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High Performance Driving Course Helps Create Roads Scholars

By Jim Bray

Students park in anticipation of a high speed weekendWhile some may consider enrolling in a performance driving course succumbing to a mid-life crisis, or having a Walter Mitty weekend, it's actually a valuable experience from which every driver can benefit.

I speak from experience, because I recently completed my first such course and the smile has yet to fade from my sunburned face.

Okay, it's a lot of fun, too.

The weekend of adventure and education came courtesy of the annual Competition and High Performance Driving School sponsored by the Calgary Sports Car Club and hosted at Calgary's Race City Motorsports Park. The two day course is designed for anyone interested in improving his driving skills, including those whose sights are set on actually becoming a race car driver.

Which is probably just about any red blooded guy, though there was a substantial female contingent of students as well, and the students ranged in age from teenage to senior citizen. The thing we all had in common was an interest in learning to control a vehicle the best way possible, under the most trying conditions.

And you get to try those conditions, too!

Driving Home New Knowledge:

Schools like the one offered in late April, 2002, by the Calgary Sports Car Club are an excellent way to enhance your driving skills. Here are some "driving truths" the author learned at the course:

  • PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SEATING POSITION. 2 hands on the steering wheel, positioned at 9 and 3 o'clock. Arms and legs should be slightly bent and your feet should be able to press the pedals to the floor without undue stretching.
  • "pull" the steering wheel to turn the car. This means put the most effort into the hand on the side of the turn, pulling the steering wheel downward rather than "pushing" it upward with the other hand.
  • LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO. If you're trying to avoid an obstacle, don't stare at the obstacle but rather at the clear space where you want the car to be.
  • Rear View Mirror Adjustment: inside mirror should frame the rear window as much as possible. Adjust side mirrors outward so you have to physically move your head sideways to see the side of your vehicle. This gives a better view backward and to the sides and eliminates blind spots and the need to shoulder check.
  • Squeeze the brakes, don't stomp on them. Ease up to the threshold of lockup to allow steering while you brake. Squeeze off the brakes as well.
  • BE SMOOTH, DELICATE AND EFFICIENT. This applies to throttle, braking and steering motions. The smoother you are, the happier the car will be - and the better driving performance you'll get.
  • "Get your work done before you turn." This means you should do your braking and shifting before you enter a turn. Apply neutral throttle into the turn and accelerate out of it.
  • LOOK TO YOURSELF FIRST. Pay attention to how you drive. The car is gravy.
  • There is an optimum line around any race track (this can also be applied, to a certain extent, to the street)
  • Vehicle placement is critical; inches matter.
  • Each car has a tendency to either understeer or oversteer.
    • Understeer is when the car feels as if it won't turn enough and wants to slide straight off the outside of the turn.
    • Oversteer feels as if the car wants to spin or swap ends. Learn your car's characteristics and how to optimize them.

Day One, Saturday, April 27, 2002, dawned in this city located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with a temperature of about -4 degrees Celsius (approximately 25 degrees Fahrenheit) and perhaps a half inch of snow on the ground. This did not bode well for much more than practicing skids (which is fine!) and shivering in the chilly air. And when we arrived and parked our cars on the half mile oval portion of the racing facility it didn't look as if there'd be too much excitement that day other than the laughs generated as we slipped on the high banked asphalt and slid downward on our collective butts. I didn't actually see anyone take a dive, but it was purely luck that I remained standing.

About forty wannabes had registered and riding herd on us were nearly that many instructors, all of whom were volunteers. The instructors were a friendly and happy lot and we were quickly put at ease and made to feel as comfortable as possible under the less than ideal circumstances.

First up was a tech inspection where our cars were checked out to ensure they were safe and up to snuff for the coming mechanical ordeal. It was also our opportunity to remove anything from the car that might become airborne during the coming maneuvers.

It was an eclectic mix of vehicles we were about to start tossing around. I was driving my son's 2000 Honda Prelude SH (otherwise I'd have showed up in a '92 Corolla which, as good as it is, would have been like taking a ham sandwich to a banquet); also on hand were a couple of current vintage Pontiac Grand Ams, Ford Mustangs of varying generations, a VW Jetta or two, a Nissan Sentra, a coupla Subarus and Corvettes - and the more sublime Honda S2000, BMW M3 and M5, Porsche Boxsters and 911's.

