Just before I headed to Detroit for the meetup I received an invitation to the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press’ 2017 Track and Off-Road Day. So after driving all the way to Michigan and back, a couple of days later I once again set off eastbound on Interstate 70 to High Plains Raceway well east of Denver for this more or less annual event.
The idea in general behind this event is to get a bunch of vehicles provided by manufacturers together at one time in one place along with a bunch of journalists, bloggers, etc as well as product specialists and others that can add to the experience in order to provide a contained, controlled, but diverse and possibly even educational experience for invitees.
The day was set up as two parts, on-track and off-road. I’ll take my cue from that and will cover the off-road section in a separate post as there is not much commonality between the two aspects and some of you might nod off if I just go on and on and on…
Anyway, 8am Thursday found me turning into the paddock at High Plains Raceway and meeting my hosts. Once equipped with a badge, a bagel, and a coffee, we got down to business (and mingling, which kind of is the business).
Attendees were talking amongst themselves about who wanted to do the track side first vs. who wanted to do the off-road course first, all ideas which came to naught when it was announced that those issued randomly with blue armbands would stay, and those with green ones would head to the off-road course. Oh. I was pleased to note that I had been issued a blue armband, meaning I would be on the race track in the morning.
The track supervisor gave a speech explaining the track itself, track etiquette, i.e. if, how, and when to pass, what the flags meant, how long we got to be on track (4 laps per car per turn), and that was about it beyond the very clear and stern admonition to please not be the person that damages one of the cars.
We would not be using the whole track but perhaps half of it, including a main back straight, a shorter front straight, several easy turns and several more challenging (off-camber) turns including some elevation changes. I never really checked but the length of our configuration was maybe a mile and a quarter or so. Short but sweet, in other words.
We were then asked to head to pit lane where the cars and attendants would be waiting. Those of us who didn’t have their own still valid helmet (they expire) could borrow one, as I did. Some of the cars came equipped with professional driving instructors, some with a product specialist, and some with both. However, only one person rode along at a time if even that.
I was by myself in maybe half the cars including my first one. On a track that I had never been on. With faster people and much faster cars behind me. Why were the other cars faster? Well, I kind of jumped into the first car I saw which turned out to be a Kia Forte SX. Yeah, not exactly a dead ringer for the lead picture, huh?
However, I found it to be a well-styled car, comfortable inside, with everything falling to hand and having virtually nothing in common with what most of us would call a Curbside Classic Kia. Anyway, I got situated in the car, was quickly reminded that a helmet severely restricts headroom, sort of wedged my noggin into the headliner, adjusted the mirrors and headed off to the end of pitlane where the flagger stood. She made sure the track was clear and waved me out.
My first lap was fairly tentative, the Kia didn’t seem to have a ton of power even though it had a turbocharged 1.6l engine providing 201hp, but steered where I pointed it, slowed as required and got me around. I remembered lots of lessons about early and late apexing, threshold braking and being smooth, very smooth (smooth is fast) from my outings at Laguna Seca and Sears Point Raceway at past events many moons ago. Once it was warm I stepped it up a notch for the next couple of laps and then my fourth lap was a cool-down lap (both for man and machine) and headed into the pit again.
Wow, what a thrill! The Kia wasn’t the best car I drove all day but as an everyday car it is quite pleasant and has a dash of sporty-ness thrown into the mix. As mentioned, it’s inoffensive, a good value, and gets you there and back. As we all know, “best” as it relates to cars is a relative term, everyone has different needs and a different definition.
Once back, I glanced around a bit wild-eyed for my next ride. There, the red one! This turned out to be a Toyota GT86 (the artist formerly known as a Scion). Cool, I’d never driven one before. Get in, get settled, start it up and note that it’s noisier than the Kia with a gruffer engine note; of course, it has a Subaru’s flat-four engine in it. Pull out, get waved onto track and get used to it. As noted by most (and part of its design brief) is that the back end feels/is fairly tail-happy.
Also generally noted is that it seems (or feels) a bit underpowered. On the surface both are true, however if driven smooth and with attention, the speed can and does build, it’s definitely kind of a momentum car that gets you thinking while driving. I never got completely comfortable with it with only four laps in it and not wanting to potentially bend it, I enjoyed myself but didn’t form any kind of bond with the car.
