Friday, April 14, 2006

Intro to High Performance Driving

Every weekend, all across the country, there are thousands of folks who pack up and head for the racetrack. They are not going to watch, but rather to learn how to drive better. Here's a faq-like intro to this highly addicting sport:

Q: Is it dangerous?
A: I find driving to work in the morning more dangerous. Danger on a road is often directly proportional to how predictable the drivers around you are. On the track, I know where the cars in front of me are going to be, and the cars behind me know where I'll be too, so we're all pretty predictable. Predictable == safe. It's possible to be a danger to yourself, but that's true of any endeavor.

Q: Is it expensive to do?
A: In the beginning, no. Around $300 per weekend, plus the cost of a hotel room and food and fuel. I burn around 20 gallons of premium a day at the track, but when I started, it was more like 10. $500 or so is a pretty cheap weekend, as getaways go.

Q: Are you racing?
A: Nope. Racing means that there is a winner, and that passing on the track is unrestricted. It also generally means that the event is timed, and that normal car insurance will not cover you if you beef it. In the typical HPDE (High Performance Driving Event), passing is restricted to straightaways, and is always indicated by the car being passed. There are no timers, and no losers. Insurance generally covers the participants, though check your policy before you go.

Q: Can you pass other cars?
A: Yes. It works like this: If you are close behind another car, and clearly faster (it's obvious most of the time), the driver in front is supposed to stick their arm out the window and indicate (by pointing) which side they want you to pass on. When you see that sign (called a "point by"), and you are in a passing zone, you're clear to pass. The passee generally also lifts on the throttle, so the passing car has an easier time of it.

Q: If you're not racing, what's the point?
A: I think it's different for everyone, but here are some reasons I've heard:
"I bought a new car, and it scared me because it's faster than anything I've ever owned."
"I want to be more confident behind the wheel, after my wreck".
"I want my child to be as safe as possible on the road, and Driver's Education wasn't doing it".
"I want to learn if I can go fast, because I might want to race one day".
"I'm a paralyzed from the waist down, and this is a sport where that doesn't matter".
"It's fun!"
"This car deserves to be on the track!"

Q: How does going around in circles teach you to drive better?
A: Ah, we don't go in circles. Oval track driving is actually a good bit more dangerous than road course driving, because there is a wall on the outside if the track. The tracks we drive on are many turns, left and right, with elevation changes and so forth. Like a twisty country road, but paved. They are designed to be challenging to drive, and there is generally plenty of run-off space if you spin.

Q: How is this different from AutoCross?
A: Autocross (or "Solo" competition in SCCA) is a competition, basically a time trial where one car takes the track at a time, and speeds are relatively low. It's possible to do AutoCross in any large paved place, and cones mark the course. HPDEs are not timed, and there are many cars on the course at a time. Speeds at HPDEs are also higher; AutoCross should not go over 80 MPH and the courses are under one mile in length (for low speed).

Q: How fast have you gone?
A: I get that one alot. Honestly, it doesn't matter. I've never topped out the car, that's for sure. My car tops out at 173 MPH. Every track is different, and some are faster than others. Speeds over 100 MPH are common. I've gone as fast as I could and keep the car under control given the conditions on the track.

Q: Do you run in the rain?
A: Yep. Rain is an excellent teaching tool. After all, you drive to work in the rain, right? So, if you drive on the track in the rain, you will be forced to drive more smoothly, and react calmly to sudden events, which will make you a safer driver on the street in bad weather. Cars are more stable on wet pavement than people realize, but only if you drive smooth.

Q: How does the school work?
A: Lots of different schools out there, and lots of different ways to teach, but I can tell you how The Driver's Edge works. You drive your own car, so you can learn on a familiar platform. There are four "run sessions" per day, about 30 minutes each. You are grouped with drivers of similar skill in one of four "run groups". Green is novice, Blue is intermediate, Yellow is advanced and Red is Expert. There is a fifth group, made up of instructors. There are classroom "chalk talks" between each run session, to talk over technique. You have an instructor in the car with you, telling you how to get the most out of your car and the track. The instructors will gladly drive your car if you want to see an example of what it can really do, and most of them have race cars that you can ride in to see how one of those works. The instructors are paid in track time. They come instruct, and get to run four or so sessions on the track for free. It's a good deal if you have the level of skill needed to instruct.

Q: Do I need a modded car?
A: No. Most cars can move around a track MUCH faster than you'd think, and the physics of four wheels is the same, roughly, for all. You can run pump gas, as fuel at the track is notoriously expensive.

Q: What do I need to go do this?
A: The most important thing to bring is a good attitude. If you come ready to learn, you're on the right track. Second is a tech-checked car. Nothing is more frustrating than to get to the event and miss a run session because of a mechanical. Make sure the car includes a helmet, or rent one at the track. Lastly, bring water. Driving this way dehydrates you. A dehydrated driver is an unsafe driver, as your brain simply doesn't process as fast when it's parched.


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