Finding Value – Sampling a McLaren GT4 Race Car with Exclusive Track Days
An automobile can be about more than merely getting from here to there. It could be the journey, the pace of acceleration and sensations in a corner, and the quirks of a particular car. A true driving experience engages multiple senses – the sightlines, the soundtrack, and even the smells of fluids and fumes.
Readers of The Speed Journal are familiar with the world-wide hunt for compelling driving experiences. Principal Jeff Francis recently visited his favorite racing haunt at Laguna Seca to sample a new twist on a time-honored driving experience.
The nemesis of any driving experience. Traffic. It is a sworn enemy of anyone who drives for joy.
In a world where residents in some places measure distance in time rather than miles, or face tolls to access high occupancy vehicle lanes, how does the enthusiast solve the traffic problem? How does the McLaren, Ford GT, Porsche Carerra GT, Mercedes Black series, or vintage Ferrari owner find room to run?
One solution is the time-honored dawn patrol run. Rise early and head to the canyons and twisty roads. A day in the mountains can be captivating, but only if those sharing the road have the same agenda. Roads also are constrained by topography and speed limits. Being a long way from help if something goes wrong isn’t ideal either. Enter the track day solution.
Sharing a track eliminates the chance of encountering a tourist on their own slow-motion tour with inoperable mirrors. Track days are open to all. Racers tune their skills and equipment. Customers stick a temporary number on their door in blue painter’s tape and get the chance to drive on race tracks rather than public roads.
Track days come in many shapes and sizes but the common goal is pushing the cost per guest low enough to make driving on a race track broadly accessible. There is nobility in providing a venue for drivers to stretch their legs somewhere other than public roads but volume has its drawbacks.
Large numbers of entrants may span a wide range of cars and capabilities. Multiple run groups can come with long waits between sessions. After all that, traffic can still be an issue.
Track days don’t have to all be the same. Those seeking sparse traffic and loads of track time yearn for a more select approach. Enter Exclusive Track Days.
Serial entrepreneur, former superbike motorcycle as well as Nürburgring racer, and all-around gearhead Ace Robey didn’t set out to start a track day business. His own experience and informal chats with friends who shared the same frustrations and experiences lead to the realization that their ideal vision for a track day was feasible.
The Exclusive Track Days target client base? The customer with a performance car in their garage who wants to enjoy a day driving in a controlled environment of a purpose-built race track, doesn’t want to get into a door-to-door race, and appreciates the value of paying a little more for a day or weekend of open track time with a smaller population of cars sharing the space. Racers who can get track time when they’re not competing – at a lower cost than doing a solo track rental – adds variety and visual spice. Price always lurks in the equation – even for people with plenty of money in the bank – but the lowest price doesn’t always mean the best value.
Car counts are capped at 65 per weekend and divided into three groups – 25 each in A and B groups and 15 in an R group reserved for race cars. Drive 20 minutes, take a break for 40 minutes, repeat seven times throughout the day. The A group allows open passing and runs quick lap times. The B group typically runs slower lap times and limits passing to straights and driver signals to point others by. The R group focuses on race cars with open lapping and the fastest lap times.
The standard recipe of race groups is relatively consistent, but varies from time to time. For example, Ace might substitute the R group for another of his passions – a Retro Sporting group limited solely to cars built between 1960 and 1988. Even the Retro Sporting group is limited to 25 cars making for a maximum of 75 cars on track grounds on a given day.
The schedule rotates between the California track trio of Sonoma, Laguna Seca and Thunderhill. It also focuses on those days where tracks with noise restrictions temporarily raise their noise limits. Ace and team have also organized similar events at iconic European tracks such as Spa, Nürburgring and others, utilizing the well-established services of RSR Nurburg. With lockdowns and schedule disruptions during 2020 and 2021, many track days or driving experiences suspended or limited operations. Exclusive Track Days have remained one of the few consistent options for track time.
Even though Exclusive Track Days has hosted events since 2013, it is not a household name. Word of mouth advertising has been a secret weapon. Glimpses of interesting cars at Exclusive Track Day events appear on social media but the events don’t exist to fuel social media clicks. Ace is protective of his clients. Keeping a lower profile speaks to those clients who appreciate discretion. People of means often view a private day at the track as an escape from a high-visibility life elsewhere.
