By on October 12, 2014

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“Well, I’m glad we got off-track without anything terrible happening,” I sighed, with no small amount of relief. “You did a good job of controlling the situation. A lot of people really panic when their brakes go away at ninety-five miles per hour or so. If the pedal comes back up you can probably nurse it home, as long as you’re careful. How far do you have to go?”

“Well, I live in New York,” he replied, “but if you’re okay with trying another session, I sure am.”

Oh.

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I spent last weekend coaching a pair of students around Summit Point’s Shenandoah course. One of the students was a friend and fellow racer who made his wheel-to-wheel debut at a VIR ChumpCar race earlier this year; we’d scheduled both of our lives and a fair amount of travel around making this weekend happen. Since I usually have room for two students, however, I agreed to take a random assignment from the pool of novices who would be in the “Green” group.

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My student had a name, but I immediately decided to forget the name and call him Benny Blanco, after John Leguziamo’s character in Carlito’s Way. He was a tough-looking kid, not physically large but alert-eyed and forthright in the manner of the generationally successful. Twenty-six years old. His car was, without a doubt, the worst modern watercooled Porsche I’ve ever seen. An early 1998 Boxster in the de rigeur silver-and-black combo, it didn’t appear to have a single option. It did, however, have over one hundred and ten thousand miles on the Casio-style digital odometer. I was gobsmacked. It had always been an article of personal faith with me that Porsche hadn’t equipped those M96-engined shitboxes with six-digit odometers, for the same reason I never bothered to buy more than three hundred pounds’ worth of iron for my weight bench.

“My mother had it since new,” Benny explained. “I got a 944 Turbo but it isn’t running right now.” The Boxster had what they call “patina” in the antique-furniture world. There was no panel on the car that had escaped scratching and denting. There was visible rust everywhere, which for a galvanized Porsche takes some real doing. Every surface inside the car was worn shiny and the driver’s seat was full of holes. At some point, perhaps for years, Benny’s mother had left it under a pile of some rotting leaves.

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“I had it gone through and fixed up a bit, got some decent brake pads for it,” Benny assured me. Okay, so he wasn’t an idiot. I decided to put him to the usual test. When I start with students who have never been on a racetrack before, and those students are driving manual transmissions, and those students appear to have even the slightest amount of ambition or seriousness to them, I make them leave the car in fourth gear for the entire session. My instructor, Brian, did that to me when I started some thirteen years ago, and it’s a bit of misery I pass along to my pogues today.

There are a few sound reasons for it. The first one is that virtually none of my students can heel-and-toe worth a damn so when they downshift it tends to massively upset the car. In a mid-engined car without the PSM option, like this Boxster, that could be a problem. The second reason is that novice drivers tend to let their hands linger on the shifter between shifts and this leads to a lot of one-handed driving. That’s bad, too. The third, and most important, reason is that when you are stuck in fourth gear for the entire track, particularly at a tight place like Shenandoah, you are naturally forced to drive as smoothly and correctly as possible just to keep the car moving at something beyond a lawnmower’s pace.

I can accurately predict the amount of success my students will have by measuring their response to the fourth-gear edict. About half of them get physically upset, shuffling around in their seat and waving their hands as they moan “BUT EVERYONE WILL PASS ME!” Those people, I force to drive in fourth gear for two sessions. Then I let them start shifting so they can keep pace with the rest of the Green group and I look out for their safety and I offer them a standard program of instruction and I am not surprised when they drop out after a few weekends.

Another quarter of the students accept it but their ego preys on them and eventually they ask to be “soloed” or assigned to another instructor so they can start shifting by the end of their first day on-track. Those guys end up being the ones who drive in the “Blue” or “Yellow” groups for years, bringing heavily modified cars to the track that somehow can’t seem to stay ahead of Camrys and Miatas and whatnot. The entire hobby depends on those guys; there aren’t enough actual “shoes” in any given area to keep non-competitive open-lapping day rosters full.

Last and definitely not least are the guys who say, “Whatever you tell me to do,” and then work on their fundamentals with the car groaning and bucking away in fourth gear. A year from the day they start, they’re in Black Group running people down. Four years after that, they’re sitting right seat themselves, when they aren’t busy club racing. When Benny Blanco from the Box(ster) said, “Sure, man, whatever you say,” I knew we would get somewhere.

And we did. Benny had big eyes, by which I mean that he looked around and saw what he needed to see. He learned how to unwind his steering and pursue the Quality Exit. Whenever he failed to do so, usually by applying throttle in the midcorner, I said, “Shopping cart!” to remind him that too much throttle just pushes the nose wide, like pushing a shopping cart harder when you’re turning it. When I did that, he usually fixed the problem the next time around.

