Jaguar R Performance Academy: 510HP CARS + TRACK + EXPERT INSTRUCTORS = AWESOME!
Taking delivery of a 510-bhp supercar can be a daunting experience for the novice owner. Facing the opposite direction in oncoming traffic, for example, is an all too common occurrence for the uninitiated. Light poles also seem to have a homing device for high-performance cars. Since most drivers can go ten, twenty, thirty years or more without ever bettering their skill level, handling a car with this much juice may be a stretch. As a progressive car company, Jaguar recognizes this and is doing the responsible thing by offering buyers of the 2010 and 2011 XFR and XKR hellcats formal instruction in a controlled environment with racing heavy-hitters.
The Jaguar R Academy will be making several stops this year throughout the country. The tour began at Homestead Miami Speedway and continued on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Monticello Motor Club in New York and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, where we had the golden opportunity to participate. The facility was built relatively recently, in 1997, on a massive expanse of land formerly housing a steel mill that provides space for virtually any type of racing configuration inside a large oval track. An auxiliary road course and enough swath of pavement to rival an airfield complete this remarkable venue.
An evening reception at a quaint hotel in Ontario, an Inland Empire community surrounding a large domestic airport, kick-started the event. It provided a great opportunity to get to know owners, journalists and the Jaguar folks who would be guiding us the following day. After the formal meet and greet, several of us broke off and headed out for a little late night food and drink, the industry standard for auto journalists before a big day at the track. Somehow it took all 7 of us to figure out the workings of the Dodge Grand Caravan we rolled over in, with the mechanics of dropping the rear seats proving to be the most daunting task. After wisely bypassing the bar area of the local El Torito, where patrons were being wanded down (not sure if it was an overly enthusiastic off-duty TSA agent or security in the Inland Empire at food chains is just that tight), we settled into a nice chat along with some tasty Mexican food and beverages. Mission accomplished and anticipating the action-packed day ahead, we called it a night.
First thing in the morning, after checking out of the hotel, we drove over to Auto Club Speedway just down the road in Fontana, where we passed a whole row of 2011 Jags getting prepped for the track. But before getting behind the wheel, the first order of business consisted of some level setting with classroom presentations. The all-star instructors were formally introduced and included Davy Jones (former F1, Indy, Nascar, Le Mans and current endurance racer), Roberto Guerrero (former IndyCar and F1 driver), Chris Munro, Morgan Kavanaugh, Mike Finch and Adam Andretti (the younger brother of Nascar driver John Andretti, nephew of Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti and first cousin to both Michael and Jeff Andretti).
We discussed such things as proper seating and hand positions as well as concepts like oversteer and understeer, load transfer and squat and dive. There were just enough nuggets of gold that, if applied, would significantly increase track times and none of the self-posturing mumbo-jumbo that would be totally irrelevant to the average owner in any case. My favorite quote of the day was “Don’t try to impress us because you can’t and don’t try and make us sick because we already are.”
Later we all hopped in a train of Jaguar XKR and XJR vehicles heading over to the autocross track which had been set up in a large expanse of asphalt, demarcated with the usual suspects of orange cones. There we got the opportunity to set a baseline time for the day with one practice loop through the course and then a full-on timed sprint. Hitting cones or failing to stop inside the finishing box led to seconds added (although, surprisingly enough, I don’t think anyone in our troop either hit a cone or undercut/ overshot the box). With our times unknown and our spirits high we split into three groups to tackle the various challenges that had been set up around the race track.
Our group’s first challenge was a dry skid pad figure 8. Learning how to handle and control the oversteer generated by 510-hp delivered through the rear-wheels was the task at hand. Getting the back end to brake loose a bit while keeping the front tires tracking properly was challenging at first. Speeding between the circles, turning one’s head to lead the car in tight around the circle and then throttling out of the turn for another dash across was a blast. Pretty much everyone got completely sideways at some point and a few folks ended up doing the dreaded reverse. And that was really the point – to figure out where the oversteer kicks in and properly finagle it through the turn with correct head movement, looking where you want to go, not where the car is pointing. Any front tire squeal was a sign that things were going horribly wrong and traction was being lost. Indeed, for a while there, we sounded like a bunch of pigs on speed.
