I am behind the wheel of a sleek orange sports car, gobbling up the dusty track at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway outside of Palm Springs. Marveling at the speed I picked up on a straightaway, I am slow to hit the brakes as the car follows a sharp right-hand turn. Suddenly, we’re spinning. My first clue that we’ve departed from the course is that I’m facing the valley’s majestic mountains instead of the orange cones marking the route. My second hint is that the car is now skidding across the track sideways.
Finally, we stop spinning, settling 90 degrees off-course. My helmet feels heavy on my shoulders. So I learned about the physics of under steer the hard way, I console myself, but it would have been worse had it not been in a Lexus RC F coupe. I could feel the car’s quick-reacting stability control system mitigate the spin; in a lesser vehicle, who knows how long we would have continued to turn? But this is the brand’s 467 horsepower performance coupe, built for dynamic, high-speed drives, such as this one.
I drive back to the pit – carefully – and my instructor, Alison, explains what happened. “Over steer is when the car’s rear end loses traction. Under steer – what you did – is when the front end loses traction. It’s like you tell the car to turn and when it doesn’t, you over correct.”
“You went too fast around that curve,” she continues, obliging my request to deconstruct the maneuver moment by moment. “I don’t know what the maximum speed for that corner should have been, but you were going to fast – I would guess around 60 m.p.h. Once you saw you were going too fast around the curve, you should have gone off the gas to allow enough speed so that you could have gotten traction. There are YouTube videos for this.”
Burnt rubber hangs in the air, and I see about two dozen other similarly helmeted heads getting in and out of shiny blue and orange Lexuses – the GS F sedan and the RC F coupe, two of the automaker's newest, and fastest, vehicles. Unlike typical track days that focus on speed and dynamics, this one is centered on education – learning how to corner, read the layout of the cones and, most importantly, brake at the right time. Also atypical is the crowd: I am here with 19 other women, most of whom are driving on a track for the first time. (Note: two aficionados did bring their own well-worn helmets.) We’ve gathered at the invitation of Christine Overstreet, founder of Heels and Wheels, a network for women in the automotive industry.
"I just kept going to events, and there were just so many dudes,” Overstreet says of the group’s origins.” Just guys, with so many opinions. I love that everyone here can go on the track and not feel that someone's chasing them."
Overstreet held her first event five years ago with a mix of manufacturers eager to get their vehicles before a new audience. This event in Palm Springs marks her first partnerships with a single manufacturer, but Lexus promised her that it had a lot to show off. In addition to its new performance-trim sports cars – the RC F and the larger, GS F sedan – the brand has spent the past year rethinking its entire approach to selling cars and courting women.
The program, called the Lexus Difference, seeks to overhaul all aspects of the sales process, from the uniforms associates wear to the dealerships’ signature scent. It also goes beneath the surface, developing a “gender intelligence” training program that teaches dealership employees how to interact with female customers. Mainly, they should shake their hand, look them in the eye and refrain from using “elevator eyes” to check out what they’re wearing. “It’s about approachability,” says Lexus Vice President of Customer Service Peggy Turner, who is leading the program.
Lexus’ new philosophy in the showroom is carrying over to the track. Racetrack culture is not necessarily kind to neophytes, but that’s not at all the prevailing attitude at Chuckwalla this day. "I'm here to learn,” says one woman waiting in the pit, watching cars whiz by. “Not to play." I agree. Though spinning out on the track carries a stigma for an aspiring professional driver, I wear the memory as a badge of honor. I thank Alison and turn to meet the group, unstrapping my helmet and shaking out my hair under the desert sun.