OSB. “Other Sports Beckon”. It’s what Skip Barber instructors reportedly used to write on the report cards of utterly feckless driving students. While the phrase may be long gone, the attitude persists among the instructing community that some people just shouldn’t be in the car. I often hear instructors at various events talking about just how horrible/dangerous/contemptible their students are. That’s not right. We are supposed to be coaching the driver to his or her best possible performance, not humiliating them by listing their flaws.
With that said, some drivers present an active danger to themselves, and to their instructors, on the racetrack. I’ve come up with a few guidelines to keep you, the reader, from becoming one of those people, should you decide to give this open-track business a whirl.
Do some reading. Everyone — and I mean everyone — who wants to set foot on a race track should read Speed Secrets by Ross Bentley. It will cost you ten bucks and possibly save your life. Read it. There will be parts about which you do not care, like the sections on passing during a race and all the parts where Ross complains about his Champ Car being a piece of junk. That’s okay. Read the whole thing. You may not understand it all. In that case, find your instructor before your first track session and ask him. Or you can contact me, personally, using the contact form at TTAC.
Practice the three phases of a corner on the street. The three phases of a corner are: brake, turn, accelerate. We don’t mix them on the racetrack unless we are working to do something very specific with the car’s balance. Practice getting all of your braking done before you turn the wheel into a corner. Don’t accelerate until your steering wheel is straightening out. In the middle of the turn, hold the throttle steady. Do it until it’s a habit. Do you want to kill yourself on a racetrack? The easiest way to do it is to steer and brake at the same time.
Learn to heel and toe, or don’t. It’s okay if you cannot heel and toe. If you cannot, we will keep you in fourth gear for the whole track. Don’t laugh. I did five full trackdays in fourth gear only when I started out. If you complain that you want to shift to “go faster”, I will explain to you that, of the forty-five seconds separating you and me around a racetrack per lap, only two of them are due to gear selection.
This is a race you cannot win. Because it isn’t a race. It’s an open lapping day. I know you will forget this. I know you want to pass people. That’s fine. If you listen to me, you will at least pass the students who ignore their instructors. Then you’ll “win”. Kind of.
Leave your friends, your significant other, and your camera at home. You cannot impress them. All street cars look slow on a racetrack. And you might kill yourself in the attempt. They can come to your first race, and you can then drive into the sand trap on Lap One because you’re so nervous about your friends being at the track.
The above is what I would tell people if they asked me about being prepared for the racetrack. However, they never do. They ask me which car they should buy/borrow/rent and bring. It doesn’t really matter. You will be slow on your first weekend, no matter if you have a Citation or a Corvette ZR1. So don’t worry about it.
That hasn’t satisfied you. You want to know what you should bring. Okay. The most important thing to do is to bring a “stock” car. Slower is better. The guy who spends all day lapping in a rented Camry finishes the day as a better driver than the one who missed two sessions fixing boost issues with his AMS Mitsubishi Evolution 1000XXX. If I could issue a car to every new trackday driver, it would probably be a four-cylinder Accord. They rarely break and you can learn a lot from the feedback provided by the controls.
I’d like you to have ESP/PSM/DSC/whatever. Some people absolutely panic and do the wrong thing on a racetrack. Normally, it’s a bad combination of brake and steering, often in the middle of a turn. ESP can sort that out most of the time. A bad driver “drives on the system”, continually overcooking into turns and brake-steering his way out with all four calipers chattering overtime from the stability system. Don’t be that guy. Use ESP as a safety net, not a crutch. Your instructor will show you how.
Some cars are exceptionally tough to learn with. My student yesterday had a Challenger SRT-8. Big, fast, two-ton cars present a lot of problems for instructors. The brakes fade without warning. The available power upsets the car and engages ESP at the slightest throttle misstep. It’s far too easy to arrive at the next corner at a deadly speed, and the student doesn’t always understand why I feel he is entering the corner too quickly.
By the end of the day, Mr. Challenger was doing just fine, but we spent two of our available four sessions fixing problems mostly brought about by the availability of 425 horsepower in the middle of a slow corner. Had he brought a Chevrolet Cobalt LS, he’d have finished the day a better driver.
I finished my day by driving the five-hundred-something miles home, arriving at 3am. In a few days I’ll be driving at a Grand-Am test day. Driving against the guys you see on Speed TV can be a bit scary. One time last year, during a Koni race, I had a GS-class Porsche run me off the end of the Climbing Esses at VIR. It was somebody I’d cheered on while watching World Challenge races. To this day, although I know I was in the right in that situation, I feel bad about it.
I thought a lot about my test day on the drive home. Long trips alone will make you think. I’m not always sure where I’m going, or why. There’s one thing I do know. For me, this is the sport that beckons.