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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

“YOU’RE GOING TO WRECK THE CAR!!!!!” A quick glance confirmed what I had suspected – as she screamed bloody murder, my instructor was actually trying to curl up in the passenger seat, and her hands were covering her face in the classic if-I-can’t-see-the-wall-it-won’t-kill-me pose. I would have studied this amusing little tableau further, but there was some work to do; although we weren’t in much danger of wrecking, we certainly had my Boxster pretty far sideways, at a speed somewhere north of ninety miles per hour, and there was a concrete wall rushing by, about five feet from my left quarter-panel. Best to straighten this thing out and then I could say something really cool, like something Han Solo would have said to Princess Leia back in 1977. Which is what I suppose they meant when they said “a long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” When I finally exited the turn, inside rear wheel lightly spinning and perhaps smoking, I looked at her and said, in as suave a voice as I could manage through the chunky chinbar of my Bell M2 Pro,

“Don’t worry. Water-cooled Porsches are just like Doritos.”

“Doritos?” she squeaked, the reality of our non-death now becoming clearer in her mind.

“Crunch all you want,” and here I smirked in true Han Solo fashion, said smirk being utterly wasted in a full-face helmet, “they’ll make more.”

Would you sit in the “suicide seat” with some mentally unhinged club racer and ride around a racetrack all day for two hundred bucks? What about a two-hundred-dollar discount off a Porsche Club trackday? Me neither. That nice young lady earned her entire discount in one session that Saturday, and promptly signed me off for solo driving in the afternoon so I could “accidentally” wander into the instructors’ session and tailgate GT3s. I could write a little bit about the bizarre nature of a club that places an “instructor” with no race experience next to a “student” with a couple of podiums under his belt, just because the “student” hasn’t been to a PCA trackday at that particular track before, but there’s no point in it. As we discussed last week, this volunteer instruction business can get pretty weird.

What I do want to consider, however, is the idea that my instructor chose to yell something terrifying at me at precisely the time I really needed my full attention to control a potentially dangerous situation. Luckily for both of us, I didn’t panic. Not because I’m a tough guy, but because I had secret earphones in my helmet so I could listen to the Pat Metheny Group on my iPod instead of listening to her. Heck, if I hadn’t just then reached the quiet part of “Spring Ain’t Here”, I might not have ever heard her. I think you get the point, though. Your instructor can pose an active danger to you sometimes, the same way you’re busy posing an active danger to him or her. Well, that’s fair enough, I suppose.

And yet it’s possible to learn something from any instructor. What I learned from that nice young lady was there were two different lines in a certain turn, and that for some reason the preference for lines seemed to break down along regional club membership lines. The guys from one PCA region liked to drive up the curb, and the guys from another region avoided it. So I tried both and made my choice. I might not have seen both lines without her help. There’s something positive to be taken from every instruction situation.

Quick question. Who is your chief instructor? For me, it’s a Canadian fellow with a long history of sedan and kart racing. We can only meet at the track a few times each season, so I call him all the time when I’m at the track without him. In these calls, I cover every line, every technique, every sensory input session – more about those in a moment – and every learning opportunity. And he listens patiently. In fact, he listens a bit too patiently. I think sometimes that he’s not really listening. The fact that I distinctly heard him helping his kid with his homework in the background during our last call makes me wonder. Also, I may have heard him having sex with his wife during the rather lengthy call I made to him after the qualifying session for my Camaro-Mustang-Challenge race in August. Except he was calling his wife by their babysitter’s name. I guess that’s how they keep it spicy. Nevertheless, despite his inability to pay complete attention to me, he’s my chief instructor. Who’s yours? Who’s the guy who is giving you a plan to be a better driver? Who’s checking up on your progress? Who’s reminding you to focus on the fundamentals, keep your head on straight, and so on?

For most trackday drivers out there, the answer is “Nobody”. So today, dear reader, we’re going to promote somebody to the position of your Chief Instructor. That somebody, unsurprisingly, is you. So you will make a plan and measure your progress. You will set goals for each session and evaluate your performance against them. You will ensure that you receive quality instruction. Congratulations, by the way, on your promotion.

Make a short-term goal – “I want to graduate to HPDE 4” or “I want to be able to lap BeaveRun within two seconds of the Spec Miata pace” would be some examples – and then determine the skill sets you’ll need to fulfill your goals. And so on. A great book to help you is Speed Secrets by Ross Bentley. There are actually six Speed Secrets books, because Ross seems to always need the cash. He may have some kind of problem. But you just need the first one for right now.

