I’m what you might call a “self-taught racer.” My first wheel-to-wheel racing experience was behind the wheel of a Mk III Jetta, made up to resemble a tiki hut. And while I’ve done hundreds of laps on some of America’s greatest racing circuits, it’s mostly been a trial by fire, and lately I noticed I wasn’t getting faster as much as I wanted. I felt like my skills had kind of hit a wall—until a weekend in Las Vegas spent at the EXR Racing School, followed by a real test of their crazy car at Laguna Seca.
(Full disclosure: EXR provided the car and coaching, I provided my own travel expenses.)
Learning In A Monster, Taught By The Best
EXR put me on track behind the wheel of their brand-new, exclusive, completely bonkers spec race car—the EXR LV02. It has just about the same power-to-weight ratio as a Shelby GT350, an 1,800-pound rocket ship with a 230 horsepower, naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter motor that revs to 7,500 RPM without breaking a sweat.
Oh, yeah, and then they gave me access to coaching from two of the world’s greatest drivers, Tristan Vautier and Alexandre Premat. And then they did it again at Laguna Seca, one of the world’s greatest and most iconic raceways.
EXR grew out of the Exotics Racing experience that co-owners Romain Thievin and David Perisset have been running since 2009. After years of watching their customers enjoy the thrill of driving exotic cars around their facility, they knew that the next step was to introduce people to actual racing.
Starting a race series from the ground up is a difficult challenge, to say the least, so earlier this year, Thievin and Perisset recruited Erik Skirmants, formerly the CEO/President of SCCA Enterprises, to be the president of their race series. Skrimants has a wealth of experience when it comes to running a strong race series, having been involved with the Spec Racer Ford program and others with the SCCA since 2005.
One of the immediate needs that Skirmants identified was the need for EXR to be able to license their own drivers for competition. As a result, the EXR Racing School was created. EXR already had world-class drivers and instructors on staff in the persons of Alexandre Premat, whom you might have seen in the Audi LeMans documentary Truth in 24, and Tristan Vautier, former Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.
I had previously tested their EXR LV02 spec racer last year at their Fontana, Calif. facility and found it to be a visceral, thrilling car to drive. Of all the journalists they invited to test that day, I was the fastest—but I was still a couple of seconds off the pace of the pace of Vautier and Premat, so I knew that I had a lot of room to improve. So when I found myself in Las Vegas, I called EXR and asked to check out their new racing school, and they happily obliged.
After a few laps behind the wheel Exotic Racing’s new McLaren 570S to check out the track, I was reintroduced to the EXR LV02. The LV02 isn’t some modified production car. It is an honest-to God, purpose-built racing machine. That means that it’s loud, it’s raucous, it’s uncomfortable, it’s almost impossible to see out of—-and it’s all glorious. The paddle shifters are mounted to the wheel, but this isn’t an Audi DSG—downshift too quickly, and the LV02 will lock up the rear wheels on you.
How To Drive Fast(er)
EXR was kind enough to dedicate Vautier and Premat’s entire morning and considerable skills to helping me improve as a driver. Vautier was assigned to sit right seat with me while I piloted the LV02, and Premat would be analyzing my driving telemetry and data after my sessions.
There’s something rather intimidating about having a man who’s won the Star Mazda and Indy Lights championship sitting in the right seat while you try to drive your fastest. I was reminded of the words I’ve used while sitting right seat for novice drivers. “Don’t try to impress me; you probably won’t. And don’t try to scare me; I’m already scared.”
Luckily, the EXR facility is set up in such a way that it would be nearly impossible to hit anything—but that didn’t make me any less nervous. “My best time is a 1:03,” said Vautier, without a hint of ego as we got into the car. “However, that was in cooler conditions. I don’t think there’s anything lower than a 1:06 or 1:07 possible today.”
That didn’t make me feel much better, as my best time from my first session was a 1:09. The EXR LV02 isn’t the most forgiving of cars—and when you’re learning how to race properly, that’s a very good thing. You can drive it kinda quickly right away, but finding that extra second or two? That’s when you realize how far you have to go, and that’s what I learned when Tristan and I changed seats.
