Nothing starts the day like the promise of a newly acquired skill. And few skills are more exciting than learning how to drive from the professionals. As the saying goes ‘drive it like you stole it.’ Setting criminal intent aside, that’s my goal for the day.
As set-up in my last post, today I’m off for race car driving class with Proformance Racing; a Christmas gift for my father…and myself. I’m particularly excited as today is only day two with my newly modified GTI. And while I might be accused of having delusions of grandeur at my prospects today, I really do want to see what my car can do when measured against more expensive competition.
With the sun rising and the Today Show’s mind numbing banter in the background I quickly don last night’s planned outfit – rubber-soled and snug Pumas befitting a Formula One driver, cargo shorts, and a light weight sweater. Planning to document my day, I also retrieve my iPad and a borrowed GoPro camera and head mount. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of wearing a head mounted camera while behind the wheel, but the promise of first person footage enables me (just) to set vanity aside. This isn’t the first standard I’ve compromised while in training and it certainly won’t be the last.
Appropriately attired and well equipped, the hallmark of any good agent, I set off for my destination – Pacific Raceways. Formerly known as the Seattle International Raceway, Pacific Raceways is a Formula One style track; far more engaging than the left-leaning, pedestrian pursuits of the American NASCAR driver. I might be a neophyte today, but at least I won’t be provincial.
It’s my first day on a track and my excitement is already outpacing my tachometer. This morning’s commute was arguably a tad aggressive. My paddle shifters are going to get me in trouble. Driving aggressively is now as effortless as playing a video game; the diminished physical commitment (in stark contrast to shifting manually) makes the aggressive feel passive, natural even. I’m sure that excuse will fly with my would-be arresting officer – “honestly officer, all I did was tap this harmless little button. Surely, that’s not cause for a reckless driving charge.” It might be time to acquire a radar detector. There has to be a gadget for this problem.
Upon arrival, I find that the parking lot is doing double duty as a car show spanning the full spectrum of the automotive caste system. Turbo-charged 911s and Quattroportes are intermingled with American muscle cars and souped-up Japanese hatchbacks. It’s a group of misfit adult toys. What I wasn’t expecting was a small collection of stock issue econo-boxes. The Chevy Sonic and Honda Fit are more befitting a college campus than a day at the track. Performance driving, it would seem, cuts across all socio-economic groups. The PT Cruiser? That’s just bad design finding even poorer taste.
Upon closer inspection the Civic Si parked opposite my GTI means business. The back seats were removed to reduce weight, sway bars crisscrossed the hatch to tighten the suspension, and an after-market exhaust system changed likely far more than the engine note. Coming from an inner city high school I’m more accustomed to vanity-driven updates, but there wasn’t a black light or set of spinning rims sight. The telltale tinted back window with the bubble in the middle (that’s a Sir Mix-a-Lot reference) – absent.
After a quick glance down auto row I locate dad. Always one for arriving early, he wins the punctual pole – his Corvette is first in line. Slight of stature, but by no means small, dad has the look of a race car driver. It’s not just his height – the only thing that eclipses his competitiveness is his good nature. That and the 400 hp v8 in his Corvette will undoubtedly have my chasing his taillights for the better part of the day. I’m just happy he passed on the sartorial stereotype – the logo embossed satin jacked. Logo wear appears to be de rigueur at the track.
We make our way into the classroom adorned with all manner of trophies, promotional photos, and memorabilia. A quick scan reveals more than a few father-son combos; though we’re the oldest. Our instructor for the day, Don Kitch, is brimming with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for Promise Keepers or Stephen Covey disciples. He’s effusively positive, engaging, and supremely confident that we’ll not only enjoy our day like no other, but also become lifetime converts. Don also lays claim to some impressive credentials. A veteran of over 200 professional and amateur racing starts, He founded the school and is the head instructor.
Don informs us that until now we’d merely been “operating a motor vehicle”, today we’d learn to “drive a car.” His tone and dramatic pause tells me this is a very important distinction. As a credential craven aspiring agent I’m happy to learn the program is fully accredited by the Sports Car Racing Association. Proformance Racing doesn’t just train amateurs like myself, they also train cops on high speed pursuits. A new certificate for my expanding dossier. I sense Dan rolling his eyes. Again.
For our track sessions we’ll be broken into two groups. The format of the day is designed to enable us to focus on three things at a time; four being one too many for a race car driver. Each session will afford us multiple opportunities so we can drive, debrief, observe (the other group) and repeat. Don’s speaking my language. Being off the charts process-oriented I’m happy to hear we have a clear structure.
We’ll go through a number of defensive driving skills before hitting the track for laps with our one-on-one instructors. Our key concepts for the morning include how to efficiently slow, change direction, and accelerate. Later we will learn more about the anatomy of the course and experience oversteer and understeer.
