Lessons Learned While Speeding Through The Nevada Desert

On a scale from one to ten, with one being the worst and ten the best, how good of a driver do you think you are? Without thinking of how your backseat driving parents might grade you — what’s your gut say? My gut told me I was an eight out of ten. After all, I like to think I’m a good driver — cautious, considerate and in control. A real pro.

Then I went to the Cadillac V-Performance Academy, a high-octane driver training program designed to teach drivers how to master the company’s most powerful cars, and quickly realized that the ‘how-good-of-a-driver-are-you?’ scale might be flawed. Actually, it might need to be tossed out completely.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Cadillac invited me to the southwestern desert of Nevada to drive their 464 horsepower ATS-V and their 640 horsepower CTS-V (for perspective, an entry level Camry, for example, has 178 horsepower). For a long time I’ve had a secret desire to be a ten-out-of-ten, totally in command, amazing driver — and more primally, to press my foot against the gas pedal of a powerful machine and feel the resulting force reverberate through my body — so obviously I accepted their invitation.

But before going over 100 mph on a track, the trip required a 270-mile road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The last time I took that trip I was crammed in the back of a friend’s old sedan — needless to say I didn’t have wonderful memories of the drive. However, I did recall how beautiful the journey through the California desert was and was persuaded to give it another go after learning I’d get to drive myself in three different Cadillac vehicles along the way.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC/TREVOR MORROW

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

One of the best parts of any road trip: stopping at weird roadside attractions like the World’s Tallest Thermometer in Baker, California. It’s 134 feet tall to commemorate the hottest temperature ever recorded in nearby Death Valley, 134 degrees Fahrenheit. During my visit, it read 99 degrees.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

Turns out driving to Vegas is actually pretty great when you’re not crammed in the backseat of your friend’s compact sedan. Me arriving at the Wynn in Las Vegas.

Time To Drive

Located 55 miles west of Las Vegas, Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club is home to the largest road course in North America, with six miles of track that can be configured into 50 unique courses. It’s also the permanent home of the two-day long Cadillac V-Performance Academy which there are two ways into: by buying a ATS-V or CTS-V (admittance into the Academy is included in the purchase of the aforementioned vehicles — all buyers have to pay for is their flight to Las Vegas), or by buying your way in for a cool $2,470.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

Both V-series vehicles come with a camera mounted behind the rearview mirror and SD card slot in the glove box to record video. An array of performance stats are laid over the video (pictured is a playback of such a video while the car is parked).

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

From Nerves To Need For Speed

After a classroom orientation, the morning began in the CTS-V, with its 6.2L Supercharged V8 engine, ability to go from zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds, and top speed of 200 mph.

First stop: a few simple loops around a small oval track with an instructor in the passenger seat. I should clarify one detail — simple, fast loops around a small oval track.

I let a few other drivers take their spins first because, I won’t lie, I was nervous. I’d like to blame the nerves on the “you crash it, you buy it” waiver I signed earlier, but the fact that I’d never been in control of a truly powerful vehicle before was more likely the culprit.

My turn inevitably rolled around, however, and as I got into the driver seat I made sure to tell the instructor that I’d never done anything like this before and that I’d probably suck. After all, it’s less hurt to the ego when you say you suck and do than to think you’re great but actually suck. At least that shows some self awareness.

A few laps later, with my instructor telling me that I in fact did not suck, I got out of the car and felt, well, ALIVE. Awake. Aware. Stirred. I felt…good!

Like most things in life that make you nervous, you work through the nerves, do it, and come out the other side feeling great and wondering why you were ever nervous in the first place. If only we could remember this before instead of after things that make us nervous, then maybe we wouldn’t be scared or get nervous at all.

Reminded of this life lesson as an adrenaline and endorphin cocktail mixed in my brain, I knew that this was going to be a good day.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

Me behind the wheel, warming up with a few oval laps.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

TREVOR MORROW

Single-Tasking (The Joy Of Being Fully Focused)

Next, we moved into the ATS-V, with its 3.6L Turbocharged V6, ability to go from zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds, and top speed of 189 mph.

After warming up on the slalom course (weaving back and forth between orange cones at high speed), it was on to the track. Aside from the oval laps at the beginning of the day, I was in my car solo, without an instructor. The instructor, however, was always right there with me, driving in a car ahead of me and relaying information, tips and suggestions back via radio — mine telling me not to be afraid to take the corners tighter several times (all in a remarkably calm voice) before I finally did it.

Here, working your way up through the gears, going faster and faster, you’re fully in control, and therefore, need to be fully aware and fully focused. These sensations, being fully aware, focused and present, are ones most people, myself included, don’t usually feel on a daily basis as we do five things at once while thinking about five others. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt as focused and as mentally locked in as I was on the track.

The feeling of being laser focused, like that of pushing my foot down on the throttle, was addictive. More surprisingly, it also made me feel unusually calm — the result of diverting every ounce of energy and brain power into concentrating harder.

While it’s essential this be the case while you’re driving over 100 mph on a twisting and turning track, imagine what you could do if you could recreate this concentration in other areas of your life? Sure, there are drugs for that, but I’m going to try channeling my experience on the racetrack first.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

An instructor drives in a car ahead of you. Following his moves, watching where he drives, where he breaks, where he accelerates, and where he turns is a logical and exciting way to learn. Plus, having him watch your every move and give you feedback in an encouraging manor, all in real time, will help you learn faster.

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

TREVOR MORROW

TREVOR MORROW

SCOTT DOWNING FOR CADILLAC

The final exercise of the day was Autocross, a short, tight and twisting course. Run individually (one car at a time), drivers compete to see who can finish a lap in the least amount time. I did not have a time worth bragging about, so lets move on.

Expand Your Limits

Finally, it was on to the last activity of the day — the hot lap, a.k.a. sitting in the passenger seat as an instructor takes the wheel and drives the track.

The hot lap was an absolute rollercoaster of a ride and made my laps on the track earlier feel like a spin on a merry-go-round. Here I thought I was bringing the car to its limit while I was behind the wheel, but really, the only limit I was hitting was mine.

It also wasn’t until this moment that I realized just how flawed the ‘how-good-of-a-driver-are-you?’ scale really was. Becasue if I considered myself and eight out of ten, then the instructors at Spring Mountain Motor Ranch existed someplace way off the charts. Or if the instructors were a 10, then rating myself an eight was extremely generous.

The real answer, I determined, was that the ‘how-good-of-a-driver-are-you?’ scale has no limit; no 10 out of 10. All there is only continuous room to improve. And while that may seem daunting to some, it’s comforting to know that even the best of the best see it this way too (it’s why they keep striving instead of resting on their laurels).

For me, it was a humbling experience to think you’re pretty good at something or doing something well, only to realize, “whoa, I could actually be a whole lot better.” With the right attitude, and this is how I see it, being made aware of the possibilities and the room for growth is an inspiring challenge, not a daunting one.

Now, I’m not interested in being the best driver, I’m just interested in always getting better — and after going 115 mph in the Nevada desert, overcoming nerves, and feeling what intense focus feels like, I can say I’m on my way.