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Most Likely to Crash on Game Day

An Inside Look at Competitive Skip Barber Race School

by John U. Bacon

Your driver's ed teacher in high school was probably a humorless, hyper-critical guy who constantly badgered you to "slow down, slow down! What'ya wanna do, get us all killed?"

Not so my instructors at the Skip Barber Racing School, who spent three days at the Waterford Race Track preparing me and 23 other competitors to compete in the Detroit Grand Prix Neon Challenge, a 30-minute race that runs Sunday morning, just a few hours before the real thing.

Our instructors were energetic, highly skilled, and professional people who are so good at what they do, they once taught a blind man how to perform a high-speed stop on a test track.

"The guy was great," said Bob Dotson, a veteran driver and the leader of the instructor pack. Turns out he's an old friend of mine--which wasn't necessarily a plus. "If we can teach a blind man to drive, Bacon, maybe, maybe, we can teach you. But I'm not making any promises."

Initially, Dotson urged me to "accelerate, accelerate! What'ya wanna do, live forever?" he quit saying that after day one. "It's good to be fearless," Dotson said, "but not if you're brainless, too."

That deadly combination explains why, if you had polled my classmates at the end of the three-day course, I'm sure they would have elected me, "Most Likely To Crash on Game Day."

Welcome to Satan's Driving Seminar.

RICH GUYS, FAST GUYS, & IDIOTS

My classmates included Channel 7's Mary Conway, WRIF's Bob Kostan, and AutoWeek editor-in-chief Sam Moses, who once wrote a book about amateur racers titled, "Rich Guys, Fast Guys, and Idiots." Guess which category I'm in?

Although I had driven over a quarter-million miles before entering the Barber course, in just three days I was forced to re-think everything I thought I knew about driving. I also had to break a lifetime of lazy habits. I'm normally so distracted behind the wheel that friends have taken to calling me Mr. Magoo.

Other drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, but my eyes wander aimlessly while my hands busy themselves with the radio, the wipers, and the ketchup I'm putting on my cheeseburger, and my right knee handles the steering. I keep track of my progress on the road with occasional "updates" to discover where my car is headed, and what might be in its way. Sometimes it's really interesting, what you can see when you look up.

From day one of the school all that changed--and fast. Before taking the course, I knew racing was dangerous, but I didn't realize how difficult it was to do well. Funny how spending three days screaming the tires around a racetrack with disaster around every one of its 16-turns can heighten your appreciation for such things.

REINVENTING THE WHEEL

Dotson and his staff had to re-teach us how to do everything, including braking, turning, and shifting gears. They also taught us how to get out of disaster once you've already gotten in it--but not all of us picked up the finer points of that lesson.

We started out learning how to brake, which isn't as simple as it sounds. They told us to forget about pumping the brakes in favor of consistent, hard braking, just short of locking them up. It's much more efficient--if you can do it.

Most of us couldn't. I tended to skid, then let up too much, then jump on the brakes too hard again. My car sounded like it was scratching out the morse code for S-O-S in squealing rubber.

The ever-helpful Dotson gave me two tips. "One, stay cool. Two, buy golf clubs."

Before I could run off to the nearest golf course, we learned about turning. Obviously, the goal here is to maximize speed through the turn without losing control. The Idiot (me), thinks you do this by diving into the turn as directly as you can, as quickly as you can.

Wrong on both counts. A good racer transforms a pointy 90-degree turn into a soft, wide arc. On a right to left turn, for example, the wise driver veers his car as far to the right as possible before the turn, and keeps it there for as long as possible. While still in the straightaway, he gets all his braking done, and then hits the gas before finally turning the car left toward the inside of the curve.

If the goal is speed, it sounds counter-intuitive to slow down that much before turning, but Dotson told us not to worry about our speed entering the turn, but our speed exiting it. In this pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later bargain, it's better to sacrifice speed coming into the corner than coming out of it.

Just because your brain buys into it, doesn't meet your guts will.

