Ask anyone who has been driving for 20+ years if they think they are a good driver and most likely their answer will be, “Yes!”. Commuting in traffic to work every day doesn’t necessarily make you a good driver though. When you’re first learning how to drive, time behind the wheel certainly translates to experience, but once you’re familiar with the mechanics of getting your vehicle from point A to point B, it becomes a repetitive task and no longer translates into experience. Driving for 20 years doesn’t mean you have 20 years of experience, it means you have about 1 year of experience repeated 20 times.
What does this have to do with anything? Recently there was a forum post by a father who wanted advice on which model of Genesis Coupe to get his son, 2.0T or 3.8. He wanted to get the 3.8 because it had more power from the factory, but was concerned that his son would be too eager to race, wouldn’t be able to handle the car and end up getting hurt. I quickly responded.
My response to his concern was to buy the car he really wanted to get his son, and then take him to the track and let him race it. I would give this advice to anyone. It might sound counter-intuitive that a novice driver go to a race track in a brand new car. But what better way to get experience?
When it comes to driving, going in a straight line is easy and anyone can quickly learn to do it. What isn’t easy to learn is how to handle emergency situations. Emergency situations can range from someone brake checking you, to spinning out. No matter the scenario, there are several components involved and each has problems that need to be addressed.
First is the driver (i.e. you). Drivers tend to panic at the thought of an impending crash. Panic negatively effects your reaction and reaction time. Second is the car. The car can quickly get out of the drivers control (due to environment or due to the driver). Third is other drivers.
The more time you have behind the wheel, the better you get at reading other drivers, which goes a long way to avoiding emergency situations, but it won’t help when you’re in an emergency situation.
The car. Your car.
Let’s start with the second component – the car. You ever see videos of dudes with high power cars who try showing off and end up crashing into the crowd, curb or other cars and you’re sitting there thinking, “What a moron!”. Well, it can easily happen to you too. Your input is an action and your car will respond with a reaction. Not knowing how your car will react and/or not knowing how to properly handle/correct it is what gets you into trouble.
This is where hooning comes in. You may not realize it but doing donuts, burnouts, power slides and trying to drift is more than just a childish (yet fun) activity, it’s a learning experience. A great example is doing donuts. First off, you have to learn how to get your car to break loose which is where you start to learn some of the limits of your car. You learn what the car does when it has no traction due to throttle application. Then you learn what the car does when you suddenly let off the throttle and the tires catch. That momentum causes a weight shift and you have to figure out how to not only handle the car, but to do so while being tossed around. The more you do this, the more you learn about throttle application to keep control. See? Learning can be fun!
You, the driver.
Now let’s address the driver. What do you think the typical panic response to an emergency situation is? Hard braking. When you brake hard enough, the ABS system kicks in and if you’ve never experienced it, it can be a startling experience! Trying to figure out what’s happening takes your mind off of the emergency situation that you were already trying to avoid.
Another panicked reaction is swerving, followed by over-correcting the wheel, followed by spinning out or rolling. I’ve seen it many times on the fwy.
If you remove panic from the driver, the driver is better able to focus on what needs to be done and make appropriate decisions. For example, hard braking vs powering through it. How do you remove the panic from the driver? By purposely putting them in the exact scenarios that would invoke panic of course.
This is where track days come in. Track days are pretty simple, you take your car to the track and you race around the track with other cars where you’ll experience high speed, aggressive scenarios, panic and fear. Trust me, this all goes away after the first session.
What you learn from participating in track days is how to aggressively drive your car, what the limits are, what feedback you get from the car means, what your car needs from you, how it responds to various input and how to manage high speed scenarios with other high speed traffic. This translates to experience and confidence.
One of my favorite things to do is canyon carving; I’m not a straight line kind of person. But canyon carving isn’t really the right place or time to start learning about the limits of the car. I’ve spun out a few times and I’ve been lucky that there was no damage. After just a single track day, I learned so much about my car that I was able to use when doing canyon runs that made it so much more enjoyable.
For you parents out there, I noticed that after track days I was less interested in racing on the street. I’ve heard form others that they had the same experience. If they’re doing it at the track, they won’t do it on the street. At least, that’s the theory.
Isn’t racing on the track dangerous?
In my honest opinion, going out on the freeway is far more dangerous than going out on the track. They’ll give anyone a drivers license, but after that the drivers have free reign to do whatever they want. How many times have you seen someone driving like a jerk and wished a cop was around?
When you participate in a track day, there are strict rules you have to follow. You don’t just get to go out and do what you want. Breaking rules has consequences and they watch you like hawks. Everyone else on the track with you is also required to adhere to the rules and everyone, including other drivers has safety on their mind.
Think about the other drivers for a minute. They are all there, just like you, to learn and have fun with their cars. Most of them drove their car to the event and are expecting to drive it back home. Each one of them is focused on the car, the track and the other drivers.
Most traffic on the fwy consists of people who’ve gotten comfortable doing 80mph while talking on the phone and sipping their lattes, they “know” they are good drivers. These people are dangerous.
My car isn’t ready to do a track day.
I’ve seen all sorts of cars out on the track. From brand new cars with paper plates to old, busted Hondas to super cars. Your car, assuming you haven’t done some kind of Frankenstein work on it, is track ready. You don’t need track tires, upgraded brakes, aero packages or anything else. As long as your brake pads have enough meat and your tires are safe to drive on the street, you’re ready to go.
What I’ve learned is that I’d rather have less power starting out than more power. I wasn’t able to fully handle the power I had. You aren’t going to beat any records starting out, so don’t think you have to try. The goal is to go out and have fun while learning. You aren’t trying to be the fastest person on the track. Slow is fun, trust me.
I don’t want to break my car!
Look, your car is a mechanical device. It’s going to break at some point no matter what you do or don’t do. Engines blow right off the lot. Things break. It happens. Burnouts, donuts and laps around the track are going to wear out your tires, but that’s what tires do. It’s just a matter of when.
Of course participating in aggressive driving always has risk, so the best thing you can do is to learn about your car and practice driving techniques in a safe area. Trying to power-slide around a corner in a residential area probably isn’t the best idea. If you play dumb games, you win dumb prizes.
So, should you do track days and hoon? Yes! It will make you a better driver. Worried about your kids? Take them to track day. Take them to an abandoned parking lot and let them have fun. Just don’t tell them their learning!