Everyone has their bucket list, if we're lucky, we can knock off a few of the important ones before we kick the bucket, (pardon the pun). High on most driving enthusiasts list is being able to hoon a car like those guys on TV do. Whether that's taking a front-drive 89 horsepower hatchback through a corner on three wheels, or learning to balance a Viper around a sweeper at 160 mph, if you've got high octane fuel running through your veins, there is always something more to master behind the wheel.
Unless you're Tsuchiya, or Senna, there is always something to be learnt, a skill to develop, or somewhere your nerves prevent you from pushing harder. I think the drive to be able to master a new skill is inbred in most humans, and it's this amazing feeling that keeps the passion for automobiles alive in a lot of us.
Some of us dream of breaking some made up barrier, 100 mph, 200mph, light speed…
…and some of us dream of being right at that optimal slip angle, at every single part of the track, eking out every last horsepower, every last iota of grip from those 4 rubber doughnuts on each corner of the car.
To truly master any skill behind the wheel of an automobile, takes a lot of practice, patience, concentration, and hard work. I would argue that nobody who reached the professional level of motorsports in the past 20 years was self taught, they all learned from coaching, driving schools, mentors, friends, our dads, and sometimes moms. However, we don't all need to be 'professionals' to get the same satisfaction of nailing the perfect line through a corner or catching the wildest slide around your favorite roundabout or highway on-ramp.
Sometimes the greatest driving pleasure comes when you're all alone on an empty stretch of road, and sometimes after a 20 minute sprint race. Whatever, or wherever that pleasure comes from, its all about pushing your own limits, safely, and growing your skills to control your vehicle.
Driving schools and track days are far more economical, accessible, and common now than they were even 10 years ago. There is no shortage of talented people to teach you new things, and develop the nut behind the steering wheel.
You can attend local track days for less than $100 in many areas of the world, and even at these budget conscious events, you will learn more than you would expect about yourself, your car, and your combined capabilities. Track days typically involve taking your daily driven street car (performance oriented or not), to your local track, where you and anywhere between a dozen and 50 other people of various skill sets, all set out to achieve the same thing, pure driving zen, and the act of mastery, small or large.
The first track day I attended, I figured I was a pretty decent driver, never been in an accident, could push my car pretty hard on an empty winding road, but even the simplest excersises showed me the flaws in my thinking, and self-taught performance driving skills.
Most HPDE events will start the beginners out with some classroom basics, as well as a few on-track practical excersises. Threshold braking before a corner, or through a corner isn't something the typical driver will ever experience on the road, (and no, slamming on the brakes in an emergency situation doesn't count). Driving through a slalam course while waiting for a signal from down course to skip cones randomly is great at showing your just how short-sighted most drivers are.
It's these very basics you will learn at your first HPDE or driving school that teach you the fundamentals of driving any vehicle hard, or fast; to look far ahead of you, not 2 feet in front of your
car, not 10 feet, you need to be thinking hundreds of feet ahead of
where you are to be able to see what's coming with enough time to react. The extra awareness you will develop driving to the grocery store is a fantastic by product of learning to drive at the limit.
Race schools can be quite a big jump from your average HPDE events. Although most times much more expensive, the level of instructing you get, and the fact you get to beat on someone else's car, is absolutely worth the extra dough!
What is interesting to me is how much science there is behind pushing a car to the limit. When you sit in a classroom with an ex-professional driver who also has a degree in Mechanical Engineering it really opens your eyes to what really goes on at the track. Those guys from 50+ years ago who raced with primarily on instinct must have had cajones the size of grapefruits, but nowadays, you really need to learn the mechanics of what is happening under you and around you as you drive a vehicle at speed, even just the fundamentals.
What surprised me the most during the 3 days I spent with Skip Barber last fall at Laguna Seca, was just how much feedback I could get, and how it progressed over those 3 days. Now I'm far from an expert driver, but I've had the opportunity to learn from some very talented drivers. During those 3 days, the feedback started at 'you can do that corner at 10 mph faster' to, 'you need to turn in six inches before you were turning in at turn 6'.
Learning from these instructors varies so widely. From having an instructor sitting at each corner of the track feeding back to you after your session, to doing drive-follow sessions to watch your instructors' lines and speeds, and having them watch yours, there will never be a shortage of feedback from your instructor.
One thing that put a smile on my face every time I got out of the car after a session out on the track was hearing how I had improved in an area of the track, or how I got my line just right in one of the corners, or my entry speed was perfect.
The best part of driving schools and HPDE's is having a safe place to learn the craft. Being able to push to your limits, the cars limits, and beyond safely just cannot be done on public roads. The instructors will give you the tools to inch up to the limit, versus going all-out on the first lap, crashing, and proceeded to do it again in another car at 2 mph slower!
It's this gradual movement, getting closer and closer to the limit with each passing lap, and each passing track session that teaches you the feel of what the car is doing underneath you. The feel through your fingertips, the palms of your hands, your feet, toes, your butt and legs, every sense is used in driving a car to the limit, and having the chance to focus on these sensory impulses, and adjust little by little is how you go from driving at 6/10ths to driving close to 10/10ths.
Get out there and try it for yourself if you haven't already. And if you've been to a track day, or HPDE, or driver's school, go to more! You will never stop improving, and never cease to enjoy the pure pleasure of pushing beyond your limits. If you don't have a track nearby, plan a weekend with the family and camp at or near a track, find an abandoned parking lot or airfield, join your local Autocross group and mow over some cones! Whatever, or wherever, drive responsibly and safely, and strive to be that fraction better than the time before.
One last note, I've never been to a track event, drivers school, or HPDE that wasn't family friendly. Bring your kids, bring your partner, bring your dog, even if they write embarrassing things about you in the classroom for everyone else to see!
And don't forget, its not a race, you don't need to beat anyone other than yourself.
"Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power." -