Once back, I spied a familiar yet different car. No, it’s not a Mazda Miata, but it is its Italian cousin, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. Fiat equips this car with a 1.4l turbocharged engine, and I somewhat prefer the looks of the Fiat to the Miata. This car also came equipped with a passenger in the form of one of the track’s driving instructors, so I finally got to ride with someone that knew their way around.
I asked for feedback and pointers, it turns out that I generally had the correct line, but I was not getting on the power early enough out of corners, my passenger would instruct me to “Ok, full power NOW” way before I was planning on providing it, but after several turns I got the hang of it and realized the car(s) would hang on just fine. In short order I was moving quite fast.
The car itself was fun, with a helmet there is nowhere near enough room with the top up, but overall this was more enjoyable than the Toyota GT86; however, I’m not sure if this was down to the man getting more comfortable or the machine being better. More time in the Toyota would probably clear that up.
FCA (Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, Fiat, Alfa, RAM etc) had quote a presence at this event, providing around half of the vehicles. And lunch, lest I forget. And they sure didn’t skimp as the next car I spied with an open door beckoning me was a Challenger. And not just any, but the mighty SRT Hellcat.
Holy crap, I get to drive a Hellcat on a track! I’ve driven some powerful cars in my time, but this is on a whole ‘nother level. 707 horsepower! What’s not to like? (By the way, that gray paint is VERY similar to the gray paint on the VW Transporter that a lot of people seemed to like in my Ireland post a few weeks ago.)
Slide behind the wheel, note that there is tons of room, the layout is good, visibility is fine, the interior looks good, oh, there’s another track instructor in the passenger seat (the bigger one, he didn’t fit in the Fiat they told me at lunch), fire it up, and Wow! That is a great noise!
Slide it into drive or use the paddle shifters, get out on track, carefully probe the throttle and feel your eyeballs get pushed back into your head along with hearing an even more glorious noise that just gets better the further down you press the throttle. Yes, it weighs almost 4500 pounds but the engine doesn’t care, all of a sudden it’s a featherweight.
Get closer to the corner, decide to hit the brakes, then realize these brakes are phenomenal and you are way too slow way too quickly, so you sheepishly give it some gas to get to the corner, where you DO feel the weight but it still goes around it and you just hang on and wait for the right time to just keep shoveling gasoline into the engine again…
This instructor seems to like my line as well and tells me exactly where to put the hammer down again (which I do, he told me to do it), and off we go again and get pointed by from all the drivers in lesser machinery as they see this huge thing come thundering up behind them.
I’ve never disliked the Challenger, had a recent 300C with a regular Hemi myself, but never figured I’d see the need for 707 horsepower. Lordy, have mercy, for I have been converted and now kneel at the altar of Mopar Power! EVERYbody needs to experience this car at least once. Very, very impressive.
Next up a Mercedes AMG C63S Coupe with a single-person-built twin-turbo 4.0l V8, a matte charcoal gray with yellow stripe paint job and a gorgeous interior in black diamond stitched Alcantara and leather with yellow accents. Yes, overall a little shouty for me but it gets attention.
It would probably get even more if the Hellcat went away but nevertheless 503hp does not suck. This car came equipped with a gentleman named Nipper who is an instructor at the AMG Driving Academy and extremely patient, friendly and helpful.
Putting this car into gear is the same as on my GL (push the dainty stalk down for Drive), then use the paddle shifters or let the car do it for me (hey, same as my GL too!). As we get on track Nipper starts going through the customization menus and actually alters the setup for me between turns and yes, you can feel the difference between them.
The turbos in this car are mounted in a “hot-V” configuration, meaning that they are right where they can deliver the air using the shortest possible route, and were imperceptible with no noticable lag, just constant power and oh so smooth to boot. What a blast!
After returning and re-hydrating myself I found myself in the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. I somehow have not seen one of these before in person and this is the creme de la creme version. With dark red paint, those clover leafs on the front fenders, and an interior that is sublime, this car is better looking in person than on the screen or printed page.
It’s easy to get comfortable inside, and I didn’t realize that this car has more power than the AMG Mercedes, at 505hp from a twin turbo 2.9l V6. Active aero (the front splitter changes position depending on what the car is doing), torque vectoring technology, and several drive modes make this one of the most advanced Alfas ever built.
