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MAMA Track Day - Learning to Drive (FAST!) with “Hungry Eyes.” By Martha Hindes

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By Martha Hindes
Senior Editor
Mchigan Buteau
The Auto Channel

“Drive with hungry eyes.” That statement from Brad Pines got my attention really fast. He was talking about how a driver should read the road ahead when tearing around a road racing course at top speeds and maneuvering around tight turns or lapping a slower driver up ahead.

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That was among pointers Pines was laying out to a handful of people whose livelihood is writing about cars and who were at a small southern Michigan road racing track to learn the fine points of performance driving.

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This day at the end of July was what is termed “Track Day,” a special MAMA 19 Track School for members of the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA) and the fifth year in a row it has been held at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. It’s a three-decade old, 2.14-mile road racing track in the middle of corn fields just miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline. And it’s a favorite spot for driving enthusiasts who can bring their own vehicles and buy track time or participate in a hosted event such as MAMA’s that, as previously, was sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).

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FCA had brought in a tantalizing array of its upcoming 2020 models, all track worthy, for some 20 MAMA members to learn on and test out during two half-day sessions. It also showed off its 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody that ekes out a mind-numbing 707 horsepower, that remained static – on display only. We had other vehicles to take to the starting gate.

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From a stable that ranged from Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk and Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody, Dodge Charger Scat Pack to Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoligo and Giulia Ti Sport and Dodge Durango SRT, they presented a range of vehicles loaded with a brain-fogging 700-plus horsepower to a mild 160.

As a newly-rejoined MAMA member with some track training and track time under my belt I had qualified as an invitee, in a borrowed helmet, thanks to MAMA President Damon Bell.

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Pines, who kicked us off, is a former auto writer himself who transitioned to lead instructor with a group called CGI Motorsports that does the track’s training. Following a lunch of burgers and brats in the paddock’s “La Dolce Vita“ shed, he launched into a precise list of disciplines one needs to follow to enjoy the thrill of commanding a powerful sporty car (or truck) and putting it through its paces without tangling with another driver or ending up wrapped around a tree.

“If you run off the track, go straight,” said Pines. “If it gets dusty we can wash it off. If it gets twisted we can’t bend it back into shape.”

Some of Pines’ instructions might seem predictable as they relate to driving under any conditions on any road. But on a road racing track they are the lifeblood of staying on four wheels and alive. Pines calls them the “building blocks” of good track driving.

Among his caveats: Cooperation not competition. This kicks off the session. “There aren’t any first place winners here,” he emphasized. This is learning day, not a championship driving match.

Stay predictable. Do one thing at a time. Do it carefully.

Forget those Hollywood flicks with their spinning steering wheels, white knuckle two-wheel cornering, and hard landings after going airborne.. That isn’t how it works, said Pines.

“Be smooth and fast happens,” he said. When it’s time to steer, guide with hands solidly at 3 and 9. Don’t jerk the wheel. Don’t tell the car what to do, ask it nicely. Connect your steering to what you are doing with the gas pedal. When hands are on steering wheel, gas is great, If you apply too much gas, your hands will tell you. It may sound strange, but Pines says a car and its handling each has its own “style.” It’s up to the driver to learn what it is.

Allow passing. In this scheduled track event, that’s a priority. On one of the two brief straightaways, alert the driver coming up behind you to pass on the right or left with your hand gestures out the open driver’s window. When that car has passed, ease off the gas so that driver can blend into the proper track positions that are signaled by markers and the driving instructor riding shotgun ordering out commands.

In the days when on-board cameras are augmenting or replacing the habit of checking mirrors, always keep mirrors in your vision. They are your friends.

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And about that attention-getting “what-to-watch-for” comment from Pines. Vision is vital. Train your eyes to be hungry eyes, sometimes called horizon eyes, where you watch for fixed points along the track, a post, a gnarled tree, the orange traffic cones that anchor the apex and other cornering and location spots. The car ahead of you is a moving object on the track and in your vision but you need to focus on something that’s nailed down. Concentrating on the fixed points will let you know what to do.

From my on-board instructor: Read the tire and braking marks on the roadway. Too many burned rubber tracks can mean other cars hadn’t braked in the proper place and left a load of tire melt on the asphalt when braking or turning. And also: Braking should not be a sudden “mashing a soda pop can” effort, but strong and steady, followed by an easing off.

Smart drivers don’t worsen a track run. They flow.

When it’s time to go on the track, starting is from the right lane that leads to the starting gate where the starter signals “go.”. The center lane is for returning to the paddock. The left lane is where driver and passenger can stop and swap spots, such as teacher turning the vehicle over to student after three inaugural demonstration runs. Then the fun begins.

My instructor, German born Jorg Warmuth, has a long history of teaching near novices and experienced drivers at the track and has developed a well tuned sense of humor blended with apparently steely nerves, especially when growing driver confidence makes the track more crowded.

His “Brake! Brake! Brake!“ command to avoid a potential problem comes through in perfected English. Then, later, a reminder others have made similar mistakes before.

Each of the precisely timed, alternating half-hour sessions gives five drivers each the time for an expanding level of experience, growing speed and an understanding of what can and cannot be done on a track.

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Not surprising, the two Dodge autos managed to lap other drivers with ease, including me (See Title Image) in a sporty but limited Fiat 500 Abarth. If not meant to match my experience level it sufficed in that respect.

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Drivers do exactly what a ballet dancer or athlete does: They start cold and warm up, then when the double black and white checkered flags are waved signaling this is the end of your run and you need to return to the paddock, you slow and cool down on the last lap (as you wistfully bid goodbye to the track).

At no time during my runs were any of the other flags necessary, I can’t vouch for the other sessions. Red would mean come to a stop on the track. Yellow, depending on how it’s displayed, shows a caution or hazard condition and the half dozen flags each has a specific meaning to the driver who keeps an eye out for those crucial messages.

At days end the FCA vehicles were loaded on car carriers and ready to depart just minutes after the track closed down. No time is wasted in this business.

For me, it gave me a taste of what’s to come at MAMA’s Fall Rallye in Illinois, where we can check out different new vehicles brought in by sponsoring auto makers. I can’t wait.

Copyright 2019, Martha Hindes, Automotive Bureau. All rights reserved.

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