We arrived at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on a warm July morning. I had been there over 10 years prior to watch a race, but this time I was going to be the one behind the wheel. My stomach was in knots!
Months earlier, my husband, Steve, and I purchased a new 2019 Shelby GT350- a factory-modified Mustang inspired by the original 1965 GT350 designed by the legendary Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon in the 2019 film “Ford v. Ferrari.”) One of the perks of buying a new GT350 is a complimentary invitation to the Ford Performance Racing School at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina for the “GT350 Track Attack,” a one-day high performance driving experience.
As the event neared, I started to get nervous and second-guess my decision to go. Would I be the slowest person on the track? What if I crashed?! I already had plenty of experience driving manual transmission sports cars on the street, but the thought of driving on a racetrack was intimidating.
The day started with classroom instruction. We learned the basic rules of the track and the theory behind going fast and being safe — braking, cornering phases, and weight transfer. After the classroom portion of the day, we fitted our fireproof balaclavas, overalls, helmets, and walked to our cars. About two dozen track-prepped Mustangs were waiting for us. We participated in a series of car control exercises in a makeshift parking lot course to apply classroom techniques and build confidence before hitting the track. The instructors also used the exercises to judge our ability and separate us into groups for the track. No pressure.
The car control exercises included a low- and high-speed slalom, threshold braking and heel-and-toe downshifting, and even a drive in a skid car. The skid car is fitted with four outriggers that raise and lower the front or rear axle of the car to simulate 120 mph slides, all while driving at about 25 mph. I spun the skid car more than anyone else did before learning how to detect and catch the slides right as the tires began to lose traction. Better to learn that in a parking lot than on the track!
Strapped in with a 5-point harness, HANS device (head and neck restraint), and roll cage, I felt incredibly restrained and couldn’t breathe. The nerves were getting to me and I just wanted it to be over.
We started with a low-speed pace lap to familiarize ourselves with the track layout before breaking into our instructor groups. The school uses the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval,” which is a combination of the NASCAR oval track and the infield road course. The sensation of the 25-degree banking on the pace lap was incredible — it was so steep it felt like the car was going to completely flip over.
After being separated into groups, I followed my instructor out onto the track. She communicated via the headsets in our helmets and instructed us to follow her line, gradually picking up speed all the while offering feedback on our driving. As the laps ticked by, I found myself building more and more speed, braking a little bit later, cornering a little bit harder. Before I knew it, I was pushing 130 mph on the banking of the oval then slamming the brakes harder than I ever had in my life to make the 45 mph back stretch chicane, all before mashing the gas to rocket back out onto the banking. Every lap, my instructor encouraged us to push harder, drive faster, brake later.
The violence of the braking forces, the cornering Gs, and the transitions on and off the steep banking were incredible. What felt jarring at first soon became natural. In my first session it felt like I was along for the ride, but in the subsequent sessions I felt like I was in control. The car became an extension of my body and I was confidently placing it wherever it needed to be on track. I received great feedback from my instructor and other drivers and at one point felt an overwhelming sense of pride when I realized that I wasn’t the slowest person on the track. In fact, I was right in the middle of the pack.
Before I knew it, the day was over. After four grueling track sessions in the 100+ degree heat, I still felt like I could go for another four. I impressed myself not only with my ability to overcome my fear of driving on the track, but with my ability to drive as fast as I did.
The 70 mph speed limits made the long drive home to Virginia feel painfully slow. Just one week earlier, I was questioning my decision to participate, frantically trying to find a way out, but when we left the track that day, I knew I had created a monster. Who wants to meet me at Summit Point?
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