04-19-10 - PNWR Driver Skills Day

I went and did the Porsche club "Driver Skills" DS day last weekend. It's a prerequisite before you get to run on the real race track (aka "Driver Education" or DE), and I thought it would be a good way to get used to running the car closer to the limit, since I'm not very familiar with it yet. DS is held at Bremerton Raceway Park which is just an abandoned air strip. It's just a big tarmac and they put a bunch of cones on it and you do various exercises. (Porsche club also runs its autocross out there).

The day starts by stripping everything loose out of your car - everything! Things typically forgotten are floor mats and the tire kit in your trunk. Take it all out. It's good to bring a big tub or something to keep your gear in that you took out of your car.

Then there was a one hour ground school. If you know anything about race driving (eg. if you know what a "late apex" is or what the "traction budget" is) then this is pretty boring, but to their credit the guys speaking were actually pretty charistmatic and moved quickly and made it not excruciating.

The rest of the day consisted of six different exercise stations. You spend an hour at each station then rotate to the next. At each station there are 10 cars or so and you take turns running the course, and a few volunteer instructors rotate through the cars so you almost always have an instructor in car with you. The instructors were uniformly great guys & gals - they volunteer and were very friendly and knowledgeable and had great attitudes despite us trying to make them vomit and standing in the rain all day.

Oh yeah, it was wet, it rained pretty hard all day. That made everything very slippery. In one way it was good to get to practice with the car in the wet, but it would have been nice to get some runs in the dry.

The sessions were :

Skidpad (donuts) : they wet the track and you go around in circles. You can really feel how you can throttle steer in this exercise, more throttle and you circle wider, less throttle you come in. Like most of the things you learn in DS, you should already know this in your brain, but you need to actually feel it in your car and hands for it to become intuition. I also go to play with the understeer/oversteer characteristics of my car. When I gradually take the throttle up past the limit of adhesion, my car goes into understeer and plows out; if I really punch the throttle hard, it will kick the rear out and go into an oversteer spin. I was never able to kick the rear out and control it, it's hard to do in the C4S because you have to kick the throttle so hard to get it to step out. The main mistake I was making was once I got into a spin I was reflexively putting the clutch in and letting off the throttle abruptly; what I need to do is just ease down on the throttle and try to catch it before bailing out.

Braking / accident avoidance : part 1 is go as fast as you can and then slam on the brakes to full stop as late as you can. This was a trip because it is absolutely amazing how fast the car can stop when you are fully on the brakes (even in the wet!). The goal of the exercise is to brake as late as possible and still stop before the cone. I kept braking way too soon because my intuition says "you have to brake now!" ; by the end I started getting closer, but I really needed more time to get used to it. Part 2 was accident avoidance; a surprise obstacle (a very brave volunteer) jumps out to one side, and you have to brake and steer away at the same time. Again I was just not braking hard enough here at first, because my gut says you can't steer if you're braking that hard; in fact you can!

Handling oval : run the car around in an oval to practice apexing. Get up to as much speed as possible before the turn, hard on the brakes without much turning, look for the apex, turn hard and try to power out past the apex, making a perfect "late apex" turn. Hard to do in practice. A few things I need to get better at on this - make sure you actually look and stare at the apex, it will be out your side window as you brake in; make sure you brake enough before turning in, you need to get well slow or you'll understeer and miss the apex. Basically what you're doing is prolonging your straights on both entry and exit, which is what gives you more speed; you brake late and very hard so you enter deep into the turn, then at very low speed you turn hard to aim back past the apex, then get on the power early and power out hard in a very gradual curve.

Slalom : weaving between cones and trying to go as fast as possible. The main thing here is smoothness and looking ahead. This felt pretty natural to me, it is a lot like skiing. The main thing is to look way ahead and have your line planned out, take the most gradual arc you can, don't jerk the car back and forth.

Advanced Slalom : like slalom, but cones are not in a straight line, so you have to look ahead more and use more planning. Pretty fun. The skill is a lot like slalom, being smooth, but also a bit like Autocross in visualizing the "empty space"; that is, don't see the cones and think that you have to drive past the cones, rather see all the empty space that the cones allow and pick your best line in that empty space - often there are straights hidden in the cones, and straights = speed.

+ bonus shifting training. I actually learned a lot from this. One that I was coached on all day by instructors was to keep your hands on the wheel! I habitually get my hand over to the shifter too often, sometimes I'll anticipate I might have to shift in a corner and I go move my hand over to the stick to prepare, but that means I'm not cornering as well, you need to stay on the wheel, the quickly pop over to the shifter and quickly pop back. I also do some funny unnecessary extra movements, like sometimes I love the shifter to neutral, let go for a half second, and then move it into the next gear. The main thing was some guidance on rev matching downshifts. I know how to do it, but it's great to just have someone watch you and pay attention to the RPM dial and the lurch of the car and tell you your mistake each time. The goal is to make a perfectly smooth downshift so that you can't feel it at all. The main thing is the Porsche engine is real "heavy" , you need to give it a real good kick of gas to get the revs up, and you need to do it well enough before you let the clutch out. A basic downshift should consist of : clutch in, select neutral, increase throttle, select gear, clutch out. The detail here is crucial - you increase throttle *before* you select gear. Another little trick I learned is that it's better to over-shoot the RPM for rev match than to undershoot it, so err on the side of too much gas.

