An Elite Adventure: Jaguar Driving School
September 08, 2011 | Talk of the Town
Drifting sideways around a racetrack at 110 miles per hour in a 2011 Jaguar XKR coupe—piloted by an Andretti racecar driver—is enough to make you wonder if the designers of the English supercar ever intended for it to drive in a straight line. It is the sunny end of a tremendously rainy track day at the Monticello Racetrack in upstate New York, and I am ensconsed in one of these glistening rides for Jaguar’s R-Academy. The program, built into the sticker price of any R-type Jaguar, treats owners to a full day of hands-on driving instruction courtesy of some of the world’s preeminent racecar drivers such as Chris Munro, Mike Finch, Roberto Guerrero and Davy Jones. (You can also buy a spot in the school for a little more than $1,000.)
The lessons—which occur in one of Jaguar’s cars, not your own—include mastering the figure eight, cornering and the proper techniques for navigating a bona fide race track at speed. You will also get an in-depth explanation and demonstration of the luxury car manufacturer’s stability control systems, demystifying those buttons emblazoned with race flags and skidding cars that most drivers avoid. “Most car companies still allow their computer to control the car even with the stability control disengaged,” Munro, the lead instructor, explained. “If it thinks you’re going to crash, it’ll kick in at the last minute and save you. Jaguar doesn’t do that. Once it’s off, you’re in complete control.” Which effectively turns this V8, 510-horsepower beast into a rocket.
The Full-Speed Experience
The coaches, who sit shotgun, give the following warning before you roar off: “I’ve seen it all, so don’t try to impress me. You won’t.” With those words ringing in your ears and the car’s computer shut down, you are instructed to “floor it” after coming out of a sharp curve. The six-figure coupe screams forward, 461 pounds of torque throwing you into the bucket seats right before the back end sways out as the car skids around.
“Exhilarating, isn’t it?” coach Adam Andretti (yes, of those Andrettis) asks as the car jerks to a stop after one particularly long slide. While he immediately offers a jubilent fist bump, it takes me a bit longer than normal to pry my shaking hand from the wheel to meet his his. It is exhilarating, but it’s also nerve-wracking—particularly when you are later left alone in a car and told to follow one of the instructors around the track in single file groups of five.
The drivers are not even slightly fazed by the sheets of rain pounding the cars and the track. The speedometer climbs past 80 and then 90 as you weave through slick s-curves, and you start to wonder why the instructor isn’t hitting the brake as often as you’d like. Then you remember that this man knows what he's doing, and the earlier words of Munro: “These cars handle remarkably under any circumstances, but especially in the rain.”
Getting the Hang of It
After the tenth lap around the track, everything starts to fall into place. You’ve learned the XKR’s physical limits, and the practical information disseminated in an earlier classroom session becomes clear and executable. Everything happens more instinctively, like picking your head up and looking to the end of a turn instead of the apex. Or minding the "string theory": envision a piece of string tied from the bottom of the steering wheel to your right foot, and keep the "string" taught so if you’re turning hard you shouldn’t brake or accelerate.
It all just clicks. The sun even came out, drying up the track considerably, and it was time for the “hot lap,” where the racecar drivers show you why they’ve earned their titles—not to mention how the Jaguar R-type doubles as a jet. With a helmet secured, you’re given one last instruction for the day: “No matter what, don’t touch the driver. At all.” So you hop in the passenger seat and buckle up. Tires howl and smoke as the powerful machines barrel around the track at double the speeds we were driving minutes earlier.
In our car, Andretti turned the passenger window into the windshield, casually flipping the wheel around and leaning past this flailing (yet laughing) writer to see where the car was really heading. There were several moments when the urge to grab him was hard to overcome, but nail marks were left on the handles of the door and dash instead. As he topped 120 on a straightaway, elbow casually dangling on his open window, he grinned. “Why are you sweating, man? I’m the one drivin’!” Right.
BY SEAN EVANS