Armed with your Speed Secrets book and your personal plan, it’s time to go to a trackday and meet your instructor. When he gets in the car, have two things ready:

1. A bottle of Febreze. Why do so many of these dudes smell like a dog’s ass?

2. Your questions and statements.

Questions come first. Say, “So, what kind of driving do you do?” You need to evaluate this guy critically. It’s good if he says things like:

“I’m the (insert region here) Spec Miata champion.”

“I’ve been racing Showroom Stock C for ten years.”

“I worked for the BMW Driver Training school.”

This is all good stuff. This is a guy you can listen to. As the gun writer Jeff Cooper used to say, he’s “seen the elephant”. On the other hand, he might say,

“I’ve been a PCA instructor for two years and I blah blah blah”

“I’ve instructed in many places.”

“I’m the NASA Spec Focus West Coast Director.”

These are all danger signals that he might be a no-talent ass-clown. Just sit and listen to the guy (or gal) for a minute. When he’s done talking, it’s time for you to talk. Quickly tell him your goals for this session. Here are some example goals:

“I want to work on my heel-and-toe in Turn Eight.”

“I want to fix my entry to Turn Two.”

“I want to handle traffic a bit better.”

Good goals are small and understandable. In the stress of high-speed driving, your brain doesn’t understand stuff like:

“I want to go a lot faster.”

“I want to stop making mistakes under braking.”

“I want to pass my friend who has an STi.”

Small goals. Have small goals for every session. A good instructor will listen to your goals and he will offer a plan. Listen to what he says, take his advice, and focus on your goals. Don’t try to do everything at once. Remember your fundamentals from your Speed Secrets book. Chances are you will achieve your goal and will be able to go to the next goal. If you have a useful instructor, you can make amazing progress in a single weekend.

But what if you have one of the bad guys? What if you have one of the creepy old guys who wears a bunch of “INSTRUCTOR” – labeled clothing and screams at you through the whole day to take his line, and to hold the steering wheel his way, and to do everything just like he does it? Or what if you have a driver-discount-dillhole who just wants to sit in the car and collect his free trackday? Don’t worry, you can still get something done, even if you have somebody alternately grabbing your wheel and curling up in the passenger seat. You can do a sensory input session.

Sensory input sessions make you a better driver. They’re easy, and nobody has to know you’re doing them. Just drive like you normally would (or like the moron in the suicide seat is yelling at you to drive) and open your senses. In one lap, try to see more. Try to see the hair color of every corner worker, or be aware of whether the curbing on each turn begins with red or white. Be open to seeing more. This fixes tunnel vision and gives your brain more information to work with, making you faster.

Then you can listen for a few laps. Listen for the “singing” of the tires before they squeal. Listen for the “clomp” of your brake pads. Listen for the changes in engine note that tell you about traction. Just listen. Then you can work on what you can feel through the steering wheel. Let your fingertips tell you about the road surface. Feel the resistance as you shift at different revs. There’s information in the brake pedal; get that information. And your dippy-doo amateur instructor doesn’t have to know that you aren’t doing everything his way. As you get faster, he’ll take the credit, but we will know that the credit goes to your Chief Instructor.

At the close of each day, sit down and think about how well you accomplished your goals. If you’ve done well, set new goals. If you haven’t come up to the mark, make positive plans to do a better job next time. Don’t worry about who you passed, or who passed you, or whether you just set the lap record for ’97 Honda Civic DX sedans with tinted windows and cat-back exhausts. There’s time to do all of that stuff, but it happens when you learn sound fundamental skills, meet your goals, and work your plan.

Sooner or later they’ll ask you to instruct, you know. There may be free hats involved, and the chance to impose your will on some helpless kid in a six-hundred-horsepower STi. I hope you agree to help ’em out, whoever “they” are. The more competent instructors out there, the less chance that I’ll have the rest of the passenger-side airbag cover on my Boxster bitten off.

Next week we’ll forget about driving instructon and focus on what really matters: how to lie, cheat, and connive your way into driving hyper-expensive luxury cars for free. I’m sure you’re much too decent a person to be interested in this stuff, but I’ll save you a seat anyway.

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Jack Baruth

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