After about 45 minutes of track history, self-promotion, and build up, our preliminary debrief is complete and it’s time for our first drill – ABS breaking. Also known as ‘the child in the road exercise.’ At first I find it silly when Don asks how many of us have ever really hit our breaks like our life (or a neglected child’s) depended on it. I’d certainly braked firmly countless times, but couldn’t honestly recall anything on a child in the road scale.
Don counsels us on two items before our first drill. First, don’t let off the break till well past the, well, child. And second, turn the wheel! All steering inputs are driven by eyes. It’s far faster and easier to swiftly avoid something than break in front of it. Makes sense. We exit the classroom and break into our groups. Dad and I are in the first group and head toward our respective vehicles. Its clear the instructors have done this before. We’re well managed; assistant instructors flag us at every turn as we slowly make our way to the track.
We follow the leader down to our assigned queue. There’s an instructor at the top of the queue and the end. One-by-one before our respective turns we’re instructed to reach a steady speed of 60 mph and drive straight for a cone in the middle of the road. When the instructor waves his flag we break hard, and swerve left, stopping, ideally, just past the makeshift child. After watching a few of my lead-footed classmates treat the drill as solo drag race to 60 mph I join in. I hit 60 fast, surely the fastest of the day, and throttle back as I approach the cone. With the flag raise I dynamite my breaks and simultaneously veer left. I feel the shudder in the pedal as the ABS system releases the break pads on the sliding wheels. Missing the child, the instructors provide positive encouragement and instruct me that I let up on my breaks before coming to a complete stop. Fortunately, I’d get another chance, but first I had to complete the slalom course.
I wheel around and make my way down to the next queue. As with the breaking exercise an instructor awaits. The slalom course is set out predictably enough; orange cones evenly spaced for about fifty yards. Another instructor awaits at the end of the cones with flag in hand. I’m told when the flag is raised I should skip a gate; the randomness of the flag raises introducing an element of surprise in what otherwise would be a mundane drill. I’m also told to keep it around 60. I watch my predecessor to get a feel for roll, pace, and to see when his respective flags are thrown. At this point I decide it’s time to capture the moment on the GoPro. I retrieve the head mount from my center console, toss it on like a baseball hat, and start recording.
I race off of the line and hit 60 mph well before the first gate. As I break left past the first gate and pull right around the second I feel the body roll in my car. While this is the lowest, and widest, GTI to date its stance still rides higher than my 335i. Do I need sway bars? I set accessorizing aside just in time to see the flag. Forcing myself to skip a gate requires more concentration than I would think. It’s like being forced to color outside of the lines and belies my German heritage. I skip a gate and return to the slalom. Before I know it I’m through. I reach the end of the course. The instructor, in a delightful dead-pan tells me, ‘you appear to have a camera affixed to your head.’ I laugh. These guys clearly enjoy what they do a great deal. And why wouldn’t they? While they might have set aside more lucrative careers they’re clearly doing what they love every day.
I loop back to the breaking exercise and enjoy three more goes at each of the stations. With each turn I get more comfortable with the feel of my car; how it rolls with the turns, how the ABS feels in a straight line and through a turn. I’ve become more acquainted with my car in an hour than 25 years of driving.
Our first phase of drills complete we return to the class to setup the next two drills. Breaking the rule of three, Don informs of us of new areas of focus – concentration, smoothness, balance and consistency. Smoothness in particular is important. Performance driving is more about what you don’t do that what you do. Sudden and sharp movements throw off the balance of the car. It’s why they adhere bowls of water to the hoods of cop cars in training.
Apparently, my drivers education instructor Mr. Stickles (real name not withheld) taught me hand placement and blind spot checking improperly. First off, 10 and 2 is for suckers. Everything you need to do can be done most effectively, and efficiently, from 9 and 3. Want affirmation, watch a Formula One driver. Additionally, in more modern cars (like mine!) it’s the perfect placement for those with paddle shifters. Think paddle shifters are a fad? Guess again. Ferrari quit making manual transmissions a few years ago. Think on that for a moment – Ferrari. Lastly, as if I needed more reason, holding your wheel toward the top is a recipe for a punch in the face. If you’re in an accident, and your airbag deploys, you’ll punch yourself – hard. Keep in mind that an airbag deploys at 200 mph with great force and you’ll consider moving your hands a few inches. As for blind spots, checking over your shoulder is all wrong. Position your mirrors properly so you don’t have to, You shouldn’t have to take your eyes away from whatever you’re hurtling rapidly towards. That one is going to be very hard to break. I take note to check my mirrors.
