Thrills, skills and the memory of a lifetime are what you can expect from a track driving vacation. A stay at Bernadus Lodge and driving school at the world-famous Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was topped by driving Formula 1 race cars with Cooper Tires and pro drivers Johnny Unser, Gail Truess and R.C. Enerson. Balance this adrenaline-infused trip with a luxurious stay, delicious food and activities for the non-drivers in your group and you’ll have a vacation story that’ll pretty much top everyone else’s.
A Track Driving Vacation Is the Thrill of a Lifetime
Like most women, a day at the track never topped on my list of things to do, especially on vacation. Then I had my first track driving experience at a professional auto industry event. I was intimidated by the guys, nervous about going fast and afraid of crashing. So I decided to hang back and drive after most of the men were done. I donned the balaclava, or head sock, strapped on a helmet and climbed into a Cadillac.
After a few times around at my own pace, I started to feel it: the turns, hills and straightaways challenged my senses. My heart was pounding, my adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t stop grinning.
But I knew I could do more and I wanted to learn to do it well.
A track driving vacation will leave you thrilled, skilled and empowered to conquer everything
Talk About Jitters: Learning to Drive On a World Class Track, and with Famous Race Drivers as Coaches
When given the opportunity to attend a one-day racing school event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I jumped at the chance. The track is legendary for the way it’s naturally built into the landscape; the races that have been held there; and the pro drivers it attracts.
Just saying yes to this experience made me nervous. It was sort of like taking singing lessons on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry: Could I do this and not embarrass myself?
But we would be accompanied by several professional drivers as coaches.
- Johnny Unser—yes THAT Johnny Unser of the famous Unser racing family.
- Gail Truess, one of the top female drivers and coaches in the business—all because she loved driving and ignored any gender bias.
- R.C. Enerson a young up-and-comer on the racing circuit who, despite his tender age of 20, holds a number of titles and possesses great patience and talent.
That we had these coaches to guide us was fantastic luck on our part, but not unusual; driving schools and drive events typically hire top drivers to teach and give students a feel for what it’s like to drive with a pro.
Lessons Learned from my Track Driving Vacation
I’ll jump ahead and share the big lessons I learned from performance driving school and why I’d do it again:
- Even though all this is new, at the end of the day you’ll have it down.
- This is not a gear-head, grease under your fingernails, mechanical experience. It’s about power, freedom and developing a skill, and it’s exhilarating fun.
- Tracks, their instructors and their teams are all pros who want you to do this well and love it.
- Women are exceptionally good at this. It’s true—all the instructors say it’s because women listen.
- You’ll emerge from this experience a stronger, more empowered, more confident woman.
- You’ll feel more capable navigating other areas dominated by men.
- If you can do this, you can do anything.
First, Set Up the Experience With Activities for You and Your Crew
Performance driving may not be for everyone in your group. Your husband may rather play golf, or your daughter may rather go shopping. Planning for driving school in Monterey, California was perfect. There is plenty for everyone to do if they don’t want to learn track driving.
And for those who do want to drive, there are different experiences including teen driving school, performance driving in production cars such as Ford, BMW or Mazda, and the Formula One racing series class we took.
The fee for a one day Formula One racing school at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is about $2,295, but there are many other programs at this track and others that start at about $400.
Start with a Great Hotel for your Track Driving Vacation
We flew into Monterey airport, just a short 15 minute drive away, though we could have driven an hour from San Jose or 90 minutes from San Francisco. We checked into the Bernardus Lodge and Spa (rooms from about $600 per night) the day before our drive experience.
Developed by the founder of Bernardus Winery, the lodge sold to new owners who uphold the tradition of serving fine wines, which they pour as you check in. The lodge is known for its sublime guest rooms, modern and elegant lobby and restaurant, the spa and picture-perfect gardens that are the source of much of the farm-to-table food served at the lodge.
The Lodge will entertain your crew with games and activities, a pool and more. Or, in nearby Monterey there is shopping and the famed aquarium, the village of Carmel by the Sea has higher end shopping, and some of the world’s greatest golf courses, including Pebble Beach ($525 per person) are only a short drive away.
Don’t Skimp on the Food and Pampering; That’s Important, Too
A day of high performance driving will leave you exhilarated but with adrenal fatigue. You’ll be bone tired and happy. This is not the time for more adrenaline, it’s time to eat, drink, snooze in the sun and get a massage. Plan on that for the day after driving.
The day before driving, take it easy. Don’t be lured by wonderful wines, craft cocktails or heavy food; track days start early and the pace of the track is fast, too. There’s a lot to learn and you want to be on your toes.
Day Two: The Big Event. School Should Always Be This Much Fun
On track day, we headed out early after coffee and a light breakfast. We arrived by 8AM and settled in to the classroom. Randy Buck, our instructor, took us through the basics of what we were about to experience. We would learn to drive single passenger Formula 1 cars which have an open cockpit and open wheels. These are basic racers and kind of reminded me of a soap box derby car but with a much larger engine.
First, Get to Know Your Car, Your Partner for the Day
We went to the pit for an introduction to the cars. Randy showed us how to climb in and out, how to attach the steering wheel, which comes out to make getting in and out easy, and how to buckle the five point harness. Luckily, there was track staff to help with this; once you have your helmet on and are wedged into the driver’s seat it’s hard to see the belts and buckle (this gave me new appreciation for the frustration a toddler feels when he wants to buckle his own seatbelt!).