Once we got the hang of high-speed turning, we moved on to down-shifting, racing style. This entails hitting the brake, the clutch, and the gas simultaneously, to avoid lurching forward on the downshift.

My problem was simple: like most standard cars, the Neon is equipped with three pedals, but, like most standard humans, I am equipped with only two feet to press them.

The answer to this biological deficiency is found in the fancy heel-toe footwork professional drivers can do in their sleep, which allows your right foot do two things at once, like so: When entering the turn, hit the brakes with your right toe, press the clutch in with your left foot, then rev the gas pedal with the heel of your right foot (keeping your right toe on the brake) while shifting the gear with your right hand. Once you complete the shift, get your left foot off the clutch and your right hand off the stick shift and then smoothly pivot your right toe from the brake onto the gas--and do it all in about a second, without crashing.

If it's difficult to understand, I found it much harder to do. It's like trying to rub your stomach while patting your head, playing hacky-sack, calling information, and filing your taxes without an extension. I felt like I'd entered some diabolical game of hokey-pokey--with death as the consolation prize.

If you sat in the passenger seat while I attempted this high-speed feat of coordination, you'd think I had given up racing altogether to act out the term "spastic" in a high-speed game of charades.

After countless tries, I finally got through a turn without sending the rpm through the roof or my head through the windshield. But, instead of complimenting my herculean effort, Dotson had the nerve to yell, "Relax your hands! You've got a gorilla grip on the steering wheel!"

I suppose he had a point. Looking down, I noticed my knuckles weren't merely white, they were welded shut. When I finally got out of the car, unrolling my hands created so much cracking it sounded like I was making popcorn.

By the second day we were all starting to get it, even me. When I did it right--veer to the outside, keep it straight, brake-clutch-gas-shift-off the clutch, off the stick shift-more gas-now turn into the corner--it created a satisfyingly seemless run through.

At one point, Dotson was even moved to compliment my work--an uncharacteristic error he soon regretted.

GOING FOR A SPIN

After hearing Dotson's kind words, I figured whatever I was doing right would be even better if I did it faster.

Despite a heavy rain, I was feeling good as I sped up to pass a driver heading into a tight right-hand turn. I didn't hear the voice in my head that was repeating all the things Dotson and the boys had been telling me all day, like: "If all four wheels are on water, you're just a passenger, along for the ride," and "the biggest mistake is heading into a corner too soon or too fast."

So great was my esteem for Mr. Dotson that I wanted to prove him correct on all three points.

When I saw that the guy in front of me wasn't letting up enough for me to pass him, the smart thing to do would have been to wait and pass him on the next turn. But I wasn't out to do the smart thing. I was out to do the dumb thing, and as fast as possible.

I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Finally recognizing that I was in too fast and too deep, I cranked the steering wheel even harder to the right, which put me into a vicious spin. Now, some guys can pull a 180, and a few might be good for a 360--but how many can pull a 720?

You're talking to one of the few, the proud. As my car whipped itself around in a circle, my life went before my eyes on the first rotation--then went before my eyes again on the second. Same life, two showings. As I watched my relatively boring life for the second time, it occurred to me that I need to get out more.

Perhaps calmed by the mundane vision, I was surprisingly cool after my spin out. I put the car back in gear, and finished my laps.

Conway thought my calm response was pretty cool, but after my second spin-out, she found it odd, and after I pulled the trick a third time, you could tell she was getting a little alarmed.

Dotson must have agreed with her. After the most glorious spin--doing about 60 mph in a 90-degree turn--he sent another driver to take me out to examine the scene of the mishap, much the way you rub a dog's nose in his own urine to get him to stop.

It worked.

In the process, I've gained a new appreciation not only for the dangers of auto racing, but how difficult it is to do well. You can be driving in a competent manner lap after lap, but one lapse in concentration and--zip--there you are, going for a spin.

But the real test will be Sunday morning.

In his send-off to the class, Dotson waved his arms over all his students and said, "Everyone here will be your best friends--at the start of the race. After that, everyone in this room turns into monsters. Happens every year."

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