Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chapter 13 - First Time on the Track

First Time on the Track


The first driving class I could attend was a high performance driving class taught by ProDrive. The class was scheduled for late April and would be held at Portland International Raceway or PIR for short. PIR is just less than two miles long. When the chicane is included the track has 12 turns. The front straight is the longest and the only true straight on the track as the back “straight” is really a gentle turn. I figured the ProDrive class would offer me a chance to drive my car on the track in a safe and controlled environment while improving my driving skills.

Before going to the track I wanted to mount a camera in the car so I could film the track day. I tried a number of goofy contraptions before I found a way to securely mount a camera in the car. The dash of the 355 does not present a good platform to mount a camera; it is leather and not very deep. Mounting the camera to the inside of the windshield with suction cups did not work. Only slightly more successful was a spring loaded bar that fit between the rear windows, just behind the seats. It was not a bad idea but the bar did not fit tight enough to keep the camera level.

The camera mount I ultimately devised was much better than my earlier attempts but required more work. Not an unusual combination. The glove box on a 355 is between the seats at shoulder level. Yes, an odd place for a glove box but there is no other obvious place to put it. It is about ¾ the size of a large tissue box, covered in leather and held in place by three bolts. When I sit in the car the flexibility required to open the glove box is just beyond the limit of my ability so I put stuff in the tray in the center console instead.

I removed the glove box and used its base as a template to fashion a plywood mounting plate. I drilled three holes in the plywood plate which made use of the three threaded brackets in the car. To hold the camera in place I recycled an adjustable arm which had held the cellular phone in my old truck and secured it to the mounting plate. The arm allowed me to position the camera where I wanted it. To complete the project I covered the mounting plate in black fabric which matched the black carpet in the car.

With the camera installed I talked Barb into joining me for a test drive to take advantage of the beautiful spring afternoon and find the best camera angle for filming. Five minutes into the drive and it started to rain, the rain got harder then became slushy hail, then snow, then rain, then sun. I was really uncomfortable. I can’t tell you why. When I wash the car it gets wet. I had driven it in the rain before. Driving in the rain should not bother me.

Driving in the rain does seem to bother the car. Maybe Ferraris should not be driven in the rain. Just after the rain started the “SLOW DOWN” light flickered briefly. It could be that dampness is interfering with the sensors attached to the catalytic converters and causing the warning light. In addition to warning you the car, at its discretion, can reduce power or shut itself down if it fears it might be running too hot. I hope this does not happen during my track day. It would be embarrassing to have the Ferrari shut itself down in the middle of the track.

On Thursday April 24, 2008 I arrived at PIR. It was a cold, grey Portland morning. I was not nervous. I had been to PIR many times to race my bike so the track is a familiar place for me. My familiarity with the track both helped and hindered my first trips around PIR in the Ferrari. I benefited from intimate knowledge of the track gained from years of racing a bike on the circuit. Bike or car, the line is pretty much the same. Unfortunately, I was accustomed to following that line at about 25 miles per hour and from the seat of a bike. It looked a lot different at four times the speed and sitting in the Ferrari.

The ProDrive class started with 45 minutes of classroom discussion which revolved around vehicle dynamics, weight transfer and picking correct line. I knew everything presented. I have read enough and driven enough to know all that stuff but knowing is one thing, putting the knowledge to work is another.

Once the classroom discussion was over we went to our cars for three slow laps behind a pace car. I pulled on my helmet, ducked into the car, and got really nervous. So nervous 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 Vantage and a Corvette. Leading our group was an instructor in a Miata. The instant we were underway my nerves were gone and I had a great time driving slowly around a race track in my Ferrari.

Maybe the nerves were gone while I was driving but the second the session was over they came back with a vengeance. I think being on the track, hearing all the cars, pulling on the helmet all served to reinforce what I was doing. While driving I was concentrating on getting the car around the track. Back on the paddock I had plenty of time to think about what I was up too. I was not scared of driving fast and only slightly worried about crashing the car or hurting myself. Mostly, I was worried about doing something stupid.