Our next two drills focus on swerving while accelerating (AKA ‘the moose in the road drill’) and breaking hard while turning sharply (so we can experience understeer). As the second group finishes the first set of drills we head to a new area of the track for drills three and four. Situated 30 yards down the course are two slightly curving tracks marked by cones. We were instructed to drive about 60 mph toward a center code bifurcating the two tracks. Just before arriving at the proverbial fork in the road a flag would indicate which side of the road the moose appeared in.
Key to this drill is blending effectively. At a high rate of speed one doesn’t want to over correct. It’s a recipe for ending up in an opposing lane of traffic, or off a cliff, and is generally considered bad berries. There’s a nice practicality to this drill – it’s much faster to steer around something than stop in front of it.
At my turn I make my way towards the center cone accelerating quickly, but smoothly. I take care to think through Don’s counsel that my eyes will naturally track toward movement and that the steering will often follow. I need to betray that tendency and swerve away. I have no desire to learn what a half-ton imaginary moose would do to my car. My first flag emerges from the left sending me quickly, and reasonably smoothly, toward the cone track on my right. After completing my drill I look back and am happy to find all cones still standing. Not bad for a first go. My next few attempts elicit the same result regardless of which side of the road my moose appeared on. Dad similarly escapes the virtual moose and the shame of felling a cone; the width and low center of his Vette making his car better suited for such drills than mine.
Brimming with confidence we make our way toward our final drill – understeer. The simplest definition is understeer is when a car has a tendency to turn less sharply than intended. To see a more effective definition, complete with a GTI example, checkout the very short video highlight below.
I transition over to the next area of the track and find myself first in line. A new instructor awaits at the top of the track. We’re to increase our speed quickly to 60 mph, follow the cones, and break hard. The cones, mind you, represent a tight lane that turns sharply to the right. We’re to hit the breaks hard while we turn. In this case we’re being set up for failure. There isn’t a driver in this class that can make this turn at that rate of speed. We’ll get to experience undesteer as our cars careen through the cones. This portion of the class is our kobayashi maru of the day – the unwinnable test. I see no Kirk-like opportunity to reprogram the test and accelerate toward impending failure (side note, that needs to be on a t-shirt). Admittedly, I take the corner about 10mph slower than instructed – my passive aggressive attempt to foil the kobayashi maru. It doesn’t matter. I blow through the lane and knock down a good third of the cones. It’s the vehicular equivalent of Black Friday at Walmart and few cones were spared. My second and third attempts showed little improvement. My over confidence after the previous three drills is now appropriately in check.
After an hour-long break for lunch Dad and I head back to the track for what’s sure to be the better half of the day. Not that I didn’t enjoy the drills, but I’m really itching to get onto the track for some laps.
Back in the classroom Don informs us that we’ll start with our instructors behind the wheel. We’ll watch for a few laps as they map out the track for us. Different points of the track are marked with cones on the inside and outside so we know when to break, when to accelerate, and how to optimally negotiate the many turns. Our rear view mirror will be covered as the instructor will determine when it’s safe for someone from behind to pass – indicating when it’s clear via hand gestures out his window. The obscured mirror will force us, as drivers, to resist the temptation to make that choice for ourselves.
We’ll get two chances to enjoy take laps on the track. During our first go we’ll have the track to ourselves and take a break so the second group can go. During our last session we’ll share the track with ‘lappers’ – race car certified drivers who are paying for some independent track time.
Before our track laps we’re issued helmets. Having an abnormally large head I grimace at seeing the all white helmets on the shelf. I’m going to look like the Jack in the Box guy for the afternoon. Wonderful. Style points be damned. The helmets are for more than just crash protection however. We’ll be miced up so we can hear our instructors. With the windows open, and more than a few 600 hp cars on the track, things are apt to be a bit loud.
It turns out my instructor, Curtis, is a big GTI fan. When I tell him that I’ve had the chip recently modified to add another 100 hp he looks a bit giddy. At this point I realize that Curtis didn’t select me as a student. He selected my car as his training vehicle. Regardless, I’m encouraged by having someone with some enthusiasm. I hop in the passenger seat, we check our mics, and head back to the track. Curtis narrates the track and points out the key indicator cones along the way – when to break, where to run out on a turn, when to accelerate coming out of a turn. He’s done countless laps on this track before and knows it like the back of his hand. During my first lap I get a little nervous that I’ll miss a turn – there are numerous run outs where you can exit the track both on the inside of the track and out. However, after a couple of laps the turns seem natural. I’m ready.
We pull off the track and swap positions. Curtis immediately pulls my rearview mirror into an entirely unusable position while I buckle up. We’re sixth in line just a few cars behind my dad. At this point Curtis suggests that I not grip the steering wheel like I’m trying to strangle the life out of it. Fair point. I run through a few of Don’s tips in my head. Keep my eyes focused where I to go, take subtle movements, it’s more about what I don’t do than what I do.