And before anyone starts in the comments, it was run very hard all day long on what ended up being a very hot day and was always available for more without hiccups, zero issues – I’ve long been of the persuasion that the best way to keep an Alfa healthy is to drive it hard and do so often. Why even have it otherwise…
When you hammer the throttle as you are rounding a corner in this thing it just starts screaming and takes off like a banshee. As with the Challenger and the AMG, it was no problem getting well into triple digit speeds on the straights and then trusting the brakes to act like reverse jet thrusters and haul you back down in a hurry for the corners while the seatbelt squeezes all the air out of you. All the while being ensconced in the lap of luxury.
My time in this was too short, but after those last three cars I realized that four laps is the perfect session length – it leaves people wanting way more as they start to get comfortable, but isn’t enough for most sane people to actually get into trouble. I think eight or ten laps would be the point where people would start to get overconfident and a moment’s lapse might turn into a Very. Bad. Moment. for someone.
Next up a Jeep SRT – Jeep has been building fast Grand Cherokees for several generations now and I was eager to try this one. It certainly looks the business, but I’ll be honest, this was probably the most disappointing vehicle for me. I think it would have been magnificent to take to Detroit last week, but a road course with several tight, off-camber corners is not the natural place for it. Rocketing up and down on- and off-ramps, staying composed through fast sweepers, yes, absolutely, this thing can run. But agility isn’t its strong suit.
The interior is the best Grand Cherokee interior ever, in my opinion, sumptuous and well crafted. And it makes a very fine noise indeed from its 6.4l, 475hp mill. Sure, an almost $67k base price may perhaps induce mild nausea, but, that’s still a LOT less than for example a Mercedes ML63 AMG, which has even more power (by about 20%) but really won’t get the average person to the mall much quicker for its almost 50% larger base sticker price..
I’d been eyeing the little red VW GTI the entire day, but every time I came back in the pits it was out. After the Jeep I took up station where I was told it would stop and just waited for it. It arrived, I got cozy in the awesome plaid seats while its attendant cleaned all the bugs off the windshield and then got going.
Initially I was a bit disappointed to see it was an automatic, but it turned out to not be much of a hindrance at all, shifting willingly, fast, and at the right points. (I’d still buy the stick though.) Anyway, I’ve been playing with the idea of owning a Golf R myself with its almost 300hp and AWD, but absolutely fell in love with this little base GTI with “only” 210hp going through the front wheels.
It is very difficult to describe but this car was so confidence inspiring, no matter what hamfisted move I’d make to upset it, it just adjusted itself and kept on giving. Corners could be approached using various lines, lines could be tightened or loosened without concern and overall it was just a hoot. With typical great VW interior fit, finish, and materials it’s hard to believe this much fun could be owned for around $25k.
The GTI was well worth the wait and while yes, cars like the Hellcat or the AMG are MUCH faster (and significantly more expensive), for a regular Johan, Jim, Jason or Jill, the GTI is way more fun that can be used and enjoyed every single day. I’m smiling as write this (I was cackling writing about the Hellcat, but smiling is saner).
That really only left the Subaru BRZ. It’s fundamentally the twin to the Toyota GT86, but this one was equipped with the performance package (Brembo brakes, Sachs dampers) and the button to turn track mode on, which disables all the safety nannies.
The organizers announced that we would be wrapping up for lunch soon but first would convoy around the ENTIRE track including the closed sections. There would be no passing and we were admonished to stay close together.
This turned out to be more of an issue than anticipated as I was the second from the end behind the Hellcat and the AMG who had an annoying (from my perspective) but completely understandable (from their perspective) tendency to hang back in corners and then rocket out of them, leaving me and the fellow in the GTI behind me sort of flat-footed trying to catch back up.
I had the Subaru product specialist with me in the car and in the end we decided to hang back a bit further even and then corner at a good clip while the fast cars in front of us took off but since we were already at speed we could keep up. Sort of. Kind of.
OK, not really, but it was great fun for the three or four full laps that we did this for and the GTI driver behind me confirmed the same to me after we got off track. The BRZ felt very different from the Toyota, likely down to the better brakes and improved suspension.With the safety nannies off, it felt less nervous and more fun to actually drive.
Overall it was a magnificent morning. Lots of great cars to drive, barely more drivers than cars resulting in short waiting times, great instructors and knowledgeable people in the industry to speak with. Stay tuned as Part Two will chronicle the second part of the day on a very different sort of “track”!