In the third session, we were making good time and I was pleased with his progress so I returned the use of third gear to him. He used it judiciously and he was catching a few other students when the engine started sputtering down the back straight near the brake zone and Benny told me, in a very level tone, “My foot is on the floor over here.”

“Okay, pump the brakes up and hold them when you have pressure,” I said, in that kind of cool-ass Denzel-Washington-in-Flight tone I save for occasions like this where the student might live to tell people how Denzel-ish I was right before I was decapitated. Benny pumped the brakes and got the Boxster to slow down enough to huck it through the final hairpin before pit lane.

In the paddock we searched in vain to figure out what had happened. The brake pedal had come back up and the shuddering had stopped. That was when he told me he lived in New York City. Two hundred and eighty miles away. After some discussion, we agreed that he’d run the car to a service shop in Virginia immediately to see if it could be fixed before Sunday morning. Although Benny was willing to head back out onto the track for our last session, I suggested that time would be better spent getting the car fixed.

As I watched the Boxster blue-smoke its way up and over the bridge out of the paddock, I figured that was the last I’d see of Benny. But I was wrong. He returned the next morning with a tale of woe; the local German-car specialist couldn’t figure out the problem and couldn’t duplicate it. “But I still want to go out,” he said. So it was time for me to make a decision.

The organization for which I was coaching fully supports any decision made by their instructors. Were I to declare Benny’s weekend over, they’d support it. Were I to decline to ride right seat in the car, they’d look for someone else to do so. The safest and sanest thing to do would be to send the man home with the suggestion that he get that raggedly old Porker fixed proper-like. Normally, that’s what I do in these situations and Benny wouldn’t have been the first student I sent home for a mechanical, not by a long shot.

But. This kid had potential. In just three sessions, he’d already demonstrated all the right things: the right attitude, the right reflexes, the right eyes. If I sent him home, he might come back, or he might not. But if I kept riding with him, we could do what we could to prepare for any mechanicals while continuing to work on his skills. There was some risk, and I knew that if I got killed doing this there wouldn’t be any comfort for my son in knowing that his dad was trying to help some guy from New York get the most out of his weekend.

I sat Benny down and we set out the rules. We wouldn’t follow other cars or allow ourselves to get close to anyone’s bumper. We’d go back to fourth gear only, under the working theory that using third had stressed something. And we’d take a checkpoint on brake pressure every turn. We went back out.

At the twenty-four minute mark, the brake pedal went to the floor. Benny handled it with aplomb and we brought the Porsche in, no problems.

In the second session, the brake pedal went to the floor at the twenty-one minute mark.

But the progress we were making! Good exits, less shopping-cart dramatics, less throttle-pinching, better lines, more awareness. This kid was already ready for the Blue group with under three hours of track time under his belt. One more session, right? What could it hurt? This time, we agreed that we’d keep it to sixteen minutes.

At the fourteen-minute mark, the brake pedal went to the floor right before pit exit. “You want to go out for the fourth?” Benny asked. I’ll give him this: he was totally unfazed by the idea.

“Listen,” I said, “I can teach you everything you need to be successful at this. Everything but courage. Well, you’ve got that. And we have a long time to get you where you need to be with the rest. But I think your car’s had enough. So let’s wrap it up.” And again, Benny accepted it the same way he accepted fourth gear.

“Alright, I’ll just hang out and drive the skidpad.” We shook hands and exchanged contact information. When I headed over the bridge myself, with a seven-hour drive ahead of me and brake pressure problems of my own, Benny was circling the pad in his ratty old Boxster, the tail hanging out, over and over again, coming to a spun-out halt then gamely heading in the other direction.

I know Benny’s real name, but I’m going to keep it to myself. Because when it appears on a club race entry list in five years, I want to be able to make a few cash bets with people in the paddock on how he’s going to do. There’s a reason I keep coaching new drivers, and it isn’t because I want discount track time. It’s because I believe some people were born to win races. You just need to show them where to go; they’ll take themselves the rest of the way.

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28 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Benny Blanco from the Box....”


  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Nice.

    I’d start by replacing the master cylinder.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    You made the right choice Jack .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    Great article. Loved reading it.

    The pictures made me go “oh shit” first when i thought there was a crash. Happy to hear you and your student made the best out of it.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    Ya know, a thought occurred to me while reading this, as well as your piece on quality exits: wouldn’t the best way to learn track driving be in cars like the first-gen Miata or some equivalent? Good handling, not too powerful or over-engineered.

