The best mod that you can make to improve the performance of any car doesn't happen in the engine bay or in the wheel wells. It happens in the cabin; and I'm not talking about a stereo upgrade, a Momo steering wheel, or racing bucket seats. I'm talking about boosting the performance of the boob sitting in the driver's seat. Improving your skill as a driver will allow you to pull the most performance out of any mod that you make to the car you're currently driving and it's transferable to any other car you drive in the future.
One way to make that driver improvement is through trial and error; another is to practice in a racing simulator game such as Simraceway, Gran Turismo, or Forza Motorsport. However, the best and fastest way to improve your driving skills is to enroll in a performance driving school, which is why after 25 years behind the wheel and almost half a decade of reviewing cars, I still jumped at the chance to check out the Simraceway Lancer Evolution Experience at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
Simraceway, a name that you may recognize from the Simraceway SRW-S1 racing wheel that I reviewed last year, is all about making its game as realistic as possible. The company's brought in professional racing driver Nico Rondet to consult on the game's physics, force feedback, and user experience for its players, whom it refers to as SimRacers. (Nico's also one of the instructors at the Experience and a pretty cool guy to have lunch with and talk racing.) With the company's sponsorship of the Jim Russell School of Driving, which runs the Lancer Evolution Experience at Infineon Raceway, it now aims to help these SimRacers and other enthusiasts to be better drivers in the real world.
There are actually two levels of involvement to Simraceway's Lancer Evolution Experience: a one-day program and a two-day program. We'll be talking about the latter.
Day 1: Technique of the Curve
Day 1 of the program is remarkably similar to the Lexus driving program I was able to experience late last year. In fact, it's almost exactly the same: same course, same instructors, but rather than driving the Lexus IS-F, students find themselves behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR.
The day begins with a classroom session in which students learn the Technique of the Curve. After a quick lesson on proper braking, turn-in, apex, and acceleration, the students then take to the track to practice what they've learned on the Turn 11 hairpin. Next up, a slalom course helps to teach weight transfer, quick direction change, and fast hands.
After lunch, there's another classroom session before it's time to strap into the Evo MR once again for more practice -- this time on an autocross course. Students attempt to get around the short parking-lot course as quickly as possible without hitting any cones. For many casual enthusiasts, low-speed and low-cost-of-entry autocross events like this one will be their primary form of motorsport going forward, so this is a good primer.
Finally, it's time to take to the course. Drivers don helmets and spend the rest of the day running lead and follow laps behind the instructors, who give constant feedback from ahead via an in-car radio. How these guys manage to hold a walkie-talkie with one hand and drive with the other while also watching the students' performance in the rearview mirror is completely beyond me, but somehow they manage to make it look easy.
Day 2: Hot lapping
With the basics under their belts and a bit of familiarity with the Raceway, students primarily spend the second day of the event running more lead-and-follow lapping sessions with the instructor, interspersed with short classroom sessions where they'll receive feedback and get to ask questions. Our instructor quizzed us about minimizing understeer, countering oversteer, and how to get around a corner as quickly as possible. We learned about the racing line (or relearned in some cases) and learned why sometimes the obvious apex of a turn isn't necessarily the best one.
Over the course of day 2's three lapping sessions, we experienced Infineon Raceway in all three of its major configurations: the standard long configuration with which most are familiar, the Nascar layout, which cuts out the infield turns 5 and 6 and the turn 9 chicane in favor of a higher-speed lap, and finally the Moto/Indy Racing League configuration which is mostly identical to the long course but with a modified version of the turn 7 complex and turn 11 cut short. The reason for the constant course changes was to give us students much more experience with thinking on our toes (and frankly, it's much more fun than just running the same course all day long.)
None of the on-track laps were timed (this was a learning experience for novices, not a racing event, after all). However, at the end of the day, it was time to return to the autocross course where the instructors produced a stopwatch and, after a few practice laps, recorded the students' time around the course. To make things interesting, they then had us turn the car around and they recorded our times running the course backward with no practice laps allowed.
Finally, we returned to the classroom where a pair of racing simulators running Simraceway waited. After a few practice laps, our simulated laps of the Infineon Raceway in its IRL configuration using digital versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR were recorded. The three times were added up and a winner was declared. Our group consisted of the two SimRacers who'd won their places in the Evo Experience by being the fastest in the world, myself, and one other automotive journalist, so I don't feel too bad about just barely finishing dead last.
The best mod you can make
Depending on what package you choose (one- or two-day) the Simraceway Lancer Evolution Experience will run you either $995 or $1,495. That may seem like a lot of money, but if we think of it like a modification, the Experience costs less than half of what you'd expect to pay to slap a turbocharger on your econobox. Unlike the turbo, this driver upgrade will not only help you go faster, but it'll also help you to corner more competently and to do so more safely. And when you finally ditch that '89 Civic you've been modding for a Genesis Coupe, Lancer Evolution, or 370Z, this driver mod will come with you.