Less Haste, More Speed with MMC
Here's what it's like to take on the three-day racing school at Monticello Motor Club.
Dennis Macchio has the look of a man that has been there and done it all in motor racing—and with over 40 years in the sport he pretty much has. At 6’2 he is an imposing figure, with shaggy silver hair and a deeply tanned face that has weathered many a racetrack. With piercing blue eyes and well-trimmed goatee, he looks a bit like he has just stepped off the set of a Western movie with a confident, friendly demeanor and the casual swagger of a man that knows he has absolutely nothing to prove.
As the Track Director at Monticello Motor Club (MMC), Dennis will be our professor and coach as he leads us through the training curriculum over the next three days.
Monticello Motor Club is a motorsports park located in the Catskills about 80 miles from New York. Having spent five years of my life working in Motorsport, I have visited many, many race-tracks, and other than tracks developed for F1, most are extraordinarily underwhelming with hospitality clubhouses comprised of a few shipping containers, seats on the roof, and the sort of commodes you find at an outdoor concert.
Monticello, however, is very different. It has the feel of a high-end, upscale country club. With its impressive gatehouse, sweeping driveways, and manicured lawns, it is incredibly well-presented. The main clubhouse on the start/finish line houses the reception, lounge, and a large room used for classes. It has dining and entertainment, well-appointed locker rooms, a club shop, and a staging area for the pits. Every time I visit there seems to be a new feature—and they have plans for further expansion of the facilities.
I think many of us think of ourselves as capable drivers with the potential to have been great and able to race competitively, if only we had the opportunity when we were younger. I spent five years in Formula One managing the business side of the sport and at many races. I have also had the opportunity to drive some incredible road cars, but my track experience has been limited to the occasional track days here and there. The Monticello program was the opportunity to develop my skills, understand my capabilities, and learn my limitations in a safe environment.
Day 1: Preparation & Track Familiarization
As I arrive on the first day, the staging area is filled with six race-prepared Porsche Cayman Rs that are identical in everything but color. Outside there are two M5 Competitions in unusual purple and green colors, and a bright blue M5 Competition in the Safety Car livery that is reserved for Dennis Macchio. The first person I meet is the new incoming General Manager of Monticello, Ionel Porumb, who will be one of my classmates for the week. He is here to get an immersive experience of the track and the business.
The great thing about these race programs is that they have broad appeal and cater to different talents, skill levels, and motivations. In addition to Ionel, we have a member in our group that has a GT4 and wants to race more competitively, two brothers ages 13 and 17 whose father is an accomplished race car driver, and a young woman who is a member and wants to improve her skills.
As soon as he is done with the preliminary intro, Dennis sends us out for a review of the track in the M5 Competitions. We do a few laps with the instructors who demonstrate racing lines on the South Course and make it look incredibly easy. Then we take it in turns to get behind the wheel both to familiarize ourselves with the track and so the instructors can get an early assessment of our individual skill levels. These first sessions also get us used to driving the track in the familiar environment of a road car before being strapped into a race prepared car.
THE BASICS: OCULAR DISTANCE TECHNIQUE
Back in the classroom, we start our first sessions with Dennis that are all about what he calls Ocular Driving Technique ‘ODT’—the concept of where you focus your eyes. In short, the car goes where you focus and look and as you become more comfortable you need to be looking well ahead at the next 1-2 turns so that you are anticipating and thinking way in advance. Dennis promises that over the course of the three days we will consistently improve and be planning and anticipating as opposed to reacting, which is very similar to my experience as a pilot—you always want to be thinking ahead of the airplane. It’s the same in a race car.
The goal of the program is for us to get as much practical experience and seat time behind the wheel as possible. Dennis emphasizes we will self-teach, or ‘consciously-create’ as he refers to it, as we experiment and apply some of the techniques we learn in the class. We then have a session with Instructor Taylor Handwerk, who explains the lighting flag system, passing protocols, pit lane procedures, and general safety regulations to prepare us for when we are out on track.
Dennis then sends us out for a first run in the Caymans. We are separated into two groups of three and paired with one of our classmates that will help us get in and out of the car to ensure our harnesses and safety equipment is set up correctly. Firstly you put on the balaclava, helmet and HANS (Head And Neck Safety) device, which immediately reduces your peripheral and vertical vision. Then you climb into the Cayman, swinging your feet over the side impact bars, holding the bars inside the roof and literally sliding in.
Once inside you set up the 5-point racing harness to ensure it’s super tight, we put the steering wheel on, ensuring it clicks into place. The stripped down Caymans already feel very different to the from the the luxuriously equipped M5 Competition and with the helmet, bucket seats, and safety gear it also initially feels a bit claustrophobic. The seat is tight and you have very little side-to-side head movement as the head restraint comes around each side of the helmet. But once you are in, there is plenty of forward visibility and views of the side mirrors. It initially feels a bit cumbersome, but it is amazing how quickly you get used to it. We then go through the start procedure, flicking up a red rocker cover which is the master switch and then starting the Cayman.
