Trackday Diaries: Benny Blanco From the Box.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

“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.

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.

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.

“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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Tonto Tonto on Oct 13, 2014

    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

    • VolandoBajo VolandoBajo on May 19, 2015

      @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.

  • Mad_science Mad_science on Oct 13, 2014

    http://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.

  • Funky D A few from my road trip playlist: Eddie Rabbitt - Drivin' My Life AwayAmerica - Ventura Highway---Herb Alpert - Route 101Jerry Reed - East Bown and DownEddie Money - Shakin'Lindey Buckingham - Holiday RoadWar - Low RiderTears for Fears - Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Not a driving song per se, but if you've seen the video, you'll get it)Wang Chung - Wait (Gotta see the end credits of "To Live and Die in LA", for this one)
  • Ronin Or can sedans be saved from themselves? Modern sedans have very low entry and seating, and unnecessarily downward sloping rear roofs. This may have been a sleek design center 25 years ago, but it's nice to have an alternative to SUVs for the olds (ie, anyone over 30).
  • Bd2 The Hyundai Sonota is the best sedan on the market right now.
  • Kcflyer hang in there Lexus. Keep making the IS with the V8 and sooner or later I will buy a new one :)
  • 1995 SC I'll take Mystichrome. And a different car
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