Autocross : obviously the exercise that puts it all together, we got to do a few runs on a tiny autocross course. This was a fucking blast, and I plan to do some more Auto-X some day. You get to slam on the gas for the straights, hard on the brakes, make the turns, it involves all the skills. Like the advanced slalom course, a lot of the skill is in picking a good line, which means not following the cones - use the freedom of all that extra tarmac. Take your turns as wide and sweeping as you can, turn soft wiggles into straights. My main mistakes were : following the direction of the cones too much, not going as wide as I should after and before corners, coming into corners too fast - you have to really brake hard coming in, not getting on throttle hard enough or early enough in the straights - intuitively you see a 50 foot long straight before the next turn and your mind says "okay just coast in there for the straight" but what you need to do it floor it as late as possible and then slam on the brakes before the turn.

I learned a lot about my driving and my car's responses, so it was a huge success, and a lot of fun. It is a very long day - I woke up around 5 AM to get the ferry, so I was exhausted by the end, and the other drawback is that there is an awful lot of standing around. With 10 cars on each skill, that means you only spend 1/10 of the time actually driving and the rest is waiting. It would be so awesome to be the only one out there with just a real top instructor and tons of track time, you could improve so much.

There were also a huge variety of people there; it was only about 50% Porsches or maybe a bit less, lots of BMWs, and a few red herrings like a Hyundai Genesis and a Pontiac G8. There were a few real track cars that were trailered in. There were also people there who were not real speed drivers at all, who just wanted to get more comfortable with their cars.

My car is not really a good autocross car at all, it's too big and heavy, the 4WD is a disadvantage, and really the visibility of a convertible would help a lot. I was jealous of the people in Miatas and Elises and shit like that - a small light RWD car would be a fucking blast for AutoX, you can get up and down in speed quickly. Also the power of my car is really a disadvantage for me in a way - I'm not good enough to handle the car at the speeds it can do.

The ideal track car would be something really cheap so you don't have to worry about the abuse it will get, light, only medium power so it can't go fast enough to hurt me, RWD front engine. Put sticky tires on it and do some suspension mods. But there's no way I will ever track often enough for it to be worth having a "track car". It's another one of those things that you would ideally share between 10 friends or something.


Aaron said...

Everyone once in a while I test my anti-lock brakes (and new brake jobs/tires/suspension work etc) by flooring the brakes on an empty stretch of road from 40mph or so (or really really empty highway from highway speed). And yeah, it's just insane how fast a car can stop. It's kinda amazing too how it sends your whole brain and body into a sorta hypnotic state. Hands locked forward on the wheel, eyes glazed ahead. You don't dare do anything to turn or think or scan the road ahead. Being able to think and steer under full braking *should* be really easy and natural, but without regular training, most people probably can't do it.

Of course, the braking distance thing goes to complete hell if you're going downhill. There it's the reverse. You think you can stop, but basically going downhill you'll almost *never* stop, or so it seems.

cbloom said...

Try picking a spot in the road while you're driving and just say "I'm going to brake as late as possible but still stop before that spot" and see how close you can get.

"or really really empty highway from highway speed"

I used to like to come to a full stop on empty freeways in Houston when I had passengers and then just sit there as long as possible. It's a really eerie feeling and it freaks people out.

kim said...

The skills day sounds like fun.

A cheap substitute is to grow up where there's snow and own a succession of $500 cars that you don't mind running into things.

Variant on your highway thing was a high school friend who informed whoever sat in the passenger seat that their duty was to, without warning, pull the handbrake when he least expected it. This was Clouseau-Pink-Panther-style training that resulted in much hilarity and a few slightly mangled trash cans and wrecked suburban lawns.

cbloom said...

"A cheap substitute is to grow up where there's snow and own a succession of $500 cars that you don't mind running into things."

Yeah I'm pretty jealous of that. It's hard to find open space around here, and even if you do you have to beware of cops.

Though I've done plenty of hooligan driving in empty parking lots, and as fun as it was I didn't really learn much from it. It's a pretty dramatically different experience when you're actually taking it seriously and have an instructor with you and all that.

I wish the driver's ed classes that we took in highschool actually involved skidpad and snow driving and things that actually prepared you for the real world. I mean fucking hell, the whole idea of training is that the things you encounter in training should be *harder* than what you will face in real life.

MH said...

Sounds like a ton of fun. I want to attend one.

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