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Why High-Performance Driver’s Ed Is a Perfect Father-Son Weekend

My dad and I learned you’re never too old for more driver training at Palmer Motorsports Park.
Father and son at Palmer Motorsports Park Andrew P. Collins

The Northeast is not the easiest place to be a car enthusiast. Road salt and rust shorten the driving season and lengthen wrenching sessions. But my home state of Massachusetts does have its own outstanding beacons of car culture—some of my favorites are a tenacious defense of the Right to Repair, and a magical place called Palmer Motorsports Park.

You won’t find towering grandstands, luxury spectator boxes, or overpriced hot dogs at PMP. This is a place for drivers, learners, tuners, and competitors to hone their car control skills at speed in the relative safety of a well-managed private track.

A great aerial shot of the track in the fall. Palmer Motorsports Park

The track at Palmer is a wildly scribbled line drawn on Whiskey Hill Mountain, in a leafy region of western New England known as the Pioneer Valley. It crams 14 turns and 509 feet of elevation changes into a snaking 2.3-mile lap which makes for an extremely engaging drive whether you’re in a Miata, a McLaren, or a fully built track-only race car. Lapping days can be done in either direction for an entirely different experience.

This summer, my dad and I rented a couple of track cars and time with instructors to get as much as we could out of a day at Palmer. Not only was it a great bonding experience, but I left feeling a heck of a lot happier with my driving skills than I had been the day before.

Father and Son Connected by Cars

Two ’90s memories with pops. The left picture’s not a flex, it was dad’s idea to get a pic of his favorite vehicle at a car show “like we’re about to take off!” On the right is a more realistic reflection of my childhood—hanging out in grandma’s Chevy S-10. I still remember how wet my butt got from sitting on that spare tire. Collins Family Archive

My father Clayton turned 60 this year. He’s not as tragically obsessed with cars as I am, but I blame him for getting me into the hobby. Some of my oldest memories are of dad coming home from work with a Hot Wheels toy in his pocket—basically, a little Pavlovian training to get me excited about his nightly return from an office in Boston. It pretty much worked. He and I have had many adventures, and I’ve been collecting cars of all sizes since those days.

I feel lucky to say we had quite a few “dad teaches son” moments over the years, doing stuff like fishing, camping, and skiing together when I was a sprout. For his milestone birthday, I wanted to flip the script a little bit and bring him into my world—deep car nerdery and pushing the limits of vehicles. Casual research revealed that Palmer Motorsports Park was conveniently located almost exactly between my parents’ place on the Massachusetts North Shore and mine in New York’s Hudson Valley. After a deeper dive, I learned that Palmer is not just in my backyard, it’s a world-class track that quite a few of my car-biz colleagues had been impressed by.

Drivers can rent these shady paved spots for track days to have a nice cool wrenching spot. By pure coincidence, I ran into my friend Chris Perkins, a writer at Road & Track, who was also at Palmer with his dad that day! They were lapping that red E30 on the right. Andrew P. Collins

When I realized they were running a High-Performance Driver Education class on the exact day my dad would mark 60 years, I made some reservations and started the calendar countdown.

HPDE, Track Day, or Racing School?

Many tracks that host open-to-the-public days, Palmer included, offer different types of experiences to attending drivers. If you can prove competence and simply want to set lap times, there are open-lapping sessions generally divided into at least two (fast and less-fast) groups. For those who want to get serious about competition and learn the art of racecraft (passing, tire management, race strategy) there are race schools. But the most broadly beneficial type of track day, in my opinion, is HPDE.

Pro instructors walked us around the track via video. The classroom’s decorated with useful info. Andrew P. Collins

Palmer’s one-day HPDE is a mix of classroom time and on-track time, giving you the opportunity to think about high-performance driving from both conceptual and practical perspectives. In the air-conditioned classroom, we learned about things like the meaning of flags, track etiquette, what to expect when a car feels a certain way, and critically, the layout of the track. Once we were behind the wheel, pro coaches we each had to ourselves for every session helped us apply what we’d learned while supplementing it with real-time tips.

A range of Miatas used for track-driving instruction. In the background you can see rental garages people can hire for storage or wrenching sessions. Andrew P. Collins

Sessions alternated: Class, track, class, track, lunch, track, break, and then one more session on the track. I loved this format because it provided the opportunity to ask deeper questions about the drive after laps, and also hear the answer to other students’ queries.

HPDE Is Not Just for New Drivers

This job has allowed me to drive a range of extreme cars on some spectacular roads and race tracks around the world. But while I’m comfortable evaluating vehicles and staying safe at a decent clip, I’ve always wanted to take a full day to sit down with a true pro and focus solely on my own driving skills at pace. Meanwhile, my dad’s a casual car appreciator who simply likes to try new things. We’ve both been driving, largely crash and ticket-free, for many years. He and I were able to take the same HPDE class, get very different experiences out of it, and both have a great time.

Don’t be intimidated by high-dollar hardware. The nut behind the wheel is the most important piece of equipment. Andrew P. Collins

For him, it was a fun opportunity to feel what it’s like to run a real track car at speed and learn a bit about the physics of track driving. For me, it was a fresh baseline on my journey to becoming a better high-performance driver, getting more comfortable on track, and being able to extract every ounce of excitement from my own cars and the ones I review.

