Bluegrass PCA: Road to Road Atlanta

This article was originally published in the August issue of the Rumble, the newsletter for the Bluegrass Region Porsche Club of America. You can learn more about the Bluegrass Region PCA and view additional publications at https://bgr.pca.org/


Bucket list tracks - every motorsports fan has them. Whether it stems from a trip to the 24 Hours of Daytona, waking up early to catch a Formula 1 race at Monaco, or spending hours on the couch playing Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, we all have circuits that we’re just dying to experience for ourselves. And while I’ve been fortunate enough to have a go at one of my all time favorites, Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA, I can still only dream about the others. Tracks like Spa, Bathurst, Suzuka Circuit, Road America and of course, Road Atlanta, have been high on my list since I was young, racking up countless laps on each from the comfort of my own home. And when the opportunity arises to drive one of these greats, you really have no other choice but to take it. That’s where SCCA Track Night in America comes into play.

Everyone has heard of a track day, but a track night? While it sounds like you’ll be running laps with your headlights on the whole time, that isn’t exactly the case. SCCA’s Track Night in America was created for the sole purpose of providing an easy and cost effective way for anyone to get out and experience their favorite circuits in the US, and they have been successfully accomplishing this mission since 2015. The concept is simple. Take an SCCA club race weekend where the circuit has already been booked, schedule some time after practice or qualifying, and allow the masses to sign up and experience the track at a lower cost than most HPDE events. The events are non-competitive, meaning you won’t be logging lap times or trying to shave off seconds. Instead, you’ll find yourself in a friendly environment that caters to everyone from first timers to track rats and everything in between. Instructors are on site for any help you may need, but there is no in car instruction, and for the most part, you’re on your own to enjoy the event in whatever way you please. SCCA proudly states that Track Night is the “Fastest Way to get on Track” for automotive enthusiasts, and I wholeheartedly agree with their mission statement. 

In this case, the track was Road Atlanta, the 2.5 mile beast in Braselton, GA that features 12 turns and one of the fastest straightaways in North America. And while I had flirted with the idea of Track Night in the past, when the schedule hit my inbox with a date at Road Atlanta, I decided it was time to make the move from virtual to reality and experience it for myself. Well, myself, and a few great friends of course.

Although Track Night doesn’t take place entirely at night, it does start later than a normal track day. So go ahead and sleep in, no 5am wake up call needed. Check in started around 2pm and the process was quick and well organized - sign a few waivers, get a temperature check, get your helmet signed off, drop off your tech form, pick up your schedule, track map and swag and head up to a staging area for further instruction. Despite temperatures in the 90s, the staging area allowed plenty of time to meet some of your fellow track nighters, talk about your cars and your previous track experience and, in my case, get a sunburn that still lives on a few weeks later. Think of it like a midday Cars and Coffee, with a little more excitement in the air, along with spec Miatas, 911s and other race prepped cars providing the soundtrack during their practice sessions. The lineup of attendees was diverse, with Porsche 911s and Caymans as expected, along with Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros and M3s, and some oddballs like a late 80s Thunderbird Super Coupe, an orange vinyl wrapped Chrysler Crossfire and a Mk5 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 sporting a set of Hoosier racing slicks. And of course, Miatas. I don’t think it’s technically a track day without them. Around 5pm, we were greeted by Sarah, our Novice Instructor, who laid out the guidelines and our schedule for the evening. First up, a paced lead follow group session to learn the racing line and then off to pit lane to secure our grid spots, prep our cars and get ready for our 3 sessions.

Pulling onto Road Atlanta for the first time was surreal to say the least. I’ve probably logged tens of thousands of laps on this track in racing simulators over the years, but regardless of how realistic the simulator is, it doesn’t compare to driving it firsthand. And just as I experienced at Laguna Seca, if there is one thing that sims cannot properly convey, it’s the elevation changes. Exiting out of the pit lane coming into turn 2, I almost didn’t recognize my favorite set of corners, but after about 2 laps at a steady 60 mph in our lead follow group, the layout was familiar, and I was ready to open it up in my first full session.

