Pushing the Limits

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Development Tracks Are Great For Improving Driving Skills

Getting sideways at Mosport. Photo courtesy of Sasha AnisI was at Mosport recently with some of my employees, one of whom had never driven the big track before. We were there with a few experienced drivers who have spent the majority of their time lapping at what I will refer to as “pro” tracks, such as Mosport, Watkins Glen and Mont Tremblant.

What I observed was the inspiration for this article. It fascinates me to see some drivers (and I mean no offence if you are the type) that have only run at these pro tracks without ever spending the time and effort developing the skills required to attack the most challenging circuits in North America! Let us compare that type of driver to someone who has never driven a pro track, but has developed a strong skill set at “development” tracks.

Well, what is the aim? Obviously, each time at the track your main goal (apart from having fun and not crashing) is to go as fast as possible. Being able to go fast comes down to a few different skills:

I don’t think you would argue that to be able to go fast, you first need to know the fastest way around the track, and have a general understanding of vehicle dynamics and racing theory. That’s number one. Let’s assume both of our drivers are equal in that department.

Secondly, and less obvious, is the requirement that the driver must have the physical ability to get the car to do what his brain wants it to do. This involves being able to heel-toe, downshift quickly, provide smooth and accurate inputs to the steering and pedals, and not becoming overwhelmed behind the wheel.

Thirdly, our driver must not be afraid to push the car to its limit, and he must have developed a feel for the limit during braking, cornering, acceleration and their inherent combinations. He must be able to understand the feedback the car is giving, communicating just how close he is to that limit.

Finally, when our hero steps beyond the limit, he must not spin out, crash and die. This would prove expensive and unfortunate. There is no doubt that these skills are required to go fast. The question is, would a development track be an easier place to learn these skills?

A development track is different from a pro track in that it is a low risk environment where you can usually make mistakes with few consequences. This gives you the opportunity to work on, and hopefully master, your connection with the car, becoming one with the car. It’s a silly phrase but that’s what we’re going for. It’s easiest to learn at lower speeds, when rough inputs won’t upset the car, and when things happen a little bit slower. Pro tracks, on the other hand, can intimidate you and cause you to drive in a programmed, robotic manner.

If you didn’t heel-toe before you visited a pro-track, I can be certain you didn’t learn it while diving in and really attacking a corner. No, instead maybe you started braking 100 feet too early, got the downshift done well before the corner because of the paralyzing fear of locking rear tires, spinning out and hitting the guardrail. A development track shouldn’t instill that kind of fear in you, and should enable you to work on your connection with the car.

Once you’re able to drive the car exactly how your mind demands, you can start exploring the limits. At a development track amateur drivers often go TOO far past the limit, whereas at pro tracks drivers are too scared to even come close to the car’s ability. I think this is the biggest difference between a “development” and a “pro” track – the faster the speed, the greater the fear. You must know exactly where the limit is of your car in all situations; whether it’s powering out of a corner, trail braking into one or anything in-between. Your brain must have an accurately trained alarm that goes off and tells you that you are at the limit BEFORE the car slides off the track. This is simply something you cannot develop when the risk of going off the track is certain vehicle damage. Unless you’re rich and crazy (in which case, get a video camera!).

The best thing about learning the limit is that you get to play on the other side. You get to learn car control – and it can be a wonderfully glorious feeling. The first time you get into a big slide and catch it without drama, you’ll have more satisfaction in your heart than if you had driven every F1 track on the planet, believe me. As your car control improves, you will be able to save the car before it’s even a noticeable moment. You’ll be able to save slides at higher and higher speeds, which is really the ultimate preparation for those pro tracks.

That’s when it all comes full circle. Only with this innate connection to the car, the knowledge of the vehicle’s limit, and the ability to control the car beyond the limit will you be ready to truly enjoy pro tracks. And, like my employees, you’ll learn the track extremely quickly because you’ll already have a great foundation. Without establishing and mastering these fundamentals, however, you will forever be paralyzed by fear at the high speed, high risk tracks. You won’t go fast, and I don’t believe you’ll have nearly the fun you could. Everyone can do it. You’ve learned how to walk and talk, and that’s way more difficult than sliding a car around. So I challenge you, if you haven’t been to a development track recently to go out, push the car beyond its limits and take in all of the awesome things it can teach you.

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