I’ve known about the legendary Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for as long as I can remember.  I’ve seen everything from NASCAR to Indy Car, IMSA GT, Grand-Am Rolex, and IRC race at this historic track.  There was always some form of televised coverage taking place at this venue, and despite always watching from the safety of my living room, I felt like I knew the courses curves, it’s long downhill back straight, and its off camber sweepers on a semi-intimate level.

 

So when AutoInterests, LLC offered me the opportunity to drive at their HPDE (High Performance Driver Education) with my own car for Carfest 2017 at Mid-Ohio, I knew I had to go.  I couldn’t pass up the chance to drive my track-duty car, a 2001 Porsche Boxster S, at this legendary racing course.  I would get to spend a weekend on track experiencing first hand what it feels like to lay down grippy rubber to asphalt, and Drive Fast without the risk of getting handcuffed.

 

Mid-Ohio’s twisted black ribbon circuit is draped into the scenic countryside hills of Lexington, Ohio, which is located halfway between Columbus and Cleveland.  That’s roughly 700 miles away from my home in North Carolina, but I was determined not to let distance deter my quest to drive this top-tier bucket-list dream track.  Fortunately, I was not alone.  I would be joined by my business partner responsible for making this trip happen, and his track-prepped 2001 Mazda Miata.  Another good friend, who happens to own a Supercharged NB Miata, also shared our ambition and joined up.  So like true HPDE junkies in need of a fix, we loaded up and set off on a journey to drive fast at a Legend.

 

Hurricane Harvey had just finished ravaging Texas, and was tracking North-NorthEast on the morning we made our escape from the shores of North Carolina.   We were each pulling a trailer containing our track vehicle securely strapped down.  At 5 am, under complete darkness, our caravan slipped out onto the silent highway and headed West.

 

Not more than five miles down the road we encountered a blow out on one of the trailers.  In the pitch black I could hear tiny bits of tire chunks ping against my windshield.  We pulled over to the shoulder and witnessed a knot of ragged rubber detritus still clinging to its rim.  We went into pit crew mode and pulled out the jack and spare.  Ten minutes later we were back on the road, but it would prove an ominous foreshadowing that this journey was not to be an easy one.  I’ve read a few books written by Rush’s drummer and motorcycle adventurist, Neil Peart, and I was reminded of his quote, “Adventures suck when you’re having them.”

 

A few drops of rain became steady showers merely an hour into our trip.  Then we saw a sea of red tail lights and were instantly plagued by slow moving traffic that lasted through most of Raleigh into Greensboro.  Nothing disrupts the momentum of a long trip like slowing from 75 mph down to 2!  At our first stop for gas we remained hopeful that the worst was behind us…it wasn’t.  Steady rain turned into a torrential downpour that coincided with our topography change.  We had spent the first three hours traveling flat roads, but that soon ended.  As we headed North on 77 we entered our first mountainous incline and the storm transformed into heavy sheets of precipitation that hit us at varying angles and required switching to full-speed windshield-wiper mode.  This was accompanied by occasional blasts of wind blowing across our path.  Shaking and squirming, but not slowing or stopping, our undaunted convoy resisted mother nature’s assault and resolutely continued forward one mile at a time.

 

Along with the post hurricane tempest barreling down on us, our journey contained multiple toll roads, followed by long narrow tunnels.  In the mix we had plenty of slow drivers clogging up the left lane, while faster drivers cut in front of us on wet slick roads.  And on more than one occasion we encountered severely diminished visibility from the heavy deluge that made us ponder, should we pull over?  Nah.  We were on a mission.  We secretly carried hope that we might drive out of the storm at any moment.  We didn’t.  Adventures suck when you’re having them.

 

The incessant weather pattern continued to batter us for hours as we precariously carved up curvy, inclined roads that crested and twisted steeply back down the other side, then roll through a valley where the road would turn skyward, and the cycle was reborn.  Full acceleration, downshift, wind out the engine, now hard on the brakes, harder, back to full acceleration.  The circumstances for this particular drive demanded us to keep both-hands-on-the-wheel and maintain supreme concentration.  Stay sharp, stay focused, eyes up.  Fundamentally, it was the same kind of concentration used for High Performance Driving.

