When I suggest the idea of taking a car on a road course to people-even to hotrodders-the most common reaction is something like, "do what!?"
Car guys already operate kind of on the edge of acceptable society, and those people who are familiar with even the most basic car-guy lingo, like "cam, carb, or rearend," are in the 1 percent to be sure. Now take that small subset, and get a show of hands for how many of them have taken their pride and joy on a full-blown road race course-or even an autocross-and that percentage shrinks to a frighteningly small sub-subgroup. You might as well ask how many people have taken a ride on the space shuttle.
I think fear of the unknown is the big reason. When I ask folks if they've been to a driving school, an open lapping session, or even an autocross event, there's often a note of anxiety, and sometimes a tone of defensiveness. Maybe they're afraid of wrecking their car, or of experiencing mechanical damage, but for whatever the reason, people are reluctant to hit the track. I can totally understand that feeling because I felt that way once.
I remember my first driving school. It was a Car Guys event at Watkins Glen, New York. If you're not familiar with Watkins Glen, it's one of the longest, fastest, and most challenging road courses in America. For a first timer, it's really intimidating, and to make matters worse, I was driving my own car. A million scary thoughts ran through my head that morning. What if I wreck? What if someone wrecks me? What if something breaks? How will I get home if I blow it up? What if I look stupid? As we prepared this month's issue, those fears came flooding back to me as I tried to put myself in your shoes.
One thing to remember about driving schools is that they are filled with people just like you. They're either there for the first time, or they're still learning. Nobody wants to wreck or look stupid, so you're in good company. Another thing to remember is that you are in control of the "volume knob." Nobody's going to force you to "turn it up to 11," or go any faster than you feel is safe. Moreover, the instructors are quite good, and understand what you're feeling. They've seen all the rookie mistakes a million times, and they're not going to let you mess up. What's really amazing is that after your first few laps, you begin to loosen up. The fear melts away. Your skills come to the surface with coaching. Your confidence increases and you become one with the car. You start seeing the racing line, looking ahead, heel-and-toe down shifting, trail braking, and hitting the apex. It's a transformative experience in many ways.
People who have been to a driving school or an instructed open-track lapping session are better drivers for it, both on the street and on the track. They also have a significantly different view about what's important in a street car, and get more out of their driving experience. The focus shifts from power (although that never really goes away), to tires, brakes, and suspension-in that exact order of importance. Still afraid of stacking up your car on a road course? Just think back on some of the dumb things we've all done in our street cars on public roads, without safety gear, without a protective, controlled environment, without other skilled, alert drivers on the same pavement, and in conditions far from ideal. I honestly say I feel much safer on a road course during an open-track day than I do in my daily commute.
With that in mind, it's my hope that you will read and enjoy Christopher Campbell's story, "The Art of Control." While the Bondurant School is one of the best in the country, I realize it may not be geographically or financially viable for many readers. That said, check out the other 23 driving schools in "Get on Track!" If that doesn't work for you, consider one of the hundreds of local performance driving events or open-track lapping days. There are always eager instructors at those events, you can usually use your own street car, there will always be a group of novice drivers to join, and the cost can be as little as $125 a day. I promise that once you try it, you'll be hooked!