It takes a pro driver to send a car into a drift or tackle a highly technical racetrack like Infineon. Or does it?
I spent a Friday attending the Jim Russell Lancer Evolution Experience with a diverse group of amateurs. There was the father and son team from Arizona taking their annual outing. There was the businessman from Peru ditching a day of meetings. One man had already taken the course once, but had to go back for more, and one couple seemed to look at it as the perfect romantic outing.
The car--the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X--plays a big part in this day of high-speed instruction. Possibly no other car would let a group of people with mostly no previous track experience accomplish the Jim Russell program. Of course, the instructors, all being active race car drivers, contribute more than a little, too.
The first part of the day, a classroom session, was downright boring compared with what would come later. But the instructor imparted some very important information to better understand how to handle a car in a corner. I had previously been trained to plan a line through a corner, hitting the brakes before the turn, then powering on at the apex for the exit.
But now we were all being told about maintaining the car's balance in the turn, essential for truly high-speed driving. Load transfer became my phrase for the day as I thought about how the brakes or accelerator were affecting the amount of grip fore and aft.
Then we got out to the cars, a collection of Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs in both GSR and MR trim. For most of the day, I drove the MR version, because I like the SST dual-clutch transmission so much. The GSRs come with a manual six speed. The MR also benefits from a slightly stiffer suspension. Both cars employ an advanced all-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring and yaw control, making them excellent cars for beginners to throw around corners.
Our first exercise was a corner, a single turn defined by cones in the racetrack paddock. We took turns going around this corner, an instructor on the inside of the turn watching and offering help over a radio. Keep your eyes up, looking through the apex of the turn, he advised. Slowly roll off of the brakes while entering the turn. Power on at the apex. Our favorite bit of instruction: "I want to hear the tires screaming all the way through the turn."
From this exercise, we proceeded to a slalom, a set of five cones laid out in the paddock. Again we were coached: Go in wide for the first one. Think two or three cones ahead. Use the car's side-to-side motion to carry it around each set of cones. As we progressed, the instructor advised us to snap the car harder at each cone, inducing a little bit of rear-end slide. The instructor also told us he had hidden a puppy under one of the cones, making us that much more concerned about not hitting them.
We tied all of the experience garnered from these two exercises into an autocross course, a miniracetrack laid out with cones involving an S curve, one longer turn, a slalom, and a hairpin. Banging the Evo through this course, I tried to keep close to the cones, and throw the car around hard, its all-wheel-drive system letting me get away with maneuvers that would put most cars into a spin.
On the autocross course, each student made a timed run. The one with the lowest time would be invited back at the end of the year for a shoot-out between all of that year's winners. And the winner of this final event gets the grand prize, a year-long loan of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X.
(As a journalist covering the event, I would have taken myself out of the running if it had come to that. But plowing into the hairpin turn too hot and taking out three cones--each accounting for a 2 second penalty--made the point moot.)
Probably the most fun I had all day, and not relating all that much to track driving, was the drift exercise. In another part of the paddock, the Jim Russell instructors taught us how to send the Evo into a four-wheel drift, smoke pouring off the tires as the car floated sideways.
Drifting most cars is a very difficult skill to learn, but after a few laps of instruction around an hourglass pattern of cones, I was driving sideways. I powered the car into the waist of the hourglass, then slammed the wheel right, causing the mass of the car to shift left. Then an immediate pull left on the wheel to come around the top of the hourglass, and the car was drifting sideways.
I watched the cones go by through the windshield and breathed in the tire smoke enveloping the car. Clearing the top of the hourglass, I applied the gas and sent the car back towards the waist, and repeated the whole maneuver through the other end of the course. This exercise was about the most fun I've ever had in a car, but it takes a toll on tires.
One lap around Infineon Raceway
Once in the middle of the day, and again at the end of the day, we got track time. The Jim Russell instructors lead us out in trains of two or three cars, the lead car setting the pace. The first lap let us get familiar with the many twists and elevation changes on this track, such as the 90-foot drop through turn 6, nicknamed "The Carousel," or the slalom of turns at 8 and 8a.
The instructor watched how well the student cars followed, increasing speed if he felt the other drivers could handle it. During these sessions, the only cars on the track were the Evos, making it easier for the students to concentrate on what we'd learned rather than more experienced drivers passing at speed.
I found this part of the day to be a great way to learn the track and have some fun in the Evos. The instructors kept it relatively tame, never taking it beyond 80 percent of our abilities. I might have liked to go faster, but that will have to wait for another time.
The Jim Russell Lancer Evolution Experience costs $995. Prospective students can register at the Jim Russell racing Web site.