So why do Ace’s clients gravitate to his track day philosophy? If you own a McLaren Senna or Porsche 918, where can you drive at speed with the benefit of space and others on the track that value the experience more than lap times or bragging rights? If you have a racing team, where can you get a good day of cost-effective testing without renting the full track yourself? If you own a classic car, where can you run at your own speed on a track without entering a competitive vintage race?
The Speed Journal dispatched Francis to visit Exclusive Track Days recently at Laguna Seca. Francis took a mid-engine Corvette C8 but borrowed a McLaren 570S GT4 from Ace’s stable as well. As Francis recently drove a BMW M4 GT4 race car at the BMW Performance Center in Thermal, the chance to sample a GT4 from a different marque was irresistible.
The McLaren orange 570S GT4 looked a lot like a McLaren road car, but the big rear wing and front splitter are signs of racing intention. The GT4 racing platform is designed for customer racing – primarily experienced amateurs who don’t want to spend unlimited budgets to race competitively. To prevent costs from escalating in an endless pursuit of fractional ticks on the stopwatch, racing regulations keep GT4 race cars from different marques within a narrow performance window. The idea honors different marques, but drivers and strategy make the difference rather than cubic dollars.
Ace is passionate about safety and prefers race-bred engineering like his McLaren GT4 race car where possible. Home built race cars or one-offs might benefit from the enthusiasm and knowledge of those involved, but McLaren, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes AMG, Audi and others call upon a deep well of engineering resources to produce GT4 machinery for their racing customers. With the popularity of the racing formula, club racing or track day enthusiasts might not realize that price points for used GT4 race cars put them within reach.
Sold to customers starting in 2017, McLarens have raced across the calendar and around the globe at well-known venues such as Spa, Nürburgring, and Silverstone. The McLaren has proven itself in both sprint and endurance racing formats.
The McLaren 570S GT4 wraps a body of aluminum and carbon fiber around a lightweight carbon fiber chassis. The doors pivot to the sky checking a traditional supercar box. Paddles behind the steering wheel control a seven-speed sequential shift gearbox connected to a 3.8 liter twin-turbo V-8 engine. The interior is spartan. Luxury trappings are set aside, favoring function over form. Bare black carbon fiber trimmings surround the driver.
Francis found the seating position to be natural and comfortable as far as race cars go. It takes some flexibility to climb into the car through the FIA-spec roll cage and around the edges of the high bolstered race seat. Once installed, the driver is firmly secured with a six-point racing harness and car and driver become connected.
The master switch on the center console prepares to fire up the beast. Press the brake pedal and hit the start button. Push the D button on the center console to shift into drive and the McLaren is ready to run. Immediate impressions? Power, braking and balance.
Laguna Seca has major elevation changes, including a long uphill starting at turn 5 that finally ends at the top of the famous corkscrew. The strong engine worked hard at full throttle to hurl the McLaren uphill for the entire sequence. Conversely, Laguna Seca is notoriously tough on brakes. The top speed run into turn 2 and the plunge from the top of the corkscrew to the final tight left hander shed speed by the bucketful. The GT4 brakes were exactly what a race car should have – push hard, brake deeply, repeat. It was a quick and stark reminder that the chasm between race and road car braking is significant.
The mid-engine configuration and the seamless paddle shifts helped to manage weight transfer. The McLaren was very poised and confident. Regulations for different race series influence running weight and engine mapping, but the GT4 starts life on the lighter side compared to GT4 cars from BMW, Porsche and Mercedes AMG. An extra hundred pounds or so may not sound like much but in a world where engineers push to shave pounds and ounces, Francis could feel the McLaren carving through corners rather than attempting to pound the track into submission.
The slick Hankook tires responded immediately when pushed. As much as the GT4 is a pure race car, it was not a temperamental untamed monster that challenged the driver to fend it off and avoid disaster at every turn. It provided a refined method to obtaining speed while allowing the driver to focus on improving their own performance, rather than also having to figure out how to manage the car.
