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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Just got back from high performance driving school, where I had a blast. Here’s the full rundown of the day.

We started about 20 minutes late, waiting for some assclown to show up. I’m not a huge fan of things where people pay a lot of money to do something, and then they have to wait because somebody else is lazy.

From there, things turned worse, as all of the instructors (6) told us their life stories, and then we went around the room and all the students (18) introduced themselves, why they’re here, what they hope to get out of the experience, what they do for a living, where they come from …

Yeah, the same fluffy feel-good crap you do in those liberal arts classes on the first day of college. I don’t care about these people and hope to never see them again, I just want to get to the stuff the school is supposed to be about — techniques and practice.

After a little more discussion about the pre-lunch plan, we split into three groups, and my group headed first to the braking exercise. What this basically amounted to was “accelerate the car up to 40mph, and then slam on the brakes.” The exercise was designed for people who had never engaged their ABS before (this dumbfounded me too, though with the additional context that half the class were unsure if they’d ever engaged ABS, I suppose it was necessary). I think I would have gotten more value out of, say, learning to heel-toe that hour, but whatever. For this, we used the BMW 330i, which was a surprisingly decent car. The one downside was that somebody did a number on the clutch before, so it never fully disengaged, which made getting into first and reverse a bit of a nightmare.

We alternated with our partners for this which I hadn’t really expected. Turns out (more as I go) that most all of the day was alternating between two or three groups, which made for less time in the vehicle than I thought, and the 2-3 hours they claim in their literature is more like about 1.5 hours actually behind the wheel and 2 hours as a passenger.

From here, it was back to the classroom for an hour, where we were instructed in elementary vehicle dynamics. After answering all of the questions for the first 10 minutes, I decided to shut up. In short, if you’ve read even the most basic literature on vehicle dynamics or played a simulator of moderate quality, there’s nothing new — weight transfer and the inescapable interrelation of acceleration, cornering, and braking.

The last session of the morning was taking turns (rotation of three this time) in a pickup truck on the skidpad (asphalt, watered). The point of this was to practice skid recovery (correction, pause, recovery), which was probably the most valuable thing I did all morning. The big challenges were getting a good feel for pause time, and figuring out how quickly to dial out the steering input during the recovery phase. Related to this, I think the most important lesson I learned throughout the day was keeping focused on watching where I wanted to go, and where I wanted to steer, and physically turning my head and eyes in that direction, to get my body to follow. Despite knowing this ahead of time, and being told it throughout the day, it’s still instinctual to look where the vehicle is going, rather than where you want it to go, and it’s a hard habit to break.

Lunch was a buffet of cold cuts and sausage, with some surprisingly good cookies. Not much to talk about. I think it lasted for about 45 minutes, after which we made our way back to the classroom (a full hour by the time we gathered). We spent another 20 minutes explaining racing lines (again, textbook stuff) and compromise corners, and then headed off to another three activities.

My first was again trading off with a partner in a 330i doing emergency lane changes. I have a horrible habit of wanting to tap the brakes to initiate a weight transfer before my lane change, instead of just initiating the weight transfer via off-throttle. By the third try in each of the sessions, however, I’d managed to do the correct procedure: Roll off throttle to transfer weight, initiate the change, reorient the vehicle, and then brake at 100% to stop travel. We were done about 15 minutes early with this activity, and rather than do anything further, we just stood around and waited.

Next was the autocross course, where we got to do about 5 laps each with two cars, picking from a 911, RS4, and M3. Again, it was turns, so I first waited for half the class to go around, and then picked the RS4 to start.

By god, the RS4 is a fast car. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering it was second only to the Viper in power and torque, but it’s trivial to use all sorts of power in that car, and the brakes were like magic. I don’t know how to explain it, other than the car has enough electronics in it to make you feel like a freaking hero. By the second lap around the autocross track, I was opening up with full throttle and slowing down with full braking, and doing pretty ok at rolling off one and into the other to moderate weight transfer. During this session, we had an instructor sitting next to us barking directions, which was incredibly helpful. I started having issues because I was significantly faster than the other folks on the track, and had to keep pulling off and pausing for 15-20 seconds to let them get a lead; in the RS4 this happened 3 times in 5 laps, which seemed almost absurd. Part of it is the car, to be sure, but for some reason I did much better at this activity than the average, whereas in other stuff I felt I was average or below.

The highlight was that on my penultimate lap (one of the few where I had a clear full run) I spent a good part of a turn on two wheels. I didn’t realize this until afterwards, when one of my classmates mentioned “yeah, you had the inside wheels a good two inches off the ground for a few seconds.”

Like I said, the car makes you feel like a freaking hero. I’m not that good, and I never even knew I’d pulled that off.

Next up I had to pick between the 911 and the M3 (the instructors pointed out that most people don’t actually get to drive all the cars, surprise!, at the beginning of the day, this is one example of when one needs to make a decision). Not particularly admiring the idea of tight corners with all my weight behind the rear axle, I went with the M3.

I really liked the M3 on the small track. Where the RS4 was hugely powerful and went where you pointed the steering wheel, the M3 respected your steering input, but went where your right foot told it. I wasn’t as fast in the M3 as in the RS4, but I enjoyed it a whole bunch more. Whereas I spent a lot of time in the RS4 with the wheels complaining, I spent a lot more time in the M3 exploring the slip rates of the vehicle, which was strangely more comfortable and still more enjoyable. I twice had to pull to the side and wait for the car ahead of me to get some more space (the RS4 this time, confirming my earlier hypothesis), but still had a blast in this vehicle. Of everything I drove, if I had to take home one car it would be the M3.