Like most track events, Track Night is broken up into 3 groups - Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. Although I have some track experience and a good understanding of flags and point by passing, I chose to run Novice as it was my first time out on this track. After clearing out the cars and setting up our home base just over the pit wall, it was finally time to head out on the first session. I chose to start out slow to familiarize myself with the line, focusing on braking points and smooth transitions, building speed with each lap as I started feeling more comfortable. The Novice group was respectful, abiding by the point by rules at the passing zones between turn 5 and 6, on the back straight and again on the front straight. There was no intimidation, no aggression, just a bunch of enthusiasts out to have a great time on a world class circuit. 20 minutes flies by on the track, and just as you feel like you’re starting to get a good rhythm down, it’s time to head back into the pit to cool down and let the next group out. After returning to my grid spot, it was time for a quick group meeting with Sarah to talk about the first session, address any questions and of course, get us pumped for the next session.

Let’s talk about the track. If you’ve never driven Road Atlanta, it’s a fairly large, technical track, with only a few slow corners, and two long straights. Turn one climbs uphill into a sweeping left hand turn, followed by a quick right and another sweeping left into “The Esses” before you’re on the brakes for turn 5. After a quick straight, dive into turn 6 and track out, brake for turn 7 and open it up on the back straight, where my Cayman showed an indicated 125 mph before it was hard on the brakes for turn 10, a tight left hand corner followed by a quick uphill right. Then it’s under the bridge, where the world disappears into turn 11, and finally turn 12, a fast right hand sweeper that is both terrifying and satisfying at the same time. Get this one wrong, and you’re putting your car into the wall in front of everyone. And chances are, you’ll be trending on Jalopnik by the time your car gets pulled back into the pit. But get it right, and you’re flat out onto the front straight, grinning from ear to ear and ready to do it all over again.

Session 2 was much like the first, albeit with faster entry speeds and later braking, and constantly telling myself “don't lift, don't lift” at the kink on the back straight. This self motivation was all I needed to stay in it, until my car decided it was time to put me in check with a “DING” and a bright red notification of “FLAT TYRE” in the OBC display. If there’s one thing you don't want to see at 125 mph, this is definitely it. Although there was no indication of any issues, I gradually slowed down and headed into the pit, only to find that bleeding air from the previous sessions was the culprit. The tires were lower than the recommended PSI, so I cleared the warning and headed back out to complete the session. Sarah checked in with us again after session 2, making sure the Novice group was comfortable and offered some tips on braking points as she had spent the previous weekend lapping in a 987.2 Spec Cayman. Meanwhile, the groups moved quickly, and before I knew it, I was being called back to my car to head out for my third and final session. Session 3 came with its own special allure, as the sun was setting over the track, and Sarah motioned for me to turn my headlights on before heading out. Track Night was living up to its name, and although it was still light enough for complete visibility, it provided an ambience that typically doesn’t exist during your normal track day. Pulling back into the pit lane after my final session was bittersweet - I could finally check Road Atlanta off of my bucket list, my Cayman did everything I asked of it and I had an amazing experience from start to finish thanks to the team at Track Night.

By this point, if you haven’t already Google’d SCCA Track Night in America to see what events are on the horizon, I’ll save you the trouble with a link to their events page. While the season is coming to a close, there are still plenty of events left around the country at tracks like Gingerman Raceway, Thunderhill, Atlanta Motorsports Park, Auto Club Speeedway, Pitt Race International and more. There’s even one at Sebring International Raceway in September, which is undoubtedly high up on many enthusiast’s bucket lists. So if you’re looking for a way to experience some of the greatest racing circuits the US has to offer, or if you’re a beginner looking for an easy and cost effective way to get on track, SCCA’s Track Night in America is for you. I cannot speak highly enough of the experience - the event was well organized, the coaches were fantastic, and the non-competitive nature offers the perfect atmosphere for beginners who are looking to get started. But be warned, track addiction is real, and you’ll be looking for your next event as soon as you’re done with your final session. So get out there and start checking off that bucket list. Actually, that reminds me, I need to register for one more before the season

Words and photo by Kevin W Vrbanac

Comments