8 things I learned while ripping an ATS-V around the track.
What's that, you ask? As part of Cadillac's resurgence as a high-performance luxury car maker, the reinvigorated brand thought what better way to show buyers this isn't your grandfather's Cadillac than by allowing them to shred its tires on a track? What a glorious, smokey idea.
That misconception was admittedly one I still held when I thought about Cadillac. I envisioned a boxy Seville that I'd seen many elderly people drive, but never over 25 mph. I knew little about their newer products, but assumed it was more of the boring, but very lavish same. Then I got behind the wheel of their top-of-the-line V-series. How unfairly I had judged them.
These vehicles are no slouches. The ATS-V's twin-turbo 3.6-liter V-6 is good for a whopping 464hp—and it comes in manual!—and the CTS-V has an LT4 supercharged V-8 engine that's generating a whopping 640 horsepower. Both have fun goodies like rev-matching that helps spring off the starting line with blistering pace and peak torque. They are as fun to drive as any performance car and come with all the luxe trim that you can expect from the General Motors mainstay brand.
Which brings us to Spring Mountain. This is one of the U.S.'s premiere automotive country clubs, featuring more than 6 miles of track and an impressive stretch of land, all groomed and geared toward the auto enthusiasts. They have an on-site Wolfe Racing car shop, 4 driving academies, and all the plush amenities you'd expect from a five-star resort. But the heart of this two day seminar was the track time. The V-Performance Academy is focused on teaching new V-series owners about the serious power their new wheels holds, and how to wield that power with accuracy and confidence.
Many of those on-track lessons translate directly to daily driving. Here's what I learned over two days with the 2017 Cadillac ATS-V that made me a better daily driver.
You're probably sitting wrong
The point of the Cadillac V-Performance Academy is to teach owners how to drive their cars. That means the cars we were tracking were stock models with luxury seating, not Recaro bucket seats. I found out very quickly that while cornering too fast or breaking hard, I was moving around more than I should be.
Some easy adjustments that helped most were bringing my seat forward until I had a healthy bend in the knee. From that position, I was able to attack the brake and—more importantly—the throttle with haste. While being aggressive in my acceleration and breaking I also noticed the need for a slight up tilt in my bottom seat cushion to support me behind my knees allowing for less of a forward slide while decelerating quickly.
The correct hand position for maximum control is 9 and 3
Forget looking cool with one arm draped over the top of the wheel. Or driving with a pinkie at the bottom. When you need to exert full control, your hands should be at 9 and 3. You can put full lock—when the you can't turn the wheel anymore—or remove it from that position. If you're hitting some tight turns, make sure to have the steering wheel close to you and at a height that allowed for full turns without hitting your knees. This hand position also helped during paddle shifting, since you're never fumbling around back there, trying to find the paddle.
Proper cornering requires balance on the throttle
I’ll admit I may have gotten a bit excited when I heard of the performance capabilities of this car. I ended up taking a turn too quickly and oversteering right off the track. But following that dust storm, I learned how crucial car balance is when cornering. In a rear-wheel drive vehicle, when you press down on that throttle the weight and balance of the car shifts towards the rear wheels and you lose traction in your front tires. What's the practical result of this? You lose grip to the wheels that steer and you're out of control. When coming through a turn, it's important to be able to feel where the weight of the car is at that moment and balance it to allow for better traction by either letting up on the throttle or by putting light pressure onto your brake.
For God's sake, leave traction control on (unless you're a pro driver)
For those times when you misjudge the balance of your vehicle, or for moments when road conditions are less than ideal, computerized traction control systems save you from, as one V-Performance Academy instructor quipped, “Doing tea cups at Disneyland." The instructors put us through an exercise that highlighted the use of their traction control system. Running figure-8s in a loop on a wet surface in touring (normal) mode wasn't too hard to keep the car tidy and on the line. After a few passes through the course, with my confidence high, they turned off the traction control assistance and I was left spinning in circles. A fun exercise but not what I would want to happen on a wintery or wet highway with other cars around. Lastly, they turned on their highest level of traction control in the cars’ snow and ice mode and encouraged me to upset the car's balance enough to purposefully induce a spin but I couldn’t. As fast as I could I hit those turns, every time the traction control system took over, modulated the car and kept me on course.
Expand your vision beyond the norm
You’re firing down the interstate, cruise control on, and you're in full tunnel vision-mode. Then, suddenly, someone cuts you off and you nail the brakes to feel like you are in control again. This is when you realize how important it is to see all around you. Cadillac's first exercise works to correct just that. After running a short course of sharp turns with full sight out of the windshield, the instructors then covered the windsheild with a sunshade and had us repeat the exercise. The results bordered on hilarious, but after a few rounds you were able to expand your vision and use your side windows to navigate effectively.
Look where you want to go, not necessarily where you're headed
Keeping your eyes up and where you want the car to go will help eliminate the problematic and sometimes deadly issue of target blindness. That's when you lose control of the car and end up staring at the exact thing you don't want to hit, like a wall or a tree or a highway divider...only to then hit it. That's called target blindness and it happens because your hands follow your eyes. So if you're skidding, look where you want to end up, not where the car is nosing towards. The car will come around. Similarly, when you enter a corner on the highway, if you can, look at the exit of the corner and your eyes will magically guide your hands through.
Speed is subjective, especially in newer cars (or on a racetrack)
Sport mode is activate and I'm accelerating quickly off the apexes and I think I am flying around the track. Then I hop in the passenger seat to be driven by the instructor. I’m trying to film a Facebook Live and I can’t even hold the phone straight. I'm being chucked back and forth as the instructor whips through the turns of the course.
I’m gripping the passenger side door with all my might thinking that I must have been going so slow on runs without even realizing it. I look over at the speedometer and it says 40 mph and we hadn’t yet hit the straightaway. Without the context of other drivers it is hard to tell how fast you are actually moving around the track. With a track like the one we drove in Nevada, with all its twists, drops, and turns, the fastest you really go is about 90 mph, and that's mostly on the straights. In order to achieve the times you want on the track it is more important that you take your turns with accuracy and balance in order to make the most of the times you can actually put your throttle to the floor.
Cars have finite limits on turning while braking or accelerating
There's something called the string theory. Imagine a piece of string tied to the bottom of the steering wheel and attached to your right foot. When you're aimed straight, you can bury your foot into the accelerator or the brake and the car is just fine. When you're turned hard, you can't press either as much. Cars love to accelerate and brake in a straight line, but that's not practical for real world driving. What is helpful is understanding that you shouldn't hard brake or hard accelerate into a turn because the car can't handle that much input and will over or understeer.
Lastly, adrenaline is a helluva drug to help you focus
Not really a learning for daily driving, but an interesting takeaway nonetheless. Careening off the track while trying to regain control of a 464 horsepower car can send anyone’s adrenal glands into overdrive. I was shaking for a good 10 minutes after I ran my car off the asphalt into the rocky dessert. Luckily, I calmed down and my car was inspected they allowed me to go back out on the track and do one more run, and I never felt better. The boost of adrenaline gave me the laser focus I had been needing in order to have good lines and great acceleration off the corners. I’m not advocating for anyone to drive their car off the road in order to gain superior acuity; I’m just pointing out that adrenaline and racing can certainly pump you up. Being in a V-badged Cadillac doesn't hurt either.