Disaster training

When we talk about driver education, the conversation often goes to line, brake release, etc. Even though we say safety is the #1 priority, how often do we talk about it? How often do we demonstrate it? Safety doesn’t just mean having the proper gear in the car or on your person, but the training necessary to deal with bad stuff that happens on a race track. For example, has anyone ever shown you the proper way to use a fire extinguisher? What driving organization teaches people how to put out a car fire? Is it even a good idea to teach that or does that increase your chance of insurance liability? What about first aid? The Motorsports Academy Level 1 course I recently took had zero content on disaster response. When novice drivers go to HPDE events, surely they expect their coaches to know what to do in a crisis. Like any performance activity, we don’t rise to the occasion, we fall back on our training. For many of us, that disaster training is shamefully inadequate.

In the video below, the car catches on fire due to an exhaust leak and dry grass. The car is equipped with a fire extinguisher, but it hardly matters because it isn’t used properly. Also, the car wasn’t shut off, so the fuel pump keeps going. This isn’t a race, so full safety gear was not required. This kind of thing could happen at any track day. Are you prepared? Honestly, I’m not, and this is a wake-up call for me to do some homework on the topic.


FWD Drifting: Part 2 and Cones in Practice

Last week I talked about some of the tuning and techniques for drifting FWD cars. Some readers may be asking “why bother?” Well, because it’s a driving skill. And if you can drift a FWD car, it will help you drift a RWD car. Inducing oversteer by dynamically changing the balance of the car is important regardless of which wheels are providing power. I shot the video below on the skid pad at Thunderhill between coaching sessions.

The first part shows an exterior view of some switchbacks. It’s sort of comical how slow I’m going and how little my car looks like a racecar. But even at slow speeds it will slide around corners. In the second part, the camera is inside the car. You can see that I don’t use the hand brake. The car oversteers by changing the balance of the car, not locking the rear wheels. It’s also set up with a lot less grip in the ear. The car has RE-71R tires on front at 26 PSI (cold) and Hankook runflats on the rear at 38 PSI (cold).

The next series of shots are what I’m calling point to point. It’s just going around two cones but with different turn radii. I start with a large radius and progressively shorten it. Which one do you think takes the least time? Back in December, I posted on this topic. See Cones in Theory. If you don’t want to read that whole post, here’s the short version: I make the statement that path A takes less time than B, C, or D. That’s the experiment I’m performing in the point to point videos above.

I timed the various runs and indeed, the tiny radius is the fastest (path A). It’s also in a very bad spot in the power band. I’m driving in 2nd gear the whole time, and there just isn’t as much power when driving the tighter radii. But it didn’t change the outcome. Path A is the fastest way around a brace of cones.

FWD Drifting: Part 1

There are a lot of people out there who think FWD is not fast and not fun. Well, as an owner of both FWD and RWD track cars, I can say that I have just as much fun in a FWD Yaris as a RWD Miata. One of the big reasons to hate on FWD is that you can’t drift it. Drifting is cool. Delicately balancing a car as it swings around a corner looks and feels awesome. It’s not always the fastest way around a track, but it definitely looks the coolest. I’m not a drifter and I don’t really understand drifting competitions, but I sure do understand the fun. In the next couple posts I’m going to share my thoughts on how to drift FWD in theory and practice.

First off, drifting is simply oversteer. That term simply means that the front wheels have more grip than the rears. A better way to think about it is that the rear tires have little grip. There are several ways to create oversteer. Before getting to that, let’s talk about tuning. Most cars come from the factory with understeer built into the design. After all, it’s safer if cars don’t spin. To get your car to oversteer, you may need to do one or more of the following.

  • Turn off traction and stability control if you have it. This nanny can totally kill all efforts to drift.
  • Use very lopsided tire pressures. Fronts should be a little lower than usual and rears should be near maximum.
  • Use different tires front and rear. Fronts can be a typical 200 treadwear sport tire while the rears should be hard and skinny all seasons.
  • Tighten up the rear suspension with higher rate springs or/and anti-roll bar.
  • Increase the toe in the rear. Normally, cars are aligned to be toe-in (negative) in the rear for safety, but toe-out (positive) helps oversteer.