But as the instructors stressed over and over, the course wasn't about the cars. Rather, it was about the most important part of a car: the nut behind the wheel, a universal part regardless of marque.

We were separated into two groups; I was in Group B, relegated to a freezing cold classroom while those damn Group A people went directly to the skidpad. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because we got to learn the theories behind what we were going to attempt before attempting them, whereas Group A got the theoretical stuff retroactively.

The objectives were to emphasize safety on the road and the track, to teach us the basics of high performance and competition driving (Yes!), and to enhance our driving skills (or, perhaps, to impart some…). If we learned well, we could then qualify for a racing license.

There was one other objective, too: HAVE FUN! They didn't really need to tell us this one, though; I can't imagine anyone not leaving the event with a smile on his face - and every student to whom I spoke had an excellent time.

Perhaps the most important points stressed both in the classroom and on the track were two things: Attitude and patience. Attitude, in that we were there to learn; so-called know-it-alls would not benefit from the course.

Patience was the part I had the most trouble with (just ask my wife!). What they meant is that you shouldn't try to go as fast as possible right off the bat, but to learn to operate your vehicle properly, develop a "feel" for it and how it performs at its limits. As you get better, the speed will increase on its own - with assistance from your right foot on the accelerator, of course.

Becoming a Roads Scholar

One of the first things taught was how to sit in the driver's seat and how to adjust your rear view mirrors.

I've always driven with my hands at "ten and two o'clock" on the steering wheel (the way I was taught when I first learned to drive), but they should be at nine and three - and kept there lest you succumb to the unwanted condition of "shuffle knuckles" (moving your hands around on the wheel) and thereby earn a visit from the "shuffle knuckle whacker," a long stick wielded by a smiling instructor. I never actually saw the knuckle whacker whack anyone's knuckles (and I suspect it never did), but the point was made.

Why keep your hands in one place? Because once you've moved them you've lost your connection with where your front wheels are pointing - and this can be dangerous! This doesn't apply to low speed maneuvers such as pulling into a driveway or steering through a parking lot, but once you get moving it's logical and necessary.

And two hands on the wheel! This means no driving with your arm resting on the window sill or your hand dangling over the gear shift. After all, driving is a full time job.

You should also position your driver's seat so that you can press the clutch to the floor comfortably and still keep your knee slightly bent; if you have an automatic transmission, set the seat so you can stretch your right foot to the floor behind the pedals comfortably, with knee slightly bent.

Mirrors? Our instructors admitted that this is a controversial area, with some "official bodies" recommending that you place the outside mirrors so you can just see the sides of your car. This is how I've always done it, shoulder checking every time I change lanes to ensure there's nothing in the blind spots. But, they asked, when was the last time you were hit by the side of your own car?

So move the side mirrors outward (the inside mirror should frame the entire rear window, or as much of it as possible) so you have to tilt your head to the side to see your car's flank. This gives you a much broader view behind and makes shoulder checking (which, they pointed out, encourages swerving) unnecessary.

The new mirror placement makes sense, and it works, but it's really hard to unlearn something I've been doing for decades!

We also covered topics such as braking (more about that later) and track/pit/paddock safety, including the variety of colored flags you can expect to see waved as you streak around the racetrack.

Then we hit the track!

Lining up for the SkidpadThe Oval Office…

The rest of the morning was spent studying how to lose control (of a car) and the proper way to see the world around you.

This was done via skidpad exercises where we learned our vehicles' limits and how to exploit/control them (called "weight transfer" exercises), and on the oval where we learned the proper way to look out of the windshield.

First up was the "Double J," which taught us about understeer and oversteer - and how to recover when your vehicle decides it wants to head somewhere you don't want it to. This was fun!

The Double J is two curving "roadways" formed by plastic cones, one of which curves left and one of which goes to the right. We were tasked with barreling through the cones at increasing speeds, forcing our cars to understeer and oversteer until we lost control.

