What I Learned From Autocross Racing in a Supercar

Turns out that you can learn a thing or two from a day spent driving a $200,000 Lamborghini Gallardo.

Pupil dilation, twitchy heartbeat, salivary uptick, poor vocabulary – lots of things happened when the Lamborghini rumbled my way in Freehold, New Jersey.

“Shift to second up here,” the instructor says. I hit wiper blades instead of the paddle shifter.

“Alright, throttle. A little more.” I promptly miss my turn.

“Nice and tight on that green cone.” This one I managed to do.

“Feather that throttle. A little more – good. Now lift. Now get to that cone, Cody. Good. Lift.” I start to grin.

“Throttle – now! Go ahead, give it a little bit more. There you go.” I hit the gas pedal hard and let out a whoop.

Modern masculinity is weird, isn’t it? First there was Top Gun, then the metrosexual, then the lumbersexual, and now we’ve got whatever it is that has you curling a bag of hammers with one hand whilst researching lavender facial scrubs with the other. Take me, for example: in spite of an English major and frozen cocktail habit, I still make room for punk shows, dodgy Manhattan bike rides, the heavy bag, well liquor, and the odd tattoo.

Wherever we fall on the continuum, though, most of us can probably agree on one thing: there’s an undeniable allure to the rarified world of supercars, whether it’s an Italian beauty clearing its 10-cylinder throat under your feet or a few hundred horses imprinting you in the bucket seat of some big block American beast.

Clearly, automotive attraction would speak to the stereotypically masculine side of my brain. What surprised me when I sat down behind the wheel, though, is how piloting one of these monsters tapped the egghead in me, too.

Like Henry Rollins and The Iron, this big piece of metal had a thing or two to say. Five, actually:

If You Want It, You Can Get It

Owning one of these bad boys is incredible, obviously, but also incredibly out of reach for most guys without trust funds. So needless to say, I jumped when offered the chance to take a spin in one myself through Motorsport Lab, a company that puts you behind the wheel of a six-figure car for some driving instruction and a few laps around a makeshift course.

Though as it turns out, your dad was right when he told your grade school self not to fill up on bread: prioritization is everything. Especially when it comes to your budget and fun stuff that costs money. Taking a spin like I did can cost into the $500 range, and it would take some decent realignment of financial priorities (or the bachelor party of a really good friend) to make this experience a part of my normal world.

Luckily, writing for Bespoke Post has its perks: Motorsport let me drive for free. And if you want to take a crack yourself, it's cool to know that you can drive a car of this caliber without a seven-figure salary – even if it's only for an hour.

Dollars aside, the day was loaded up with a crash course on autocross (more on that later), three laps helming either a Ferarri F430 or a Lamborghini Gallardo, a video of said laps, and all the aforementioned heart/pupil/spit effects. And don’t tell anyone, but I also got a bonus ride along with one of the instructors – and was quickly acquainted with how hard you can push a Gallardo when you really know what you're doing.

Don’t Bro Me Until You Know Me

Quintessentially masculine pursuits and their pursuers are not generally known for being elegant and enlightened. Obviously, that's not always the case, and examples abound of guys whose personalities go way beyond their stereotypes – just look at Yogi Berra, George Clooney, Charles Tillman (look him up), or Formula 1 icon/Brazilian demigod/utterer of smart and inspirational things, Ayerton Senna. But still, you'd figure that renting a Lamborghini would draw a certain kind of bro-y crowd.

Surprisingly, though, my day at the track was much lighter on meatheadness than one might expect at this kind of testosterone-fest, both in terms of the event staff and clientele. It could be the fact that outfits like Motorsport Lab actively try to “keep out the knuckleheads,” as they told me, with a fair amount of paperwork and the aforementioned price tag. Or maybe there’s only so much room for carelessness in a sport that relies on finesse and focus to keep you from running into things.

Know Your (Speed) Limits

There are many paths to supercar nirvana. I was exposed to just two of them, but whatever you have available to you, do your research and find a car that’s commensurate with your driving style and ability. My advice? Look inside yourself, identify some personal fears and boundaries, and wisely choose the conservative option: a car with a a 200 mph top speed.

Fun facts about the cars available that day, courtesy of Paul Jakubik, onsite event manager for Motorsport Lab:

The [Ferrari] F430 is a driver’s car. You have to be really accurate on where you’re picking the throttle up and where your braking points are because there’s no weight to the front end, so it’s easy to slide into a corner instead having it go where you need it to.

The [Lamborghini] Gallardo’s all-wheel drive is a lot more forgiving. You can push it into a corner and get out of a corner a lot harder than you can with the Ferrari.

On top of that, the Gallardo is substantially wider and heavier than the F430. Result: it’s pretty much velcroed to the road – more control, more fun. Especially if you’re the type of person who hits the windshield wipers instead of the paddle shifter on your first turn.

Bigger Isn't Always Better

This is hard to remember when presented with a lot of “big” options. Case in point: many supercar rental companies have you gun it around a real race track, but after signing up a few weeks before race day, I was disappointed to find out that I’d be on a pretty tight figure-eight “autocross” course. To me, it seemed I wouldn't be getting that brute force experience I was hoping for.

Not true. And as I learned, raw speed is only one component in the suite of skills studied by and crucial to any aspiring competitive driver. Mr. Jakubik again:

What autocross gets you is a little bit of every side of the car. You get the acceleration factor, you get how well they brake, how well they corner, and how well they grip. Whereas if you’re on a race track you’re just getting acceleration: straight line speed.

In other words, autocross is the gentleman’s pocket knife to the race track’s machete. The putter to the driver. The slider to the fastball. The slice to the overhead slam. I could go all day, but the point is, there’s a thinker’s paradise available within the sport of racing, one that engages that headier part of the noggin as it grapples with the puzzles of turning geometry and time spent alternately between the brakes and the throttle.

The other neat thing about this form of motorsporting is that it’s everywhere, courtesy of organizations like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They host events all over the country, usually for a $30-$50 entry fee, which gets you a bunch of multi-lap runs on whatever course they’ve dreamed up for the day. And because it doesn’t require football fields or quarter miles of space, events can be hosted in places like the mall parking lot where I took my laps. As Jakubik puts it, “All you need is some cones and some time.”

Be a Sponge

Commit to learning as much as you can. There’s a kind of refreshing purity in the act of being a newbie at the outset of learning something fresh, and there’s value in being out of your element: you're allowed to ask stupid questions and focus single-mindedly on the basics. My lesson came from John Bryson, an authoritative but nice guy who doubles as Motorsport Lab’s event director.

The commands are obvious in terms of information to soak in: “Get to the cone” codifies the habit of always looking ahead. And you put two and two together to learn that “feathering the throttle” is a technique you’re mostly using when exiting a turn, right at that fine line between maintaining speed and spinning out.

More than anything, though, I found immense value in riding along as John’s passenger for those last three laps. Few words, lots of examples. It was like a master course in super compartmentalized stretches of acceleration and deceleration, smooth work at the steering wheel, and a few other intangibles that made the car eat up that parking lot with elegance and force.

Having said all that, learning about yourself and your car driving expertise isn't really the point of doing something like this. The most important takeaway I found was to just have fun out there.

Sounds like a boilerplate T-ball coach lesson, I know, but that’s exactly what you should do if given the chance to do something like this. There are so many venues in which to put the ol’ ego through its paces. Check it at the door and just let yourself have a blast with those horses.

After all, it’s just a 5-liter V10 with 375 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm that goes zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds and costs as much as a nice starter home. Relax, guy.

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