There’s a little Speed Racer in everyone. It may not manifest itself often for those who drive average cars, but on occasion, most people feel the need for speed.
Some hardcore speed demons attend driving performance schools where they develop better driving skills. Through a combination of classroom instruction, and on-track driving in high-performance cars such as a BMW M3, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang or Porsche 911, students learn how to drive these vehicles properly.
What is performance driving school?
The term "performance driving school" describes any course that teaches the driving techniques used by race car drivers that can also be applied to everyday street driving.
If you have any memory of your high school driver’s education class, prepare to forget it. Performance driving school is nothing like that. You will drive cars that are built for speed and performance and you will be asked to do things that sound and look easy, but are confounding in their complexity.
Here are some things you’ll learn in performance school:
Slow down speed racer
The first thing that most driving students want to do when they hit the track is to go fast. It doesn’t matter where they’re going, they just want to get there in a hurry. To temper their enthusiasm, instructors sometimes tie a string between the bottom of the steering wheel and the accelerator. Students will learn quickly that it’s impossible to turn the wheel with the accelerator pushed to the floor without busting the string. If they need to turn, they will need to ease up on the gas or risk losing control of the car.
However, the string on the steering wheel and accelerator teaches a broader message to the newbies - if you think you can handle your car because you’re used to driving fast on the open road you’re wrong.
Driving fast on the open road and performance driving is not related. If you are driving in the city or on a highway, you will not encounter as many sharp bends or hairpin turns as you may find on a race track. In order to keep yourself safe, do not assume that the skills that enable you to drive fast on the highway will translate to driving safely on a track.
Try this - the next time you’re out driving, brake 80 to 90% of full force just as you enter a turn. Then, as you go through the turn, gradually let off the brake, and hit the gas. You may be anxious that this would bring your vehicle to a complete stop. Surprisingly, the momentum will push you through the turn and your car will not come to a stop.
Braking into a turn does two things. First, it’ll slow your vehicle down before you hit it, which will keep it from fishtailing. Second, braking before the turn will lower the nose of your car, putting more pressure on your front tires. More pressure on your front tires means a better grip on the track (or the road).
A good performance school will teach you techniques that will help you understand the counterintuitive nature of performance driving. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, 90 percent of performance driving is mental, the rest is physical.
No more 10 and 2
In driver’s education, you would have been taught to hold the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and two o’clock position. In performance driving, you are taught to hold the wheel at nine and three. In addition, you are taught to keep your hands on the wheel at all times.
In performance driving, there’s no need to make hand-over-hand turns but this means that sometimes your arms will criss-cross over each other and you’ll be tempted to let go of the wheel to get your arms in a more comfortable position.
High-performance car driving instructors insist that you hold the steering at the nine and three position so that you will always know the position of your car’s wheels. At nine and three, your arm position will mirror the position of your wheels. If you’re driving at speeds that you’ve never reached before, the last thing you want to worry about is where your wheels are positioned. If you manage to hold onto the steering wheel (as you should), you’ll know exactly which way your wheels are pointed, even if your vehicle spins out.
Not all corners are equal
Applying the brakes as you head into a corner is a technique that is used to keep your car under control so you can hit the accelerator as you head out of the turn. That strategy works great as long as there’s only one turn to worry about. Sometimes, you may have two turns, back-to-back, that head in opposite directions.
If you’re on a racetrack and see a double turn, one strategy that instructors teach is to sacrifice some speed on the first turn so that you can maneuver into a better position to execute the second turn perfectly. Beginner tracks often reward newbies with a straightaway after the second turn, so that you have a chance to open it up.
The rule of thirds
When you drive on small streets or roads, you spend a lot of time looking around. You might notice a new display in the window of your favorite specialty market or that the neighborhood sandwich joint went out of business.
Try taking in the sights surrounding the track while driving, and your day probably won’t end on a high note! To become a good performance driver, you will need to keep your head up and look through the top third of the window. The instructors will teach you to forget what’s right in front of you (again, counterintuitive to what we do when driving on the street), and focus on where you want to go. Your driving instincts will take you there.
You may think that driving school is not too hard as you only need to sit in your car all day. However, everything that you do on the track, in a high-performance car is like driving on steroids - the speed, noise, the forces on your body, twisting and turning, and the strength needed to manage the car - is amped up a few notches. As you drive around the track, you’ll be taking inventory of what feels safe, and not so safe, to you. And on top of all of that, you’re being taught to drive in a way that is counterintuitive to the way you drive every day.
If you take a multi-day class, you’re going to get better every day. The threshold of what was too fast on day one may have no resemblance to what you can handle on day three. You will adapt and become more comfortable with risks.
The process of getting comfortable with driving fast over a period of a few days will be exhausting and an exhausted driver is a dangerous driver, so give yourself some downtime in between drives.
Drivers who are serious about improving their skills can attend racing school, which sometimes features open-wheel race cars. Specialty schools such as kart or NASCAR are available as well. People will travel great distances to attend good driving schools so don’t be surprised if some of your classmates come to the class from another city or state even.