High Performance Driving Course Helps Create Roads Scholars
By Jim Bray
While 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
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
- 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 DOWN THE ROAD, NOT DOWN THE HOOD.
- 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
- 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.
- BE PATIENT
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
"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 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
"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)
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!
The 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
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
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
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
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
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
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?