A handy piece of advice to remember during track days is that no one will remember you driving slowly, but they will remember if you crash.
When presented with a track day, most of us leap at the opportunity to get behind the wheel. And why wouldn’t we? It’s a chance to stretch our legs and test our own limits. But if you get the opportunity to ride shotgun with someone with vastly more skill than you—a racing instructor, for instance—you should jump at it.
Recently, Ford flew me up to Michigan to test out the new, 2019 Shelby GT350 at M1 Concourse in Pontiac. It was an unfamiliar car that didn’t belong to me, running at an unfamiliar track. On my mind was to be as careful as possible with it during my laps.
I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t heel-toe for shit because I just haven’t had the opportunity to practice enough, and I also didn’t know the car as well as those Ford guys did. So I was happy to have them take me out for a few laps to see what it was capable of. You can’t set a goal for yourself if you don’t know where to aim, after all.
Given that I had already taken a few laps myself, I had a basic understanding of what the car could do. Riding shotgun with the pros was, I figured, a way of cementing my initial impressions.
I went out with both Keith Weston, Ford’s own Vehicle Dynamics Supervisor and Spencer Geswein, who is an instructor at Ford’s performance racing school. Weston has driven Ford’s performance cars for hundreds and hundreds of hours in order to to figure out how to engineer them to be the best they can be, and Geswein’s job is literally to help people get better at track driving.
It’s one thing to learn a track and a car while going at a slower pace on your own. It’s a whole other to see all of that cranked up to 10.
Riding with them showed me exactly what the car was capable of—and more importantly, exactly how much further I could safely push it myself. And don’t underestimate the power of the butt dyno: You can tell if a car is squirrelly under braking perfectly well from the passenger seat, even things like shifting and handling all come across in the attitude and the movements of the car.
“See how we’re coming up to this elevated turn?” Geswein yelled over the wind rushing in from the open windows. “You tended to hug the right side, whereas it’s faster if you enter from the left and let the car pull a bit instead of fighting it to stay right.”
He powered up the hill and I instinctively braced myself, waiting for the inevitable lift that I thought would come at the top. Lifting off the gas is what did me in once a long time ago. Lift and I do not get along.
But it never came. The GT350 stayed pressed to the tarmac at the crest and kept enough grip in its tires to slingshot into the next left-hand turn.
“I thought there was going to be more lift!” I said.
“Nope!” he called back.
Geswein was smooth turning into corners, quick to get back on the gas. How he got on the brakes put my own stuttering and stumbling attempts to shame. When he drove, the Mustang was a precision instrument. When I drove, it was a hammer. He still accelerated harder, shifted faster and braked later than me, but it was all perfectly rehearsed with zero hesitation.
After Geswein did his cool down lap and drove us back to the pits, I opened the passenger door. An acrid scent of something burning wafted up my nose. It definitely wasn’t clutch.
“It’s the brakes,” Geswein answered happily before hopping into another car with a waiting journalist.