There’s a vast delta between what I thought the car was capable of, and what the car was actually capable of in the hands of one of the world’s most talented drivers. Vautier used the brakes with authority, applying hard pressure much sooner than I did. His hands were constantly adjusting and correcting for slip angle, catching the car and bringing it back from what seemed like certain disaster each time. Vautier also used much more of the track than I had, unwinding the steering and using wide-open throttle to rocket the LV02 out of tight turns.
Yet he did it all with fluid, smooth motions that made the controls of the car seem like mere extensions of his limbs. I watched as the symbiotic relationship between driver and car made his violent motions seem gentle as a father holding a newborn. As the car increased its speed, time seemed to slow down around us.
Vautier’s obvious gifts as a driver made me feel as though I should probably just quit ever trying to become a great racer—after all, I didn’t compete in any form of motorsport until I started autocrossing in 2006, at the age of 28. Tristan had been wheeling in professional series since he was 16. What chance did I have?
Alexandre Premat was about to show me. When I exited the car, Premat popped open his laptop, inserted the USB drive that had been capturing all of my inputs, and proved to me that what Vautier was doing behind the wheel of my LV02 wasn’t magic all—it was science.
Using the data, Alex showed me exactly where I was slower than Tristan on course, and by exactly how much. EXR’s telemetry showed Tristan had been nearly exactly right with his earlier prediction—he drove to a 1:06 lap time, or three seconds faster than I had been. Most of the gap had nothing to do with how quickly I accelerated out of turns or how quickly I got into a turn, but rather how much speed I was able to maintain throughout mid-corner. Vautier carried much more speed than I did in each turn.
His consistency was also shockingly robotic. Every lap was within two to three tenths of a second. Vautier got exactly every bit of time that he could have of the car—no more, no less. The precision required was demonstrated in the telemetry data, with braking, acceleration, and shift points all clearly display, and nearly identical from lap to lap.
Mine? Not so much. My ability to judge the required entrance and exit speed for each corner seemed to vary, and I always erred on the side of caution. Also, when I made a mistake, I tended to let it ruin the rest of my lap. Vautier was quick to point this out.
“When you mess up a corner, you can’t let it affect you for the next one,” Vautier gently advised me. “You still have the rest of the race to run. You’re going to make mistakes. Just focus on the next corner.”
After the download with Premat, it was time for another round of laps with Vautier. This time, I was immediately faster, beating my fastest lap from the first session on my first circuit of the course, even though I did a full four-wheel drift of the final corner. I did my best to duplicate the ferocity that Vautier showed in the car, attacking the brakes and then quickly transitioning back to the gas. Unfortunately, my increased confidence led me to spin hard on my third lap, which reset my brain a bit.
Nevertheless, when I got out of the car, Premat was there with new data, showing that I had improved my mid-corner speed dramatically. My “theoretical lap,” meaning if I had driven each corner my best and combined them, would have been within shouting distance of Vautier’s laps. Of course, putting it all together, lap after lap after lap…that was still a long way away. But in just two dozen laps of the EXR circuit, my skills vastly improved.
Driving on the hazard-free, “safe space” of EXR’s track is one thing, however. Doing it at one of the world’s most legendary circuits? Well, that would be something entirely different. Luckily, EXR was willing to give me the chance to do just that at their second race of their inaugural season. Erik and team agreed to allow me to do a track day with them during the qualifying sessions for the first Sprint Race of the weekend. The location? None other than the legendary Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.
Welcome To Laguna Seca
I arrived with my brother and his lovely wife at Laguna Seca bright and early on that Saturday morning for the drivers’ meeting, only to be greeted by a misty rain that was causing the surface to be slicker than desired. While I wasn’t thrilled that my first laps on the track would be in wet conditions, I was beyond excited to see one of the LV02s adorned with giant Jalopnik stickers on the doors and hood.
As I settled into the official Jalopnik car for the first session, I realize that there would be no world-class driver in the passenger seat this time—it was just me, a race car, and Mazda Raceway. Oh, and the rain.
The LV02 is shod with Yokohama Advan tires, the same tires that I use on my American Endurance Racing series Mazda RX-7. This did not give me a great deal of confidence, as I’ve driven on these tires in the rain at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, and found them to be somewhat… well, let’s be honest here. They suck in the rain.
Never mind that though. Off to drive the track.
I have been privileged to do some incredible things in my relatively short automotive writing career, but driving a race car—not a supercar, not a hypercar, but a real, live race car—at Laguna Seca immediately jumped to the top of the list.