 

We crossed the Ohio River and the traffic thinned but not the rain.  A few hours later, as we hammered into Columbus, we encountered another batch of thick traffic, this time four lanes wide.  We lost sight of each other, but knowing the end was near, we pressed on through the stop-and-go continuum.  Ninety miles out the rain ended.  Smooth sailing now, right?  Almost.  We made a wrong turn with 5 miles left, but GPS got us back on course.  We drove down the final few back roads surrounded by corn rows higher than our field of vision.  This created a surreal feeling of traveling down a hallway.  A few more turns brought us out of the cornfield and deposited us at our destination.  We pulled into the gates of Mid-Oho spent, but exalted.  Hallelujah!

 

In was in the low 50’s at the drivers’ meeting Saturday morning and we sat shrouded in a cold, gray, damp climate with just a hint of sprinkling rain to make conditions full-miserable.  For the first time ever, I heard an instructor advise us, “Stay off the track when it’s wet.”  Stay off the track when wet?!  This was counter-intuitive to what I’d been taught.  I am by no means a seasoned veteran of HPDE, but at all the other Track Days I’ve been to over the years, you’re encouraged to drive in the rain.  This is to learn about limited grip.  If you can drive fast in the rain, and control your car, you’ll be rewarded next time you drive in the dry.  Turns out Mid-Ohio has a fatal flaw that crushes that theory.  The story floating around the event is that recent patch work performed on the track’s deteriorating asphalt is unable to absorb water, causing its surface to become super slick.  One instructor tried to describe driving the track wet, but ended up shrugging his shoulders as he made an indiscernible grunt.  But we understood…it was ill-advised.  I heard someone say, “It’s like driving on ice.”

 

The track was certainly wet, but I had come this far, so it’s only natural that I wanted to find out for myself.  I decided to take a couple of warm up laps.  Nothing crazy.  Turns out the description, “like ice,” is no exaggeration.  After three laps at a moderately slow speed, and a couple scary moments with zero grip, I pulled into the pits.  My partner was already there.  “It’s pretty slick”, I said.  He described a situation in which he turned his steering wheel to the right while all four tires continue to slide left.  “It’s Like driving on ice” he said.  We concluded that the best bet was to heed the warning of the experienced driving instructors and put off any hard driving until the sun came out.  Wise choice.

 

I had a look around while I waited for the weather to clear.  CarFest 2017, which is the name of the event put on by AutoInterests, LLC  at Mid-Ohio, was in full swing and I was experiencing sensory overload.  Aside from the High Performance Drivers Education that we were participating in, there were numerous other car-related activities.  For example, an Autocross was occurring in the parking lot at the end of the paddock.  You could hear the howl of tires being pushed to their limit as drivers battled orange traffic cones not more than 100 yards away.  On the grassy knoll above us there was a complete car show taking place.  I could see Muscle cars, Exotics, JDM, German, European, Old cars, New cars, and a little bit of everything else.

 

Vendors peppered the paddock with specialty car parts, racing supplies, car related merchandise, and food.  Carfest covered the event with music by including a DJ during the day and live bands after the track went cold.  They even had a Dynamometer on site so true horsepower enthusiasts could find out their engine output.  Hell, why not?  And then it hit me – this was Car Nirvana.  We were in a Holy Land designed for the car culture crowd that seeks the highest state of pure happiness.

 

It’s satisfying when an event this size, or any size, is able to run smoothly, and it’s apparent that AutoInterests runs a tight ship.  Staying on schedule helps avoid the confusion, chaos, and frustration a driver can feel when events are poorly run.  AutoInterests utilize a smart phone app that automatically keeps you updated so you won’t miss a session.  I found this helpful after one of the cars dropped oil on track changing the run times slightly.  No need to wonder when you’re back on track, your phone just told you.

 

Overall the HPDE at Carfest ran like clockwork.  All the elements of the event: Tech Inspection, Driver Meetings, Classroom Instruction, and Run Group Meetings were carried out with an emphasis on safety and having fun.  In that order.  It’s paramount to remember HPDE is NOT racing.  Have fun, drive fast, be safe, and take your car home as your trophy.  Jason and Sarah, the owners of AutoInterests, along with their entire staff and crew, executed a well organized event which allowed me to worry less and have more confidence on track, and I applaud their efforts.

