My wife has given me grief over the years because I refuse to join her on roller coasters. She loves them, but the thought of riding on what is essentially a sweaty, metal, human catapult sends nervous shutters down my spine.
She’s typically right in saying they are perfectly safe, but my biggest reason for roller coaster anxiety is that I’m not directing my own course. In a car, I have the control to push the pedal to the floor and whip its four wheels into corners, but on a roller coaster, I’m just along for the ride.
Needless to say, my wife had good reason to question why I volunteered to sit in the passenger seat of a 460-horsepower Corvette piloted by a man I had known all of five minutes as he hurtled the Grand Sport as fast as he could at Road Atlanta. All the while, he was verbally confirming that no, he was not a professional driver.
The reason for my foray into dangerous territory was The Driving Club at Road Atlanta. Founded in 2018, the club allows drivers, both amateurs and professionals, to drive their cars at speed at the prolific, highly touted road course in Braselton, Georgia.
The club meets once or twice a month at the track with a quasi-country club feel. For a $7,500 initiation fee, $275 a month and $75 for each track day, drivers can take their cars on track and dine and relax in the club’s 25,000-square foot clubhouse that once housed the Chip Barber Racing School. Members can also store their track day cars on site. Adding to its amenities, the club will take residence in a suite in the new Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta tower currently under construction.
Members also have reciprocal benefits to attend VIR Driving Club track days at VIRginia International Raceway.
For around 20 minutes, I entrusted my life to one of the club’s original members, John Partington. John is a bit of an outlier in the club because his car does not carry a Porsche emblem. While there is certainly a mix of cars, from spec MX-5s to Vipers, the Road Atlanta Driving Club has a particularly German influence.
Not John, though. He was a Corvette man since before he was a man and signing off on his 2017 Grand Sport was a literal childhood dream.
While John was quick to point out he was not a professional driver while hurtling his American muscle to 150 mph down the hill into Turn 10A — perhaps not the best timing for my sake — he speaks in an almost giddy way of improving his times.
Mind you, he’s not out to break lap records. Far from it.
John has taken advantage of the club’s driving instructors, including Pro Coach Seth Thomas, a veteran sports car driver. The club offers different levels of coaching, for those with no track experience to veteran drivers looking to further hone their skills.
John speaks with an obvious passion for learning how to improve at trail braking, carrying speed through corners, exit speed and attacking corners. He said at each stage of his instruction he has continually improved, and while he still has a ways to go before he can match the lap times his car is capable of, he wants to be a better driver overall. Then the lap times will improve, he said.
The club has three driver groupings, the novice Touring group, intermediate Sport and expert Sprint group. Each group has its own track times throughout member days and runs multiple sessions throughout the day. Those interested in joining the group can also participate in a lead/follow where they take to the track at lower speeds behind a driving instructor to get a feel for the track.
Members days begin early with a breakfast at 7:30 a.m. before a drivers’ briefing and warm-up period. Cars are then on track until lunch around noon before drivers get back on the track until early evening. After the driving is done and the tires cool, a reception is held with beer and wine.
John says one of the best aspects of the club is the comradery that has been built among its members. He said the club is filled with personable, interesting people, and though there is some speed disparity from cars and drivers in each group, no one is critical or hyper-competitive.
Beyond the cars and people, John holds his testing ground of Road Atlanta — home to the prestigious Petit Le Mans — in the highest regard. It really is something.
I have logged hundreds of hours driving Road Atlanta, but unfortunately, all those miles driven were done digitally. And no computer chair or steering wheel attached to a desk can give you the experience of actually being on the track.
Simulators do not get anywhere near simulating the blind, sheer drop of Turn 11, or the way the camber of Turn 6 propels you into Seven or the steep, sweeping climb of Turn 1.
The long backstretch allows you to reach the upper echelon of a car’s top speed, something not possible at many tracks.
Club Principal Trip Campbell said there are other driving clubs that offer similar amenities, but he called the track “the real jewel” of The Driving Club at Road Atlanta. Campbell said there have been multiple attempts to create a club at the prestigious track, but it was not until recently that all the pieces came into place.
The club currently has over 120 members, and after I spent the day with its members and on track, there was no sales pitch needed for me to want to sign the dotted line.
But before I do so, it’s time to hit the gym.
Like roller coasters, you have to be strapped in securely to navigate Road Atlanta, and I did not fit in the 5-point harnesses of two members’ cars.
And that was far more disappointing than not being able to ride a roller coaster, because I’ll argue that traversing Road Atlanta is a hell of a lot more fun than any steel track.