So now that you car can oversteer, how are you going to go about it? In powerful RWD cars you can mash the throttle and the tires will spin too fast to make good grip with the pavement. Hey, anyone can stomp on a pedal, that’s cheating. How else can you create oversteer?

  • Lift – The simplest way to lose rear grip is to quickly lift off the throttle. This deceleration will shift the weight of the car forward on to the front tires. Since FWD cars naturally have more weight on the front, simply lifting off the throttle can induce oversteer. Try going around a circle at the limit of traction and then lift. You will oversteer.
  • Brake – You can very quickly transfer weight forward by braking. Really, there isn’t much difference between lifting and braking in theory. In practice, they can feel very different because the brakes act on all 4 wheels while lifting works only on the drive wheels.
  • Scandinavian Flick – If you want big drifts, lifting and braking may not be aggressive enough. Not only do you want to transfer weight forward, but also sideways. To do this, you steer in the opposite direction to load the weight on what will become the inside of the turn. Then turn as normal and the shift of the weight from inside to outside will help break traction.
  • Decrease radius – The speed you go through a turn is determined by the turn radius. Larger radii have higher speeds. So if you turn the wheel tighter it has the effect of slowing you down. This transfers weight forward, which helps oversteer. But if you’re scubbing the front tires because you turned the wheel too much at the start, turning it more won’t do anything.
  • Hand brake – Grabbing the hand brake shifts the weight forward and only applies rear brakes. It’s almost like it was made for drifting. That said, I generally don’t do it. It seems like cheating to me. Also, you could flat spot tires by locking them up. You can get all the oversteer you want without the hand brake.
  • Clutch pop – Another technique I don’t do. Seems like it puts unnecessary wear on the car. On the other hand, try coasting around a corner and then pop the clutch. It can spin you (more so in RWD). If nothing else, this is a reminder not to pop the clutch.

Once the back end of the car is coming around and you’re pointed farther into the corner than necessary (that’s oversteer), what next? First, you have to do some counter-steering to prevent the car from spinning. Frankly, this takes a lot of practice to know exactly how much. Second, don’t hit the throttle. This will transfer weight to the rear wheels and kill the drift. This is where FWD and RWD are really different. You set up the oversteer the same way: by moving weight to the front and side. However, throttle improves RWD oversteer and kills it in FWD. So you have to be patient and wait until the oversteer is mostly over before adding throttle.

Here’s my thought process as I grab some FWD drift.

  1. Drive in an arc to keep the suspension loaded on one side
  2. Turn the opposite direction in a decreasing radius
  3. Snap off the throttle
  4. Drift initiated
  5. Countersteer
  6. Wait for it
  7. Keep waiting
  8. Patience
  9. Throttle it out and recover

Tune in next week for a demonstration…

WTF: Motorsports Safety Foundation

The Motorsports Safety Foundation (MSF) is a new non-profit organization with several overarching safety goals and 4 current initiatives.

  1. The Adopt-a-Corner program provides an individual or business the opportunity to donate a safety barrier upgrade in exchange for a long-term branding contract at the track.
  2. The Race with Restraint program aims to make Frontal Head Restraints easily accessible to drivers at all levels by setting up low-cost daily rental kiosks at race tracks across the country.
  3. In an emergency, first responders SMS text message the PIN code on a racing driver’s ICE helmet sticker to the phone number listed. This unique code is used to identify the driver, provide important medical information, and notify their emergency contacts if needed.
  4. In collaboration with leaders in the High Performance Driver Education community, the Motorsport Safety Foundation has created standards for the selection, training and CERTIFICATION of high performance driving instructors.

It’s the last point the concerns me today. The Motorsport Safety Academy (MSA) offers a CERTIFIED HPDE instructor program in 5 levels.

  1. Online coursework that prepares you to become an in-car instructor.
  2. Hands-on instructor course that certifies you can coach other drivers from the passenger seat.
  3. Classroom instructor training.
  4. Remote instruction using data acquisition and video.
  5. Chief instructor and event manager.