Why does Ace have a McLaren 570S GT4 in his personal stable? Why does he sometimes make it available for rental to qualified drivers? Simple. The McLaren is a delight to drive, relatively easy to maintain and many of his customers have McLaren road cars. Even if a McLaren owner is familiar with their road car, Ace wants to provide the memorable experience of driving a less compromised expression of the marque.
For those interested, Ace has other cars available for arrive and drive as well through his AR Motorsports business (www.armotorsports.org). A raw Porsche 991 cup car is not a car for a beginner, but racing Porsches have been a pathway into racing for many drivers over the years. It has no driver aids to speak of, putting a premium on car control. A pair of very different BMW machines also inhabit Ace’s garage – a matte black 500 horsepower M4 GTS and a 260 horsepower 1995 Dakar Yellow E36 M3. Neither are fully stripped track weapons, but both are factory-built road cars with sympathies to the track. Both also sport upgrades installed after leaving Munich.
These are all personal cars, so Ace always reserves the right to ensure a prospective customer is suited to the car of their interest. Most guests bring their own cars but Ace’s personal cars provide an avenue to try something different or fill a gap for qualified customers if a personal car is unavailable when the urge to drive presents itself. AR Motorsports also provides a range of other race preparation services and support, including safety gear.
Coaching is often an aspect of track days. Exclusive Track Days is not a driving school and guests do not trade time instructing others in exchange for their own track time. Ace’s racing background has convinced him that professional coaches are the best way to go. Again, the question is value. For a little more money, Ace will arrange for a professional driver to serve as a dedicated coach for that single client for the full day.
Ace wraps a protective arm around this Exclusive Track Day community. There isn’t a formal application or approval process but there is a quick exit route for those that self-identify. If you don’t respect the program or other guests, Exclusive Track Days will not be for you.
In some cases, performance car owners may not have background to know nuances of track etiquette or safety equipment. Ace’s adamant views on quality safety gear are based primarily on his motorcycle background, but he acknowledges that not everyone comes with that background. So, he is happy to explain features of quality driving suits or helmets. As well as to provide taxi rides to show ideal lines, or just to give a customer a thrill as part of their day.
The program has earned the respect of customers and manufacturers alike. Koenigsegg, Pagani, and Bugatti have engaged Ace to put on special hypercar track day events for their customers and potential clients. Hypercars are a feast for the eyes and ears but, as with Exclusive Track Days, all involved appreciate the shared ethos and discretion involved which makes the events memorable.
The Exclusive Track Days community has also expanded to another of Ace’s passions – off-road rally racing. He personally races a full rally spec Ford Fiesta in American Rally Association events. Eager to share the experience, he has taken groups to Washington for rally school with DirtFish. Ace adores the purity of rally racing – primarily controlling the car with throttle and brake and using weight transfer principles.
In fact, he compares his experiences racing at the Nürburgring as a big rally stage with its tight and twisty path through the Eifel forest. Ace spent a good part of his childhood in Europe and fell in love with touring car and rally racing. His personal fully restored 1975 Ford Mk2 Escort RS2000 is set up for tarmac rally racing. Cars like this from the late 1970s engage all the senses. With no benefit of electronics or high tech carbon fiber, they are raw and loud and lively and tactile. If you were looking for a tangible sign of how Ace views racing, this red rocket would be it.
Pure driving melds the physical and mental. The body experiences forces and requires physical gymnastics, while at the same time the mind must maintain a keen awareness of vehicle dynamics and track surroundings. Different cars and tracks push different buttons for different people in different ways, but common themes make the driving experience unique. Very few activities engage the mental and physical. Ace and his Exclusive Track Days customers pursue the magic that comes from that engagement.
Any experience needs to be worth the effort and resources invested. As Francis found on his visit to Laguna Seca, value comes in many forms. Many have been bitten by the bug and have a love affair with the automobile. A pure driving experience that echoes the things that enhance the experience is priceless.
The Speed Journal would like to thank Ace and the Exclusive Track Days team for their hospitality. Learn more about Exclusive Track Days at their website (www.exclusivetrackdays.org).
The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.