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Nena Know Jeeps: Lessons From A Hellcat

Four-Wheeling Lessons From a Hellcat

Nena BarlowPhotographer, Writer

I could say that the day spent at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving was strictly for work, but, seriously, it’s just something I have always wanted to do. One can always learn new skills from other professionals. What I came away with, aside from a day of adrenaline-junkie-pleasing driving, was that the same skills we emphasize for 4WD training are just as critical for high-speed driving: where you look, smooth driver inputs and corrections, and constant focus.

Being accustomed to driving lifted rigs on a minimum of 35-inch tires, the first thing I thought while settling into the nearly ground-level seat of my assigned Challenger Hellcat was, “Wow! How can I see anything from down here?” The answer is the same as it is from the seat of the Jeep—look farther. On the track, this meant that as we headed into a 180-degree turn, we were looking almost 90 degrees to our left, at the exit of the turn where we would again start applying the throttle. Because if we were looking over the hood at the tire wall in front of us, we would not be able to execute steering input or the right amount of braking to result in a smooth turn.

The same is true off-road. If you are looking at the base of the dune instead of the crest, you won’t apply the right amount of acceleration before you get to the base. If you are looking at the boulder right under you while rockcrawling, instead of the next one you need to start planning for, you won’t be on the right line. The number-one mistake that drivers make, whether on a high-speed track or in slow and rough terrain, is looking at what is just over the hood instead of all the way to the end of the obstacle or at the exit of the turn. You drive where your eyes are looking. If you know where you want to end up, focus on that, and making the small decisions in between here and there becomes easier and smoother.

I have discussed the importance of smooth driver inputs to throttle, brake, and steering before, but this became hyper-important at 90 mph. On the track in a Hellcat or on boulders with your Jeep, jerky movements cause weight shifts and loss of traction.

Don’t confuse quick with jerky. You can do quick, smooth movements, but bouncing on and off the throttle, brake, and steering causes a backlash effect in your weight distribution that creates slippage. And slippage is usually bad, whether it’s a sharp turn on the autocross track or a carefully placed wheel on top of a huge slippery boulder. As I always say, good driving looks like ballet, whether at 1 or 100 mph.

Last but not least, you need to remain focused and undistracted. Constant focus is exhausting, especially when you are learning a new skill. Once you repeat the action enough that you “get the feel” for it, you can repeat this performance with less mental exertion. After doing half a dozen laps on the oval, everything started to click into place. It became automatic to come flying toward the curve, look at the apex, gently apply the brakes to get the nose dip as I steered into the curve, slowly let off the brake as I reached the apex, and then ease back into the throttle as I started to come out of the curve. The same is true for picking your way up a boulder field or across a dune face—approaching, scanning, adjusting speed, and then gliding through with your line, wheel placement, brake and throttle corrections already decided before you get there, with the end goal in mind. Getting the “feel” does not mean it’s now okay to text or make sandwiches while driving, but it does mean you can enjoy it more and for longer.

Driving skills carry over, no matter what sort of performance machine you operate. Learning finesse and focus in whatever you choose to drive pays off.