Racing is something that I’m all too happy to leave to the professionals. Oh sure; my ideal speed is typically slightly higher than the posted limit, but I’m not a thrill seeker desperate to push my comfort zone. I know where my limitations are and I don’t derive joy from shattering them.
The thing is though, I have job where I’m fortunate enough to drive fast cars for a living. Sometimes, cars that aren’t even that fast, but nevertheless feel most at home on a track, where they’re free to finally take flight like a caged bird. How am I supposed to evaluate these cars if I can’t push them? It’s for these reasons that I’ve been wanting to take performance driving lessons, and that’s exactly what I did alongside my colleague Lalita earlier this week.
Disclaimer: Skip Barber paid for Jalopnik Managing Editor Lalita Chemello and I to participate in its One-Day Racing School at Virginia International Raceway. That costs $2,495 per person; there’s also a three-day program that costs $6,395, and the one-day version is really just the first day of that longer program.
The general layout of the first day consists of maybe an hour of in-class learning, followed by a pair of exercises that place you in a car with an instructor. Then there’s lunch, and then a few hours of lead-follow driving, where you drive behind pace cars for maybe five or six laps at a time, get out, switch with another group, then get back in the car later.
That car was an S197 Mustang GT with a fully-stripped interior, roll cage with racing seats and five-point harnesses and other upgrades, like beefier brakes, a six-speed Tremec manual gearbox, strut braces and more. Rather than slicks, we had road-legal Goodyear performance tires underneath us. Our lead instructor for the day, 2021 TC America champion Eric Powell, was quick to note that this meant our Mustangs had way more brake than rubber.
But back to the in-class part, because I’m getting ahead of myself. Here, Powell imparted many best practices of car control upon us, but the two primary ones were: looking where you want to go is important; and something called the “String Theory.” Despite having been into motorsports my entire life, I’d never heard about this car version of the String Theory, but the basic premise is that you can’t ask the car to brake, accelerate and turn to the fullest extent all at once. If you do one of those things, you have to concede the capacity of another to maintain control of the vehicle.
That idea is expressed by tying a long string to the bottom-most spoke of a steering wheel, and looping the other end around your foot. If you keep the wheel straight, you are free to move your foot up or down as you would on a pedal. But if you turn that wheel, your foot will forcibly have to lift up to allow steering. TL;DR, there is a relationship between the inputs of your hands and feet when driving, and everything is connected.
I found this to be a clever metaphor, but again: as a racing fan and someone who’d played my share of simulators, I was already familiar with the idea. Racing games are no replacement for actual driving of course, but the day’s exercises proved to me they’re very useful for understanding the academic side of driving fast. Of course, applying what you’ve learned to the track is an entirely different challenge, one mostly limited by your bravery.
All of the instructors we met were wonderful and genuinely interested in helping us improve at our own pace. And that last part is crucial because someone like me might take longer than somebody else to feel comfortable and confident enough to push the car a little more lap after lap, even though they know what they should be doing. Speed, Powell repeatedly assured us, was not the goal. Speed would come naturally once we were able to apply the fundamentals on a consistent basis.
It’s something you read about again and again with respect to up-and-coming racing drivers, and it applies to novices too: there is no replacement for seat time. Once you’ve had the initial instruction, the only way to improve is continual practice. I didn’t time our lead-follow runs, but all told I’d estimate we had roughly 45 minutes of mostly unfettered track time on the one-day program. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I entered every new lap wondering if this would be the one where I’d make a mess of things and test the limits of the insurance policy I signed earlier. Or, you know, worse.
As for the other exercises, one consisted of negotiating a succession of corners with an instructor riding along. I found that session extremely valuable, thanks to the immediate feedback and the quick repetition of running through the segment, then cooling down to unpack what just happened. They were essentially the real-life equivalent of Gran Turismo’s license tests, except you’re not trying to beat any times.
The other activity was taking a stock Toyota Camry to an empty lot and circling a ring of cones at a constant speed and steering angle to understand the difference between understeer and oversteer. The oversteer portion of this exercise was possible because of an EasyDrift plastic donut on the outer rear tire as we circled the cones counter-clockwise. The back would break out at a very low speed, and we were tasked with gently catching the slide with smooth countersteering and some throttle pressure. Lalita and I enjoyed this one a lot; we also admittedly turned it into a drifting challenge, one she excelled at. Me, not so much.
I’ll tell you one thing that last activity taught me: Fully lifting off the throttle to catch a skid is a bad idea, at least when you’re driving a front-wheel drive sedan with a shopping cart caster for an outer rear tire. I’d instinctively lift completely when the rear would begin to lose traction, when I actually should’ve maintained a little bit of gas to motivate the drive wheels not to let things spiral. I can’t say I mastered it by any measure, but I would’ve happily spent an entire hour trying to nail that challenge.
And that speaks to the recurring question I’ve been asking myself for the last several days since I returned from VIR: Have I learned anything? Academically, sure. But this is a sport where you learn by doing. Do I feel like what I’ve been taught has made me a better driver? Or at least a more confident one?
That question is much harder to answer. I didn’t have a stopwatch on me in the Mustang, so I can’t definitively say my laps at the end of the day were faster than the ones I’d turned when I first got in the car. However they felt quicker, if nothing else. I was braking harder and later, steering further, staying on the power longer. And sure — speed may not have been the objective, but confidence was. The two often go hand in hand.
Knowing a thing or two about my brain and body — particularly my trepidation in the morning and how hard I tend to be on myself — I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t know or trust that I’m a better driver now than I was before. Maybe I’m not! People take their whole lives to learn how to do this properly, and I spent maybe three hours at it myself. Maybe I didn’t pass the threshold for measurable progress. It’s sort of like going to therapy for a few months and asking yourself “is this working?”
But at a certain point you have to trust the process and keep with it. That’s why if I had spent my own money on this, I’d save up for the three-day course over the single-day one. Of course I realize it’s easy for me to say this because of the opportunity I’ve been given, but I’d want to be damn sure I’d retain — or at least feel like I’d retained — what I’d learned. And as great as Skip Barber was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there are cheaper alternatives out there. Like Radford, that charges $2,000 less for its three-day program. (I was going to link to Bondurant as well, but they’re inactive at the moment; a few years ago, they charged about the same as Radford did, too.) Shop around, you know what to do.
If there’s a moral to my story, and to anyone else who wants to learn how to drive better but doesn’t think they can, it’d probably be that you can and should ask lots of questions but maybe not be so preoccupied with having all the answers. Everyone started somewhere, after all. It’s trite, but that’s because it’s true.