Part 1: Take the Plunge: Doing Your First or Fourth DE

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Racing

As with life we all want to try new things and become better in what we already do.  As with life there are our passionate hobbies that are hard to satiate making us long for them when we are away.  For me it is learning to drive even faster, even if it is less than a second improvement wherever and whenever I can find it.  Ask any passionate athlete as to why they do what they do, and they will typically answer they do it because they love it.  If you are ready and able you will learn to feel a connection with the machine you are piloting and it will seem as if it is an extension of yourself.  This connection is what drives me and many others to do what we do, this is a calling many new entrants to high performance driving events (aka HPDE, PDX, DEs, etc.) long for and eventually take the plunge.

“I was doing just great until I got to mid corner and ran out of talent”

– Unknown Quote

I’ve been instructing and mentoring new drivers for over three years and have had many different students from never been on the track novices to advanced DE students moving up to the instructor or racer level.  There is one major truth that students and their instructors must learn – that we all learn at different levels, feel and see things differently, respond to different methods of teaching, and earn trust in varying ways from attitude to skill.  However, skill aside the most important facet both parties can show is the proper attitude.  In other words – check your ego at the door.

We All Had to Start Somewhere and Learn from the Same Mistakes – Yes even your Instructor

1994 Honda Accord EX Sedan

I can remember the first event I ever attended – I was encouraged by my parents to go give it a try.  I also did not know anyone who’s ever done this before and simply did an Internet search and signed myself up for my first DE with NASA Mid Atlantic region (I could not join most other car clubs as they were restricted to make only in their DEs).  I was highly embarrassed with my mode of transportation – an 1994 Honda Accord EX sedan.  It was a reliable car, had a rev happy little 2.2 liter 4 cylinder, handled pretty well, and a good 5 speed manual transmission.  However, compared to the majority of other cars at the track it was far underpowered to the 12/10/8/6 cylinder or AWD turbo sports cars most people had.  Later on I learned that power makes average drivers seem like they are fast, but a great driver makes any car fast.

I remember my first class room session before we went out and noticed there were several guys wearing driving suits, though most had driving shoes, driving gloves – even some had custom painted helmets.  I had my newly purchased scratch & dent sale Bell Helmet and nothing else.  Heck, I didn’t even know they made shoes specifically for driving (something my wife would love so don’t tell her!).  I in fact came to the track unprepared with no tools, snacks, water, etc.  I was in over my head and anxious to say the least.

After that first meeting – one thing was clear…take it easy, learn the line slowly and drink water because it is stressful – you normally think that the car does all the work – that is so wrong b/c you lose any second of focused concentration and it can lead to some pretty bad results.

Me catching an RX-8 and staying ahead of a WRX

The 1st session on track, my instructor drove the first 2 laps in my car – at a speed I have to admit was impressive even though he hardly had to work and did not know my car.  He pointed out the things I needed to know such as pit out, flag stations, run off areas, pit in, the DE line, bumps and transitions in the pavement, gradation of the turns (cambered or un-cambered), turn in points, apexes, track outs and their respective visible clues where available.  I have to admit – I understood the concept of the line as I’ve been an avid Gran Turismo player and understood that to be fast you must make each corner into the straightest line possible (much easier said than done).  So I had confidence in my “skill”.

The first 2-3 laps went by fast.  Now he turned the car over to me and it was my turn to “show him how good I was”.  Compared to him, I was terrible – I had the death grip on the steering wheel, was missing shifts and unsure how to put the car in gear for the next corner.  Lesson learned: I knew very little about really driving fast.

The next several sessions my instructor sat down with me and gave me some sage advice – focus on driving the car and don’t worry about any other attribute.  Hmm – I was driving the car wasn’t I?  Turned out I wasn’t.  The next session I was to keep the car in 3rd gear the entire time (no shifting even on the straights or in lower speed corners).  I was to brake at the same places with the same amount of force (no more / no less).  I was to look through the corner not at it.  It was confusing and I was not sure what he really meant.  Then we were on the track…the first couple of laps I was struggling – then something changed – I was no longer focused on what lay immediately ahead of me but where I should be after that (if you play golf or pool – this is tantamount to being a good player is positioning your next shot).  I no longer had to worry about braking, I no longer had to worry about shifting and the down shifts that were messing me up.

Lap after lap, I got a little and it felt more natural, until…I went 4 wheels off.  I was now able to use my new found skill to pull into the hot pits and get personally introduced to the Chief Instructor.  I was expecting a berating and warning that if I do it again I’m not allowed back – quite the opposite as I was told that I did a good job recovering from my close inspection of the farmland and getting back on I was courteous to quickly point other drivers by.  Funny thing was, he let me get right back out there.

The end of the Saturday came and I was more tired that I’ve ever been in my life and I’ve had my fair share of very long days and weekends playing in various vball tournaments.  Before I left my instructor said I was progressing great…tomorrow we would work on compressing the brake zone and using the brakes less (and I thought I needed to brake more).  Go home, go to sleep early, drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy breakfast the next morning.

Thus came Sunday – my car is a little more worn, myself as well and it was raining.  Great!  Sunday morning session was all about taking it easy.  Statistically most people go off the 1st session on Sunday or the last.  Our brains are now ready to do what we did the last session on Saturday – we needed to get the cobwebs off and our brains back into driving mode.  I made it the rest of the day without incident.  I made some great new friends and best of all my instructor took me out in his own car – an e30 M3.  I must say I already had a soft spot for these little cars but after sitting in the passenger seat of an track prepped M3 with slicks on it – I’ve never felt such speed.  I went home and immediately looked online for used e30 M3s…to find out they were just too expensive for me to consider it as a track only car.

My next writeup will be based on guidelines of what DE students should and should not do when getting ready or at the track.

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