I’m not a completely novice coach, but I thought it would be a good idea to take the Level 1 coursework. I think of myself as a perpetual student, and when it comes to driving and driving instruction, I feel I have a lot I need to learn. So I signed up for the MSA and after paying $50, I sat down to explore the course content.

The course features text, video, and practice tests. The pacing of the course is generally good, but there are a few places where the unit is too long for the number of practice questions. Generally there are about 3 questions, and it’s impossible to get them wrong before proceeding because it forces you to correct your answers. Most of the time I agreed 100% with the solutions, but there were a few that caused some head scratching. I’m sure some experienced coaches vehemently disagree with some points. That’s not to say that the course is incorrect in some areas, but that education is a very personal thing, and what’s wrong in some situations is right in others.

This reminds me a little of taking a driving exam while I was living in the UK. The USA and UK have some very different ideas about the right way to drive a car, and I don’t mean which side of the street you drive. For example, in the UK you’re supposed to shuffle steer at all times. In the USA, they advocate hand-over-hand for tight corners. Which one is right? In the UK, the side mirrors are pointed down and in while in the USA they are pointed up and out. In the UK, there is an emphasis on parking close to the curb, so the mirror is pointed down so you can see it. Also, bicycles and scooters might be very close to your sides, and the down and in mirror style helps you see them. In the USA, there’s a lot of highway driving, so the out and up mirror helps you see your blind spots when changing lanes. Which one is right?

The video parts are narrated by Ross Bentley of Speed Secrets fame. Appropriately, a lot of the content has nothing to do with driving but how to teach. The core of that is figuring out the best way to communicate with your student. But there’s also a lot of driving content. The course took me 3 sessions to finish. It was longer and more involved than I thought it would be. Overall, I think it’s pretty good. At the end of the course, there is a final exam, and you have to get a 90% or better to pass. The final exam was not so easy. Going in, I expected to get 100%, but I actually got 92%. There were some tricky questions and some that you could debate about for hours. I don’t expect anyone will get 100% because some of the testing material isn’t even in the course (study Ross’ HPDE instructor manifesto for more material). They do not provide an answer key. This is probably so people don’t cheat. But the cost is that you don’t know where your knowledge wasn’t up to snuff.

Let’s return to UK vs USA driving differences. In the UK, all of the exam questions are published in a book that you can buy. The book is pretty big and the question pool is huge. When you get to the test, there’s absolutely no surprise. Every question comes from a predetermined list. In the USA, you can find study guides but the actual exam questions are hidden. In the UK, you can pass by memorizing many exam questions. In the USA, you have to reason your way through something possibly unfamiliar. Which way is better? In this case, I actually have an opinion. I prefer the UK system. The reason is that the USA exams are so easy to pass that there’s literally no reasoning involved.

Back to the MSA exam… what happens if you fail the test? I have no idea. Maybe they don’t send you the Level 1 hard card? Well as it turns out, they didn’t send me mine even though I passed the test months ago. I sent an email asking about the card and about getting level 2 certification as I’m already an in-car coach. The silence remains deafening. Their forum has some apologetic verbiage acknowledging their lack of communication and fulfillment with promises of something by Fall 2017. They didn’t have any problem taking my money, however. That part works great.

Apparently, Hooked on Driving has endorsed MSF and vice-versa. What does that mean to me, as an HoD coach? Nothing so far. There has been zero information for HoD coaches about the MSF partnership from either side. So far it’s all just talk. Or rather a press release and no actual dialog. Somebody, do something. It’s starting to look like a scam.

A look at the MSF Facebook page shows that nearly every post is about a crash in Formula 1 or some other professional racing series. You would think that an organization that has a specific initiative to improve HPDE coaching would sometimes post about HPDE coaching. HPDE has nothing to do with crashing!

In all fairness, the MSF/MSA should have to pass an exam at the 90% level before taking $50. I guess they suck at non-profit safety foundation-ing. That’s okay, we all start our journey sucking. I look forward to their progress and also a safer and more uniform HPDE experience.