Randy also went over the paddle shifters, the clutch, the open wheels and some basic rules of the road (yes, clutch AND paddle shifters and yes, everyone learned to do it!). Then we were assigned track suits and helmets and headed back to the classroom for a primer on our first exercise: short loops to get used driving these cars.
Don’t Barf. Don’t Barf. Don’t Barf. (I Didn’t)
Sitting in my car, harnessed to the seat, engine running, the pace car ahead of me and other drivers behind me, I thought I might just throw up.
I knew how to shift with a clutch, I’d driven paddle shifters, and I had some track experience, but I was nervous. Could I do this? Would I remember everything Randy said? Would I lose control and spin out? I tried to stay calm as we started off, following a pace car through short laps. Once we made it through the first lap and I knew what the road course looked like, I felt calmer. The second time around I calmed even more. And by the third lap I was starting to smile. This was fun.
Lesson #2: Driving Dynamics. Is Everything You Know Wrong?
Driving dynamics are the secret sauce of racing: Steering to get the most performance from the car, using all the pavement to maximize your speed through a curve, accelerating when it’s time (when you’re not braking or slowing) and knowing when and how to brake (when you enter the braking zone, and hard!).
We were told when to shift gears and not to tap or ride the brake. Some of this is counterintuitive to how we drive on the street, but it’s critical to the lesson of the day: understanding where the power is and how to use it to get the most performance (or most safety) out of your car.
There’s a Lot to Know and Once in the Car, I Couldn’t Remember a Thing
And that was OK. Because unlike other classroom learning, track driving is all about developing a sense for the car and the track. After our first exercise we were directed to “pit in,” or pull into pit lane and park, then head back up to the classroom—our third time there and it wasn’t even lunchtime.
Then it hit me: by taking us through short lessons and putting us out on the track, we were developing that sense. The key to track is to understand the car, feel the road and be the connection between the two. And like anything, practice makes perfect.
Click here to experience what it was like on the track during our day.
Finally—Owning the Track and Taking On the Corkscrew
Soon we were sent out for solo driving on the track. We set out one after another with enough space between us, so we could drive at our own comfort level. Periodically we were waved over to the side of the track for a bit of coaching. Randy, Gail, Johnny and R.C. watched from towers around the track and relayed tips to the track team to help us improve our performance.
“Use all the pavement,” Gail coached me.
“Let your engine get all the way up to speed,” Johnny advised.
My street-safe driving habits of staying in my lane and shifting at low engine speeds were keeping me from my best performance.
With the coaching, I found I could take the curves faster and accelerate sooner in the straightaway. And the Corkscrew—the famous “S” curve that takes you down a 60 foot hill and shoots you out at the bottom—was the biggest thrill of the day. You have to learn it because from the top you can’t see where the road goes. But once you have it down it’s pure fun and giggles. And you can’t wait to do it again.
On the Track You’re Supposed to Slide—So You Know How Not to On the Street
This was fun. And scary. We took a spin around the track in rented Mustangs, first outfitted with standard tires and a second time fitted with Cooper’s ultra high performance Zeon tires. This was so we could feel the difference in how a tire impacts your experience on the track.
I hopped in with R.C. who guided the Mustang to more than 100 MPH, sliding and squealing through the Andretti Hairpin and the Corkscrew. On the third lap it was my turn. R.C. coached me to find the line that would minimize the amount of steering needed and keep my speed up, even if the car was sliding just a bit. It seemed so easy for him; for me, even being in the right place on the track I seemed to need use the brakes more than I thought I should. When we got out of the car I could smell the brakes burning.
Gripping the Road is the Difference Between Control and Chaos
Then, I drove the Mustang with Cooper Zeon RS3-G1 tires. This time I drove the entire lap as R.C. coached me to higher speed and smoother steering through the curves. Even though we were going faster, the car wasn’t sliding as much, holding every curve nicely. As we pulled into pit lane R.C. asked what I thought. I drove faster but definitely felt safer the second time around. Those were the tires, he explained. They are designed to grab the pavement on both the curves and the straightaways so you have maximum control both while you’re turning and while you’re accelerating.
Back to the Formula One Cars for the Last Thrill of the Day
After laps in the Mustangs it was back into the Formula One cars for a few laps of lead-follow. Essentially, I would follow one of the race drivers around the track and try to keep up.
I hopped into my car and was told to pull up behind Johnny.
We were the first ones out and wow, was I nervous. This was like not just taking singing lessons at the Grand Ole Opry, but singing a duet with Garth Brooks, too.
Everything we learned that day was flying through my head; as we pulled out of pit lane and onto the track I was trying to assemble it all and noticed that Johnny was leaving me behind. So I sharpened my focus, got my feels on and tracked behind him, pushing my speed and steering. Soon we were zipping through the curves and shooting out of the corkscrew for a glorious last 4 laps of the day.
Relax After it All and Enjoy the Glow
After our day of driving it was wonderful to relax on the patio of my room with a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc and enjoy the afternoon sun. Then it was time for a dinner of delights from the Bernardus garden. We sampled dishes from Chef Cal’s tasting menu that showcased the mastery that his gardens produce. Course after course we tried local greens, asparagus, tomatoes, cheeses and a delicious carrot soup that held quite a zing, topped off by a delicious lemon soufflé. At some point I ambled back to my room and dropped into bed, exhausted, exhilarated, thrilled and even though I needed a day of rest, ready to do it again.