Recently, I was lucky enough to take a spin around the Queensland Raceway in a V8 race car courtesy of a Christmas present from my lovely wife. The Queensland Raceway is west of Brisbane and hosts a number of high profile events during the year, including Round Seven of the V8 Supercar Championship, Champ Car Racing and drift competitions. For me though, it was all about the V8 Race Experience, where you get suited up and jump behind the wheel of a V8 race car for either five or eight laps of the circuit. Let me just say at the outset that I've never driven a car on a race track before, so the nerves were peaking from the moment I started the drive out to the track.
Upon arrival and after all the usual paperwork was out of the way, the head instructor took us through a tutorial to teach us some of the basics of driving a race car on a race track:
- First of all, it's nothing like driving a street car on the road
- You have to follow the racing line, which involves using the entire expanse of the road
- Different types of corners require different strategies to wring the most speed out of them
- Accelerate out of the apex of the corner
- You brake not only to reduce speed but also to shift the weight of the vehicle from the back of the car to the front of the car, and importantly, over the front wheels
- Brake 10 percent to start shifting the weight then 100 percent to really slow down the car before a tight corner
- On this track in these cars you only use third and fourth gear
- Hold the accelerator flat to get the highest speed on the straight
The 3.12 km / 1.94 mile track can be configured in three different shorter circuits including the 2.11 km / 1.31 mile Clubman circuit which is what we were going to be racing around.
I'm sure there were more instructions, but by this stage I was getting excited about getting behind the wheel and I probably missed something important. Oh yes, I did remember that to get the race suit on you have to take your shoes off first or you'll fall over.
Once the tutorial was over, it was time to don the suits and helmets, get our photo taken in front of one of the cars, and then jump in a queue for either a GM Holden or a Ford car. In Australia, V8 allegiances are neatly split between Ford and Holden and have been for decades. Our premier car racing competition is the V8 Supercars in which only the two makes are represented. Around Queensland Raceway, a proper V8 Supercar should be able to hit over 250 km/h / 162 mph on the back straight and 160 km/h / 99 mph through the right-hand sweeper after pit straight.
The cars we were driving weren't V8 Supercars though. While they essentially looked the same and most definitely had V8 engines under the bonnet, they weren't as high tech. These were somewhat detuned, and they certainly didn't cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, either. I mean seriously, would you let Joe Public behind the wheel of one of the real deals? Still, speeds of over 200 km/h / 124 mph were possible down the main straight - these weren't Supercars, but they were still racers.
I chose a Holden and all too soon, I was climbing into the driver's seat, getting strapped in and being given a quick overview of the safety features -- how to detach the mesh windows, how to undo the safety harness, where the fire extinguisher was, etc. Beside me was an instructor ready to give me direction and grab the wheel in case I made a colossal foul-up. Luckily the Queensland Raceway is one of the safest courses in Australia, with lots of wide open spaces around the track in case you should overshoot the mark.
Starting up the car, it sounded like a jet plane, and I was suddenly gripped by a fear that I was going to slot it into first, ease off the throttle and it would jump forward and smash into the car parked a short way in front of mine. Or I would turn the wheel and it would spring for the wall or something equally as sickening. Was my car really magnetic towards solid, stationary objects? How do you drive a race car, anyway? Should I be soft on the clutch? How likely was it that I would break it?
There wasn't time for my paranoia to reach true panic proportions because suddenly Turn 1 was rushing up and I was already in fourth and preparing to brake, turn and then tackle Turn 2. Unfortunately while I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable behind the wheel of this screaming beast, by lap two the instructor must have been picking up the waves of panic I was still sending out. I don't know if my cornering ability was really so appalling but he was grabbing the wheel on what felt like every corner to get the car back on the racing line. Mental note: need to play more Forza Motorsport with the racing line option on.
Cones had been set out as gates to herd us around the course at all the right angles, but at these speeds I was finding them visually distracting and far from helpful. Two laps down and it didn't feel like I'd learned a thing about the course yet. I knew what it looked like from the diagram, but that was in the classroom. I'd just driven around the course twice, yet every corner I scorched up to looked like something I'd never seen before. Did the red cones mean that bit of the track was off limits or should I be aiming for them? What did yellow cones mean again? It's only six corners for goodness sake, surely they should be starting to look familiar by now?! No luck. More questions remained unanswered as I came out of Turn 6 and up into fourth for the straight. I hit top speed and then was back onto the brakes.
"How fast do you think I was going just then?"
"Probably about 160 km/h. You should really be able to go faster than that. My son-in-law can hit 220 km/h in his modified RX-7 on the straight."
Grrrrr. Ooops! Did I just miss that gate entirely? Oh dear, this is embarrassing.
And then suddenly, as fast as it started, the five laps were over and it was time to take the sorely under-worked car back to the pits. Sucking in the deep breaths, I thanked the instructor and with slightly shaky hands undid the racing harness and stepped out of the car. Probably the single most frustrating experience of my life is over and I'm left with just one thought...
I need about another two hundred laps to get that right and I wont be satisfied until I do.