Trackday Diaries: The Vision Thing.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
trackday diaries the vision thing

My 28-month-old son is a visionary. He can see things other people can’t. By “other people”, I mean “me”. He will point to the sky and say “airplane”. I see a dot that doesn’t look like an airplane to me until I realize it’s moving. He is currently very interested in garbage trucks, and he will call out “GARRTRUCK!” when the vehicle in question is swimming in the distant summer mirage of a flat Ohio freeway. I’m encouraging this interest, by the way. Trash-truck guys in New York City earn $144,000 a year. He can play a Fender Rhodes piano all night in the Village and collect garbage all morning if he wants to.

Honestly, I’d rather he be a garbageman than a race car driver. I don’t know if there will be much racing going on sixteen years from now. It probably won’t be like what we have now, with thousands of middle-class guys burning 200-300 gallons a NASA/SCCA/LeMons weekend in tow and race fuel and another few hundred millionaires running Grand-Am and ALMS. I’m not even sure how much driving we will have sixteen years from now.

Regardless, on the assumption that he is likely to drive a car at some point, I talk to him while we drive places, about what to look for, what to look at, what to deliberately ignore. It’s partially for his safety, although I don’t think driver “education” makes a huge difference in one’s chances in the big Auto Death Lottery. It’s partially so he will get places faster and with less stress. It’s partially so he will enjoy driving a bit, even if he chooses not to do it in a competitive or even aggressive fashion. And since I wish the same for all of you, I will tell you what I tell him, as we roll down the road in our broken-nosed Town Car.

“Look up! Look ahead!” Every driving instructor will tell you to “look up.” What does it really mean? Imagine you are driving down an arrow-straight freeway. Where should your eyes and attention be? Here’s a quick guide: If you can tell what state the license plates on the cars you’re watching are from, you’re not looking far enough ahead. If you can read the plates, even if you have 20/15 eyesight, you’re really screwing it up. You should be looking so far ahead that you should be proud of yourself for identifying what make and model of car you’re seeing.

I know why you’re not doing it, by the way. You think that if you “zone out” to the edge of your vision, you won’t see the things that are near, and dangerous, and happening quickly. That’s wrong. Your peripheral vision, which often has a quicker route to your brain, will see it. Furthermore, you aren’t just zoning out at the vanishing point…

“Look around!” How do you see, really? I bet you don’t know. Here’s a hint: Your eyes can’t see your entire field of vision at once. Unusually for a Wiki page, the visual saccades entry is very good:

Humans and many other animals do not look at a scene in fixed steadiness (as opposed to e.g., most birds); instead, the eyes move around, locating interesting parts of the scene and building up a mental, three-dimensional ‘map’ corresponding to the scene (as opposed to the graphical map of avians, that often relies upon detection of angular movement on the retina). One reason for the saccadic movement of the human eye is that the central part of the retina—known as the fovea—plays a critical role in resolving objects. By moving the eye so that small parts of a scene can be sensed with greater resolution, body resources can be used more efficiently. A human’s saccades are very fast.

Are you ready to freak out? Hold on: things can be right in front of you, and if you haven’t “saccaded” your fovea in their direction during the last few milliseconds, you can’t see the f**king things. You won’t see them. They won’t exist. How many accidents, particularly involving motorcycles — those fast-moving, fovea-resistant items — start out with the driver who “doesn’t see” the bike? They aren’t lying. They literally don’t see it. They don’t know how to look.

I make my driving students look at weird things. “Tell me what color the corner worker’s hair is.” “Read the billboards in Turn Three.” “Find the big rock down the left side of the front straight.” They don’t want to do it. They freak out. They want to LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD AT THE ZOMG TRACK, plain and simple. Then they get tunnel vision. Their eyes panic and the muscles lock up in the aforementioned eyes, the saccades stop, and their vision shrinks to the resolution of their fovea — a small point directly ahead of them.

