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A Conversation With Your Car

After another weekend at what can only be described as a phenomenal event with the Audi Club of North America - So Cal Chapter, I once again find myself full of thoughts and ideas about driver education programs and the way we coach drivers on the track.

One of the first things a driving instructor usually asks her new student is, "What were you working on last time you were at the track?". Even though my experience as an instructor would make a comparatively short resume so far, I can also speak from the point of view of having recently been a student myself: often this question is greeted first by a slight deer-in-the-headlights look, then by a hesitant answer of "I was really just working on the line...and...being smooth!".

Even a novice quickly picks up on the fact that these two topics are important, but it's all too easy to become overly focused on "the line". I myself have witnessed many classroom sessions with intermediate and advanced student groups where the instructor's efforts to present higher level topics were drowned out by burning questions about the line or exact braking points or what gear they should be in on any given section of the track.

This past weekend, I knew I was taking a bit of a risk as a novice instructor when I replied to my B student (who was also "working on the line" last time) that, "actually, let's see how it goes, but I'd rather not talk too much about the line." That got my heart pumping a little harder than was really comfortable as I was thinking, "Oh my God, did that really just come out of my mouth?!" I took a deep breath, and went on to explain that I was more concerned with teaching the mechanics of track driving and getting him to understand the forces at work, because if he could get a handle on those concepts then "the line" would come naturally. I mentally wiped my brow and thought, "phew, glad I had an explanation for that...but am I truly capable of instructing in that way?".

As the weekend progressed I found that it did indeed work for us. Willow Springs International Raceway (aka WSIR, aka Big Willow, aka "The Fastest Track in the West") turns out to be a track that presents wonderful opportunities to teach the concept of throttle steer, as it's a fast track with many long, large-radius corners and relatively few hard braking zones.

Often when my students had trouble reaching an apex, their tendency was to credit an early or late turn-in. Many times the error was actually over- or under-application of the throttle, which would cause the car to either have too much weight in the rear and thus the front tires don't have enough grip to keep the car turning (over-application of throttle), or there would still be too much weight forward on the wheels doing the turning and the car would effectively "fall into the apex" (not enough throttle). Due to the gargantuan length and radius of most of the turns, throttle application can be a little difficult to judge at first, especially since beginning students are often taught not to go to throttle until they're pointed at the apex. This is a safe way to teach someone who's never been on a track before, since the concept of directionality is easily lost on a driver who's simply trying not to fall off the edge of the world out there. But part of the instructor's job is to quickly evaluate a student's skills and ability to safely apply instructions, and then move them away from that idea as quickly as possible.

When in a high performance setting, there is rarely ever a time when a driver is not using the brakes or throttle. This does not mean that they're always accelerating or decelerating! Keeping your feet at least touching the pedals is another great way to enhance the communication between driver and car (in addition to the given points of contact at the steering wheel, seat, and even belts/harnesses). For one thing, resting your feet lightly on the pedals means you have less physical distance to move your feet when you begin your inputs. By activating them even the slightest bit, the pedals also provide another point of contact where you can feel feedback from the car's engine, transmission, tires, and even the track surface. And so in moving the point at which you engage the throttle nearer to the point at which you end your braking, you're better able to make minute corrections of throttle to control the balance of the car as you approach the apex, and then better able to control the application of throttle as you unwind and exit the corner.

In any case, don't be afraid to make the car work a little - that's what they're designed for. Use the tires, use the suspension, use the torque and horsepower - as long as you take time to listen to and feel the car while you build speed and intensity you'll find that the car will actually perform better under a little pressure. There's the old addage about "loading the tires before you work the tires," and it's true of the suspension too: if you exert forces on the pavement by activating the springs to push on the tires, you'll get that ever so wonderful equal-but-opposing force giving you grip as more of the tire is in contact with the pavement, and the car will corner better (so long as you don't unbalance the car and/or go over the limits of the tires).

Who would have ever thought I'd give a physics lesson, huh?

I have to digress here for a moment to relate an interesting thing that I witnessed this past weekend, because it's such a great example of the driver's relationship to his car. I jumped in with a fellow instructor who has nearly the same car and setup as mine to see a different line that he was using in Turn 9 (I know, I know - but sometimes you have to talk about it!!!). It was a warm afternoon, and as he threw the car into off-camber Turn 5 I noticed him countersteer fairly dramatically (by "threw" I mean that he was using a graceful yet fairly agressive turn-in to really get the car cornering). On the next lap he again had to countersteer, and again, and again, gradually lessening in severity but still searching for grip all the way through the corner until he was safely exiting away from the apex and back on camber up the hill towards Turn 6. I was shocked because I had experienced exactly the same loss of traction there in my session immediately prior, and it had seemed so dramatic to me as the driver that I apologized profusely to my student rider for having probably giving him a start - and yet as the rider in this car I hadn't even felt the loss of traction that the driver so quickly reacted to and managed. There is something truly magical about the energy flowing in that circuit, entering the driver through his gentle grip on the steering wheel, flowing down into his body and pulsing back and forth between his backside and the cushions of the seat, and finally shooting back down his legs, through the pedals back into the car (I'm sorry, I understand the thing in theory, but the physics of this part escape my ability for explanation, so magic will have to do).

