The danger of demo rides

Turn 5 at Thunderhill, aka the Cyclone, is like a smaller version of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. The track rises to the right, turns quickly to the left and then plunges down to the right. Being a technical corner with a lot of elevation and turning, the Cyclone is typically the slowest corner on the track. Well, unless you’re flying 3 feet over it at 70 mph…

Friday, I was coaching with Hooked on Driving, which is probably the most successful HPDE-only company in the US today. They have a great program that features a lot of in class instruction as well as skid pad drills and of course track time. My favorite part is coaching the figure 8 drill. I’ve blogged about this before.

My student had 7 previous track days and had been to Thunderhill before, so he wasn’t a complete novice. Watching him on the skid pad, I could see that he was a pretty careful driver and not a hooligan. I generally prefer that. Once we got out on track, I found that he approached almost all the corners the same way: drive fast to the inside of the corner, jam on the brakes, and drive mostly around the inner radius. I wasn’t too surprised as he was doing the exact same thing in the figure 8 drill.

We switched positions so that I could drive a lap or two. I was eager to do that because his car was a Subaru BRZ with a lot of go-fast parts that included a supercharger, wide RE-71R tires, big Brembo brakes, low/stiff suspension, and a splitter. I had never driven a BRZ before, much less one in this state of tune. My first thought was “wow this thing has torque” as I accelerated from the pits. But that thought quickly turned to “the grip is freaking amazing”. I took a second lap and pushed it a little harder. Getting the car to slide through the corners required quite a bit of speed, and I found the experience pretty exhilarating.

We switched drivers again and I had a brief talk with him before we started again.

“Look, you may have seen me do some things in the car there, but I don’t want you trying to copy me. I want you to focus on safety”.

Yeah, like that was going to work…

He left the pits briskly. T2 was a bit faster. T3 was a good deal faster, but he backed off for T4. Then he started up the hill to the Cyclone. I thought he was going to do what he usually did: brake really hard and crawl around the corner. Nope, instead he went straight over at 70 mph. I can still see in my mind’s eye the view from 3 feet above the track as we were in mid air. Our attitude was slightly nose-down, which was fine because the back side of the hill had the same angle. We hit pretty square and the landing was much less dramatic than I had expected. This could have gone really, really wrong, and we’re lucky we weren’t hospital bound.

Why did this happen? From a very local sense, I think it’s because he had momentarily forgotten that the track was using the Cyclone configuration. The Bypass does go straight over, and he had previously run the Bypass more often. How does someone forget the shape of the track from one lap to the next? Possibly because he was so focussed on driving faster that he had no mental capacity for anything else. Keith Code talks a lot about this in “Twist of the Wrist”. That’s a motorcycle book that somehow isn’t part of my library page (see link above). So why was my student so focused on driving faster? I think because I drove the demo laps too fast. It might be inspiring to watch skateboarders fly through the air in the X-games, but it takes years of training before one can do that safely. Performance driving is nearly as difficult, equally dangerous, and about a thousand times more expensive.

This experience has me reflecting on the plusses and minuses of coach demo laps. On the plus side, the students have a lot of fun. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. They can also learn a lot by watching. Coaches also enjoy it because the students look at them like superstars. On the minus side, some students may become so emboldened that they are no longer safe. To me, that one minus outweighs all the plusses. Safety is the #1 priority. No more fast demo laps for me.

BTW, the rest of the day was great. We both learned some valuable lessons that day and had a lot of fun doing it.

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4 thoughts on “The danger of demo rides

  1. Not preachy, just my experience:

    A lot of damage can be done to a student, particularly a first timer, by a hot demo lap. I had the occasion to take on a student for the second day of the event whose assigned instructor ran him hot in (the instructor’s) GT3. The student then tried to emulate this in his MR supercar and the original instructor punted when he saw the results–a lack of inhibition and dangerous attempt at ignorant emulation–from his student.

    The only cure was a demo ride in a far-less-capable car–with the observation that a slow car at 60% is faster than a fast car driven poorly.

    I am happy to continue to call this student my friend 10 years after that event.

    I save fast rides for beginner students until the end of the event, and never in a student’s car unless I know them and the car very well outside the context of HPDE. The Demo ride is an extremely effective tool for showing and reinforcing the guidance given from the right seat.

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    1. One day I’ll be able to assess a student and determine if a fast or slow demo ride is a good idea. Until then, I’m going to make them slow rides. I’ve got just as much work to do as a coach as a driver.

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  2. I think that fast demo rides in the students car should be limited. Even though I have done them! The great thing about a demo ride is that you can show the less experienced driver how easy it is to go fast (and you are only 6/10)! Just be smooth and know if you need to be teaching the “School Line” or showing what a different line can do.

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