Break out of it. Look around. Look at these fine-ass women all around you, doing their hair, talking on phones, plucking their eyebrows. Look at the billboards. Look at the aftermarket spoilers. As the late, great Jeff Cooper once said regarding hunting, “To my mind it is all good, and the more different ways I have enjoyed it, the richer my life has been.” While you look around, your saccades will build a more detailed map of the environment around you… and that includes the road ahead. Just don’t fixate on that young blonde next to you in the Camry. She’s driving a Camry, which means she’s already given up, or she’s married, in which case you should be a decent man, forget about her, and send me a text message photo with her license plate clearly visible.

“What’s happening up there?” I’m a guesser. I like to guess about what people are going to do. I watch the kids blowing through traffic, swerving without signaling, and I like to see if my Town Car and I can stay ahead of them without appearing to make any effort. Try it yourself. Say, “I’m going to stay ahead of the kid in the Vette for the next ten miles without exceeding the speed limit by more than eight miles per hour,” or something similar. If you’re in light traffic, it’s impossible… but the heavier traffic gets, the more prediction becomes important. Look a quarter-mile ahead and watch the traffic patterns. Watch the spaces shrink and grow. Don’t get smoked out of your fat pants like Dutch Mandel did. Be the aware driver, predict the traffic and the motion, and act accordingly.

The ninjas of this particular amusement can sit with a relaxed smile on their faces, signal every lane change, never do anything even remotely aggressive, and still stay ahead of the bob-and-weave supercar driver. I knew that I was on top of my game the other day when a guy in a 997 Turbo pulled up next to me after seven or eight miles and gave me the rare double bird. I’d never exceeded 72 mph; he’d hit at least 110 or 120 a few times. I’d signaled every move; he’d swerved around, but every time he thought he had a clear lane ahead, there was a white Town Car sitting there. My son was at home enjoying “The Backyardigans” at the time, so naturally I reacted to his hand gesture by moving him over into the breakdown lane so he could find out first-hand what the glass-and-nail resistance of the P Zero Nero might be. Then I gave him the “Oh, I’m sorry” wave so he would be totally confused. The usual caveats apply: professional driver, open road, your mileage may vary, don’t play God with the lives of bond traders.

“Big truck! Small truck!” My son sings a song while we drive. The refrain is, “Big truck! Small truck!” with the appropriate hand gestures. He likes the song so much that he will run up to S-10s and Rangers in parking lots and yell, “Small truck!” This is not appreciated by everyone.

Big trucks are death on wheels. Don’t drive next to them, don’t drive in front of them. Hell, even time spent right behind a semi can be deadly; it can’t stop but it can put a tire through your brain pan. When you see somebody running down the freeway next to a semi, matching their speed, know this: that person’s an idiot, and a danger to you. Put a car between you and the semi. Let them die. They don’t feed your kids or hold your wife at night. (Unless that other car is a white Town Car, ZING.) Big trucks are death on wheels. I repeat it so you’ll remember.

Small trucks aren’t much better. Yukons, Suburbans, ML450s. They are driven by people who are a danger to you. Avoid them, even if you’re in a Navigator or Land Cruiser yourself. Their drivers are busy with other things and they are statistically more aggressive. Save yourself the hassle. This is doubly true if you’re driving a low car. My Boxster and I are regularly moved over on by thirty-five-year old women on the phone or baseball-capped emasculatroids who are frowning at the world because they can’t backtalk their boss.

This was all easy advice, right? If my kid can remember it, you can too. Perhaps it won’t be relevant for long. Perhaps we are in the twilight of driving, and this will all be academic in my son’s adulthood. I suppose I should mention one other thing: the other day, when a woman in an old Sable panic-stopped ahead of us because the light had turned yellow with ten feet between her and the intersection, John listened to his father for a moment then said, in remarkably solid fashion:

“Fock fock id yut. Fock id yut. Fock.”