 

The next day the clouds parted, and the temperature rose 25 degrees into the mid 70’s.  The sun dried out the track, and added some much needed heat.  This was the recipe for some serious grip.  Finally!  With each session I pushed the Boxster a little harder than before.  Four tenths driving on the first session.   Hmmm…she’s staying planted in the corners, and the patches of icy doom are gone.  Lets try five tenths.

 

No amount of watching racing videos on Youtube can fully prepare you for when it’s actually time to drive that new track yourself.  Case in point:  I was learning that Turn One is more of a controlled slide driven as fast as you can without breaking the wheels loose.  That’s not how I imagined it while watching videos.  Good to know.  Six tenths.  Also, the blind left turn over the hill at Turn Five aptly called ‘Madness’ is harder to read than I thought.  Maybe its name should have been the giveaway?  Stay tight to the inside and only track out midway after reaching the top before roaring down the hill at China Beach.  Then turn right and slide into the Esses.  At least, it feels like a slide.  Now seven tenths.  Whatever you do, don’t get on throttle too early on your approach to Turn Eleven before Thunder Valley.  Wait until you’ve gone over the top of the hill before you bury the throttle.  Evidently its off-camber nature can send you off track.  We only learned this after hearing about it happening to another driver.  This track is complex and nothing like what I had envisioned.

 

My confidence improved progressively with each lap.  I pushed the Porsche to the best of my driving capabilities before the end of the second day.   More track time would’ve allowed me to get closer to the limit, yielding faster track times, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.  I didn’t set any lap records, but I was grateful just to drive this course.  It would take a long time to learn all its secrets.

 

I heard what I found to be an accurate description of Mid-Ohio from a driving coach who frequents this track, “The first half of the track is very fast and straight, the second half is technical and slower, with more turns.”   During each lap your brain has to shift from fast to technical, and then back to fast.  Without a doubt this is the most challenging track I’ve ever driven.  I have a whole new appreciation for the racers who come here.

 

I feel obligated to heap some quick praise on my car.  Whatever I threw at the Boxster, she took in stride and delivered without complaint.  She is neutrally balanced, light and powerful with superb steering feel that allowed me to place her on track exactly where I wanted her, when I knew where that was.  Unlike other cars I’ve driven, this Porsche inspires confidence, and is amazingly track capable.  At this point in our relationship she’s waiting for my driving skills to catch up to her ability.  Until then, I need more seat time, and I look forward to it.   I feel fortunate to have been able to truly enjoy driving my car at this track.  But I must confess, I breathed a small sigh of relief when I drove my trophy onto the trailer at the end of the event.  Next stop: Home.

 

Fair weather the following day allowed for a swift, mostly uneventful return trip.  We departed at 4:30 am and cruised quiet, empty roads for the first four hours.  We did encounter heavy fog that morning and visibility dropped down to about three feet.  We slowed our roll and rode out of Ohio and into West Virginia before most of the world was awake.  Traffic remained relatively light through Virginia and North Carolina, and after two total stops for fuel we arrived home by 3:30 pm.  1,397 miles on the truck’s trip odometer.  I have to give major credit to our caravan leader, and my business partner, Dave, who fearlessly led us up through the storm and back down through the fog.  He lined up this trip with AutoInterests and so he also has my gratitude.

 

Reflecting back on our pilgrimage,  I believe that despite the difficulties of the challenges we faced; it was important for me to break out of my comfort zone and learn a new track.  It’s not instinctive to go somewhere you’ve never been before, but by embarking on this adventure I was rewarded by becoming a better driver.  I can’t explain it, but each time I drive a new track, my overall driving confidence grows.  I’m hopeful I’ll drive more new tracks in the future.

 

If you consider yourself a car nut, you owe it to yourself to experience Carfest at Mid-Ohio, where you can get your car fix in spades.

 

Verdict:  Highly Recommended

60% chance of rain. That was the predicted precipitation forecast for my most recent trip to the track. I’d never run my car in the rain. Well, not in a HPDE (High Performance Driving Event). My car is a 2005 Mustang GT that’s also my daily driver, so it has been in the rain. I put on a brave face and did some positive thinking. I told myself, ‘eventually you’re going to have to run in the rain, so take it as a learning experience’. Okay, I agreed with my conscience. When I showed up at the track it was gray and cold out, but no rain, yet. Part of me was hoping these conditions would remain constant all day, but the reality was I’d be running on a new type of surface soon…a slick one.