And all of that is immediately chucked right out the window when we roll onto the track and I accelerate rapidly toward 60, 80, and then top 100 mph for the first time in my car. Our entry point stated us on the longest straight-away of the track. Curtis directs while I drive – it’s really just like Le Mans I tell myself (it’s nothing like Le Mans). As I reach the end of initial run out he gives me a cone to target; ensuring that I’ll use the car and the track most efficiently as I pull left. We run out and he instructs me to hug the barrier to my left. I slow to about 85 mph as he indicates the next cone; marking where I should pull to the right and target the next cone on my passenger side. I realize that I’m not breathing an exhale audibly. Curtis laughs.
We’re heading into our first set of turns wherein I’ll need to slow dramatically, keep the right amount of momentum, and pull from the outside lane, to the inside, and then back outside again. Thus far we’re still pretty well in the line-up that we started, but I can see the next three cars ahead of me; one of which is Dad. I disastrously handle the turns during my first go. I break too hard on the first, turn to abruptly into the second, and am in the wrong gear coming out of the third. Other than that I did great. Downshifting with a click of my left index finger I get back up to a suitable speed aided by the downward slope of the track. Curtis is helpful and encouraging with each turn; instructing me exactly where to go, when to break, when to accelerate. It should be driving by numbers, but it’s harder than it sounds. We’re heading into the sharpest turn of the day and a cornering maneuver that will haunt me for the remainder of the day – a hard right at a downward slope and then a hard left. It’s a harrowing turn to master and I don’t nail it on the first go. Or the second.
Coming out of the turns we weave our way through some ‘S’ curves and pull a hard left as we prepare to complete our first lap. My heart is racing. I’m loving this. As we pull through the final turn Curtis instructs me to pull to the right and head, well, into the wall. I’m apprehensive to put it mildly. I know that’s the most efficient run out for the straight-away we started on, but my depth perception is betraying me. The wall is on my passenger side. I veer slightly to the right coming what feels like precariously close to the wall. Curtis informs me that someone could have passed me on the right – there was that much room. Next time.
I hit the straight-away and get aggressive. My speedometer hits 100 again, then 110, and nearly 120 – the fastest I’ve ever driven. I complete another lap and make a few improvements. A better run out here, a more expertly negotiated turn there. With each lap my anxiety wanes. I’m making better turns and pulling faster laps. It’s around this point where I start to catch Dad. Having witnessed more than a little father / son good-natured ribbing Curtis knows exactly what I’m doing – “you want to pass your Dad don’t you?” Well, yeah.
I’ve been hearing about the merits of the small-block Chevy for about 20 years. I think it’s time for youth (albeit fleeting) and German engineering to have their day. I accelerate and close the distance in the first third of the run out. Dad’s instructor waves me past. I execute the Oedipal pass with a smile and back off a notch so I can veer onto the inner portion of the track. Sadly, my Cougar plates have yet to arrive. It would be a nice visual. We finish off two more laps and get waved in for a debrief so the second group can have a go. I’m giddy.
The debrief is short and my attention elsewhere. While I try to enjoy the tour of the drag strip and history of the track I’m too eager to get back out for our second lap session; particularly as we’ll be joined by lappers who have far more experience that I. Judging by their cars these guys mean business. I have no doubts that they are all superior drivers and welcome the addition of a bit more excitement. Only one classmate passed me during our first session, I imagine the Z06 I saw in the lot will lap me several times. And both of the 911s. Of note, no one mentioned that it was a competition, but I’m keeping a mental score of course.
Our second go is even more fun than the first. With each lap my confidence grows. I’m going into corners at the right speed, hitting the cones at the right spots (or nearly), and running out of corners at a good pace. Tempering my confidence is the fact that while I’m doing this I’m being passed regularly by better cars and drivers. A canary yellow 911 passes me going through the S curves. A 20 year old BMW does as well (that one hurts a bit). And the Z06? It sounds like a harrier jet and passes me like I’m standing still. And I was going 110 mph through the straights. He must have been doing 150. One word came to mind. More.
Our final lap session complete we return to the lot for a final debrief. I’ve had an absolute blast and am happy to see Dad grinning from ear to ear. He had a better go it in on his second session; having been disappointed with the first few laps. We receive our certificates and head home. I make a concerned effort to not lead-foot it back to Seattle. Like walking at normal speed after a exiting moving tramway at the airport; I feel like I’m positively crawling. It’s painful, but I endure. I’ve had the right training.
Don was right on a few things today – I’ll be back.