YRAR: straight off track

You Rock at Racing continues this week with another near disaster averted by an astute driver. In the following clip, the POV driver follows a tail happy car through a series of corners. The car ahead spins. The POV driver slows and thinks he can get by, but then the car changes direction…

Had the POV driver slowed more, he wouldn’t have had to take evasive action. But in the heat of the moment, you can’t always make the right decision. But what he did next was great: zeroed the steering and went off track straight with the car completely under control. After slowing down a little, he eased the car back on track. Excessive turning in grass or dirt often leads to a spin that sends you careening across the track. Props to this driver who made the exit and entry look easy.

If you ever find yourself about to leave the asphalt, try to remember two things: (1) ZERO the steering (2) be PATIENT coming back on track.

A few times per year at Thunderhill they hold a teen driving clinic. It’s the only place I’ve seen where they purposefully instruct drivers to drop 2 wheels in the dirt and then ease the car back on the pavement. I wish that was a standard part of the HPDE curriculum. Unfortunately, I don’t know a safe way to practice this skill in reality. Some simulators handle off-track excursions well enough to be useful, but it’s track dependent, and some tracks are highly unrealistic. My advice is to find a sim/track combination that punishes you severely and then train on that until “ZERO the steering” and “be PATIENT coming back on track” are automatic responses.

YRAR: control under fire

At the amateur level, most crashes can be attributed to bad judgement. But not always. Sometimes you’re the victim of someone else’s stupidity, and the worst you can say about your part in it is that you decided to get in the car. So what do you do when you find yourself in a mess that someone else made? Nobody rises to the occasion. We all fall back on our training. But who trains for getting hit?

Well that was pretty impressive! Controlling a skidding car through a pack of parked cars after a massive rear-end collision is no mean feat. Well, he is a pro-ish racer (slumming in a Lemons race). Has he done this so many times that it’s become second nature? Doubtful. What he has is years of experience controlling an out-of-control car. How does one acquire such skill? Skid pads and simulators. I’ve talked a lot about simulation in the past, so let me say a few words about skid pads. Any parking lot can be a skid pad, but that doesn’t mean you should head to your office parking lot on a rainy Christmas Eve when nobody is there. I’ve never done that…

I coach mostly for Hooked on Driving, and part of their novice curriculum includes skid pad drills. When I coach, I often use the time between sessions driving on the skid pad. I find it so useful that I often choose training on the skid pad over training on the track. What? Skip a track session on a twisty ribbon of asphalt for a flat parking lot and cones? Yep. The reason is that the an HPDE session is not the place to throw your car into massive slides. It sets a bad example and potentially endangers other cars.

So what do I do when I get to the skid pad? Figure 8s and switchbacks. Not many tracks feature 270° 30 mph corners, so it may seem figure 8s drills are pointless. But the extra rotation of the wheel is something that may happen in a tank-slapper. Normally, I’m a dedicated 9-n-3 driver, but I’ve learned that I have to break out of this at times. So I practice one handed, hand-over-hand, shuffle steering, and even letting go of the wheel. The thing I don’t like about figure 8s is the low speed. So that’s where the switchbacks come in. It’s basically a slalom course, but unlike an autocross, the cones are much farther apart. This allows me to get a lot of speed and turning through each cone.

If you’re spending a day on the skid pad, put cheap all season tires on the rear. This helps FWD cars oversteer and saves cash on RWD cars.

YRAR: mechanical awareness

In case you missed it last week, You SUCK at Racing is taking brief journey into You ROCK at Racing.

Novice racers or even HPDE track drivers can have so much of their attention on controlling their car that they don’t notice anything else around them. Tunnel vision can be pretty dangerous in a sport like auto racing where danger is literally all around you. Having the awareness to notice that there are mechanical problems in your car or someone else’s car is a higher level of driving than simply lapping quickly. I think almost anyone can learn to drive a car within a couple seconds of the class lap record. But doing that in a race setting while managing the traffic around you, monitoring gauges, communicating with the pit, and making mental notes about setup changes is another thing entirely.

In my “First-timers” page (see link at the top), I give some advice for people doing their first race. I just added a new item (#6) inspired by the following video. It’s really important to have enough spare mental capacity to notice that the car you’re following is about to blow up and spread oil all over the track.

Well done!