Cadillac's free course showed me how terrible a driver I was
The good news: I got way better after just two days.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
So you bought yourself a performance sports car with three times the power of anything you've driven before, and numerous settings for handling as well as traction. What's the first thing you do?
No, you don't find an abandoned air strip, and for the love of Hemi you don't go hooning around a back country road. You get yourself to a driving school. Many manufacturers include a performance training course with the purchase of a scream machine.
Cadillac gave me a slot in its two-day training program, free with the purchase of a CTS-V or AST-V, at the cushy Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada. I was lucky enough to get the full new-owner treatment courtesy of Cadillac and I came away a more confident driver with a more thorough understanding of cornering and car control.
Lesson 1: You don't know how to sit or see
The first day started with a general overview of the car, including seating position. Right away I learned that I sit too far back, so I don't get the full force of my leg available for braking.
We went on to a serpentine course to practice your head up: looking where you want to go, not where you're currently going. It sounds weird and it is, but it's crucial to scanning corners as well as finding the apex (the point where the racing line is closest to the inside of the turn). I know from off-road racing that I should not look in directions that I didn't want to go in, but the opposite was more challenging than I expected. Still, I soon found myself scanning for cones out my side windows, clipping them just right and continuing to scan for the next cone.
After a classroom introduction to what can go wrong in a turn, we went out to a wet figure-eight track which amplified every mistake I made behind the wheel. This figure eight let me experience understeer, when you turn the steering wheel but the car continues straight, and oversteer, where the rear of the car wants to turn too much.
Going through the figure-eight even at a slow speed, the car understeered in the turns. The faster I went, the more it understeered, just pushing straight no matter my steering input. Then the instructor told me to put light pressure on the brake in the turn, transferring weight to the front. More weight on the front tires made the car more eager to turn. While I knew this on an intellectual level, being able to practice in a safe environment really hit the idea home.
For my oversteer lesson, the instructor told me to gun the engine while coming around a turn. The wet pavement combined with the summer tires immediately brought the rear around. I knew enough to countersteer but still, the car spun a full 360 degrees before coming to a rest. Embarrassed, I tried it again. Turn, goose the throttle, countersteer. And again, a full 360 degree spin.
"You have to really countersteer. You feel that rear coming around, pushing you to the left, you need to steer all the way right," commanded my instructor.
I took a deep breath, goosed it and slammed the wheel to the right. Lo and behold, I went into a glorious drift. For about 10 feet, after which I came to a stop. Still, during that brief moment in time, angels were singing and all was right with the world.
Lesson 3: Patience
Finally, I was told to get my helmet and head/neck restraint on, because we were going onto the track. Yes! This was it! I slid behind the wheel of the Cadillac ATS-V. I picked the 464 horsepower ATS-V because it's lighter weight than the bulky CTS-V as well as a bit more nimble in the turns.
We pulled on to the track, one instructor followed by three students. My right foot hovered over the gas pedal, waiting for the instructor to blast off the straight. Alas, it was not to be. This was just a discovery session, so the instructor was slow, taking the perfect line and explaining braking points over walkie-talkies.
A bit disappointed, I made my way back to my track-side condo. I could have enjoyed the pool or put in some sweat-time at the gym or racquetball courts, but I chose to stay in and watch YouTube videos of the track so I would be prepared for the next day.
Lesson 4: Keep it under control
Day two featured alternating track and classroom sessions, with a focus on car control and turning. Before the first session we learned about Cadillac's traction control management system. In addition to the Tour, Sport and Track drive modes in the CTS-V and ATS-V, the traction control can be dialed in to one of five settings to match your abilities and track condition. We did all our track sessions in Track drive mode and Sport 1 traction control. This combination let the car get a little tail happy, but not so bad as to induce a spin. If you're crazy and/or experienced, the Race setting turns off all stability and traction control. I am fairly crazy but slightly less experienced, so I kept to the rules.
Lesson 5: Turning is complicated
During all track sessions, a Cadillac instructor leads three students around the track, driving just a bit faster than the first student in line. After a few laps, that first student moves to the back and the second student gets their turn to follow. My first hot lap session felt pretty good, but I knew I was leaving speed in the turns. So I did what any fool would do, I entered corners faster. Wrong! That just makes it harder to turn. The instructor immediately noticed, calling out over the walkie, "It's slow into the turns, fast out of them, Emme. You're doing it backwards."
Thus, back to the classroom I went for the most informative session yet, a nuanced look at turns. Cadillac preaches an eight-step turn: visual scan, brake, downshift, turn-in, balance, clip the apex, unwind and accelerate. It took the instructor 45 minutes to break it all down, and a mere .45 seconds for me to screw up the first turn in my next session. I tried to accelerate before I tried to unwind and the back end kicked out on me. It was easy enough to control but I had lost time.
Getting schooled at the Cadillac V-Performance Academy
But with the next corner, I was better. I was beginning to get it. Visual scanning means looking for the apex, even if your line of sight to it is out your passenger window. Before you get to the turn, brake hard at first then lighten up. Downshift: get to the correct gear quickly! Start turn-in by pushing the wheel up with your hand instead of pulling it down with your other hand. To keep the car balanced, keep your foot on the brake just a bit to keep some weight on the front end, helping those tires keep grip. Clip the apex by coming as close to it as possible. Unwind slowly, using all the track and lastly accelerate, not with a stab at the gas but by rolling onto the throttle.
Each session I got faster and faster. At the end of my last lead/follow session, I looked in my rearview mirror and the other two students were nowhere to be seen. We had smoked them so badly we had to stop and wait for them to catch up. Go me!
Lesson 6: Digging into data
But feeling like I had put in a good lap is not the same as having the cold, hard data of a good lap. Fortunately, I recorded all my sessions on the Performance Data Recorder of the ATS-V. It uses the forward-facing camera and sensors to record not only a video but also an overlay of telemetry like speed, g-forces, braking and acceleration as well as track position.
I hit a maximum speed of 104.6 miles per hour on my best lap, but the braking graph showed I wasn't using the correct technique on every corner. Cadillac gave me a recording of an instructor lap, so I was able to compare my data against his. While I was slower by a few seconds and my braking was not always correct, the GPS showed that my line was near perfect.
Having the data makes all the difference. For my next track session, I know to work on my braking technique: enter turns slowly so that I can exit quickly.
With driver's education being pretty dismal in this country, I have to applaud Cadillac for offering two days of performance education for free in the V-series cars. The schools are offered each week and you can even bring a guest, although there is a fee for an extra driver. If you don't own a V-series Cadillac you can still attend the school for a fee, or you can try out the V-Performance Lab, a one-day school at either Daytona International Speedway in Florida or Circuit of the Americas in Texas. Anyone can sign up for $995.
It's easy to get out of sorts in a 640 horsepower CTS-V, a 464 horsepower ATS-V or any car, really. The skills I learned at the V-Performance Academy will be applicable to my lower-horsepower Mazdaspeed Miata and will certainly help me the next time I'm at the track. Hey, anybody got a Corvette Z06 that needs driving?