My first two sessions were dry, and therefore great. In fact, I was feeling confident about getting the race line figured out. My instructor (Yes, I’m still a novice) was impressed. I was running his line consistently, making good use of the braking zones, and even performing proper heel-toe down shifts, something I’d been practicing since my last track day. In fact, as we left the paddock for the third session, my instructor told me he wanted me to go Solo by the end of the day. He was that impressed with my driving and car control. He may have jumped the gun.

The track was moist as I drove out of the pits on session three. While bringing the car up to temp on the warm up lap it began to sprinkle. Nothing much, but enough to make me blip the wipers. ‘I guess I’m about to see how my car handles in the wet’, I told myself. Take a deep breath. I remembered from class that grip was greatly reduced in the rain, so I started my braking sooner. I squeezed the calipers down on the rotors much earlier to increase the amount of track needed to scrub speed, but kept the same turn-in, and hit the same apex. I tried to ease on the throttle for the track out of the corner, but evidently I put my foot down too quickly…oops. Without any warning and before I could get the wheel straight, the back end tried switching positions with the front. ‘Both feet In!’ I heard my instructor say. My first instinct had been to steer myself out of the spin, a feat in futility, as it can’t be done once the car has gone that far off line. So, I followed his advice. I applied the clutch and brake simultaneously and let my car go off track.

Welcome to the club. I’d never gone off track before. Some track day events award you with a gag trophy for going off track, sort of like saying, ‘Congratulations! Now don’t do it again.’ It wasn’t the type of award I wanted. But, here I was on the side of the track facing the wrong way in a muddy section of grass. I now had to drive my car back to the pits and talk to the track day coordinator. I had been informed early in the day that all off track excursions were followed by a required ‘meeting’ with the pit boss, and you’re allowed four meetings before you’re done for the day. I managed to rack up three meetings and a black flag by the end of track session four (although that was due to a loose hood latch). Still, he was getting tired of seeing me.
“That’s a heavy car you got there. I know why you went off, but do you?”, he asked.
Yes. I did. But I wasn’t 100 % sure how I was going to fix it. It should be made clear that I wasn’t the only car practicing pirouettes as track conditions worsened. In fact, I watched (through my windshield and rearview mirror) as a silver 911 spun in perfect synchronicity with me coming out of turn one during session four. It made me feel better, but only slightly.

I decided to dial it down a notch. Actually, I dialed it down about seven notches. Cars I had been passing all day started passing me. On a wet track, with my Mustang’s notoriously twitchy solid rear axle, there was no way to keep the back end planted coming out of a corner if I was hard on the right pedal. I had to teach myself to practically stay off the throttle until the steering wheel was pointed straight. It took some fun out of it I’ll admit, but it forced me to concentrate on what my car was telling me. It got loose several more times, but I was able to read the signs and keep it on track . I put a positive spin (no pun) on my situation. If I can learn to listen to my car and make adjustments on a wet track, then I’ll be that much better on a dry track when I can put more power down and gain more confidence. I’m becoming one with my car.

So, what did I learn about HPDE in the rain? Well, for a high horsepower front engine, rear wheel drive car always start slow and progressively add power in small increments when coming out of the corner. Don’t give too much throttle before the steering wheel is straight. For my car, there’s a huge difference between a wet track and a dry track. Here’s a hint that should help everybody; stay off the gator strips in the rain! Painted surfaces feel like ice when they’re wet. How do I know? I was still running over them in the rain. I also decided it’s time to concentrate on the rear end of my car, a section that I’ve ignored up until now. My car needs proper shocks, a stiffer rear anti-roll bar, and maybe even a watts link in place of the panhard bar to manage that pesky solid axle. And let’s not forget wider rear tires that can handle rain.

I also learned you get more sessions in the rain, because not as many drivers show up. Ultimately, you will become more in tune with your car on a wet surface and you will learn something new about slip angle and grip. If the goal is to become a better driver then I believe mission accomplished, but you better believe I’ll have some rear suspension upgrades done to the Mustang before my next ‘wet’ track day.

– JD Marsh