A Few Laps To Learn the Track, but Mastery Would Take Years

After watching a few full laps on video in the classroom—and on YouTube the night before we showed up—I had minimal confidence in my ability to memorize all 14 turns in a day. Not only are there a lot of corners at Whiskey Hill, but quite a few are basically blind and require real commitment to get around quickly.

My first couple of laps were particularly nerve-wracking, but by the start of my second session, I had the course map pretty well ingrained. My dad disagreed, “is it considered a ‘senior moment’ when you have to ask the instructor for directions around the track,” he later said with a laugh.  Regardless, knowing if a turn goes right or left is one thing. Knowing the optimal line and throttle and brake applications is completely different. And that’s why it’s worth paying an instructor and paying close attention to them on your first time out at a track like this.

This old-school SVT Focus was my instructor’s personal car. He took me out for a rip at the end of the day and I’m pretty sure he smoked my time with less than half the horsepower I had. I was impressed on two levels—when’s the last time you saw one of these this clean? Andrew P. Collins

My instructor, a gentleman named Mark who’d been lapping Whiskey Hill since it was built in 2015 and shared my penchant for front-drive cars, did a great job coaxing more speed out of me initially by being very hands-on with brake-point tips and then refining my line to get us going even faster.

Naturally, the whole point of having a coach is to get you to go faster—but mine had a particularly big hurdle to conquer. As some readers may know, I had a major crash in 2018 and frankly, my need for speed has never been the same since. HPDE, though, was the perfect environment to stoke my passion for serious performance driving a little more.

The lighting was brutal for photography but I loved the livery on this early Boxster that somebody was lapping. Andrew P. Collins

It’s not just ripping for the sake of it. You’re getting to know the science behind making and maintaining speed and enjoying the satisfaction of getting to tweak your lap every time you come back around to the starting line. If I’d hopped into the car by myself, I probably would have plodded around at a pedestrian speed and practiced nothing by point-bys. The classroom sessions and focused coaching got me out of my shell and expanded my comfort zone, and back to a place where I actually feel like I can start focusing on getting faster next time.

My dad, on the other hand, was happy just to wring out a Miata with a heavier right foot than he’d ever use in his own 1979 Fiat Spider. “I once spent an afternoon running quarter miles at a drag strip, and I’ve driven on the Autobahn. But throwing a car around a 14-turn serpentine track in 90-degree heat really was a different kind of trip,” he said. “It was physically and mentally exhausting. And what a blast.”

Palmer’s People Are on Point

You can have the best car on Earth and the most pristine piece of tarmac to play with it on—but if the vibes are off, it’s hard to go home feeling warm and fuzzy. People can make or break a place, and all of Palmer Motorsports Park’s people that I met were a good hang.

Right off the bat, the track manager saved my bacon. I’d buttoned up my car for this event the day before heading to the track, and not five miles from the entrance, a rear caliper locked up on me. Panicked and crestfallen, I limped it to the paddock but knew there was no way it was going on track. Not only did my contact at the track not give me a hard time for failing to properly prepare, but he also did some last-minute shuffling so I could rent a race school car that wasn’t even supposed to go out that day. He would have been well within his rights to be grumpy about that, but he was just cool and helpful. Stuff like that means a lot to me and it went a long way to making me feel welcome.

The paddock looks quiet from here but I like contrast of cars in this shot. Is Palmer a track for a little machine like a Lotus or big honking V8s? “Yes.” Andrew P. Collins

The instructors my dad and I worked with were great, too. And not only because they were knowledgeable and articulate, but I really got the sense that they were paying attention to us as students and dialing in their teaching style to mesh with our goals. Like I said earlier—my guy Mark was pushing me to improve, while my dad told me his copilot did a great job making him comfortable just getting around the track safely.

“Maybe turning 60 is the gateway to hypercaution,” my pops said. “Honestly, I felt like a pace car out there at times—a master of the ‘point by.’ It takes a fair number of laps before you’re willing to hurtle toward a tight turn, do some heavy straightaway braking, then accelerate out. My instructor kept telling me to ‘cut the grass,’ to really hang on the inside of a curve before breaking out wide. Then straight. Then a point-by. Repeat. Then my kid would blast past in that 400-horsepower Mustang.”

Big Takeaways From My First Real HPDE

I’m not going to try and translate the specific driving instructions I was given from memory onto the page here, but I’ll list out some important things to consider if you’d like to attend and HPDE yourself. My biggest regret is not signing up for one of these sooner. Don’t discount the value of focused coaching, even if you’re already a decent driver. While we’re on the subject—don’t be shy about telling your instructor what your goals are.

Renting a car at the track is a good idea for a few reasons. Mainly, it lets you focus completely on driving and not “what’s that little noise?” though, of course, rental cars aren’t indestructible and you still need to pay attention to them. But if things do go badly and the machine gets beat up, you’ve still got a ride home.

The day(s) before your HPDE, stay sober, eat light, and do a little track research—watch YouTube videos of some laps and peek at the map. No need to memorize it, but some mental foundation will be helpful.

On the day of, hydrate a lot, eat light again, and remember to leave your ego in the parking lot. Don’t worry about which cars you can or can’t catch.

Getting Yourself to the Track

If you live in or visit the Northeast and want to check Palmer out, your best source of updated info is the track’s website. You can learn more about the HPDE schools, events, and everything else that goes on there. In case it wasn’t clear—I strongly recommend it, and I know I’ll be back. Hopefully, next time, in my own fully functional car.

Want to talk to the author? Drop him a line: andrew.collins@thedrive.com