Thursday, April 24, 2008

First Track Day

The next few posts will focus on the lessons I took away from yesterdays track day. In an attempt not to forget anything I made a list.

1. The driver is the most important component in the car
2. My car has far more potential than I am capable of harnessing
3. After leaving the track driving on the road seems dangerous and uncontrolled
4. Don’t ask your car to do too many things at one time
5. Listen to your driving instructor
6. I really like driving on the track
7. I am not interested in top speed
8. I am a timid, conservative driver
9. I will really benefit from more instruction
10. Subarus and Miatas can go really fast
11. Ferraris were built for tracks

I may add a few more items as I write but I think that is about it. Overall, the track day was a fun, exciting, learning experience. I unequivocally recommend it to anyone who drives. I will enroll my daughters when they are old enough and am lobbying Barb to take a course.

When I think about it I have had no driving instruction for almost 25 years. My dad taught me to drive in a yellow Mazda or Datsun, can’t remember which, pickup that was half bondo and had a garden hoses in the engine bay. You could shift it smoothly with or without the clutch. I was 13 and spending the summer with my dad in Hawaii, later that year my new found skills were put to a test when I drove my Grandmother’s farm truck 60 miles through the Missouri countryside in support of a raft trip I was taking with my uncle and cousins. My sister and I drove behind my uncle so we would not get lost. I had a bit more trouble with the transmission on Grandma’s truck and left it in second for most of the drive.

Since that summer I have not had any real driving instruction. Sorry tax payers, high school driving classes in California in the 80s do not count as driving instruction. I learned some things the hard way. Don’t lift or brake in the middle of a corner. Try to enter a corner at a speed you can carry all the way through. If you don’t know the road, go slow. Accelerate out of turns not into them.

I arrived at PIR around 7:45. It was an overcast, cold, grey Portland day. I was not nervous. I have been to PIR around 50 times to race my bike so the track is a familiar place for me. I picked up my helmet and went to the classroom. We had about 45 minutes of classroom discussion prior to our first on track session. The classroom discussion revolved around vehicle dynamics and picking correct line. The instructor went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. For about ½ of the class this was the first time on the track.

When I pulled on my helmet and sat in the car I got that nervous, excited feeling I get before speaking to a large group. I was nervous enough that I fogged up the visor on the helmet and had to put it up so I could see where I was going. We lined up in a staging area in two groups of six and one group of four. I was sandwiched between an Aston Martin V8 Vanquish and a sinister looking black Corvette. Leading our group was an instructor in a Miata. We would go solo on this first lap, no instructor. Once we were underway no problem. Nerves were gone. We were led at a pace which seemed quick at first but after a few laps was very comfortable. Part way through I realized I did not even have to brake at this speed. Later I would recognize these first laps for what they were. A slow, safe introduction to the track.

Oddly, I was the most nervous after this session was over. Can’t tell you why. There was a short classroom discussion to familiarize everyone with the meaning of the different flags then we were into the cars with our instructors. As mentioned earlier I requested an instructor who was familiar with Ferraris. I hindsight I am sure any of the instructors would have been excellent. Maybe just a bit of pompous Ferrari owner peeking out.

There was an 80 mph speed limit imposed during the second session. I admit to breaking it once or twice. Even Tony, my instructor, was saying “more gas, more gas” when we were over the 80 mph limit. That first session was an eye opener. I had no idea the car would grip so well. I also had no idea you can roll back on the gas so early in a turn. The course consisted of four 15 minute sessions with an instructor giving you advice on line, breaking, balance, throttle input, etc. By the third session I felt much more confident and ready to expand my driving limit. I must be honest. I never pushed the car’s limit. Not even close. Even during the last session, in the rain, Tony was still saying, “more gas, unwind the wheel, more gas”. I thought we were at the limit. In a way we were. My internal traction control system had kicked in.

When all the sessions were over I realized I didn’t have the funny, butterflies in my stomach feeling I usually get after driving fast. Why? Because at no time did I feel at risk. At no time did I feel I was doing something dangerous or well, wrong. I felt safe and in control even when cornering fast in the rain.

Here is a question. Common wisdom seems to be driving exotic cars in the rain is bad and driving them on the track is bad. What about driving them on the track in the rain?

So to tackle the first of my take aways; the driver is the most important component in the car/driver equation. It is probably more accurate to say in most situations the driver is the most important component. Important can be interpreted in a number of ways. For this discussion let’s interpret it as getting around a track quickly.

Here are my thoughts. A driver is only able to extract as much performance from a car as that driver’s mixture of skill and experience allow. Further, the capacity of most cars exceeds the ability of most drivers and car capacity is a fixed amount. In other words a car’s capacity remains fixed no matter who is driving it. Certainly some people drive beyond their limit and are unscathed but my hunch is if they were to drive around any course, a track, their neighborhood or even a freeway off ramp, several times driving beyond their limit would catch up with them.

But wait you say, “Your Ferrari is faster than my BWM, I would never be able to keep up with you.” Maybe in a straight line my Ferrari and I would be willing and able to go faster than you and your BMW. But what about turning, braking, accelerating, picking the right line. You are the better driver I bet I won’t be unable to keep up. Why, because your ability as a driver off sets the greater ability of my car. I admit this argument breaks down at its extremes, I think I could beat Alanzo around a track if he were on a John Deer rider mower and I were in my Ferrari, but I think it is valid in most cases.

Here is how I think the relationship between car and driver works. As driver skill increases the drivers the difference between the ultimate capacity of the car and the realized capacity of the car decreases. Will a poor driver be able to go faster in a fantastic car than in a mediocre one? Sure, the overall equation is effected by the cars capacity, but the great driver will make much more of both cars than the poor driver. Overall capability is always less than total capacity of the car. How much less depends on how good the driver is in relation to the car. In my case, overall capacity is far below the capacity of the car.


NonVegan said...

Excellent post!

Here's my list, with the obligatory grain of salt:

1) You will never drive the car at the limit until you:
a) Spin It
b) Crash It
c) Spin it then crash it

2: Be Humble at track day. Your car ain't all that..and neither are you.

3) Get Humbled. If You are a cornering guy, take your car to the drags and get smoked by a 6 Second Camaro. If you are a drag guy, try to corner in your 6 second camaro against an Evo IX. If you have an exotic, wait till the guy with more seat time hands you your butt from a Subbie.

4) First MOD? The driver. Always. Always.

5) Exploring the limits is not so bad at AutoX. Cones aren't too dangerous. Yet...

6) Racing is Racing.

7) If you do wheel to wheel or race against other people, You WILL GET PASSED. Life will go on, I promise.

8) Listen, Learn and Share.

9) Do NOT be a SNOB at the track. Say Hi to everyone... you might get a ride in THAT car.

10) Its just a Car. Have FUN, and drive it like you stole it!

10.5) Support your local racing/motorsport: Drags, SCCA etc. It's all the same thing. Car Maniacs!

David said...

Thanks NV.

I agree with each of your points. I was pratically blown off the track by a really well driven WRX.