Before heading out for our first real session there was another short classroom discussion to familiarize everyone with the meaning of the different flags then we were into the cars with our instructors. I had requested Tony Cantacio as my instructor. Tony owned the black 430 I attempted to follow out of the Enzo dinner. I know what I did wrong that night. I used too much throttle for the amount of steering angle and the wet pavement. No traction control, lots of power, wet pavement, and a belligerent right foot conspired to slide the Ferrari all over the road. When the car did slide I compounded my error by counter steering and letting sharply off the gas. I felt it was wise not to mention that exploit to Tony as we got acquainted.

There was an 80 mph speed limit during the first session. I broke it. Not by much and it was not entirely my fault, Tony kept saying “more gas, more gas”. That first session was an eye opener. 80 Mph was plenty fast to give me a feeling for how hard the car could turn and how quickly I was able to be on the gas exiting a turn. I had no idea a car could handle so well. Even with the reduced top speed I went faster through corners than I ever had on the street.

The Pro Drive course consisted of four 15 minute sessions. Tony was in the car with me for each session, providing advice on line, breaking, balance, throttle input and the hundreds of other variables which go into driving. By the third session I felt 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. I thought there was no way we could go faster. We were at a limit, mine not the cars, my internal traction control system had kicked in.

When I pulled off the track, at the end of the last session, I realized I didn’t have the guilty feeling I get after driving too fast on the road. Please understand I usually drive slowly on the street. I don’t take silly chances, speed, or show off – usually. I remember a time, about two years ago, I was driving our 911 down a nice road by our house, having fun. The top was down, it was sunny, a great day for a drive. I came around a bend and there was a photo radar station. No chance to slow down. My speed flashed up on the screen 39 MPH. Uh oh. Until I noticed the posted speed limit was 45. I was going six miles per hour under the speed limit.

You get the point.

I know this sounds obvious but at the track you can go as fast as you can go and it is OK. My top speed at PIR was about 140 MPH. Not super fast but fast enough. My speed through corners, while not up to the pace of the other students, was enough to have attracted the attention of any police officer, had I been on the street. At no time did I feel I was at risk or that I was putting others at risk. During the entire day I felt safe and in control even when cornering fast in the rain.

I did not expect to learn much from the ProDrive class. I thought I would learn about the Ferrari and where its limits were. I had always considered myself a pretty good driver. I can heel/toe, shift smoothly, and know how to correct a slide – usually. What I took away way was 180 degrees from what I expected. Never did I get close to the Ferrari’s limits but I was able to explore the edges of what I realized were my very meager skills as a driver.

I learned several things that day and will do my best to share them with you.

The number one thing.

Please do not underestimate this bit of knowledge it will save you thousands of dollars and allow you to confuse, humiliate, and infuriate owners of really fast cars.

Ready?

The driver matters more than the car. That’s it. For getting around a track quickly or down a twisty bit of road the driver is more important. Sure the car plays a role but a great driver will be quicker in an average car than an average driver in a great car.

I know what you are thinking, “Give me a break, your Ferrari is faster than my Honda, I would never be able to keep up with you.” In a straight line my Ferrari and I would probably to go faster than you and your Honda. But what about turning, braking, accelerating, picking the right line? If you are the better driver I bet I won’t be unable to keep up. Why, because your ability as a driver more than compensates for the greater ability of my car.

Here is my rational, based entirely on what I learned that Thursday. A driver is only able to extract as much performance from a car as the driver’s mixture of skill and experience will allow. Sounds obvious. There is more, the car’s capacity, in most cases, provides a performance threshold which is beyond the average driver’s ability to safely exploit.

The relationship between car and driver relative to skill and capacity is straightforward. As driver skill increases 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 product of the equation is affected by the cars capacity. Further, overall capability of the car plus driver is always less than the 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 was far below the capacity of the 355.

Luckily, driver capacity can be improved through training and the gap between total capacity and realized capacity can be reduced. The relationship between car and driver was driven home my first day on the track. I did not pass anyone.

The Aston Martin passed me.

The Corvette passed me.

I was passed by everyone else. No matter what they were driving. The Subaru, the Honda passed me. They were all better drivers.

