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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

Ten minutes ago it was a sexy, flashy, highly polished, turbocharged masterpiece of Japanese engineering. Now it’s a muddy, twisted piece of garbage on a flatbed truck, crinkled and compressed like an empty Old Milwaukee can. The passenger door looks like it’s been kicked in by King Kong, while the previously spotless interior is filled with dirt, metal shards, and the acrid odor of what is possibly urine.

“Thank God they survived the brake failure,” somebody said. I shivered once in sympathetic response. Anybody who drives a fifty-two-hundred pound sedan on racetracks, as I do, has a very deep, and very easily excited, fear of brake failure. That little demon of terror sat chuckling on my shoulder during the next track session, as I headed down the long back straight of Summit Point’s Shenandoah circuit, towards the turn where I, too, would have to lean on my stoppers, where the near-deadly equipment failure had just taken place…

Two black rubber stripes, more than fifty feet long, merging seamlessly into two muddy tracks leading all the way to the tire wall. There was a failure here, that’s for sure, but it had nothing to do with brakes. To paraphrase De Niro in Ronin, it was amateur night out here on the track. Incompetent instruction had struck again.

It wasn’t always like this. The history of on-track instruction is pretty cloudy, and it’s continually being obscured further by various schools and/or instructors who claim to have been “pioneers” of the industry, but it’s safe to say that prior to about 1970, the idea that somebody could be taught to be a racing driver – well, that was just plain crazy. Either you had “it”, or you didn’t. In the era before cheap video recording, drivers jealously guarded their “secret lines” around the track. If anybody had bothered to sit down and actually devote some scientific effort to determining what is now called the Ideal Line, they sure as hell didn’t tell anybody else about their results. Rookie racers were expected to either learn by osmosis, die in a fiery crash, or possibly both.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, a new creature appeared at the track – the professional instructor. Men like Bob Bondurant, Jim Russell, Bertil Roos, and others were firm in their conviction that driving skills could be taught, and that they were just the fellows to teach ’em. As their schools grew, they hired more and more newly created instructors to spread the gospel of such things as “The Ideal Line”, “In a spin, both feet in”, and “Techniques Of Racing”. It goes without saying, of course, that in order to be an instructor at such a facility, one had to have an appropriate racing resume, sprinkled with enough success to be respectable, but not so much that one didn’t need the school’s money.

Near the end of 1989, the world of automotive enthusiasm changed forever when Ali Arsham and Jerry Kunzman started NASA, with the intent of making track time available for anybody who wanted it. Before you could say, “Rent a track for five grand and sell $25K worth of entries”, the trackday explosion had begun. There was no shortage of cash-strapped tracks in the United States, no shortage of people who wanted to pretend to be racing drivers, and those people had no shortage of cars and cash. There was only one shortage – qualified instruction. Professional instruction costs real money – far more than casual enthusiasts would be willing to pay – and there weren’t enough bored, underemployed ex-racers around to make up the gap. Meanwhile, more and more insurance companies, shocked out of their gourds by the amount of damage unsupervised idiots in fast cars could cause to themselves and others during an open trackday, started to strongly suggest that every novice driver at every event should have his very own instructor.

The solution was simple and elegant. If instructors could not be found, they would be made, and they would be made in a hurry. Most PCA and BMWCCA chapters took their least socially awkward club racers – for many BMW clubs, this would have meant waiving the eye contact and hygiene requirements – and paid ’em off with cheap track time and embroidered shirts. Other clubs, not yet ready to demand that their elite instructor corps have any actual racing experience, decided that it would be enough if their instructors simply knew a basic line around the track. Still others used the “each one teach one” method, with this years’ crop of newly minted instructors teaching the next, and so on.

In retrospect, the whole thing rather reminds me of the “information technology” business around 1997, when one was able to find a six-figure job in Silicon Valley by merely telling the interviewer, “Yes, I’m very excited about computers, and as soon as I learn to turn one on, I expect to be an outstanding programmer.” Unluckily for Narain Karthe-what’s-his-name, this version of the story doesn’t end with all race instruction being outsourced to India, but the short-term result was much like the short-term result of the Internet Bubble: a zero-to-hero ratio well north of the acceptable.

As an automotive enthusiast – and I certainly hope that you are an automotive enthusiast, because if you aren’t, and you have read this far, you’re probably considering suicide and are merely burning some time while you decide whether to go “down the street” or “across the road” with the razor blade – chances are that you will eventually find yourself on a track, autocross course, or rally route with an amateur instructor in your passenger seat. You may be lucky; he may be a tremendously gifted fellow, with a garage full of trophies and a keen instinct for teaching, or he may be a professional instructor moonlighting to get some free track time. If you get one of those people – and in next week’s column I’ll show you how to figure out if you have one – then you have a very productive weekend ahead of you.

Alas, the odds are against it. Chances are that the man or woman beside you has very different goals from yours. Your goal is to become the world’s fastest driver, or failing that, perhaps just to become faster than you were when you went to sleep the night before. His goal is something very different. He may just want to put in his twenty minutes so he can get his free track time. He may want to impress you by driving your car “fast”, or by taking you for a “hot lap” in his – which is how the car in our opening paragraph got so badly crinkled. Or he may want you to go very slowly and carefully so he doesn’t have to pay too much attention to what you’re doing. None of this is good news – but don’t despair just yet. In Avoidable Contact #3, we’ll discuss the best way to get the most out of every instructor. Believe it or not, there’s always something you can learn, even when you’re a better driver than the poor fellow in the seat next to you.

And that brings me to the photo which leads off this week’s column. It’s from a track session at Mosport during the Year Of Our Lord 2002. The car is the 330i which was my wife’s daily driver at the time. The man driving is my instructor and personal role (or perhaps roly-poly) model, a professional instructor who learned his craft at the feet (or at least at the heel and toe) of one of the greatest driving instructors in North America. At some point during our weekend, I offered him a chance to go drive my car around so he could enjoy himself – but instead of just taking a joyride, he grabbed a colleague of his for a “tune-up session” so that he could make sure his own skills were where they needed to be. How many amateur instructors have the insight necessary to do the same? Very few, I’m afraid. We’ll finish this one off with a lovely photo – it’s of an “Arc Angel” welding a penalty silhouette to my Toyota Supra during the 24 Hours of LeMons. See you in seven days!

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Jack Baruth

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