Trackday Diaries: I'm Already Scared

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

The speedometer on the little two-seater was already past 90 and climbing as I watched the grey-haired fellow to my left put both his hands on the left side of the steering wheel and start to tug at it. There was a curve ahead, a long blind left-hander with a line of Jersey barriers on the shoulder. What was on the road after that was a complete mystery, both to him and me. Neither one of us had ever been here before.

He tugged on the wheel at the same time as he stomped on the brakes. Various lights flashed on the instrument panel ahead of him. The car slewed then caught itself. There was a hot metallic smell as the stability control and ABS clamped all four corners of the car in rapid-fire pulses. The right front tire groaned in protest as we gradually sacrificed momentum down to about 30 mph.

“Let’s pull over here,” I said in what I hoped was a flat and judgment-free voice, “and stop for a minute.” We came to a halt in a small parking lot. A minivan pulled in behind us. I got out of the car and walked over to the minivan, where my photography team was waiting. We were all here to do a story on this relatively rare and exotic car and its owner, whose bacon had just been saved along with mine by the very best efforts of an Italian stability-control engineer.

“Move something,” I told the photographers, “I’m riding in the van now.”

“I GUESS HE DON’T WANT TO RIDE WITH ME!” the owner yelled. “I DRIVE AT THE EDGE!”

“He drives over the edge,” I spat, stepping into the van and finding a recently-cleared seat in the third row. “Over the edge of idiocy.”

This past Saturday, a Boomer-aged HPDE student was killed in a one-car crash at Roebling Road Raceway. His instructor, provided to him by the Porsche Club of America as a part of his participation in the two-day weekend event, was seriously injured. There are no further details available and, if past PCA practice is any guideline, there probably won’t be any further details available. It could have been a mechanical failure and it could have been the best-effort response to an existing on-track incident. There’s no way to know.

After 13 years as a driver coach, however, I am having a hard time not just reaching into my bag of stereotypes and scattering a few all over the event. The driver was 70 years old and he was behind the wheel of a Porsche. I’ve sat right seat with a lot of men who fit that description — and I’ve decided that I just don’t want to do that anymore. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary to earn a buck or fill in to help an organization for which I feel some affinity.

I’m tired of Boomer-aged doctors and lawyers and finance professionals who have been flawlessly trained by the circumstances of their fortunate and comfortable lives to feel an absurd sense of confidence and entitlement behind the wheel of some terrifyingly capable machinery. You can’t tell these dudes anything. They don’t listen. Sometimes you will spend a whole day getting them to shed bad, dangerous habits only to see them revert in a flash to their old ways the minute their amygdala is triggered by a narcissistic injury or a sudden memory or just the phase of the moon.

I’m tired of sitting right seat with dudes who think you can huck a 600-horsepower Ferrari on Hoosiers around the way you hucked a ’75 Mustang II with 110 horsepower and bias-ply tires. I have contempt for the people who don’t realize they are being saved again and again by ESC but I prefer them to the people who think that you should turn off all the “nannies” on your Hellcat before you take your first-ever lap around a road course. I’m 100 percent over hearing stories of high-speed canyon drives in California and I am 200 percent over sitting right seat for those canyon drives in the pursuit of some story or feature article.

Thanks to over 170 days in the instructor seat, I’ve learned to almost immediately identify all of the habits that people are going to display. There’s the Freeway Pumper who is incapable of holding the accelerator pedal at any steady position. There’s the Stab and Grab guy who always uses the steering and brakes at exactly the same time. There’s Mister Weeble Wobble who can’t stop jerking the wheel every time he moves his head to look at something. They all think they’re great drivers. The only way to show them that they aren’t is to put them in the right seat and take them around a track at 95 percent of race pace. That shuts them up, but it’s so much ego, it’s so much narcissism on your part, even if you don’t want it to be.

The old men are the worst. I’m tired of them and that applies equally to the HPDE students, the rich guys with exotics, the people who make cars available for tests. I respect their efforts and I like them as human beings, but I don’t want to sit next to them any more.

Some time ago, I had a fellow instructor tell me that he gives each one of his new students a sort of throwaway line when he gets in to the car with them.

“Don’t try to impress me,” he says, “because you can’t impress me. And don’t try to scare me, because I’m already scared.”

At the time I thought that it was an unprofessional thing to say. But I’m coming around to it. It’s maybe not quite in line with the McQueen/Hemingway/whatever demeanor that a driving instructor is supposed to display. Still. It applies. I’m already scared. Let’s not make it any worse. Let’s not upgrade it from “already scared” to “almost dead”.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Rrhyne56 Rrhyne56 on Feb 16, 2018

    I have a friend, an airline pilot, who started out his aviation career as a primary flight instructor. He said that of all his students, the lawyers and doctors were the most consistently terrifying; they already knew it all.

  • Andy777 Andy777 on Feb 21, 2018

    I was instructing a year or so ago and got a choice of two guys. The first told me, casually, he was afraid he'd get into trouble because he could drive very fast. When I inquired where he learned, he told me he was a drifter who practices on videogames. He had brought some big engine Mustang to the event and was concerned when the organizer told everybody that wheels-off meant big time out. After all, he was gonna four-wheel it around the track, ya know? The second guy had a Subaru or Toyota sports car and was concerned he didn't bang it up. I chose him. BTW, both those guys were about 25. I'm about Jack's ago, maybe 5 years older. And a lawyer. And with a Porsche. Don't think that much of stereotyping guys with cars, if you get my drift.

  • Freddie Another reason not to buy a Tesla.
  • Bd2 Tesla is the most important company in the world, responsible for mass enlightenment and empowerment of the educated affluent masses. This lawsuit will only impede the progress of the human race.
  • Aja8888 Good! Hope the owners' win the case, but it will probably be a long time before Tesla releases repair particulars to 3rd party shops. There is a Tesla service center near me I see every day that is absolutely loaded with service-waiting vehicles (parked for weeks) and I'm sure those owners are not thrilled.
  • SCE to AUX I've seen several Fisker Oceans, but not a single 400 Z.
  • Luke42 With Elon Musk just randomly firing the Supercharger team, Tesla has demonstrated that it isn’t a reliable business partner over the long-term.Being able to get 3rd-party repairs just got a lot more important.I’ve also been upping my Tesla-DIY game.That said, I just put 5000 miles on my Model Y in a month (family-obligations) using the Supercharger Network, and my EV is an incredibly capable vehicle when viewed through an engineering lens. As a car guy, driving my EV through the Appalachian mountains where I learned to drive was truly an experience of holding a tiger by the tail and guiding it where I want to go. But, when looking at my Tesla with Elon in charge of sales & service, I do have some serious concerns about the long-term stability of Tesla as a business.My current plan is to trade my Model Y and my GMC Sierra in on a Silverado EV or GMC Sierra EV once the price/availability/finance picture looks favorable. Elon’s unhinged behavior and the Toyota/Honda’s refusal to innovate are making GM look like a good long-term bet to me.I’ll put up with all of this in order to continue driving an EV, though. Even the best gasoline and diesel vehicles are slow buzzy buckets of bolts that smell bad, compared to my EV — so I’m not going back to a 20th century vehicle voluntarily.
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