June 4, Day 4: This is the big day… the Porsche Track Experience at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham (PTX Bham). The half-day Porsche Driving School at Atlanta was the opening act; this is the main event. A full day on a 2½-mile professional track, the same one used for the Honda Indy Grand Prix. Sixteen curves – carousels, esses, corkscrews, hairpins, sweeps – and 120-mph straights in between. Oh, and 80 feet in elevation change with blind summits and curves. Am I a little nervous? Yeah.
Barber Motorsports Park
I (of course) am out the door early, drop the top on the Boxster, visualizing the day ahead as I drive 20 minutes from our downtown Birmingham hotel through green hills to the track. First impression – this place is beautiful. The entry road winds through rolling forested hills, green with early summer. Groundskeepers have manicured the landscape like a golf course, with eclectic sculptures and a gleaming museum surrounding the raceway. I’m surprised there are no permanent grandstands; instead, I find campgrounds interspersed as I circle to the racing control tower.
The Porsche Track Experience starts in the classroom. Our lead instructor, Doug, is wry and entertaining. String theory, the 100% Tire Rule, and more on momentum. The track driveline with clipped arcs, compound curves, and blind summits. “The rumble strips are part of the track; use all of it. The smoother your curves, the faster you will be around the track.” Doug was quite witty for having only 3 hours of sleep. He’d just returned from racing at Watkins Glenn over the weekend.
His presentation is highly informative but brief; he knows all 40 of us in the room are ready to drive!
We break into small groups to start a circuit of activities to learn tail-braking and car control before getting on the big track. My group, Group 6, begins with autocross. We race a tight path outlined with cones on a large asphalt lot, getting comfortable with speed and cornering. A few of my teammates “killed cones.” Thanks to my Atlanta experience, I avoided that faux pas.
Next, low friction handling on a wet, polished lot, where we practice recovering from understeer (too little friction on the front) and oversteer (too little on the back). Again, thanks to Atlanta practice, I do well here. It’s fun sliding figure-8’s in a small 440hp car! Porsche 911s have the engine in the rear. Sometimes you let OFF the gas a bit to induce a rear-end slide.
Less momentum forward equals less weight in the back, which means less traction in the back, which allows the heavy rear end to slide. The driving dynamics are hugely different from the Mustangs I drove for so long. It’s quite a “learning curve” (pun intended). 😊
The final circuit is “trail braking.” Braking on a racetrack is the opposite of everyday commuting. “In normal driving, you ease on the brakes, slowly adding pressure to gently slow the car and avoid spilling hot coffee on your lap,” says Steve, our instructor for this circuit. “In racing, it’s BAM! Pedal pressure of 10 as you approach a curve, then ease off to 9-8-7-6-5 at the apex, and accelerate out”. Why? Two reasons. First, you want to go as fast as you can, for as long as you can, on the straights to minimize your lap time. Second, and more importantly, momentum and traction. Slam the brakes, and the car pitches forward, adding weight (and thus grip) to the front tires, allowing the turn. If you don’t have that weight on the front, you are likely to overwhelm the front tires’ grip (under-steer) and end up in the grass.
Ok, enough practice; it’s track time. That will be the next post.