You can play all of the Forza that you want, but it will never prepare you for rocketing up the Rahal Straight, braking hard enough to make your teeth chatter, and then falling off the face of the Earth into the Corkscrew. The visibility in the LV02 isn’t what you’d expect from a street car, but no matter what car you’re driving, you’re going to be blind as you dive down the hill.
But that’s not the only hero moment at Laguna Seca. Coming onto the main straightaway and keeping the throttle pinned to the floor as you go under the bridge in Turn One? Well, you better hope that you brought your big boy pants for that one. It took every single ounce of courage I had to do it. Every. Single. One.
As the track dried, my times dipped lower and lower, until I finally ended up with a 1:48. Not a great time, considering that Alexandre Premat had done a 1:40 flat in the dry, but for my first time on track, I felt pretty good about it.
Premat reviewed my data and compared it to his 1:40 lap . I was being a complete pansy in Turn 4… and pretty much everywhere else, too. More entry speed, harder braking, more mid-corner speed. I could do that.
Session two came up quickly. Unfortunately, I got caught up behind a couple of other cars who were really duking it out with each other, and one of them spun directly in front of me coming onto the main straight. I avoided contact, but I committed a deadly track driving sin at that point—I got mad.
I made it my life’s mission to catch and pass the other car that was involved in the spin. Just when I thought I had him in Turn 2, he cut back across my nose, forcing me to brake hard. Then I got really mad.
At Laguna Seca, you have to use a good deal of the curbing to make time, but there are red curbs on the inside of each turn that you cannot hit, or you’ll end up with a bent wheel. Diving into Turn 6, I came down hard onto the curb, and I knew it the second it happened. Bang. Red curb. Bent rim, flat tire. Fuck me.
I limped the car through the Corkscrew and brought it back into the garage. The EXR team immediately went to work. The LV02’s body is made up of fiberglass panels that can be quickly detached for immediate access to all of the mechanical moving parts of the car. Turns out that, in addition to bending the rim, I had also bent the control arm slightly.
Like a colony of worker ants, EXR’s crew swarmed the car, removing the body panel and replacing the wheel and control arm in less than 15 minutes. Half an hour later, after the car had been realigned, it was ready to go back out on track, looking like new. I doubt that any NASCAR or IndyCar team could have done it faster.
After a thousand apologies to everybody involved, I reviewed my data for my shortened second session with Premat. I had taken much of his advice, and it reflected in the data. My lap time only decreased slightly, but that was due to the traffic I encountered on track. I was faster throughout each corner, and I was braking harder and deeper than I had been before. I feel confident that I could have gotten down to about a 1:44 or so, given the opportunity for a clean lap with no traffic.
So what did I learn from my experience with EXR’s Racing School? I learned that I’m not nearly as fast as I thought I was beforehand. The gap between even the best amateur drivers and a professional like Vautier or Premat is so vast that it’s hard to comprehend.
Just like you might think you’re a great basketball player because you’re the MVP of the Wednesday night league at the Y, you might think that you’re a great driver because you’re the fastest member of your Lemons team.
Trust me, anybody at any amateur skill level could and would benefit from a day of coaching in the EXR LV02.
What’s it cost? For four twelve-lap sessions at the Las Vegas facility, insurance on the car (in case you hit stuff), coaching from EXR’s pro coaches, a three-lap ridealong, and onboard video and data, you’re looking at $2,990 for the day.
If you subtract the video/data and ridealong, and cut out one driving session, it goes down to $1,990. Don’t worry about packing your gear—they’ll provide the helmet, HANS device, firesuit, shoes, everything you need. There’s no other place in America that you can get this level of coaching, in this kind of car, at this price.
If you want to do a track day with them at one of their races, whether it be Laguna Seca, Circuit of the Americas, Sonoma Raceway, prices range from $3,990 to $4,990. Pretty steep, right? No worries. You can do a twelve-lap session at the Vegas or Fontana facilities for $690. Tell me that you weren’t already planning to lose that much money at the tables on your next trip.
Mark “Bark M.” Baruth has multiple endurance racing and SCCA National Solo and Pro Solo trophies to his credit, and has tracked everything from a Fiesta ST to a 991 GT3 on dozens of circuits across America. His writing can be found at The Truth About Cars, Road & Track and Jalopnik. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.