Hey! You! That's right, you! How much would you pay to drive someone else's brand-new performance car around a racetrack? A thousand dollars? More? What if the car had a supercharged V8 kicking out six hundred and forty horsepower? Now how much would you pay? What if the track in question was a world-class Formula One facility that can cost as much as $100,000 a day to rent? What if they throw in a little instruction and a nice breakfast? How much would you pay for all of that?
I don't know what number you have in your mind, but I'm pretty sure it's not "zero." Yet that's exactly what Cadillac charges for their "V-Series Performance Lab Event," held a few times a year at the Circuit Of The Americas outside Austin, TX. Yes, that Circuit of the Americas, the same one that we used to test the Lamborghini Huracan earlier this year. Everybody who attends gets to drive the mighty CTS-V, and the somewhat less-mighty ATS-V, around COTA. Plus there's an autocross course to try, and a chance to drag race against other participants. If you want, you can pony up a little bit of cash for extra track time. If you do that, you'll get your own custom race helmet to take home at the end of the day.
It's probably the greatest deal in the history of trackdays, but there is just one tiny catch: you have to be invited. Which I, your humble author, was. Not because I write for this august publication—the invitation was to the name on my driver's license, not "Jack"—but because the list of cars I've been dim-witted enough to buy or lease in the past decade contains names like BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Plus I'm forty-four years old. That puts me right under the crosshairs of the Cadillac marketing department.
I really liked the idea of visiting Austin and trying this Cadillac shindig out. But I thought it would be even more fun to hand the invitation to Danger Girl, my partner in crime. She's a decade younger than I am and has zero experience driving on a racetrack. Nada, none, zilch. Her personal vehicle is a monstrous, refrigerator-white Z51-spec Tahoe that has the numbed reflexes of a lobotomy patient and the acceleration of a Radio Flyer being pulled by a small dog. When she is in a car with me on the track, she spends most of her time looking at the floormats.
On the other hand, she has soloed in a light aircraft, so I figured she'd get the hang of it pretty quickly.
We arrived at Circuit of the Americas to find the parking lot stuffed with everything from a murdered-out BMW M3 to Bentleys and Ferraris. A quick chat with the Cadillac people confirmed that they select their demographic very carefully. So how'd I get in? The crowd that assembled for the breakfast briefing was about ninety-five percent male and generally prosperous-looking. Danger Girl was probably the second-or-third-youngest person there out of about eighty participants.
I'd felt pretty sanguine about just observing the whole thing prior to our arrival, but upon seeing the line of CTS-Vs waiting to head out of pit lane I lost my cool. The truth is that I'd never quite fallen in love with the smaller ATS-V during our Performance Car Of The Year testing but it was mostly because I wanted it to have a V8. This CTS-V has no shortage of motivation from its supercharged V8, and I was really interested in seeing how it compared to a Huracan on COTA's long back straight. I'd reached 176mph in the Italian bull; what could the all-American sedan do?
So I raised a big fuss and they agreed to let me drive as well. But first it was off to school. Faced with students ranging from absolute novice to seasoned racer, the Cadillac training program decided to err on the side of caution. The basic theories of car control and on-track behavior were explained over the course of thirty minutes or so. Then it was off to that line of CTS-Vs.
I'd expected that there would be an instructor sitting next to me, but instead I was one of three cars following an instructor in a pace car. Once he was satisfied that none of us represented an active threat to life or limb, the pace was ratcheted up until we were reaching about 120mph on the back straight. One of my fellow participants went off-track briefly but COTA has more runoff than any of us could possibly use and in no time he was back in line, safe and sound. "What a ride!" he said afterwards. His off-track adventure didn't dampen his determination to order a CTS-V when he got home.
Afterwards, I stood at a bank of monitors and watched Danger Girl aggressively "show the nose" to her fellow drivers in nearly every turn. She bounded out of the car after three laps and proclaimed it to be the best thing ever, except for that pace car that was keeping her from reaching maximum velocity.
"You know, most people don't do their first laps in something this fast," I chided her.