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  • Lockdown Lockdown on Aug 22, 2011

    Jack, had to laugh about how knowing the road and maintaining your flow location in traffic to out class an idiot with an engine. I used to drive the Hamburg Turnpike in New Jersey to work each day, speed limit was 45, the fastest time between any 2 points was not accomplished with max engine speed. It was anticipating when someone would need to turn left and bring the passing lane on the two lane road to a dead stop or right but with a full stop before turning right on the turnpike. Smart drivers switched lanes a quarter mile before this point, cruised around at 45-55 and kept moving. I made it a game, figured out the best speed, combined with correct picking of lanes to make it to work in 20 minutes usually at 5-10mph below the posted speed. The stop and go speed freak took 35 minutes to transverse the same distance. One day an idiot with a Lamborghini Diablo was gunning the engine, wiping in and out of traffic, never picking the correct lane getting pissed when he got stuck in the slow traffic lane. I passed him 7 times in 3 miles as he continually got stuck by the lane turners only to slam on his brakes then re-gun the car. If he just watched traffic, he would not have to drive like a bat out of hell only to be then repassed by slower traffic that picked the correct lane. Annoyed I let the devil come out, see I knew the heavy storms had washed out the right lane on the downhill curve and left 8-10 inch crater potholes. I scraped bottom 3 days earlier in my 4x4 which is how I knew the road ruts where deeper than 8 inches. Those potholes had been growing for a week. Driving at a sane speed or within 10mph of posted speed most drivers could brake effectively to either change lanes or guide their vehicle at a crawl through the mine field of pot holes. I watched the anger in the Lamborghini Diablo driver build; yes I may have started to pick my lane based on trying to keep my truck in front of this super exotic. I may have known right where to release him. He could make the right or wrong decision. He threw me the finger way, gunned his car full throttle (great sound), passed blindly around me, on the right side, full bore way above the speed limit. Shame he didn’t know about the pot holes, or had his rage blinded him. It didn’t appear as if he even was able to touch the brakes before impact The sounds of a Lamborghini bouncing through these road ruts were excruciating to hear, he hit them so hard, my teeth rattled. The shrieking of scrapping undercarriage cracking, slamming, twisting frame, the horror or the awesome power of the new jersey pot hole depending on your point of view. He didn’t lose control per say, he was not injured, no other vehicles or property was damaged. His car came to rest about 3/8 of a mile passed the pot hole death zone. The look on his face was f*&^ing priceless, front end was severely bent, fluids were leaking from everywhere, the car was toast, I just got to witness hundreds of thousands of dollars pissed into the wind, priceless. On a positive note, that stretch of roadway was repaved the very next day.

  • Claytori Claytori on Aug 22, 2011

    Bad merging onto freeways is almost the norm. You don't tiptoe out, hope someone slows down to make a break, wait forever to confirm that this has indeed happened, then pull in front and impede traffic, then think about it a while and slowly accelerate to freeway speed. It is an acceleration lane. Full throttle (unless this would result in wheelspin or loss of control, then as much as possible) to slightly above the speed of the near lane of the freeway, then find your gap and deke in. No matter how powerful your car you can lose speed at least twice as fast as you can gain it. This is a basic technique that was taught to me by my driver's ed teacher. Sadly, no-one seems to teach this to many people. Remember, when you change lanes between two that are travelling at the same speed, you need to speed up briefly because you are taking a diagonal line and the distance is longer, hence the need to be slightly faster. The only little "game" that I play any more is to anticipate the light turning green, verifying that either all lanes crossing have stopped or there are no incipient red-light runners (RLR), then briskly engaging the clutch on the green. If I can't verify, I hang back and take it slow. If there is a large vehicle in the adjacent lane, it goes first because you can't see past it, and it will do a better job of stopping the RLR. With a manual trans, the ability to use the KE from the flywheel and quick reaction time will give you a much quicker takeoff than any auto trans car of reasonable power. I accelerate briskly to the speed limit then cruise. This is actually the most fuel efficient way to do this and it expedites traffic flow. I am often across the intersection before the Porsche/Audi/etc. in the next lane. In the UK the traffic lights change from red to green with a brief flash of the yellow to warn you (green, long yellow, red, short yellow, green,...).

  • Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
  • Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
  • El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
  • El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.