After buying a new Toyota GR86 last summer, Brandi Bengtson was going through the paperwork when she came across a complimentary NASA membership that included a free High Performance Driving Event.

Bengtson had never been to a track, yet the thought of a track day in her new Toyota was exciting — and intimidating. That’s when she thought the track day would be a great incentive for her son Cash, 17, to earn his GED. Cash works full time for his father’s landscaping business.

“I was looking for one way to sort of connect and bond with him, but then also to give him something for graduation,” said Bengtson, who lives in North Little Rock, Ark.

Bengtson contacted the NASA concierge line, which put her in touch with Donna Lane, region director for NASA MidAmerica. Once Lane heard Brandi’s story, she wanted to make sure it was a special weekend for the mother and son. Lane gave Cash a complimentary track day experience too.

“She really wanted to take Cash on this weekend trip and do the car thing together,” Lane said. “I knew this was a really cool story because it was more than just putting them on the track.”

They agreed to do their GR Experience at Ozarks International Raceway in Missouri, about a six-hour drive from their home in Little Rock. Ozarks International Raceway, which opened in 2022, has become a bucket list track with its 3.97 miles of varying terrain, blind rises and challenging turns.

Toyota GR Track Experience

Toyota and NASA started the GR Track Experience in 2019 to give GR Supra owners a performance-driving experience with a seasoned NASA instructor in the passenger’s seat. The program was expanded to include the GR Corolla and Brandi’s car, a GR86.

Toyota owners start in the classroom to learn the basics of running a car on track. That includes learning the flags, hand signals, pit lane speeds and a strong emphasis on safety. The GR cars are covered under the new vehicle warranty, provided the car is driven in a manner consistent with the warranty.

The goal isn’t to turn Toyota students into world-champion racers, but rather to get them comfortable on the track, many of whom have never been on one. The students go out on the track with an instructor between classroom sessions.

“Toyota hopes all GR customers gain a better appreciation for what their cars are capable of,” said Craig Taguchi, senior manager of Vehicle Marketing and Communications for Toyota Motor North America. “Being able to explore the limits in a controlled environment isn’t just safer, it’s a whole lot more fun. Our customers are clearly having eye-opening experiences of just how much performance all of our GR vehicles have.”

Brandi and Cash participated in the Toyota GR Track Experience at the April event, which turned out to be one of the largest three-day events ever held by the MidAmerica region. Rather than getting overlooked in the large event, the 25-plus Toyota students were in their own classes and had special parking adjacent to the track’s media center.

“It’s kind of an event within the event just for students,” Lane said. “We made sure they had their own space, so they weren’t lost in an enormous paddock.”

Brandi’s Track Experience

Brandi took the first day in her Toyota GR86, and Cash said his mother was “super nervous” about driving on the track. She was paired with instructor Aaron Florkowski, who frequently works with Toyota students.

“Her biggest concerns were that she was going to be on a track and that she could get hurt, and possibly the car could get hurt,” Florkowski said. “I reassured her that was not going to happen. This was her day to have fun. She was going to be safe and her car was going to be safe.”

After a morning classroom session, the students head out on the track in their car for a parade lap. The drivers go around the track and wave at the corner workers — who wave back — to familiarize themselves with the flag stations.

“I just wasn’t very comfortable at first because there’s a lot of blind spots on the track and they call it the roller coaster because when you’re coming up and over some of those hills, you really don’t know what’s on the other side,” Brandi said.

One of Brandi’s concerns while on the track was holding up cars behind her, and Florkowski suggested she pull into the pits to let the other cars by. As she pulled into the pits, the other cars followed her when they should have kept going around the track.

“Everybody was friendly to each other, supportive of one another, encouraging,” Brandi said. “Nobody made me feel bad for getting after it and kind of holding up the line.”

Florkowski saw Brandi’s improvement during her short stints on the track.

“I thought she was doing great,” Florkowski said. “She had no problems with braking and no problems with finding the line. She wasn’t going to put the hammer down.”

Added Cash, “I could definitely tell after the second time (out there), whenever the instructor rode with her, she was much, much more confident.”

Cash’s Track Experience

Whether it’s experience racing dirt bikes or youthful exuberance, Cash wasn’t nervous initially for his track day.

Cash, who will turn 18 in June, spent Saturday as a spectator checking out the cars and talking to the racers around the paddock.

“Everybody was always in super high spirits and super friendly,” he said.

Once he got behind the wheel of the Toyota GR86, Cash realized running the car was tougher than it looked from the sidelines.

“When you’re inside the car, there’s so much more going on than you expect,” Cash said.

Cash, who did the six-hour drive with his mother to and from the Missouri track, didn’t want to push the Toyota and potentially crash the car.

“I was always thinking about it a little bit because that was our ride home,” said Cash, whose lap times improved throughout the day. “I just wanted to have fun. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything as such.”

Personal Growth

The track days at Lake of the Ozarks were part of the personal growth for Brandi, who divorced a few years ago after a 30-year marriage. While she had taken a couple of small trips with friends and sons post-divorce, this was the first trip Brandi organized entirely herself.

Between running a lawn care service, homeschooling and raising two sons — JD and Cash — the trip was as much for her as for her son.

“I know it sounds kind of outdated, but my ex-husband had always handled everything, all the trips, all the arrangements,” Brandi said. “The trips I’ve taken since we were divorced, my older son (JD) has usually handled all that as he just stepped right up in his dad’s footsteps.

“For me, it was kind of a big deal just to go somewhere, plan something, and do it,” Brandi said. “I think it was an opportunity for growth for me.”

Yearly Track Date?

The experience at Ozarks International Raceway has Brandi and Cash thinking about a yearly road trip to a destination track closer to their home in Little Rock. When Toyota and NASA launched the program five years ago, one of the goals was to get students like Brandi and Cash to become regulars at the track with their Toyota sports car.

“The response from our GR customers to the complimentary NASA membership and HPDE track day has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Toyota’s Taguchi. “We have heard from many customers who probably would have never signed up for an HPDE if it wasn’t included with the purchase of their GR vehicle. Once they experience the program, they are hooked, and we see them signing up for multiple events throughout the year.”

Cash said he could see himself one day getting a track car, but for now, will just appreciate the road trip with his mother. “I had a great time and it’s definitely something that I’ll remember for a long, long time, if not forever.”

Brandi enjoyed the time with her son and was thankful for the support from MidAmerica’s Lane and the group at NASA.

“We had a fantastic trip and I’m grateful for the experience,” Brandi said. “I feel like I won the lottery. I’m just so glad I looked at that paperwork, because I would have maybe missed the opportunity.”

Image courtesy of Andy Schultz


  1. Cash was one of my students on Sunday. Very talented and polite young man. We both had a blast in his mom’s GR86! It is a perfect street/track day car.

    -Jim Bader
    NASA MidAmerica

  2. I took advantage of the NASA HPDE for my 2022 GR86 at Rockingham in October of 2022. It was a day trip for me and I had my brother and son join me. Although they would not be driving, everyone had a great time walking through the pits, seeing all the other cars, and talking to the other drivers. All the NASA folks were extremely nice and they put on a great program. It definitely is a novice driver friendly atmosphere, and anyone will feel comfortable attending.

    Hats off to Toyota and their GR Track Experience program. It is an awesome introduction to the capabilities of these cars in a safe and controlled setting. I learned that these cars, as delivered, are just great out of the box. I have renewed my membership with NASA in the hopes of enjoying another track day with the group in the near future.

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