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Learning to race cars one sharp corner at a time

Whiskey Hill Raceway twists and turns for 2.3 miles across nearly 200 feet of elevation.
Whiskey Hill Raceway twists and turns for 2.3 miles across nearly 200 feet of elevation.Steve Hartman/Precision Track Time/Precision Track Time

PALMER — I opened the throttle and tried to channel my inner Steve McQueen. It quickly became much more complicated than that. But those were my initial instincts.

As my car gripped the tarmac at Whiskey Hill Raceway, the voice of my driving instructor echoed in my helmet. “Initiate your turn now, aim for the apex. Accelerate,” he urged. “No, you were a little late. See how you missed it? Now the next turn is coming fast, get ready.”

The new curve was indeed approaching with ferocious immediacy. But that was the beauty of it. There was no turning back. There was only the pursuit of the next corner, with perfection a goal that lay tantalizingly beyond reach.

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An hour earlier, I was sitting in the modular classroom that is the current base of operations for Palmer Motorsports Park. Located about 90 minutes west of Boston, the raceway has drawn petrolheads into its orbit since it opened last year. And it certainly ensnared me.

I was there to attend the track’s High Performance Driver Education School, and instructor Stephan de Penasse was teaching us the fine art of not wrecking your car at menacing speed.

It is, of course, safety first, and track etiquette and driving techniques were meticulously presented in the day’s training. My classmates were very much like me — aficionados with performance cars who crave the freedom to open them up and “bucket list” racers who wish to test their mettle.

“It’s like you’re a roller coaster enthusiast and someone opens a Six Flags in your backyard,” said pupil and racecourse devotee Jim Fox, who drives his Porsche 993 around the ring. “You can’t ignore this track. It’s amazing to have it so close to the city.”

The blacktop at Whiskey Hill is smoother than a fine Scotch and stretches for 2.3 miles across 14 harrowing turns. The circuit is carved, quite strategically, along a wooded ridge — giving drivers the rare opportunity to traverse nearly 200 feet in elevation.

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The concept of a road course had been floated for almost a decade yet remained unfulfilled because of finances. That’s when amateur racer Fred Ferguson stepped in. The Massachusetts native arrived from the computer field and likens orchestrating racetrack construction to building a piece of industry hardware.

“There is something very technical in creating both and equally satisfying,” said Ferguson, who established the only motoring track of its kind in the Commonwealth.

“Racers are often isolated and are loners in many ways, but a team made this track happen. I wanted to do something that would bring the racing community together.”

That camaraderie is indeed palpable at the track, which lets drivers loose about 180 days a year, from April to November. Most of the time, the raceway is hired by various car owners clubs — think Audi and BMW — and other amateur driving leagues. One of them is the Sports Car Driving Association, which barnstorms around tracks throughout the Northeast.

Owner and president Elivan Goulart has embraced the Palmer course from the day the pavement was first laid down. “The track is just nonstop, you’re always on edge,” says Goulart, a national champion racer and current competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge. “There is an excellent flow to the course, and you can see elements of the world’s best tracks here. For instance, the corkscrew turn from Laguna Seca near Monterey and the vertical from Bathurst in Australia.

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“It’s quickly becoming an iconic track. And when circuits like this come online, they create their own demand.”

Members, for one, are buying in. For about $20,000, enthusiasts can purchase a “founders package,” a lifetime pass with unlimited evening and weekend driving and approximately 30 other days on track each year.

On any given Sunday, they’ll bring their vehicle of choice to Whiskey Hill and race, not against each other, but against their own personal best. A two-minute lap is about average, given the course’s twists and turns.

But sometimes the exotics show up, like a Lamborghini Huracán or a Ford GT40 or an open-wheel Ariel Atom. Times drop precipitously from there, with the track record currently standing at 1:32 for a BMW M6 touring car racer.

My plans weren’t quite so ambitious. But the track is coiled like a frenzied rattlesnake, and I promptly learned that if you don’t attack it, the course will strike first.

The key is to discover the right line through this maze of turns and to caress those curves just right. “It’s not about speed, it’s about control and finesse,” emphasized de Penasse. “You’ll brake less when you’re on the racing line, you’ll keep your momentum into the next turn, and you’ll go faster. Much faster.”

During my day at the driving school, classroom lessons were interspersed with 20- to 30-minute track sessions. In this way, we could methodically examine our performance and build a racing lexicon to better discuss the day’s work.

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For the last runs, I was let off the leash and drove solo. Sometimes my instructor was purposefully chasing me, more often I was following him. I greedily devoured his lines and traced his angles.

The combination of turns 12, 13, and 14 is among the most demanding at Whiskey Hill and flows into the track’s only and brief straightaway. With my instructor’s taillights in view, I began hitting those turns with decent consistency. I repeatedly got up to 118 mph on the straight before braking into the tight downhill that is turn one.

My laps were quicker, but everything in the cockpit slowed slightly as decisions became easier. Yet after one day, what I really knew is how much more I still needed to learn—and I wanted to absorb all I could before the checkered flag dropped.

But then I grasped something the driving school never mentioned. Always check your fuel gauge. I was running on empty.


Matthew Bellico can be reached at matthew.bellico@gmail.com.