Confessions Of A Reluctant Hoon

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman

I am that oddball of pistonhedonism who has never lusted for speed. In fact, caution genes run in my family. To wit: my parents installed seatbelts in the ‘57 Chevy in 1960, eight years before they became mandatory in new cars. Our ‘65 404 was probably the first Peugeot station wagon in all of France to have rear shoulder belts. My father, an academic economist, showed the men at the factory how to install them. I didn’t get tagged for speeding until I was just shy of 40, and that for doing all of 35 in Rock Creek Park. (Gail Wilensky, the Porsche driving head of Medicare under George H.W. Bush, was hitching a ride downtown with me in my then 16 year old Toyota Corolla with the busted window from a smash & grab, but that’s another story.)

So my first trip to Skip Barber, at Lime Rock, amidst the bucolic Berkshires, mixed excitement with trepidation. I longed to drive fun cars, but racing made me nervous. I told the instructors I would likely be the slowest driver. Here I was, after all, a medical and science writer who did cars on the side, among a coterie of dedicated automotive journalists on a New England Motor Press junket. “Don’t worry,” an instructor said. “A lot of people who come here thinking they are Mario Andretti are slow.”

We began with classroom, where we learned turn-ins and apexes, and to look as far ahead as possible, as when you see where you are going, you tend to get there expeditiously, and safely. We studied how the area of contact patches changes with acceleration, braking, and cornering, and how this could help us achieve the best performance while avoiding oversteer and spins.

Then we donned red monkey suits and full-faced motorcycle helmets, and strapped ourselves practically supine into formula cars (open wheel racers) with five point harnesses that bit into our shoulders and crotches. In groups of four or five formula cars spaced several car lengths apart, we ran the 1.5 mile track, following an instructor in a Mazda3 pace car, like baby ducklings trailing the mother.

The open-wheel racers are no frills. The steering mechanism, and the helm itself look like a toddler’s pedal car gone heavy duty. You have to wrestle the wheel to steer. There is no power anything. But 135 horse Neon engines (150 HP on the latest Skip Barber Formula cars) can really move a 1,100 lb vehicle.

After several circuits, the pace cars picked up speed, dragging me well out of my comfort zone, the concrete roaring by several inches below my derriere, my gut near certain we were doing 80-90. Yet the Mazda3s barely leaned in the turns, suggesting to my intellect that our speed was far slower than it felt, and that at these speeds, we had no need to visualize our contact patches in order to remain securely planted. But since when does my gut listen to my intellect? (The instructors later informed us that we barely broke 60.)

Soon I lagged. As we approached the pits, an instructor waved me and two other guys in. We were now the slow group.

But later, when they timed us doing autocross in the F1s, one of the instructors

gave me a cornering tip that boosted my speed, and when we were done, I discovered that I had actually reached the lower end of the middle of the pack. On my way home that evening, I realized that for the first time in my adult life, I had learned a new physical skill. I wanted more.

Two years later, in mid-September, I take the two day Advanced Driving program. We begin with emergency maneuvers. You can avoid trouble either by driving around it, or by stopping in time, or both, we are told. But cars, like humans, are lousy multitaskers, and so the object was to do one thing at a time. But the H. sapiens default response to an obstacle emergency is to jam the brakes and steer at the same time. We practice. Some of us kill a few cones, all of which are named for beloved iconic animals like Bambi and Bullwinkle. But we learn.

Next is skid control. We round a wet skidpad in RX-8s tuned to let go, with excessive toe-out and small rear wheels. And skid they do. We wrestle the wheel, spin a few times, and soon we’re gaining control.

Then it’s off to the track. I grab a Cayman, fall in behind my fellows and the instructor, and soon we’re hitting 90 in the straightaways, braking and rounding the apexes and accelerating, just like they taught us. The Porsche feels firmly planted, the steering precise and sensitive, the car perfectly responsive to my every command, as if it were an extension of my Olympic quality body.

I have known near-bliss behind the wheel: my first legal drive, the 35 miles from the Hyannis RMV to Wellfleet in the four-on-the-tree Peugeot, my reluctant Mother gaining such confidence in my skills that she let me keep driving after we reached the chaotic Route 6 at the Orleans rotary; and several trips on Skyline atop the Shenandoahs between Charlottesville and Route 66 where the road snakes from gorgeous view to gorgeous view and the switchgear is my best friend. But as I round the various turns at Lime Rock, skating on the edge of my comfort zone, yet secure in the knowledge that if I screw up, electronic stability control will save my sorry behind, I realize that no nonsexual physical activity has ever felt this good, and that I have actually reached automotive Nirvana.