Another interesting part of my own personal experience teaching these techniques over the weekend: I know that throttle steer works best when paired with trailing brake, also known as braking for balance, but I'll admit to a level of uncertainty when it comes to talking with my students about trailing brake. I have a strong dislike for the more commonly used term "trail braking" because it can give the wrong idea to a student (of which I was once guilty) - that your slow release of the brake as you turn the wheel in is braking to slow the car. It is not. Trailing brake is used to keep the car balanced, allowing a driver to have more control of the turn in and to obtain proper directionality at the apex for a clean and fast exit. So as a part of helping my students with throttle steer, I worked on their vision by first giving a braking point, immediately coaching/directing student's vision to the apex, to the track out, back to the apex, to the next turn in, etc. I found that this naturally led to a bit of trailing brake/braking for balance in combination with a much smoother turn-in, and getting them back on the throttle smoothly and incrementally with their vision up was also much easier. The car stayed well-balanced and was planted ever so nicely through the corner, and oh by the way did you see that apex!?

I love this well-known video of Ayrton Senna driving the Honda NSX for so many reasons (not least that he is wearing loafers with socks). You can see him using all of these techniques in this one lap: using the brake to balance the car entering a corner, getting right back to the throttle but not immediately accelerating, setting the suspension to press the tires into the pavement for maximum grip, unwinding and adding throttle slowly...oh yeah, and that heel & toe action on his downshifts is pretty great too.

A couple of things to note though before anyone goes hustling off to emulate every move Senna makes: 1) your maintenance throttle should be one smooth application with almost indiscernable adjustments, if any (or at least smooth adjustments if they need to be a bit larger) - many people believe that Senna used this rougher blipping technique because he started out in cars with early turbo-charged engines where he needed to manually maintain the boost through a corner in order to have torque delivery at the exit; and 2) while his movements with the steering wheel are generally smooth, you will notice him occasionally jerking the wheel in the middle of a corner to straighten or even countersteer the front wheels as they begin to loose traction - this is also not something you should try to emulate since you should only be moving the wheel abruptly while cornering if you find yourself actually loosing grip, and you'll know when you're at that point because it'll feel like your heart just fell into your britches. Trust me.

And remember too that Senna is truly riding the limits of this car for most of the lap, which isn't a place any of us should be at an HPDE event, especially if you're still learning about these concepts and just beginning to put them into practice. It's good to explore limits so that you can better understand them, but take it slowly when you're searching for them - yours, the car's, the track's, etc. - and try to only push one limit at a time! If you feel the need to push your limits a little harder, find a setting where you have some room for error and can explore them in relative safety - go karting, autocross, a car control clinic, or even a professional driving, riding, or rally school.

But regardless of the track, I discovered over my last few events as an instructor that pinpointing the one or two skills helping me to be the most successful at each track and focusing on that with my students would fix a myriad of other things going on in their driving. For example, focusing on directing their vision at a busy track with sharp and linked turns (think Buttonwillow Raceway Park and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) will free up the subconscious mind to do the things it already knows how to do - brake, turn, gas - and it will make those things much smoother than by simply trying so hard to "be smooth". The effort of keeping their vision high & wide will smooth out the signals between incoming information and outgoing motion while also controlling the pace at which the track moves by.

I also learned that students above the very beginning level are mostly ready for coaching and not so much in need of instructing. After presenting a new concept or set of directions I'd continue coaching in that way for a few laps, but during each lap I would remove one or two instructions to measure progress. Then I'd see the muscle memory start to kick in and I could back off even more to see how much of the information they were able to retain. Again, by doing this I was able to focus on encouraging the skills that were still being developed without distracting the parts of the brain that control the existing skills.

In short, I'm learning that both driving and instructing is a series of directions and misdirections used to fool the brain into doing things it's not comfortable with yet. The best way to unlearn a bad habit (rough inputs for example) is actually to make yourself learn a new good habit. You'll never lose the original neural pathway to that bad habit, but if you create a sparkling clean new pathway you might just have a chance of abandoning the old one.

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