Round 1 at the Porsche Driving Experience
There is nothing like waking up at 5:00am, climbing into a van with a group of strangers, being driven to the renowned Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama (just outside of Birmingham), and spending all day driving Porsches!
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to climb behind the wheel of these expensive sports cars and zig zag, and zoom around various tracks and obstacles at speeds upwards of 140 mph. The motorsports park is on 740 beautiful acres, and I would be spending 9 hours there soaking it all up.
My day began with a 7:30am registration and continental breakfast. We then went inside the classroom for an hour. It was awkward sitting in the room, filled mostly with men. A few women were present, but mostly as guests observing their husbands and boyfriend.
There were only two other women drivers on the track that day. I was the third woman and the only African American. Most of the people there kept looking at me as though I was in the wrong place and just didn’t know it.
When I introduced myself and it became clear that I too was there because I have a 'need for speed’, it felt like all eyes were on me. Thank goodness I grew up walking in those shoes, so it was an all too familiar experience. I was ready to prove that I belonged there and wouldn’t be punked by anyone or anything.
It was cold that day, so when we walked outside to begin our behind-the-wheel experience, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was glad that I had on my beanie, hoodie, and gloves. For over three hours we went from the Skid Pad to Autocross, to Performance Driving Techniques, and then sessions on the track--which is a dynamic 2.38 miles, 16 turns and over 80 feet of elevation changes.
Here’s a taste of what you can expect at the Porsche Driving Experience at Barber Motorsports Park: https://vimeo.com/117420384 (source: Porsche Driving Experience)
The Skid Pad had my heart racing because it defied everything I was ever taught about driving. You don’t intentionally cause your car to skid out under normal driving conditions, but the point of the Skid Pad is to teach you exactly what to do when your car spins out—especially at high rates of speed. All I could think about was not crashing the car. Oh my goodness, if I crash this car the insurance deductible isn’t cheap. I was grateful that I had the higher coverage, which meant a lower deductible, but is still was a whopper in comparison to personal use car insurance.
I got on the Skid Pad and saw the wall barriers that separated us from the Performance Driving Techniques area. It was cold that day (as I mentioned earlier) and the watering system had the Skid Pad super wet, and my nerves super elevated. I can’t help but to laugh now when I think about my driving instructor laughing at me trying to reason with my brain, hands, and feet—I had to go against the norm and cause my car to spin out of control. Several times I would spin it but control it just as I would normally. He kept saying, “Natasha I need you to let the car lose control. Let it spin out,” and I kept trying to keep it on the straight and narrow. Hilarious I know. Why couldn’t I be like the guy in my group who kept spinning out and dangerously skidding within a few feet of the barriers? Why couldn’t I risk it all like he kept doing?
When my group went over to the Autocross I was welcomed by a new Porsche Cayman. It was a beautiful yellow beast, that had a few more bells and whistles than my Cayman, but still gave me the same power and force I was accustomed to. After I finished drooling over the car, I was told to go as fast as I could around the turns without hitting the cones or losing control. That’s when I learned that the steering technique of turning with your hand palm up under the steering wheel is a big no-no in racing. I learned the technique from men and now years later, men were telling me “Don’t you ever do that!”. Your hands are to remain palms down on the wheel and positioned at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock (or 10-and-2). It’s all about turning that wheel and moving those hands fast, but controlled. I didn’t hit any cones, lose control, or cross the boundary lines—but I also didn’t hit the times that my instructor said he knew I could deliver. He was going to keep working on me and pushing me throughout the day.
Performance Driving Techniques
I wasn’t sure what I could possibly do in a Porsche Panamera. I’ve been in one before, but what could this four-door car do that would impress me so much that I would want to write about it? Well let me tell you. I learned exactly what to do and how it feels to brake a car at high speeds. My instructor had me jump behind the wheel, floor it, and then at specific times and cones I would have to slam on the brakes—sometimes driving into or out of turns. It sounds easy but it isn’t. If you don’t know what you’re doing you can lose control of your car and injure yourself and others. I couldn’t believe how well the Panamera handles. That car is a beast.
Watching cars race on a track is a different experience and viewpoint than when you’re the driver behind the wheel. I got in the car with an instructor who drives you around the 16 turn track, and gives you a feel for how you’re supposed to drive those 2.38 miles at high speeds. Then my group went out on the track together, with other groups, and I learned that what seemed like the impossible was actually the most crucial. My limits were tested. Why in the world would I accelerate up a blind curve? What do you mean you want me to slam hard on my brakes at a specific track number marker? What do you mean when you say that if I don’t hit a turn the right way I may end up off the track in grass, gravel, or smashed into a barrier? I can hear my instructor speaking through his walkie talkie, but my instructor can’t hear me—I communicate through the actions of my car—my instructor can tell how I’m driving, how I’m holding the steering wheel (too tight or too loose), or how well I’m holding my lines, by looking at my car in his rearview mirror. What?!?
At 12:30pm we broke for lunch and you could see the mix of exhaustion and adrenaline on the faces of the other drivers. I was starving. Who would’ve thought that driving could work up an appetite like that? As I mentioned earlier, there were only two other female drivers on the track that day, and the men were impressed to hear our stories and why we decided to spend our day on the track—instead of at the hotel’s spa, like their wives and girlfriends. I had a great time sharing my story and love for Porsche. Some of the men admitted that they didn’t have a connection with Porsche as long as I have; some didn’t even own Porsches—their wives or girlfriends thought that the driving experience would be a great gift for them. I enjoyed sharing with them my childhood memories of Porsche and how I loved my chocolate Cayman that I named “Mahogany”. I also enjoyed the gawking and stares as I walked through the lunch room, just like one of the fellas!
I wasn’t just a woman who liked riding in fast cars, I was one who liked driving them!
After lunch we still had an additional 3 hours and 45 minutes of high intensity behind-the-wheel training. How well did I do? In what ways and areas did I improve? Did my biggest fear come true?
How well did I do when the instructors explained to us that our teams would be competing for the rest of the day? Check back and check out what happened next!
Natasha F. Bryant, Bryant Group Motorsports