All too soon, with a signal from the instructor, it is over. Time to change cars. In my bliss, I open a Lexus IS-F thinking its an M3, wondering what a prindl is doing on the center console. All too late, I realize my mistake. The M3s are taken.

At speeds where the Cayman was in its element, the Lexus is out of its depth. There is, to be sure, a musical burble and muscular torque, but the tracking is notchy, the car slightly wobbly, the steering numb, and the slip angle unsubtle. That wonderful oneness of man and machine is gone. Oh, Stuttgart!

The next day, it’s back to the track, and this time I grab an M3. Before I know it, we’re in triple digits, and I’m pouring my brain into concentrating, yet struggling less than successfully to keep up. I’m way out of my comfort zone, driving so hard that the M3 no longer feels as if on rails.

Moreover, I’m tossing two tons of fine machinery hither and yon as if I were a storm with a name, and as each twist approaches and passes with brake, steer, and hit it, the little voice inside my head goes “Jesus Christ!” as my gut thinks my intellect has gone batty to allow such a combination of automotive abuse and dangerous driving to take place. I am reminded of Paul Russell’s lament at having raced a Mercedes Gullwing he had restored in the 1986 Monterey Historic Races, 10 laps at Laguna Seca. “A good race driver always has the gas pedal or the brake pedal floored,” he told me. “I put the equivalent of five thousand miles’ worth of wear on the car in just that one race.”

Next, we head to the autocross. Once again I’m driving an M3, this time with an instructor shotgun to hone my technique. I’m still throwing the car around, but with increasing dexterity. This is not the sheer bliss of yesterday’s romp in the Cayman, but the learning is more deeply satisfying.

Skip Barber is not just about speed. It’s partly about finesse. In another

exercise, we do time trials around a course of cones in Mazda3s custom-equipped with a bowl on the hood, and a tennis ball in the bowl, attached by a string. If the ball lifts off, the driver must stop, and replace it. There is nothing so funny as watching some poor slob hopping out of the car, and reaching out over the hood for that elusive sphere from behind the door. It’s pure slapstick. Watching this exercise is more fun than driving it.

In my last circuit, I’m really cooking, and then, as I round the last cone, that blasted ball bounces out, and now it’s my turn to be the butt of nyuck nyuck nyuck. If only the stupid ball had stayed put, I’d have won the time trials, the instructor informs me when I reach the gate. As a Bostonian who can remember everything from 1968’s blown series until the Curse was lifted in 2004, I could claim philosophically to have a deep understanding of the frustrations of the human condition, and blather on about building character. But I’ve been having far too much fun to care.

David C. Holzman
David C. Holzman

I'm a freelance journalist covering science, medicine, and automobiles.

More by David C. Holzman

Join the conversation
2 of 15 comments
  • TomRathje TomRathje on Oct 15, 2009

    David, I had to really laugh out loud reading this. Taking the class with you was an absolute joy. Having been there, I think you did a great job capturing the moment. However, one needs to be there to truly experience it. Tom R. Chelmsford

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Oct 16, 2009

    thanks Tom! David

  • Scott So they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and they are promising us a “Cheaper EV”? I wonder how that will look and feel? They killed the Fiesta because they claimed that they couldn’t make a profit on them and when I bought the first one in late 2010 they couldn’t deliver the accessories I wanted for it! Then I bought a 2016 Fiesta ST and again couldn’t get the accessories for it I wanted. They claimed that the components were going to be available, eventually. So they lost on that one as well! I don’t care about what they say anymore. I’ve moved on to another brand.
  • Michael S6 CX 70 or 90 will not be on my buying list. Drove a rental base CX 90 and it was noisy and the engine noise was not pleasant. Ride was rough for a family SUV. Mazda has to understand that what is good for Miata isn't what we expect in semi luxury SUV. My wife's 2012 Buick Enclave has much better Ride and noise level albeit at worse gas millage. Had difficulty pairing my phone with Apple CarPlay
  • Michael S6 What is the metric conversion between one million barrels and the number of votes he expects to buy.
  • NJRide This could give Infiniti dealers an extra product maybe make it a sub brand
  • Lou_BC Mr. Posky outraged over an old guy passing er releasing some gas. How are those sedan sales going?