Next up was the Viper. Nothing could have prepared me for how awful this vehicle was, including my own suspicions that this would be an awful vehicle. First off, I’m too tall to fit comfortably in it. Once hunkered down, I still can see almost nothing in front of me but the hood the car, which is massive and extends for what seems like several meters, completely obscuring everything in front of me. Side and rear visibility is terrible, and there’s virtually no feedback from the car — everything feels very insulated and out of touch: the clutch, the gas, the brakes, the steering, you name it. I can see why the car would be the fastest of the bunch around a large track; there’s no replacement for displacement, after all. I have no doubt that it is a fast car, and that its awkwardness is less pronounced at speed, but why anybody would buy one of these for driving on anything but a drag strip is beyond me.

And, I know that somebody else has, since there was both a Viper and a Gallardo parked at my hotel — the owners ended up people doing formula RT/2000 practice sessions.

Anyhow, I’m glad I took the Viper around the autocross track, but I don’t ever need to do so again. Whereas the feel of the German cars was very precise and refined, the Viper was crude and brutish, and not as rewarding. All of this said, I still caught my competition several times in the Viper, and had to stop. Like I say, I don’t get why I’m faster at this than the other classmates, unless this is something where video games help understand braking/acceleration/the line.

After this, it was a trip back to the skidpad and the pickup trucks, to do box turns in the wet — the idea was to teach the proper corner entry/exit into a 90-degree turn. I felt like I had this one down after a few laps, but it was still fun to do for a while. Inadvertently got to practice my slide recovery a few times due to some throttle lift oversteer and trail braking though. Whoops.

Back to the classroom for another 40 minutes of lecturing about the track, and then out we went. The basic idea was that three people would sit in a pace car (a BMW 330i), and then three others would each take out a car and follow the pace car (and the other two, in rotation) around. Once again, we could pick from the audis (one RS4, two S4), the M3s, or the 911s. After my 3 laps in the pace car, I picked the M3, which was a lot of fun. My group-mates were pretty slow and conservative, but the sun was going down, and it was beautiful as hell, and I couldn’t complain. Another 6 laps in the pace car, and then I decided I should probably give the 911 a go, just to say I’d at least driven one fast.

By god, I hated the thing even more than a Viper. There are some words I didn’t think I’d say. While it was perfectly sedate at low speeds, and went like hell in a straight line, I could not get comfortable turning the thing. Driving the M3 fast around the track was easy — it was very easy to control the attitude of the car with the throttle, and the brakes and steering are just plain brilliant. I felt like I was guiding the car around, and it was sweet. Driving the 911 I felt like I was constantly out of control, and trying to fight the car into doing what I wanted it to. This is not a failing of the vehicle, mind you, but of my ability to comprehend the way a rear-engined car wants to rotate. It feels entirely different than any other engine configuration I’ve been in to this point (NB I’ve still yet to drive mid-engine, and there was no boxster), and I hated it. I fell behind my group quite a ways, and was getting the “go faster” signals from the guy at the top of the hill, at which point I was half convinced I’d end up going airborne sideways. Obviously people like them for a reason, but the only reason the 911 seemed halfway in control to me was the extensive amount of electronic aides driving for me. Was sweet in the straights, but I never have a need to drive a 911 again.

But, there was one more treat. We all got to take a hot out and in lap with the instructor driving a vehicle at its limits. By luck I ended up in the same 911 as I’d just finished, and this trip around the track was downright brilliant. With the car constantly sliding and the tires screaming murder, it was all I could do to hold on (one hand on the ‘oh shit’ handle and the other holding on to the bottom of my seat). While I at no time felt like the driver was out of control, I realized it was well beyond my ability to ever learn to drive a rear-engined car this quickly. There’s just something that doesn’t work in my brain when it comes to controlling a car that way.

We came back to the classroom after this for a good half hour where the instructors tried to wrap everything up, we went through a graduation ceremony (each person was announced, went up, there was applause, they got their diploma), and then much time was dedicated to explaining all of the contents of the gift bag. Strong pitch to get us to deposit $200 on the spot so we could get a 20% discount on a booking within the next year, and then most of us decided we were tired of the show.

Or, rather, we tried to leave. Once we got to the exit, the gate was closed, so we came back and had to get some instructors to take us down and out across the track to the infield exit. I should mention at this point that at several points throughout the day the instructors (specifically ‘Rick’ who was doing most of the classroom sessions) made sexist comments or made fun of homosexuals. Since our class contained both women and a gay couple, this seemed blindingly stupid beyond that it was horribly inappropriate.

All in all, I had a blast. The big take-aways for me to remember in the future are:

  1. Look where you want the car to go
  2. Remember to initiate max-steering (eg emergency lane change) weight transfer with a gentle throttle lift and not braking
  3. The magic of skid recovery is all in appropriate timing of the pause and input unwinding; steering into the skid is the easy part
  4. My brain is incompatible with a 911 at speed
  5. Buy an RS4 if you want to feel like a hero
  6. Buy an M3 if you want a brilliant driving machine

The WRX popped a CEL on the way to the track this morning, so that means I get to take it to the shop soon. Joy.