    My reasoning comes from aviation. When you learn to fly, even if you’re an aspiring fighter pilot in the Air Force, they don’t drop you in the cockpit of an F16. They put you in a Cessna 172, where you putter around learning the fundamentals. These guys who show up on the first day with Panomera Turbos or whatever are jumping way out ahead of themselves.

    Seems like the ideal track school would have a fleet of simple beginner cars. That’s probably not practical in the real world, but food for thought.

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Planes, cars, or motorcycles, this is almost always the recommended way to go.

      While some adhere to the theory that more tire is more safer, there’s even a school of thought that you shouldn’t get extra-grippy tires on your beginner sled, because it’s better to learn how to control the edge of grip at a lower speed, and because lower grip tires tend to let go more predictably.

      Personally, I’m a “learn to walk before you run” kind of guy, and I’m reasonably certain I have just as much fun, and learn as much, on the track in my 140 hp car as other beginners with 300. Bonus: my brake and tire expenses are tiny.

      • 0 avatar
        MBella

        I would think something like a ’80s CIS powered VW would be the best begginer track car. Very slow, responds well to inputs, is cheap to fix, etc..

      • 0 avatar
        bosozoku

        I’ve lost count of the number of people that have asked me about getting a 600cc supersport as their first bike. Most listen and come to terms with common sense and start somewhat smaller (with respect to power; the SV650 is still my go-to recommendation for those with some saddle time under their belt).

        There are those that insist on the bigger-is-always-better approach. My brother being one of them, choosing a Triumph Daytona as a first bike. It’s his wallet and backside on the line, but it’s undoubtedly stymied him from learning fundamentals, and the thought of it is still just bonkers to me. Even after riding for 15 years on bikes of every class, I still respect those machines for the potential handful they can become in the hands of even very experienced riders.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Yep, Skip Barber has a fleet of Miatas. Beginning racing school students start in either a Miata or the Skip Barber school car, which is a 2 liter open wheeler.

      It’s better to learn in a low powered car, that way any mistake you make punishes you all the way down the straight.

    • 0 avatar
      wumpus

      Oddly enough, that particular track (Summit Point) has a seperate kart track. I haven’t seen anywhere it is used for instruction, but it would make a whole lot of sense (although karts obviously lack right seats).

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      You’re absolutely correct, but as noted below it exponentially increases the costs of driver instruction. You have to buy the cars, store them, repair them, and — perhaps most expensively — assume the additional liability that comes when the student is in YOUR car and not HIS.

      • 0 avatar
        Yurpean

        Do you have recommendations for instructors or schools in the Los Angeles area?

        • 0 avatar
          ckb

          In LA you have you have a great track selection. Its not NoCal but you’re sure to have a ton of fun at any of Autoclub speedway, Willowsprings (main course or streets), and Buttonwillow. All within 3 hours of downtown. Your best bet is probably just run with your local NASA chapter. They hit all those tracks and have the standard beginner instructors. There are a few other trackday groups but their reputations were all over the place. The cool thing about NASA is they have races on the weekend days which is a good way to get you hyped up about it.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    Having a fleet of school Miatas would be great, but that exponentially increases the cost of putting on a school, and therefore limits it to the affluent. The most practical track car for a student is the one they already have.

    Baruth is so right about driver attitude, and it can show itself in many different ways. Two weeks ago at NCM Motorsports Park a student in a high miles 80’s era BMW 325i blew his clutch the afternoon of the first day. That evening he and his family, who were also at the track, drove 60 miles down to Nashville and picked up a clutch kit, and Sunday morning he and a buddy changed it out on jackstands out in the paddock. He was out on the track again that afternoon.

    His may have been one of the slower cars on the track, but that was a big win for the weekend in my book.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I think a fleet of old Corollas with hooked up pads/rotors is a good start. Like the late 90s ones. Abundant, cheap, surprisingly not boring to drive, low limits, yadda yadda.

  • avatar
    mitchw

    One of the first things that occurred to me while being instructed at Skip Barber was that it’s a challenge to listen to what the instructor is saying, and then to change what I do. I quickly made this into one of the ways I measured my ability.

    Something does come over you when you get behind the wheel.

  • avatar
    number9ine

    Is that rust on the gouges at the leading edge of the plastic bumper cover? Impressive.

    I had a student just like this, showed up in his (much less ugly but still ratty) Boxster, patiently listened, improved throughout his two days, and came back for more. Two seasons later and he’s running solo.

