Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Track Review: Palmer Motorsports Park

I have to be honest here: when clubs first started announcing track days at Palmer for 2015, I was a little worried. It looked like the track had amazing potential during that short “test-drive” I did on it back in late Fall but there were so many open questions: Will it be ready for 2015? Will it have the needed safety features added? Will it be fun to drive at speed? Will people be able to figure out how to drive it or they’ll fall of a 1,000-foot cliff? Will it have at least a trailer for a classroom? Power? Water? Heck, will it have washrooms or I’d have to do my business behind one of those big rocks?

Most of us have fallen into a rut when it comes to our driving schedules. For those of us in the Boston area, we’ve been going to Tremblant (our signature event away from home!), Lime Rock (sorry, the logistics and financials are not in favor), NHMS (well, at least it’s close to home), and Watkins Glen (grins all around). I had my first (and last) event at Monticello a few years ago and even though it looked promising, its high-paying members made a decision to keep it exclusive (I hear Ferrari owners experience “shrinkage” when a lowly BMW passes them). Then there was our Thompson adventure last year. The track is fun to drive but it still looks like it was put together by a bunch of guys drunk on Coors Light.

Jumping with both feet on the Palmer opportunity was a BOLD move that paid off! Of the 25-30 racetracks that I’ve driven in North America, there are only a few that really stand out with their distinctly own character: The Glen, Tremblant, V.I.R., and Laguna Seca come to mind first. The common thread between all of them: rollercoaster effect. Driving Palmer for the first time gave me that same feeling of excitement and distinct character, except Palmer keeps you busy for its full length of 2.3 miles. Even the front straight is not quite a straight and you are so busy fighting the car at triple digit speed through the kink, you just don’t have the time to glance at the speedometer, let alone wiggle your fingers or loosen your shoulders. Many of its 15 turns fall into Skip Barber’s Type III category: a compromise turn. You can drive through these turns many different ways depending on weather conditions, traction for the day, speed through previous turns leading to it, etc. Palmer is a track where you are constantly mixing the driver inputs (accelerating, turning, braking) and playing with the right mixture that will keep you at the edge of the friction circle. Trailbraking at triple digits? Check. Drifting around a concrete wall? Check. 4-wheel drift? Many checks. Blind turns, camber, off-camber, steep uphills, winding downhills, a carrousel turn, and a wild sequence of turns leading up to the front straight. Yes, Sir, may I have another?

Going to a new track is a bit like going to a new restaurant. You go for the newness. You come back for the food. Palmer is a track for drivers designed and run by drivers. I will be going back there many times for the unique driving experience. This is a mini Nurburgring on steroids only an hour and a half from Boston. Palmer is a hidden gem, which is why I am still worried: that all the other clubs will also find out how truly spectacular it is much too soon. So shut up, drive it, grin and pretend you've never heard of it (if you can).