After a quick radio check we are out on track for the first few laps to familiarize ourselves with the South Course. On these first sessions Dennis recommends driving at around 70-80% to get used to the feel of the Caymans and how they behave on the track. As stripped-down road cars without the nuances of insulation, they are louder and with the race suspension and tires, you feel the track much more—particularly without a great deal of seat cushion, but that’s exactly the idea.
As we start to increase lap speeds, our instructors are positioned at key turns around the track and give us pointers about racing lines, where and when we should be braking, turning in, and applying power. There is a lot to process on these early laps just getting used to the Cayman and the instructors are encouraging and not overbearing. Then just as I am getting into my groove and feeling pretty good the red lights start flashing, which is the signal to ease of the speed and head back to the pit to switch drivers. With the other group out on track we then head up to corner vantage points with the instructors to watch the other group and they share feedback and constructively critique our racing lines and techniques.
Back in the classroom, Dennis gives us a debrief and then gets back into the topic of ODT—the need to focus your vision on positive targets and processing time at speed. He explains that our eyes were never intended to be processing information any faster than around max running speed at 15mph, and when we are strapped into a race car we have around two seconds to assimilate and plan our course of action, with 0.6 seconds or processing time and 0.6 seconds of reaction time, so we need to be thinking well ahead to calibrate the speed of the car with steering input to ensure we can get the best exit to the corner. This is also where we get into initial discussions on racing lines and apexes to fully maximize speed and rapidly exit the corner.
EXIT, ENTRY, & BRAKING: SPECIFICALLY IN THAT ORDER
When I first started driving on track days, the temptation is to carry as much speed on the straights and focus on braking as late and deep into the corner as possible. But as Dennis explains it, this is counter intuitive and you have to begin with the end in mind as the goal here is to exit the corner as fast as possible and everything else is to set up for this. He explains the importance and priorities of Exit, Entry, and Braking—specifically in that order.
One of the areas we spend quite a bit of time on and becomes a major preoccupation throughout the program are the racing lines and the apex. Dennis explains that we need to be careful not to turn in too early, which also seems a bit counter-intuitive and entirely contrary to the realms of self-preservation. However, turning too early means that you apex the corner early and can potentially run wide on the exit, which means that you end up either off the track at worst or get a much slower exit to the corner at best. This is precisely why you need to be thinking and planning well ahead and mentally and visually focused on where you want to exit the corner for optimal results.
We get back out on track again in the Caymans to start to put some of this into practice, consciously thinking about car placement and where we are focusing our eyes. Sure enough, as I get more comfortable on the track I become much less focused on hitting the apex and more focused on how and where I exit the corner. My lines are getting cleaner and I am really starting to get a feel for the South Course and the car. As the laps build up, the engine roaring up and down the rev range, the tires are getting warmer and stickier and there is a wonderful aroma of hot oil and rubber that begins to permeate through the cockpit and slightly stings the eyes.
CONTACT PATCHES & WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
After an excellent lunch prepared by the MMC team, we take some time to compare notes and then we are back in class to spend the afternoon on weight management, which after a hefty portion of mushroom ravioli is certainly top of mind—but this is really more to do with the car and balancing traction.
Our discussion is focused on how the weight of the car transfers on cornering, braking, and under acceleration. Dennis refers to the tires as contact patches, which is the concept of ensuring that you are aware of how the car is transferring weight to the tires in order to maximize traction when and where you need it most. Dennis explains that the intention here is to minimize the inputs of gas, braking, and steering on the car as much as possible. The car should never be coasting, but every time you make an input it adjusts the balance, so you need to be as consistent and deliberate as possible. This is exactly why fast drivers make it look so effortless as they are incredibly smooth: They anticipate well ahead and they make minimal but highly intentional inputs.
Dennis explains the concept of smooth weight management by visualizing the car as a floating dock: If you quickly run or jump from one side of the dock to the other it rapidly destabilizes, so you want to make smooth deliberate inputs. The goal is to transfer the weight and downforce to the corners of the car where you want the most grip. Entering into a corner the car transfers weight and grip to the front tires under braking, then to the outside tires as you turn in, and then back to the rear as you accelerate out. At some point as weight transfers there are moments of weightlessness. The car should never be coasting, you should always be deliberately accelerating or decelerating. So, you need to be consciously thinking about where you want the weight and traction for steering inputs and acceleration to maximize grip and traction at every part of the corner to optimize the speed.