I had a little trouble here because I thought the idea was to miss the cones until my instructor told me bluntly to get out there and knock over some cones. So I did.

What a rush! But nothing compared to what was coming.

The Double J's taught us skid recovery, something I've practiced in parking lots for years, much to my wife's chagrin! But doing it with instructors who explained the proper techniques and rationales put a whole new perspective on it.

Then we went snaky.

You may have seen the serpentine course during car reviews on TV shows. It's a line of cones through which you slalom your car, trying to avoid knocking any of the little plastic buggers over. This teaches you where the corners of your car are, encourages smoothness (one of the most important lessons taught) and drives home the advice to "look where you want to go."

"Look where you want to go" means you shouldn't look down the hood of your car, but at the road ahead in the distance. This lets you see what's happening far enough in front of you to allow for extra warning about any funny (or dangerous) stuff that may be ahead.

Why? According to our instructors, some 80% of accidents could be avoided if drivers had one extra second of warning. This makes sense.

Looking "where you want to go" also means if you see a road hazard (whether it be an accident, pot hole, or whatever) you should look "around it," to the clear road on which you want to drive rather than at the hazard; staring at the hazard is a good way to hit it.

So in the serpentine you aren't supposed to watch the cones, but farther down the "road." This is a tad freaky at first, since your gut feeling is that if you want to avoid the cones you need to see where they are.

But it works! The cones stay in your peripheral vision, and it's a simple matter to slalom between them without knocking any of them over. Well, usually!

I also discovered, and this also proved true the next day on the road course, that when I thought too much about it - and worried too much about it - I didn't do as well as when I relaxed and concentrated more on smoothness and consistency than on the cones.

Or, as Obi-wan Kenobi said "Use the Force!" And the more you practice, the better you get and the faster you can go.

In the afternoon we took this a step further. They increased the space between the cones, which meant we could go faster, and an instructor stood at the opposite end of the serpentine holding two cones. As we zipped through the circuit, he'd hold up a cone pointing left or right, and when we saw it we'd have to stay to that side of the cones until he dropped it again, whereupon we'd resume the slalom.

This meant that if you concentrated on the cones, and weren't "looking where you want to go," you'd miss the instructions and feel much shame when you reached the guy with the cones. And you'd deserve it.

Across the Threshold…

Then we learned threshold braking, which is where you squeeze the brake pedal until the wheels approach - but don't cross the "threshold" of - lockup. Threshold braking allows you to steer while braking; it also helps prevent you from putting a flat spot on your tires from locking the wheels.

Antilock braking systems do this automatically (which can be a dangerous thing on snow and ice!), which is why they recommended we disable the ABS if we could. Fortunately, my son has no use for ABS (he feels - and I tend to agree with him - that if the ABS needs to kick in you aren't doing your job as a driver) and had already done that.

The exercise saw us tear-assing in a straight line toward an instructor (who had probably drawn the short straw), then braking when we reached a pair of cones. If we locked the wheels up the car was basically out of control, but if we used the braking threshold properly the stops were smooth, straight and comfortable.

Then we tried it again, but this time when we reached the braking point the instructor would point to the left or right, and we'd have to bring the car to a stop while effectively changing lanes at the same time. If you locked up the brakes it wouldn't work well, but if you used threshold braking it was a piece of cake.

The day's final driving exercise was on a "small oval" of cones where we learned how to drive the racing line with increasing/decreasing radius turns. This meant getting as close to the cone at the "turn in point" (the point at the end of the straight section, at the outside edge of the track, where you begin to turn) and as close as possible to the cone at the turn's apex (the "peak point" of the turn, where your car gets closest to the inside edge of the track).

This was the most fun yet because it almost felt like racing on the track. It made me want to take a few laps on the full oval. But it was not to be.

Sunday Morning Getting Down…

We hit the track about 9 a.m. Sunday, each group taking an opposite end of the long road course (which is basically a series of deliciously twisty bits joined by two long straightaways) and familiarized ourselves with the challenges that awaited us.

My group started off at the North end with its "concrete canyon" of curves bounded by concrete walls I hoped wouldn't leave their calling cards on my son's car. We also practiced threshold braking and the serpentine cones again. And we practiced driving "the line," the optimum path around the race track that would let us navigate the turns with the maximum speed.

