passed 911’s – I needed to show them how good the little Nissan really was and how much I had learned from my first pass. The car and my tuition did not let me down, already I had learned two skills which I would use throughout the day and my confidence was high. As we all took turns, the social element of the day took over, standing in the parking area – we chatted, we looked over the cars and you never felt like you were hanging around. Watching others you could learn just as much.
With the Porsches now obliterating the mile straight we headed off for what was always going to be my highlight – the 2 Mile High banked oval. Parking up at the Handling Circuit – Colin gave us a briefing and then we loaded up with Colin and headed off the High Banked Oval. Caroline and I have been lucky to visit some of the best Oval circuits in the US. From Daytona to Charlotte, Talladega to Pocono with its triangle formation. But as we entered the Oval – the sheer magnitude of the site became apparent. Lane 5 was something you could only aspire too. As the two long term test cars came past still beating the miles, we covered the objectives and back to our cars.
Caroline was soon out and back with a thumbs up, you could see the confidence growing more and more. Then my turn, I should probably say my expectations of what I could do prior to the event with regards to how fast I would go – were higher than the reality of it. Only when you get up feet away from the barrier do you realise the magnitude of the task in hand. Its not about the speed, its about driving safely in a constant bowl. Even then I did speeds which would have given you a lengthy ban.
Coming back to the parking, I had a new respect for the Oval drivers doing what I did at 200 Mph 3 wide. Also to be fair to the Top Gear presenters who I had watched doing 150+ and thinking that’s easy, my limits were not as great as I thought they would be. But I wasn’t disappointed. I knew my limits and I didn’t cross them. Although one of my moments was passing the long speed testing cars in lane 3 – me in lane 5 doing 120. For a second I wished to be in the test cars to see how good the Zed looked.
The final session before lunch was the High Speed Handling Course, more circuit than a road – we took the braking and steering techniques we had already learned and added the use of throttle to control and settle the car, added to that looking far ahead – the car felt completely stable – concentrating less on the corner you were in and more on what was coming. You started to understand it when drivers say things seem slow, they really do slow down, the more confidence and control you have the less effort you need to put in and the slower things seem to happen. The last corner proved the frustrating one, the chicane was pure joy, as the car floated through – all the time Colin feeding back.
Back to base for Lunch, the room had a new confidence, the rain tipping down outside. We moved on to the Alpine course, one we have all seen on TV programmes, To further develop our cornering techniques – learning how to drive hair pins, and put what we had learned about Single Input Steering to the test. What had been daunting when we first arrived and drove part of it, Felt great. If it has been a sunny day and coast had been lapping beside you – you would have said it was the best road in the world. As it was the window wipers were plodding along and we were in Bedfordshire. No sooner were you starting than you were finishing, But it felt so good when you hooked it up. You could feel what you had learned working.
Then back to the classroom to understand a little more about the physics behind cars before moving onto the low grip surface. Another highlight. I wanted to know how the car felt just before and after it was going to lose control, As I approached the wet surface with the Traction Control on, I was amazed how good it was, it turned Oversteer to understeer, then to something I never do. Turning the Traction Control off. I was soon heading backwards out of a spin. But so very safe nothing anywhere near to hit. As I watched the GTR giving us a demonstration of drifting, you could see how all the cars were different, I was massively impressed with how well the mini did for instance.
Finally onto the last event of the day, the Gymkhana – I opted to drive the Scoobie owned by CAT. I had never driven one and the opportunity was too good to be missed. It was an event using all the techniques learned in the day. As I sat at the line waiting to be counted down, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Colin now my familiar passenger – as my co-driver. We left the line and off into a world of cones. I would lie if I said I had a clue where I was supposed to go. But Colin got me through it. We took to the line for our second and last timed run. Count down and we were off, No penalties and what felt like a good run. The perfect last event.
Driving back to the CAT HQ, you could see everyone doing single input driving and taking the hairpin curves. If you wanted to see how much everyone had learned you only needed to see this line of orderly cars all under control and all practicing the strategies we had learned. I was proud of all of us as we drove in. It was like we had been to University all day and this was our graduation.
So to the Prizes – Caroline was awarded most improved Driver of the Day – from someone who wasn’t sure if they really wanted to attend and just really came along to make me happy, she looked confident and relaxed and following back to the HQ the Mini was being driven like a pro. Best drift went to the GTR, the drift was epic – honestly, for a few seconds I stood in absolute awe. Fastest time went to the stunning modified black 370z with its air suspension – with its lovely sound. Me – well I came third, in a car I had never driven before, I was very proud of that. Although I think had other things not happened in the day and one of our members not been side-lined through mechanical issues I would have been 4th.
I didn’t want to do a track day, I did the Civic thing the other week and all I came back with was a high speed. CAT gave me more than bragging rights. I know the Zed can do 155 – what was clear though is the ability to reach it was actually governed not by the car but by me. As I drove home last night I found myself using the skills I had been taught, looking further down the road, better positioning of the car and feeling pride when in my virtual world on the main road I got it right. Outside to the other motorists – it probably didn’t look that impressive. But yesterday I changed. I felt confident. I understood better what the Zed would do – in fact if you have money to spend on a Mod I would make CAT one high up on your list. The car will only ever be as in control and fast as the driver behind the wheel. The event was well run, it was will structured, it was fun, I learned so much and unlike a track day I actually came away with skills I can use every day. It made me want to do it all over again. Most important the car did not have a hard time – it didn’t do much more than any weekend or commute. Even Caroline said she would do it again, Someone who was quite nervous before the day started. Loved it.
As the day went on I had more capacity to do other things than just drive, in a very short time I had skills which will make me safer on the road and that is a priceless skill. If anyone is sitting here where we were in May – having heard only good things about CAT. They are all true. Everyone of them. If you have ever wondered what Millbrook is like or to drive on the High Speed Banked oval – its a bucket list thing. The day – the people on the day were fun, we laughed – we admired – there was pride as each of us picked up a new skill. Oh and at the end of the day my MPG was 20.4 – not bad for the Zed I thought. The Zed is a great car until yesterday I didn’t appreciate how great. Boy does it handle well. Driving away it felt like the end of the Breakfast Club – as we convoyed out.
Finally thanks to Jo, Colin and Paul, you made the day very special. You made the Zed feel more planted than it has ever felt, and me more confident about how it handles and how good the car really is.
Single input steering is my new best friend.