Over the course of the day, this becomes our primary focus as we think about racing lines, apexes, and maximizing exit speeds. It also leads to some really fun heated debates with our instructors about what are the optimal lines on some of the corners of the South Course with varying opinions. As a reformed Economics Professor, Dennis uses the analogy that if you put four economists in a room you will come out with well over five different opinions—it is much like that with our instructors opining on the best racing line. But this also brings us to a key learning point of the program, which is that there is rarely a single correct answer, the course conditions can change considerably during the course or a race and you need to try different approaches and techniques to see what works best under the conditions. Dennis also uses the opportunity to emphasizes that we are absolutely not in this program to learn the South Course at Monticello, we are here to develop skills that we can take and apply to any race-track.
At the end of day one, we wrapped up slightly early as it started to rain. After plenty of seat time, I felt like I was really getting into the groove and I go to bed exhausted, dreaming about racing lines.
DAY 2: LEARNING A NEW TRACK - OR AN OLD TRACK IN A NEW WAY
You can’t race on an empty stomach, and the second day starts with a hearty breakfast prepared by the MMC team. We continue our discussions about the concept of learning skills that can be learned on any racetrack as the primary topic.
After a quick refresher out on track in the M5 Competition, we are back in class and Dennis is explaining how we should go about learning a new track or an old track in a new way. Track conditions can constantly evolve and he emphasizes that we need to learn to read the track and use key elements of each corner to our advantage and adjust even mid-race. If there is oil or debris on the track you need to be adaptable to be able to adjust the racing line.
We start off talking about the how to identify the basic line and categorize corners. Are they constant turns, do they increase and tighten-up or decrease and widen out. Dennis explains that when familiarizing that we should first drive the track at about 70% and estimate reference points for the turn-in, apex, and exit for each corner. During our racing program these have been handily marked with cones by the instructors, but in a race environment these will not be available and we will need to estimate them.
Once we have a basic familiarization of the track the next phase is to begin experimenting. Dennis revisits our previous day’s discussion about the balance of the car and using simple-harmonic-motion to remain smooth with deliberate and progressive use of braking, steering, and acceleration. The need to consistently look ahead and read the exit, is it early or late, adjust accordingly and define a simple line using visual reference points. Then with the basics of the track layout and characteristics of each corner, we should progressively begin to test at higher speeds working on braking and entry speed to build consistency and fluidity through the turn.
ADVANCING TO THE ADVANCED LINE
Each of these classroom sessions is interspersed with more track time in the Caymans where we are sent out in groups of three with 30 seconds or so of spacing between each car and we put our learnings into practice. One of the great things about the program is there is plenty of track time.
The next phase is ‘advancing to the advanced line’ with more experimentation and back down to around 70% speed. We talk a lot about how to be aware of and use elevation, camber, curbing, the surface of the track, and other anomalies to get that little bit of extra speed. Racing is all about tiny incremental improvements and if you can shave off a few microseconds on each corner it quickly adds up. With 10 turns on just the South Course of Monticelli, this can add up to a few car lengths each lap. It always amazes me than in F1 qualifying the top three cars are often separated by under 3/10ths of a second and the field is separated by three seconds—this is all down to picking up tiny bit of speed that can make the difference between the top and bottom of the leader board.
The great thing about the Monticello track, particularly the South Course, is both the variety of corners and the elevation changes that you really need to think about. One of my favorite turns is Carousel, which is a long sweeping uphill left-hander that tightens all the way into the Apex and then out of the turn you drop down into a double apex called Pinetree. You are on the gas all the way up the hill toward Carousel with the weight on the back end of the car, a dab of the brakes going in as the weight transfers slightly to the front tires to get traction, and then you turn in holding the speed and tightening into the Apex. Then back on the power and accelerating down the hill, the faster the exit speed and momentum the wider the car pushes to the outside of the track with the speed and centrifugal force. Heading downhill and braking heavily into Pinetree the weight transfers to the front tires to give you plenty of traction turning into the double Apex.
Pinetree, however, ultimately turned out to be somewhat of my nemesis. Dennis explained the importance of using the camber of the turn to your advantage and also where and how to be aware of it. The Pinetree double Apex was a great example of this, as on the outside of the turn the camber drops down slightly, which means you need to keep the car more toward the inside to get the best traction, but if you go to far out the outside tires can lose traction as the camber drops away.
HUNTING FOR GRIP: IMPORTANCE OF THE TRACK WALK
All these increments of speed come down to ‘hunting for grip’ which can be found in lots of small elements on the course. At 100mph it is hard to see these and Dennis recommended doing track walks to identify elements where you can get extra traction that can be leveraged for some additional speed. A good example of this is the positive camber on the apex of some turns such as Hangar, which allow you to hold more speed into the turn. Turning early can be faster as you carry speed, but it is also more dangerous as you risk running wide on exit. A positive camber on the apex gives you an opportunity to apply more steering mid turn, as you can use the camber to tighten the turn at the apex and apply power earlier which gives you a faster exit from the corner.