Next up, we hit up a small cone-laden oval where we worked on being “smooth” and choosing the right lines to get around the quickest. The chant “turn too soon run out of room, turn too late a better fate” rang in our ears. Starting into the turns wide on the outside, coasting through the inside of the corner and then powering out to the edge in preparation for another dive was the objective. The first few times around we kept DSC on, which let us know exactly at what point traction was being lost. It was a frustrating but necessary evil. The later rounds were completed with everything turned off in order for us to learn to effectively combat oversteer and keep the car under control. We also practiced braking in a straight line repeatedly.
We headed back to the autocross with our newfound knowledge and confidence, ready to tackle the course head-on. This time around, we each hopped in with an instructor who demonstrated the right lines and appropriate speeds for traversing the coned-in pavement. After a couple of runs, we took the wheel and practiced with their instruction. My first time through I was shepherded by none other than Roberto Guerrero who preached smoothness and efficiency. With just a few runs I significantly improved my quickness through the course.
Morgan Cavanaugh, an instructor at Rally Art and Bridgestone’s Winter Driving School, then showed me a different method altogether. Emphasizing more of a fluid Rally style as apposed to a stop-and-turn IndyCar approach, he murdered the pavement by tossing the car around through the turns and powering through with oversteer. Two different approaches both accomplishing the same goal of faster times. Naturally, while I greatly appreciated Roberto’s tutelage, it was Morgan’s style that I gravitated to, taking many more runs solo through the course in aggro mode.
Shortly before noon, we caravanned over to the main road course for a couple of laps of lead follow around the track. We listened to the advice dispensed by radios inside the cars and followed the lines set by the instructors (which didn’t quite trickle down as the cars got deeper into the pack). After an exhausting morning we were treated to a nice big lunch, regrouped and talked shop. Soon enough we were back at the autocross to clock our official lap time without any pre-practice. Engines whined, exhausts roared and we all ran the cars around the course as quickly as possible. Times were still unknown but everyone had guesses (often pure fantasy) on how we performed.
It was then back to the road course… Before we got back into the vehicles, Jaguar rolled out a couple vintage V12 race cars (pictured above) and sprinted them on a short straightaway. For the next couple of hours, we engaged in more lead follow laps at increasingly higher speeds. The instructors each spent some seat time with the students for one-on-one guidance in order to get the most out of the cars, find the quickest lines and help us put together everything we had learned for the day including “string theory” – coming off the brakes as the steering wheel is turned and then progressively engaging the throttle while unwinding the wheel until full-on in a straight trajectory. One mental hurdle to overcome – entirely counterintuitive – was in transitioning through the turns while making the most use of the track and finding the largest arc to maintain speed. But, strangely enough, the times I felt I was getting through the course the slowest were actually some of my fastest.
The final exercise put the instructors in the drivers’ seats for a round of hot laps to get “some payback” for the undoubtedly nauseating experience of being hurled around by a bunch of schmoes. I got an opportunity to ride with several of the instructors including Adam Andretti who basically drifted the car around the entire course, leaving me with a stupid grin plastered across my face for the next 15 minutes. Robert Guerrero blazed through the track in silky smooth fashion, adeptly finessing the wheel with just his fingertips. And Davy Jones handled it with a little bit of both flavors, still smooth and controlled but with some serious power slides thrown in for good measure.
The performance capabilities of the Jaguar R coupes and sedans are truly remarkable, with the perfect balance of luxury appointments and supercar aspirations. We thrashed these vehicles all day long in 95 degree heat and they didn’t even flinch. The electronic wizardry is beyond impressive in either standard mode, a more-aggressive sport mode, or the dynamic mode which delivers crazy torque and holds gears. Throw in the safe-and-sound DSC mode, riding on the edge Track-DSC, which is less invasive, and the ability to disable all electronic controls altogether, a rarity among auto manufacturers, and there is something for everyone. The Active Dynamics system monitors each wheel 100 times a second (say what?!) and the Active Differential works with the suspension to maintain traction under heavy acceleration and steering.
All in all, it was a phenomenal experience and one that should be opted for by any new Jaguar R owner. The XKR Coupe starts at $96k while the XFR sedan can be had for $80k, not an investment most folks are anxious to go beat up on a track. Luckily, Jaguar provides the rides, tires, helmets, food and drink and transportation back and forth from the hotel, where a reception/dinner is provided the night before. Airfare and hotel are on you, but if you can afford one of these gems, you can surely spare a few duckets for a life changing experience.
To get the haps check out www.jaguarperformanceacademy.com.