"Sucks to be them," she responded. Then it was off to class again, to talk about The Line And How To Drive It. I was impressed by how the staff managed to keep the attention of the novices. There wasn't much of a sales pitch, although the word "brakes" was always preceded by "Brembo" and there were a few references to the multi-mode stability control present in both V-cars.
Our second track experience was in the ATS-V, which felt downright asthmatic after driving the big-boy CTS-V but which, it must be said, has the kind of steering that the M3 used to have before the Germans got all tricky with the electrics. Danger Girl came back from her laps a bit frustrated. She'd been pushing the pace car the whole time but the two drivers behind her, both ladies about my age and who each wore enough jewelry to pay off my mortgage, were lagging and so the pace car had to wait for them. "I don't want to drive with the slowpokes," she complained. "I want to drive with the fast people. I demand to drive with the fast people."
"The Internet actually ," I responded. Both of us were ready for some more track time, particularly in the mighty CTS-V which accelerates and stops like it's been granted a temporary exemption from the laws of physics, but the only way to get more than two on-track sessions is to pay a $695 fee and upgrade to the full-day program. That was sold out before we arrived in the morning. Texans recognize a deal when they see one.
But that didn't mean we were done for the day. We were each given a USB key containing the full record of our lapping sessions, captured by the Performance Data Recorders that debuted on the Corvette but are now available on the Cadillacs. Then we were each given an ATS-V to drive across the COTA facility to an autocross track.
"If you can do the course in 28 seconds, that's pretty good," the instructors said, "and the student record is 25.5." I coached Danger Girl around for three laps and she recorded a clean 28.2 in her final run. The ATS-V is a pretty decent autocrosser, primarily due to the short wheelbase and the fast steering. When it was my turn, I remembered that I was holding up the honor of my home SCCA autocrosser region (Ohio Valley represent!) and I managed to squeak out a 25.4. There was no prize for this, to my immense sorrow.
We drove the ATSes back to the paddock and swapped out for CTS-Vs. Now we'd have a chance to drag-race other participants in a classic street-race scenario where the instructors would play the role of the cool Japanese guy in that Tokyo Drift movie. Danger Girl won her drag race, which was against one of the bejeweled Texas ladies. The CTS-V is flat vicious in a full-throttle blast "from a dig", as they say. It could obviously spin its wheels all the way to 100mph or so but the traction control has things well under control, even if the raw noise of the engine is almost frightening.
Last up was a slalom to show how well the big Caddy harnesses its power. I was impressed. Then we all shook hands and hit the road. I talked to a few of the other participants. Lee Daniels, a scientist who specializes in X-Ray crystallography, is also right in the crosshairs of the Cadillac marketing machine, and he was thrilled to be there. "A totally new world for me," he said. "Nearly all of my spirited driving happens in one of my 40-year-old Triumphs or my 10-year-old Mini Cooper, so I was prepared neither for the mass nor the power. Having mostly autocross experience (and it's been a while since I did that) and only one or two drives on "real" tracks, I was naturally thrilled to get a chance to drive these somewhat beastly contraptions at COTA." Other participants echoed the same sentiments, although most of them weren't quite as fast behind the wheel as Lee turned out to be when I watched his track sessions.
The expense of putting on something like this has to be beyond merely daunting, but I think it does a good job of exposing people to the current Cadillac brand, which is heavily focused on by-the-number performance. Nobody left COTA thinking that Cadillac made slow cars, or cars that didn't handle. Speaking personally, I still have fond memories of the '79 Eldorado, but that's a personal problem that I'll handle in therapy some time down the road. I will say that the CTS-V impressed me as being a proper Cadillac in that modern mode: comfortable and wicked fast. It's a return to the "Maybellene" days when the brand owned the idea of no-hassle high-speed transportation.
As for Danger Girl? Well, she arrived at the event as a devoted fan of the Lexus RC-F and I'm not sure her mind was changed. She did, however, admit that she'd never thought of Cadillac as a car that could go quickly around a racetrack. She hasn't been shy about sharing her experience with her friends, some of whom are also in that desirable demographic wheelhouse. So I'd say everything worked out pretty well. And I'll say this: if you see a letter from Cadillac in your mailbox, don't throw it away. There aren't too many better ways to experience racetrack driving for the first time. Or the hundredth.