Imagine the perfect windy road, flowing up and down the mountains through challenging turns and spectacular scenery. Now imagine no police or oncoming traffic. Imagine no slow truck or Prius that you can’t pass, and driving as fast as you can. Seems like a dream, right? It’s not. This ultimate mountain road is Palmer Motorsports Park, a new track in central Massachusetts. I had the privilege of driving it this past weekend thanks to Chin Motorsports.
The track in Palmer, MA, also known as Whiskey Hill Raceway, has been a dream of New England racers for many years. The only other dedicated road course in New England, Lime Rock Park, is much closer to New York City than the rest of the area, and although New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway have nice road courses, they’re combined with oval tracks which are their primary focus. The New England Region SCCA has been trying to build a facility dedicated to the needs of its members for many years. Despite some setbacks and delays, the project finally broke ground in 2013, and held their first driving events this past May. The track itself, driveways, and a couple of small buildings are the only parts that are finished so far. Other facilities are spartan, but improving over time. The paddock area is still dirt, though grass has finally grown along the track. Curbing is expected to be added later this year. There was little shelter from the hot July sun, but we could retreat to the air conditioned comfort of the driver training room for some relief. Even the corner stations aren’t built yet. Workers stood behind walls and on top of rocky outcroppings, out of harm’s way. But the workers were well placed, and their flags were impossible to miss.
The traditional racing line goes out the window for most of Palmer’s fourteen turns. Many of them are linked together, so you often need to compromise your line through one turn to optimize your exit from the next. You can’t see your track-out points or even apexes from most of your turn-ins. Elevation and camber changes often affect your desired line as well. Even the front straightaway is a curve you take at triple digit speeds, before braking hard and dropping speed more quickly than you expect due to a steep uphill at the entry to turn 1. The track never quite gets straight before turn 2, which is followed by a short straight, the fairly open turn 3, and another short straight before a right hairpin at turn 4. The track starts going uphill before the end of the turn, and immediately turns back left in an even tighter turn 5 into a very steep uphill straightaway. Just as you crest the hill, turn 6 takes you down the other side. You don’t have time to admire the scenery at turn 7 as you aim for an apex you can’t see through the rock cliff, and stay as close to the inside as you can to take advantage of the camber right next to the tire wall. Get it right and the car will launch out of the turn down a short straightaway, through turn 8 with an arc continuing past the track-out point to set you up for turn 9. Get inside quickly and use the banking to accelerate onto one of the longer straights to turn 10, and carry that speed into turn 11. Turns 11 and 12 are a single decreasing radius turn, just like Massachusetts’ infamous highway on-ramps that tighten in the middle without warning. Brake going into 11 and stay outside until you can see the turn-in of 13, then slowly bring the car into it. The apex of turn 13 is at the crest of a small hill, so watch out for the car getting light here. It is important to keep the car settled here so you can carry all the speed you can and accelerate through turn 14, and downhill through the main straight again. Even slow cars can exceed 100mph thanks to the downhill slope.
Here’s a few laps of what it looks like when you put it all together.
This is toward the end of the weekend, when I’d learned the track pretty well. You can see that my line doesn’t always match up with the reference cones, but this is the line that worked best for me in my car. I let two Corvettes pass because they have over twice as much horsepower as my BRZ, but surprisingly they don’t pull away from me very quickly. I actually hang with them pretty well through the corners before they put the power down on the straightaways. Though it may seem like the elevation changes would favor the more powerful cars, very little of the track being a straight line makes it good for great handling, lower horsepower cars like the BRZ/FR-S and Miata.
Chin Motorsports is the largest provider of professional non-competition track events in the US, but even they had never visited New England before. Their staff and instructors were quite knowledgeable, and helped us learn the track quickly despite learning it at the same time we did. General Manager Mark Hicks, who ran this event, told me that he has driven 45 different tracks, and Palmer is one of the best tracks he’s driven. I have far less experience than he does, but I’d say that Palmer is the most challenging and fun track I’ve driven, and the best in New England. I’ll be back.
Many thanks to Chin Motorsports for inviting me to be among the first to drive this track!