How much do you know about Fiat? Chrysler? We know someone who knows quite a bit about FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles). Wendy Michalski is FCA's Product Insights Research Manager, so she can probably teach you a few things you didn't know about the automaker.
Joined by 20 women who cover topics ranging anywhere from fashion to fitness to cars, I was part of an elite group that Lexus commissioned for a ladies-only first wave of their 2016 GS F launch in Palm Springs, Calif.
Not only would this be a women-centric media briefing, but it would also include a no-guys-allowed performance drive (save for a few instructors at the track).
We left the Ritz Carlton Porto Cochere in Palm Springs and headed directly east on Highway 10. An hour of driving a 2015 Lexus F Sport brand vehicle (my driving partner and I selected the NX crossover) and we’d arrive at Chuckwalla Raceway.
Of course, Lexus gussied up the area beyond Pit Lane for its female guests, furnishing it with modern sofas, chairs and high-top tables all in white. Tables were adorned with beautiful centerpieces full of desert succulents and flowers. This was quite the respite from the asphalt and helmet hair, although admittedly, I didn’t spend much time inside.
Standing in line patiently, one-by-one waiting for a turn in the next round of cars to come off the track, I felt as if I was in an alternate universe. Everyone behaved so politely and respectfully. This track day was a far cry from those I had experienced before, where the crowd was 90 percent men (or more). I love my male colleagues, and never feel uncomfortable when I’m out-numbered by them, but there was something special about the vibe with an all female group. It felt welcoming rather than intimidating. We were a group of peers, not in competition with one another but in support of one another. We were not there to judge driving prowess, top speeds or track experience. There was no machismo on display.
The day started with the typical safety briefing and overview of the racetrack; we would be driving on the flat course at Chuckwalla located about 70 miles east of Palm Springs. It’s a newer track, at just six years young, and a quite enjoyable one at that.
The welcoming, accepting environment created by a group of women who mostly didn’t know one another was a breath of fresh air.
The Driving Connection provided our instruction (including a handful of amazing, professional women drivers!) throughout the day. If you learn anything from an event like this, it should be: no matter how much time you’ve had on a racetrack, it never hurts to humble yourself and take the instructors with you for a few laps. They know these courses like the back of their hands, and they’ve got the driving expertise to guide you through every apex and straightaway.
Although difficult to tell how engaging the course would be standing at eye-level, we soon would discover the bends and turns of Chuckwalla.
After our first few laps as passengers, taking in the course and its complexities, I took a spin with instructor Shawn, who was my self-proclaimed “instigator”. Shawn has years of racing experience as an instructor and a stunt guy, so I was in good hands. The first lap he watched quietly, examining my approach to the track, getting a sense of how well connected I was with the car and the road. Then, it was time for him to instigate, er, instruct me. Shawn took me through each turn, pointing out how to hug the apex and put the pedal to the metal upon exiting the turn and entering a straight stretch…just before slamming on the brakes to take the next turn.
Now, it seems counterintuitive to drive this way. But the more time one spends at the track, the more they’ll understand how to push a car to its limits (but not beyond), and how braking ability is actually the most important skill to have behind the wheel.
I started out slow and cautious and built up speed throughout the day. I began to feel more comfortable and confident with each lap, and I could tell that for the most part the other women did, too.
When we broke for lunch, the line for drives around the track was replaced with one for the amazing spread of food Lexus provided. I quickly ate something light, a salad, as not to risk an upset tummy upon more driving and, eventually, hot laps. I eagerly returned to the lineup of GS F and RC F cars that had been temporarily abandoned by my colleagues. I had the pick of the litter.
This would never be the case at a normal track day. Most auto journalists would be clamoring to get in their favorite car and hogging it for as long as possible, and understandably so.
Rather than feeling pushed aside or not qualified enough, I was cheered on by the instructors, who recognized–by the ear-to-ear grin I couldn’t shed–that I was having a blast.
I would hit the road solo this time and test my memory along with my guts. I took each turn with focus, keeping an eye on the turn-in cone, apex cone and promptly looking beyond to the next orange conical indicator.
I chose the RC F – a striking Lexus coupe with a 5.0 Liter V8, 467 horsepower and an 8-speed automatic trans with paddle shifters and manual mode.Driving on the track demands focus but not tenseness. Your driving position should be close to the wheel and pedals, yet your hands (always at the 9 and 3 position) and grip should remain relaxed. Your hands are there to guide the car where gravity is already taking it. Your feet must smoothly power the car where you tell it to go.
On track days, it’s always a fine line between pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and pushing the car too far. You never want the latter to be the case, so proper driving technique and a cool head are a must.
With each passing lap I could feel that I picked up speed, reaching the 100mph mark on some short straightaways and then quickly decelerating to prepare for the next turn-in. My favorite part of Chuckwalla was a NASCAR-like elevated right turn that brought on such a feeling of gleeful G-force that I wanted to take it over and over again. I even recruited my newfound gal pal, Carrie Kim, to ride with me to experience the awesome thrill with me.
All in all, it was a great day. How can you complain when you’re behind the wheel of a performance coupe and sedan in the middle of the sunny desert?
Kudos to Lexus for working with Christine Overstreet, founder of ‘Heels & Wheels’, to produce such a fun, encouraging event for women. I hope that women in this group overcame their anxiety about driving on a track and that they’ll forever have the racing bug.
The best part? Seeing new faces and making new friends. There was a track-side camaraderie that I hadn’t experienced before. How refreshing it was to be in the pits with women from all backgrounds and experience levels.
Most inspiring of all, was that in a world where we women compete against one another in almost every aspect of our lives—always comparing ourselves to other ladies who we think have a better grasp on work/life balance or have more talent than we do—competition was void in the very place where competition is meant to happen.