Taking your car to a racetrack can be a daunting proposition, but Tire Rack and the Sports Car Club of America want to take away some of the intimidation factor. That’s why the two teamed up to launch the Track Night in America program, an affordable way for car enthusiasts to get instruction on tracks around the country. I took our 2015 Jaguar F-Type S Coupe to Michigan’s Grattan Raceway to see what Track Night in America is all about.
I park the F-Type alongside the vehicles of two dozen other attendees, who range from track-day regulars to newbies who’ve never so much as autocrossed their cars. There’s a Chevrolet Corvette Z06 at one end of the paddock and an Audi A4 wagon at the other. Organizers tell us that at an upcoming event, they’ve got a student registered in a Ford Fusion automatic. In other words, Track Night in America is accessible to drivers at every level.
SCCA driving instructor Tom O’Gorman gathers the novice group, runs through some safety rules, and outlines the day’s schedule. After a lead-follow session behind O’Gorman’s Nissan Versa Note rental car, we’ll be sent out on our own to try to master the 2-mile course’s tricky turns. The program isn’t technically about outright speed, despite the 171-mph ability of our Jaguar F-Type.
“The goal today is to have a low-key, laid-back evening,” O’Gorman says. “The only thing you can win here tonight is you and your car going home in one piece and in good health.”
O’Gorman hops in his Versa Note and leads our group around Grattan Raceway at a relaxed pace while we absorb the basic driving line. Grattan’s a complex track with several blind corners, lots of elevation change, and a fiendish off-camber left-hander. I’m grateful for the opportunity to follow a professional racer around the course before attacking it on my own at speed.
“Driving on a race circuit is all about laying the groundwork first,” O’Gorman agrees as we novices file back into the paddock for a quick recap before our next track outing. “There are no dumb questions.”
With my question answered -- should you brake before or after the blind crest into turn 5? -- we’re back out on track again, this time without a Nissan economy car pacing us. I mat the accelerator as I pull onto Grattan’s long front straight and click the right shift paddle up through the gears, before standing on the brakes just as the speedometer touches 120 mph at the top of fifth gear. The Jag’s large brakes bite lap after lap without any fade, and the firm pedal helps me judge exactly how much I want to slow down.
But in the twistier sections, I’m reminded that the F-Type is more grand tourer than gran turismo. The front tires give up early and the car begins to push wide if you corner too fast, forcing me to be extremely patient through a right-left-right-left complex of turns. That’s not to say hustling the F-Type isn’t fun and exciting, but I’m enviously watching the way a Mazda RX-8 zips through turns.
A 2015 Jaguar F-Type is an uncommon sight at track days, and we’ve made some friends. “That thing sounds so good,” says O’Gorman of the car’s supercharged V-6. “I just sent my friend a photo. I couldn’t believe there was one here.”
Another attendee is more hyperbolic: “It sounds … orgasmic.”
I toss the Jag’s keys to senior editor David Zenlea, who brought our 2014 BMW M235i to Grattan, and watch from the stands as he takes the feisty cat out for a few laps. Everyone is right, the supercharged-six makes glorious noises as it rockets up the main straight. Zenlea returns to the paddock with a smile on his face, but he still wants the BMW keys back.
“The Jaguar is very hard to drive smoothly at the limit, and it’s pretty twitchy,” he says. “The steering feel is excellent, and I always knew what the car was saying, even if it was saying ‘This isn’t working.’”
We pack up our helmets and tire gauges and hit the highway for the long drive home. The 2015 Jaguar F-Type S Coupe isn’t the world’s greatest, most precise track-day weapon, but our car proved to be an absolute riot for a half day of lapping Grattan. Moreover, talking tricky corners over with O’Gorman helped me learn the track quickly and navigate it safely. Our first Track Night in America was a rousing success.
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