A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to go back to school. Instead of the usual laptop and backpack, the essentials for this school day included a helmet and some fast cars. Having never tried track driving before, I was invited to attend the Midwest Automotive Media Association's (MAMA) annual track school. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I love driving fast, but my experience stops at pushing the limits of my 4-cylinder subcompact SUV on an open highway.

Dodge cars on track
Dodge and Jeep brought some serious muscle to the track. 

I knew track driving would be different, but I had no idea how much is involved. Thankfully, MAMA teamed up with CGI Motorsports and FCA to pair us newbies with top-notch instructors and some V8 power from Dodge and Jeep. 

The Raceway

Gingerman raceway

After rising several hours before the sun and making the drive down to South Haven, Michigan, I found myself at GingerMan Raceway. GingerMan is a private road race course which sits on a scenic 350 acres. The track, which has been open since 1996, is intended to simulate a country road. Unlike a true country road, however, hazards like pedestrians, animals, trees, or ditches have been eliminated. GingerMan was designed to simulate the full range of driving situations in a safe environment. These include high-speed straights, long corners, tight apexes, heavy and light braking, and elevation change.

Gingerman Map

Before we got started, we were given a course map that outlined the track specs:

  • Track length: 2.14 miles
  • Number of Corners: 11
  • Track Width: 36’

We learned that the course that we were about to tackle is considered one of the safest in the nation and this fact helped calm the pre-drive nerves slightly. After meeting some of the other drivers from the novice group (my competition) the classroom portion of track school began with the instructors of CGI.  

Track Driving 101

track school instructor

The first order of business was learning a few basic safety tips about where to look as we drive and what to do if another driver needs to pass. From there, we were taught how to drive the shortest distance with the racing line. These were the fundamental tips I took away as a first timer:

1. Look Way Ahead

It’s important to look as far ahead as possible instead of directly in front of you. As our instructor put it, you should have "hungry eyes” or "horizon eyes". This allows you to plan for what is ahead instead of simply reacting to what comes your way. Even though there were cones situated around the course to mark the corners, it’s not a good idea to fixate on them. 

2. Passing

I didn’t expect I would need to pass anyone on my first time out on a track but I learned it’s actually the driver getting passed that carries the bulk of the responsibility for safety. Passing should be done on the straights only and it's recommended to check the mirrors after each corner to see if there is someone coming from behind that needs to pass.

The most important piece of advice we got was to stay predictable when being passed. This means pointing out the driver's window indicating the passing car should pass on your left or pointing over the roof to be passed on the right. The driver getting passed should stabilize the car and let off the gas to make sure the driver behind them can get by safely. 

3. The Racing Line

Once we got the safety guidelines covered, we were instructed on the basics of cutting lap times by driving the shortest possible distance around the track. This concept is a little counter-intuitive because it requires you to use the entire width of the track to follow the racing line from the outside to the inside. The innermost part of the corner is the apex which you want to clip on each turn in order to shave time off your lap.

4. Braking, Accelerating and Steering

We learned that braking should be done only in a straight line and you should let off the brakes going into the turn. Gas should be applied slowly as you leave a corner and increased as you continue on the straight. When it comes to steering, a common analogy is to think of the vehicle as your dance partner. You don't want to tell the car what to do, you want to guide it with slow hand movements. 

Taking the Durango SRT On the Track

Dodge Durango SRT

I was paired with two crucial components for my day of track driving. The first was my CGI Motorsports instructor, Bob, and the second was the vehicle I would be driving - a 2019 Dodge Durango SRT. While FCA brought a whole slew of vehicles including the Dodge Challenger Scat Pack Widebody, Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, we were asked to stick with the same vehicle for the day in order to focus on learning the course instead of figuring out each new car. 

Although the classroom style instructions were excellence, understanding the theory behind driving the line and actually doing it proved to be very different. Bob took the first few laps while I took shotgun to see how it's done. Then it was my turn to take the wheel.

My first round on the track in the Durango SRT wasn't exactly smooth sailing - quite literally. Bob had to remind me to steer smoothly, be less jerky and guide the car with slow hand movements. Figuring out the concept of the racing line and finding the apex was a challenge as I was trying to maintain a somewhat respectable speed. With so much to focus on, I forgot to check for passing vehicles entirely in the first couple of laps. Luckily, Bob was watching out and warned me when a car was coming up to pass so I could point. 

Dodge Durango Front
I was skeptical about being assigned to a heavy SUV, but the Durango SRT held up its end of the deal.

What I lacked in natural track driving talent, The 2019 Dodge Durango SRT made up for in performance. It had more than enough power for the job with a 6.4-liter V8 engine producing 475-hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration was also effortless for the performance SUV. The Durango SRT can hit 60 mph in under 5 seconds. The main struggle I had learning the vehicle was that the curb weight, at 5,510 lbs, made it feel like I was driving faster than I was. In my first couple of laps, I thought I was nearing 90 mph on the straights and was shocked to learn I was barely hitting 75. Not exactly worthy of bragging rights.

I was initially concerned about the higher center of gravity in the Durango when going around the turns, but the SUV handled the corners with confidence. As I started to trust the vehicle and the coaching from my patient instructor, my laps started to improve. By the last 20-minute track session, I was able to be more generous with the gas pedal. While I was by no means a speed demon and got passed more times than not, becoming more comfortable with the racing line was a win in my book.

How to Get Started 

MAMA track school
Find a great instructor (thanks Bob!) and get behind the wheel.

For anyone itching to try their hand at track driving, I would recommend looking up instructors and raceways in your area and then getting behind the wheel. Almost any vehicle can be used for this adrenaline boosting activity which, according to my instructor, can quickly evolve into a lifelong passion. 

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