With Christmas coming up, you – or your family members – might be considering getting a supercar experience day. I’ve done a whole load of them at tracks across the country and I think there are some things that you should know. While I do apologise for the sensationalist title – YouTube is a fickle beast – and while I’m sure many have enjoyed their supercar “blasts”, it’s not quite what it seems.
One of the main money-makers for the companies that actually run the experience days is the “insurance waiver fee”. They claim that the insurance excess if you were to damage the cars in any way is something like £5000, and that you are the one on the hook for that. They say if you so much as scratch the rims they’ll be billing you for everything they can. So, they offer you a solution. Pay them an extra £30, 40 or even 50 and they’ll waive the excess. You can ram it into a hedge and you won’t pay anything. The biggest problem with this, beyond the idea that anyone except the operator should be paying for the insurance, is that the instructors in the car will never let you do anything stupid enough to damage the cars. More on this later.
Videos / pictures
Another money-maker is the in-car video and exterior photos. A single shot can be another £20 or £30 at some events, and the in car video isn’t any better. While it has been a little while since I’ve done an experience day, the last time I did the onboard quality was an absolute potato. You’d think they’d just have GoPros by now…
When you arrive you’ll quickly find out that the majority of the cars you’d really want to drive are what the operator calls “Premium Cars”. That means you’ll have to ‘upgrade’ your voucher to drive them. Want to drive an Aventador? Pay up. Ferrari 458? When I did it, that was a premium car. Again this can be as much as £50 extra – I think I even saw £75 once. Of course you don’t HAVE to pay the money, but as I’ll explain in a second, there are a number of reasons why you’d want to.
You can walk away having spent more than the voucher cost in “optional extras”, pretty easily. For especially a younger person who’s receiving this as a gift, it can be a little onerous. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great experience, but it’s worth considering the added costs, or finding one that makes it clear they won’t need to pay extra like the Silverstone supercar experience for example.
When it comes to the cars, assuming you don’t pay for the “premium cars”, the options you’ll have will likely be more like ‘sports’ cars, and importantly here: run ragged. I went to do a 4 car experience, when I asked to drive an Aston Martin DBS, I was told it was, let’s say, worse for wear and that I should pick something else. The only option I really had was a Porsche 911 Turbo S. From about 2003. The driver’s seat was worn through the leather, the car had a good few rattles even just creeping it out the pit area, and it felt like it was on its last legs. The very first track day I did was an under 17’s day driving a Ferrari 360. It looked, and drove, like it might konk out on us at any moment. It felt like it was missing about half its horses, like it had about 4 bushings that were shot, and I was sitting on mostly the foam as the seat was ripped and worn. Again, don’t get me wrong, it was still a good time, but it’s worth noting that these cars aren’t exactly looked after.
Unless you expressly buy a voucher for somewhere like Silverstone, you might find that your more generic (like Virgin Experiences) voucher is only available at pretty small and simple tracks. That young driver’s Ferrari experience was at a farmer’s concrete pad, the track was an oval with a cone chicane on one of the straights. I did one at an old airfield where you wouldn’t really call any of the turns “corners”. The closest to a track I got was Mallory Park, which while not too bad isn’t exactly long, nor the most exciting or challenging.
Time in Car
And that brings us nicely onto the time in the cars. You’ll normally get somewhere between 3 and 4 laps in each car. That sounds fine, except that includes the out lap – the one where you leave the pits – and the in lap – the one where you come back in again. So you get one or two “flying” laps, then it’s back into the pits. That’s enough time to say you’ve technically driven the cars, but far from enough time to learn them at all, or push them – assuming you are at a track that would even let you.
One of the most frustrating things for me was the fear mongering. From the second I arrived I’m almost always told some version of “you won’t be able to handle these cars, you will crash them, you will spin”, of course often in an attempt to sell you the insurance waiver fee that they present as mandatory. They often emphasise that if you do anything your ‘instructors’ don’t like, you will be removed from the venue and won’t get to complete your experience. I had one place say if you spin, you won’t drive any other cars.
And that brings us nicely onto possibly the worst aspect, the instructors. Now I should clarify that I’m very much what you’d call “on the spectrum”, so I respond rather differently to things than others, but the vast majority of the instructors essentially bark orders at you for every second you are in the car. They never let you actually experience the car, because you spend most of your time just processing what order they are shouting, then acting on it. What’s worse is if they decided to literally shout and swear at you for bad technique. I had one tell me I’m an idiot for adjusting the steering wheel mid-turn.
The best I’ve had
Let’s change gears a little and talk about the best supercar experience day I’ve had. That was at Thruxton, just outside Andover. I’ve actually done both a supercar day there and the skidpad experience and both were excellent. On the supercar day I drove a Porsche Cayman as a warmup car, then a McLaren 570S, then a (limited) Formula Renault. In the McLaren the instructor calmly talked me through it, but otherwise left me to enjoy the experience. He’d let me make little mistakes then give me a tip on how to improve for the next lap, not just screaming at me that I’m doing it wrong the entire lap. That meant I actually got to experience driving the McLaren, to push it to its limits – and mine. What’s even better is I then jumped into a single seater Formula Renault and went out on my own. That meant I had no minder, I just went for it and guess what? I overtook almost everyone, even with the RPM limited to just 4000.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
Don’t get me wrong, regardless of all these points, having driven over 10 different supercars is amazing. It’s a fantastic experience on the whole, but it does have some blemishes I think you should know about that can detract from the enjoyment of the day. If you pick the right experience – the M4 day at MSV tracks, any of the ones at Thruxton, or something like the Palmer Sport day I’m looking to do next year – you, or your giftee, should have an incredible time. If not, be aware of these caveats to an otherwise great day.