We also discussed compromises, particularly in S-turns, where you might compromise the exit speed of the first turn by turning in late, but set yourself up for a much faster entry into the second turn which carries higher speed on the exit. In any racetrack conditions can also change quickly, so you need to be agile and consider that there are multiple ways to adjust the line due hazards such as oil or debris on the track. It’s all about maximizing exit speed and all these things add up to enable you to gain separation with the goal to build both entry and exit speed. The clear priorities being to focus on exit speed, entry speed, and braking in that order.
So with that, we are back in the Cayman Rs to experiment with different lines and approaches, identify where there is pay off work on improving consistency. One of the fun parts of the program is watching your classmates progress and it was particularly fun to watch the two youngest members of our group Bayard and Wilkie Plumb, who both improved massively over the two days. MMC is a fantastic and safe environment for young drivers to learn car control and it was incredible to watch the boys improve, such an amazing opportunity at 13 and 17 years of age. They certainly weren’t holding back.
THE PARACHUTE SYSTEM
Going into the afternoon sessions on the second day and preparing us for the third day, Dennis introduces us to the final parts of our session on correcting mistakes, or what he refers to as the ‘parachute system’. This discussion is focused on ‘line recovery’ and a series of techniques we should become familiar with if we need to make adjustments and take mitigating actions to recover from a mistake.
One of the most common early errors is simply turning into a corner too early, which without steering adjustments can result in a wide exit and going off track. Others include turning in too-late, too much entry speed and either too little or too much input to steering, throttle, and brakes. Complicated yes, and clearly a balancing act as things can unravel pretty quickly going into a turn at 100mph. Entering into a corner where the car is on the limit and at the threshold of grip, any additional steering input will cause it to slide so it must be below that threshold to tighten the steering. Easing off the power too quickly can also transfer weight to the front wheels which can also cause the car to lose grip. Dennis explained that when things do start to get a bit sideways, figuratively and literally, the first decision is ‘hold-em’ or ‘fold-em’ and choose the method of correction. Easy to say in theory and it clearly takes some time and practice in order to put these skills to use.
On one of the laps in the M5 at the Hangar corner we stop and get out and study the tire skid marks as several cars have skidded inside the track. Our instructor Taylor Handwerk explains that this is due to over correction, where after turning in too early instead of allowing the car to run wide onto the grass and straightening up and slowing you can bring the car back onto the track and avoid a spin.
We also spent time discussing spin-technique, when the car completely loses traction and you effectively become a passenger. At this point the goal is to get the energy and momentum out of the car as quickly as possible and Dennis reminds us of the adage 'in case of spin both feet in’, which is right foot off the gas and press brake and clutch simultaneously to slow the car and keep the engine running. Also counter intuitively, Dennis explains that we should turn into and tighten a spin, instead of counter steering, this reduces the arc of the turn and more rapidly takes the energy and momentum out of the moving car to stop more quickly and avoid run-off.
So with all this useful information, we were fully equipped and I was more confident than ever as we were back out into the Cayman Rs for the last session of the day.
After two full days of getting to know the race prepared Porsche, I felt I had a pretty good feel for the car and my own limitations. I pulled up to the end of the pit lane, waited to get the all-clear as the starter created some separation from the Cayman in front and we were out again. I was feeling great, focusing my vision well ahead of the car clipping the apexes and managing the throttle, braking and steering with smooth progressive inputs. I was feeling familiar with the corners and experimenting with small adjustments to the lines to get extra speed on the exit.
DAY 3: RAIN STOPS PLAY
The last day was unfortunately rescheduled due to major rainstorms, which was really unfortunate as we were all improving so much. But I am excited to complete the program at the beginning of next season. It will be the perfect refresher for 2022.
I spent quite a bit of time debriefing during the morning with Dennis reflecting on the techniques we covered over the last few days. Then I spent the remainder of the rainy morning with Geoff Abel, the Director of the MMC Service Center, walking through the workshops and getting his advice on track cars to buy. His advice was pretty straightforward: “Don’t buy anything you can’t afford to lose” and “This is why 45% of the members at MMC drive Miatas”. Great advice indeed.
THREE WEEKS LATER
Back in California, the program left such an impression on me that I have spent the last few weekends scouring the classifieds for a race car, looking at Miatas, M3s, and Corvette C5s and C6s.
After spending many years on the business side of Motorsport, I have found that the driving side is way more addictive than I expected and I can’t believe I didn’t start earlier. So maybe I could have been a contender, and maybe I still will be after all. As Steve McQueen is reputed to have once said, “Racing is life, anything before or after is just waiting”.
For more information visit: Monticello Motor Club
Photographs courtesy of Christopher Schultz, Monticello Motor Club, and James Henderson.