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What happens when you take a regular car to a race track (after the laughing)

Simon Avery, prepared for a day at Mosport race track in a Toyota Camry.

Liz Morden

When I showed up recently at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport) for a day of training, the first thing organizers did was laugh at me for the car I had brought. Then they ran a $675 charge on my Visa, laughed again and returned the card.

Clearly, it was going to be a day to swallow my pride.

I was driving a 2013 Toyota Camry, which was 14 years younger than the usual car I drive. It was exactly like the model you find many cabbies using. Indeed, the aftermarket navigation system protruded and flopped about like an old taxi meter. I hadn't felt so excited about a day's outing since my wedding.

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It is, in fact, easy to rent a more appropriate car for Mosport. The Pfaff Automotive Group offers day rentals for between $600 and $1,200, depending on the car. But I wasn't just being thrifty with my choice, I was being practical.

The purpose of the program at Apex Driver Training isn't simply to go fast. It's to learn how to handle a car properly – a skill that is not automatically developed with a driver's licence and a couple of decades experience on the public roads. Without the cover of high-performance technology, a novice can quickly learn the limits of a vehicle and focus on the techniques that will make a better driver.

To be honest, the Camry also revealed an element of naivety. I simply had no idea how much exquisite engineering would be on the track that day. As I took my place in a classroom with 10 other novices, the intermediate and advanced classes began to warm up. Suddenly, a primal roar sounded outside. We couldn't see the track, but our classroom was just a flag wave away. One after another, the cars thundered by, belching a mix of high-octane fumes and testosterone. Only later, when we emerged from our session, could we survey the scene: charging into turn one in rapid succession was a Ferrari, another Ferrari, a McLaren, a third Ferrari, a ZR1, too many Porsches to track, an AC Cobra, a Mustang Shelby and an impressive list of other high performers in tow. There was eye candy everywhere.

The Camry wouldn't share the track with this group. But as the novices made their way to the skid pad, it was clear their hardware wasn't too shabby either. The vehicles included a modified Corvette Z06, a Mustang Boss 302, a BMW M3, a Nissan GTR, and several Porsches.

When I crashed this party with the Camry there was a moment of stunned silence, followed by a burst of jokes and laughter. At least I had a visor on my racing helmet to hide behind.

From inside the vehicle, I fixated on the skid pad, where the circle's centre was marked with a large orange pylon. With my instructor Jerry in the passenger seat, I steered the car in a tight circle around the cone. As I accelerated, the circle got larger, a product of under-steer. I thought the car was about to tip, at which point Jerry told me to give the Camry even more gas. The tires squealed as we circled for several minutes. I had never cornered so hard and fast and I realized that the worst thing speed was going to do was increase the radius of our circle. (Tip: look out the side window, not the front.)

The exercise was fundamental in learning the limits of the car and I was glad to be doing it in a vehicle that resembled the feel of most cars on the road. The 530-horsepower GTR, meanwhile, quickly spun off the circle in a spectacular cloud of dust – too much power in untrained hands.

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The Camry gave a similar sensation through the slalom course and braking exercises, where we learned how weight transfer affects the performance of a car and how to use our brakes to full capacity.

With these few basic skills learned, we donned racing helmets and were unleashed on the renowned track that has hosted nearly every kind of race, from Formula One and IndyCar, to Can-Am and FIA World Endurance championships.

Beside me, another instructor gave rapid commentary on where I needed to be on the track, how I should be braking, when I should be unwinding the wheel coming out of a turn and how the vehicle's weight transfer would affect steering. At one point, he grabbed the wheel and yanked the car into the little buffer zone I kept giving myself at a particularly tight turn. Critical through all of this was keeping my eyes focused far ahead of the car.

Most of the techniques required breaking old habits, and none of them could be learned any better in a faster car than the Camry. Success really was all about concentration and repetition.

The Camry needed every metre of the back straightaway to reach 160 km/h, and classmates burned pass me at a furious rate. But the turns were the great equalizer among the novices, where technique trumped horsepower and ceramic brakes.

I don't know what speed I took the 10 turns at on each lap. (We had been well advised that focusing on the speedometer was a sure way to lose control.) But the factory-installed tires made so much noise at times that I knew if the Camry went any faster it would slide right off the pavement.

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At the end of the day, I had gained a new level of comfort and confidence for handling a regular production car. A couple of classmates commented how surprised they were to see the reliable Camry holding its own on the corners. I felt somewhat redeemed, given how the day had started. But deep down I had to admit, I had an insatiable desire to try that McLaren.


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