I have always been impressed by fast cars. I know, or think I know their statistics, 0 to 60, horsepower, lateral G, active suspension, fastest time around the Ring. It’s all nonsense, not good for anything other than bragging rights. Buying a fast car may win a crummy driver the admiration of high school kids and points with the enthusiast crowd at the local cars and coffee but I have a new goal, to win admiration of good drivers regardless of the car I am in.

Important item number two.

I learned that the guide I had been using to judge when a car is at its limit was totally inaccurate. When Tony and I were going through turns he kept saying more gas, more gas. At the time I could not imagine applying more gas. Were the tires squealing? Was the car feeling loose? No. The car was flat and solid, the tires silent. Tony said more than once, this car has a lot more to give. He was right.

My internal calculations of what a car can do are not calibrated for a Ferrari. What are they calculated for? Probably the 83 Mazda RX7 I had in college. I was close to picking the right line and was rolling on the throttle smoothly but I was doing it all at ½ speed.

I learned that what I once thought was the limit, what I once thought was fast wasn’t. I had new appreciation for fast.

Important item number three.

The experience left me with a greater appreciation for what a complex set of tasks driving entails and all the risks encountered when driving on the road. Once I left the track I realized traffic was coming at me, people were driving way too close to one another, they were talking on phones, sipping coffee, and scolding kids. Somewhere in the midst of all this they had take stock of the ever changing road surface, the cars around them and their relative speeds and directions.

Add all that up and you have a dangerous, uncontrolled environment. When I left the track I was terrified driving down the freeway, even though I felt I could get out and walk faster than the 60 MPH traffic.

Important item number four.

Next year, if I go to the Enzo dinner I will be able to leave the parking lot properly. I learned what to do when the Ferrari starts to slide. At one point, during a session after just it had rained a bit I got on the gas too hard exiting the chicane. The car slid. The ground was wet and while we were going slower than during the sessions when it was dry track the car lost traction because of my clumsy foot. I did a much better job of controlling this slide. I did not immediately let off the gas and resisted the urge to violently over correct. It was not graceful but I kept the car pointed in the right direction and Tony only made a passing remark about being more careful with the throttle.

So how do you keep a Ferrari from sliding around? Don’t ask it to do too many things at once. When you think about it there are really only four things you ask of a car. Speed up, slow down, turn, or maintain speed. At the track the very first thing I learned was I had to use the brakes to slow down for corners. It is seldom on the road that I am driving fast enough I have to brake for a corner. On the track if I had to brake for every corner. If not, one of two things would have been true. Either I was going too slowly or I would end up getting well acquainted with a tire wall.

If you get to drive on the track or if you are going fast enough on the road that you need to brake for a corner don’t ask your car to slow down and turn simultaneously. Get all the busy, distracting stuff involved with slowing down and changing gears done while the car is going straight. Let the car settle down then turn.

Why? Turning unsettles the car, braking unsettles the car, and shifting unsettles the car. Together, these unsettling events reduce the tire’s grip and the speed at which you can safely get through the corner. Easy stuff, but watch other drivers. Most people apply their brakes when turning and do not release the brake until they are well past the apex of the turn.

That’s it. That’s what I learned. Drivers are important, I had been using the wrong gauge to estimate my cars’ limits, driving on the road is scary, and only ask a car to do one think at a time.

I had several reasons for taking the driving course. One was to safely explore the limits of the car. I didn’t get there. I safely explored the limits of what I was capable of. I wanted to improve my ability to drive the car. Job done, but I could have learned so much more. If you have the opportunity to take a driving class, listen to your instructor.

I left a bunch of potential learning on the table. Tony kept saying “get on the gas, get on the gas, quit coasting” as we were going through turns. At that time I knew we were at the limit. I was wrong we were nowhere near the limit. It seemed like we were going so fast. I will defiantly be back at the track and when there I will do some things differently. Trust the car, listen to the instructor, and push myself. There were a few, fleeting moments when I got it right. Tony would immediately say “Did you feel that? Did you feel how the car unwinds more quickly when you are on the gas?”

Yes, I did feel it, when I get back to the track, more gas.

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