    Jack–re: your comment on mileage, it’s a shame you have subscribed to the Jake Raby school of “the IMS sky is falling.” Those same design foibles are present on plenty of M96 examples I see out there turning 200+k without a rebuild. Now that the hysteria has driven 996 prices into the toilet I’m thinking the time is right to buy. I wonder if the same logic makes the late 993 a “shitbox” due to its SAI and gasket issues, or the 2.7s that lunch their studs out of the Mg case after too many bouts of thermal expansion. The cognitive dissonance is impressive, dude.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Re: the 2.7:

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/porsches-deadly-sin-5-porsche-911s-2-7/

      Re: the 993 — There’s a reason I bought a 1995 and not a 96-98.

      But in this case, it’s not reading other people’s hysteria that causes me to feel this way — it’s my own personal experience having put 48,000 miles on a 2004 Boxster S in the past ten years and watching it oil starve and blue-smoke DESPITE the motorsports sump.

      • 0 avatar
        number9ine

        Thanks for the link, forgot all about that post. The first Porsche I ever drove (on a track, no less) was my uncle’s 2.7 Targa. That motor went to 230,000 hard road and track miles before needing an overhaul. The thermal reactor was abandoned early on, so maybe that car is an edge case.

        It’s always gut-wrenching to see your car on the flatbed, I had the AOS on my 2003 Boxster S go at a track day. I’d never seen so much oil and smoke. Otherwise, my wife and I have thankfully never had an engine issue on the two M96 and two M97 engines we’ve owned and tracked, two of which we still own.

        I guess it comes down to whether you choose to see Porsche’s road car engine designs as solely built to a price, versus built to perform and be affordable. These cars are great for non-competitive trackdays, but once you start working up to race pace it’s probably time to find something less shiny and more expendable (like your Neon).

  • avatar
    Car-los

    Great article Jack. It gives a clear picture of a driver with a real passion for racing. But shouldn’t safety be put first?

    I don’t think Jackie Stewart would have been very amused here!!!

  • avatar
    JMII

    Pretty much describes my first on-track experience, well minus the expensive but in poor shape rear-engined German car:
    • stay in 3rd gear the whole time because I’m too busy trying to hit my braking points while waving Miatas (and Civics past) – check!
    • downshifted at the wrong place and time – check! That god for Nissan’s VDC (vehicle dynamic control).
    • leaving my hand on the shifter too much – check! My instructor said he was going to hold my hand if it left the steering wheel too often or for too long. That got weird real fast and thus cured my bad habit.
    Sadly I can’t heal-toe, my feet refuse to hit the gas AND the brake at the same time despite my brain telling them to do so.
    The good news: I’ve been told I’m very smooth with my inputs, I credit years of Gran Turismo. So far I’ve only gone off track once and on the very next lap I went thru the same turn even faster. My instructor was impressed, I told him “well nothing bad happened the first time”. While I still don’t like that turn (its scary!!!) there is plenty of run off area (smooth grass too). However my instructor made it very clear: rule #1 is if the brakes feel even slightly “funny” or soft, or I have to apply any more force then my first hot lap we go into the pits and the session is OVER. And yes I’ve smoked them and boiled the fluid, talk about an eye opener. Just how crappy the stock brakes on your “sports car” are is disappointing to say the least.

    I really admire the instructors – no way in hell I’d get in a vehicle with some knuckle head off the street and ride around at over 100 MPH in car whose tech inspection consisted of little more then a walk-around to ensure that most of the fast spinning bits appeared to be bolted on securely.

  • avatar
    Tonto

    Seeing as you likely missed it, Jack, Benny Blanco from the B(r)o(n)x is a read bad guy… also a coward and a braggart, not to mention the small matter of him killing the protagonist

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      @Tonto But when you consider that the name was bestowed more for its association with the actor than with the character, it makes sense.

      And yes, I know this thread is staler than last year’s bread, but that’s what I get for backtracking through Jack’s links.

  • avatar

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/07/never-mind-the-shuffle-steering-lets-take-the-falcon-to-hyperspace/

    No brake problems in the Falcon…Just sayin’…

    Aside from the certain death in a crash aspect, a slightly less clapped out version of my Falcon might be a wonderful “learner” car. In contrast to a Miata or V6 Mustang or other not-too-overpowered vehicle, the Falcon completely sh~ts the bed if you unsettle the chassis or otherwise screw up the fundamentals. Hence my lap times on par with mid-pack LeMons cars.

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