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Yesterday, my son and I attended a Hooked on Driving event at NJ Motorsports Park so thought I’d share some thoughts about our experience. First up, my Challenger is the first performance car I’ve ever owned and prior to yesterday, I had never been to any track. My goal was to learn how to really drive my car and not just rip through gears trying to improve my 0-60 times. Based on what I learned, the event’s organization, HOD staff, facilities and track, all my expectations were either met or exceeded. It’s safe to say this is the most fun you can have in your car with your clothes on.

I called Joe Mills at HOD after reading about HOD in a thread posted on this forum. We spoke for what seemed like 30 minutes and he enthusiastically answered all my questions. Basically, a coach would ride with me as I drove the Thunderbolt Track – 2.25 miles and 14 turns. If I was good enough, I could advance to a higher group and ride without a coach but I could also keep my coach with me the whole day. When I mentioned my son was coming up with me, Joe offered to have Nick ride with a coach. Feeling good about the conversation, I signed up that day.

We drove to Millville, NJ on Sunday night rather than get up early Monday morning. Good thing too as yesterday was a long day. Event registration was smooth and was followed by a 30 minute driver’s class which covered quite a bit – safety, flags, passing, etc. In fact, about halfway through, I wondered if I was getting in over my head, especially when he started talking about passing

I was still keyed up when I met my coach, George. We chatted for a few minutes before donning helmets, hooking up the communicator and strapping in snuggly. Throughout the day, his calm demeanor helped relax me and I know that translated into me being a better student. If any one person or thing made the day a success, it was George.

We drove the track four times throughout the day for 30 minutes each run. My group was scheduled to go out a fifth time too but we did not stay. I drove about 100 miles on the track and could feel myself getting tired by my last run so there was no need to push things. Besides, as I got more confident, I pushed myself and the car harder. Not a good thing to do if you're getting fatigued.

I can’t compare Thunderbolt to any other track but it was fabulous to drive. Initially, I thought my biggest thrill would be ripping down the .5 mile straight to see how fast I could go (105mph) but that wasn’t it at all. Driving the turns was amazing. Some were really tight so I had to brake hard and gear down to negotiate them. A couple of them were more open so I didn’t have to brake at all. Two were a little scary for me all day. One was a blind right turn going uphill. I’d be almost halfway into the turn and George would tell me to get on the gas. Couldn’t see over the top! Scary to come out hot and hope the track was going to be there. It was every time but the pucker factor was pretty high. The following turn needed no brakes, I just let off the gas well before the turn then get back on it as I enter the turn. A couple of times I accelerated too early. Not good as I ended up way to close to the edge of the track. Pucker.

Another wild moment happened at the end of the straight. All the turns have cones to mark when you should start to break. Most have three cones but this one has five. I broke way too late and not hard enough so came into the turn too hot. Thought my tires were going to release. As George told my son, it wasn’t an “Oh, sh*t!” moment but it was an “Oh!” moment. The other intense part was passing or being passed. Drive on the street and when someone gets right on your ass you want to have words with them. But it’s part of the game here. Still, seeing a Corvette fill your rear view mirror while you’re giving it all you’ve got is unnerving.

Just because I was a newbie did not mean I was at the bottom of the food chain. Between my group’s turn on the track we would watch other cars and chat with other drivers and coaches, all of whom were friendly and willing to share experiences and thoughts. A couple of the coaches told me that while everyone is obviously concerned about safety, the staff, regular drivers, coaches, etc. are very relaxed. The point is to have fun. Some of the other groups, they said, could be a bit stiffer. I thought I was going to get ripped by safety man, Scott, for passing incorrectly. We were told to pass only on the right but a slower car pulled to the right and signaled for me to pass on the left. It was a no pass zone but the driver was going so slow I took the pass. Next lap I got the black flag pointed at me. Scott looks like he could rip your head off and didn’t look pleased as I pulled into pit row. Pucker. He was nice when pointing out my transgression though, explained how I should have handled it then sent me on my way. And a little shout is in order for those manned the flags all over the track.

My final laps on Thunderbolt were with another coach, Mike, in his Porsche Panamera. Good Lord! It was white knuckles most of the time – 130mph on the straight, hard brakes, little skids, a spinout that left us half off the track, etc but I had a ball. He definitely showed me how the track should be driven.

A few words about my car. Obviously, the Challenger is not a road racer – too big and heavy – but it was fine for me based on my skill set. There were times I wish the car had better acceleration but in some cases it might have been because I exited a turn in too high a gear. I need never wonder whether or not the six-speed was a good call though. Even though I didn’t shift as much as I had imagined, doing so made me feel like I was part of the car. Both George and I were pleasantly surprised at how little roll we experienced. I assume it’s because the car is lowered although the tower brace might help too. I plan more track days so will probably install sway bars and at some point might consider bigger brakes. Surely there are things I can do to make the car a little quicker but that's not a high priority, yet.

Most of the cars on the track were Corvettes and Porsches of one type or another with a couple of Camaros, Mustangs and BMW’s thrown in. The majority looked like street cars although I did see plenty of dedicated road racers. Most were much better suited than the Challenger and some were so fast it was scary. They’d pass me like I was standing still. Ultimately, though, it’s not about hitting 130 on the straightaway. For me, it’s about slinging my car through those turns. Smooth is good and singing tires are even better.

In the final analysis, there was plenty to like about my track day with HOD. I heartily recommend that anyone looking to improve driving skills give them a try.
 

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Sounds like an awesome day! It also sounds like the HPDE events put on by NASA. One of these days I hope to do this at Fontana Speedway.
 
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