Who's Who on the Track?

Most of the volunteer instructors for the Calgary Sports Car Club course are accomplished sports car racers and members of four Alberta sports Car Clubs under the auspices and sanctioned by WCMA ASN CANADA FIA.

The driving school itself was organized by Rick Coutts and Gary Leadbetter from the Calgary
Sports Car Club, but according to Leadbetter none of the weekend's extravaganza could have happened without the support of the dedicated instructors from the Northern Alberta Sports Car Club (NASCC), the Alberta Race Car Workers Association (ARCWA), Calgary Sports Car Club (CSCC), the Calgary Vintage Racing Club, and the Calgary BMW club.

Also while we were lapping up the road course on the Sunday, the volunteer course workers (ARCWA) were going through their annual school and training exercises (communications, flagging , etc.). These were the people waving all that fabric at us as we whizzed by them, often blissfully unaware of what they were doing (much to our instructors' chagrin).
Many of these flaggers often end up flagging at Formula one races and CART races.

Then we hit the road course in its entirety.

This was definitely the highlight of the weekend. First, our instructors took over the driver's seat and demonstrated the proper line. Then it was our turn to put our learning into practice with some practice laps.

Patience was encouraged and we were advised not to worry about hitting our top speed right off the bat, but rather to practice the line at a speed with which we were comfortable.

After lunch, during which most of us wrote an exam to help us qualify for our racing licenses, we went out for more sessions with speeds gradually allowed to increase to 160 km/h (approximately 100 m.p.h.). My instructor went ahead of me in his vehicle for a couple of laps, to lead me through the proper line, then he got back into "my" car and we took off again together.

It was amazing, though perhaps not surprising, how the comfort level rose with each lap until, by the end of the day, that Prelude was giving everything of which she was capable. And she was quite capable; by the time we hit the braking point at the end of the long main straight-away we were doing close to 200 km/h (approximately 120 m.p.h.) and the engine was nearing its red line in fourth gear.

I never did get the line correct on every turn of every lap, though if there'd been more time I'm sure it would have come (practice makes perfect); I'd generally blow one turn or another, which translated into blowing the next couple of turns as well as I struggled to get back onto the line.

We also tried three simulated race "starts," where the field of cars lines up two abreast behind the pace car. We were instructed to stay close together and in pairs, though it didn't always work out that way and we ended up doing a few extra laps while the stragglers got into line.

This really felt like racing, even though the actual race from the green flag was only about a quarter of a mile down the main straight-away. It was quite an eye-opener, too; I was lined up behind a Pontiac Grand Am (which has a rather large rear end when it's only about five feet in front of you and you're in a smaller car) and it blocked my view of the Starter so much that I couldn't see when the "race" went green; the only indication was that, suddenly, everyone was accelerating to beat the band and all hell broke lose.

Still, that was a pretty good hint, so I tromped the gas and took off.

We finished the day with more laps, though not nearly as many as I'd have liked. I had to come in early because the Prelude's gas tank was about to tank, or so it seemed. Amazing how quickly that gauge moves toward empty when the Honda VTEC engine's revs are high and the VTEC variable valve timing is engaged! Might as well have been driving a V12!

Speaking of large engines, or at least of high horsepower, the most frustrating thing about free lapping is screaming down the straight-away at the limit of the car, then seeing a BMW M5 or Porsche 911 approaching from behind and blowing by you so quickly you think you're standing still. But what can you do?

After all was said and done we were given a certificate proudly proclaiming our participation and went on our various ways with visions of checkered flags and the smell of gasoline uppermost in our minds.

What did I get out of the weekend? Well, besides an incredible rush (pun intended), I learned some new skills that will make me a better driver, and that made it extremely worthwhile.

So worthwhile, in fact, that I'd recommend to anyone interested in being the best you can be that you take such a course if there's one offered in your area.

I'll even go farther than that: I believe such a high performance driving course should be mandatory before anyone is allowed a driver's license. If there were better drivers on the road, people who actually know how to handle a car, accidents would surely go down and lives would be saved.

And doesn't that make it worthwhile?


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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