Driver’s Education (DE) Is Worth a Try

Wednesday, May 10, 2017 8:27 AM

Driver’s education events offer the perfect chance for car lovers to learn more about performance driving. Almost all local Porsche clubs offer driver’s education (DE) events, day-long or weekend events that pair drivers of all levels with certified instructors and allow them to experience driving at high speeds on real race tracks all over the country. If you love your car and have always wanted to learn more about driving technique, joining a DE event is your best bet.

To attend a DE, you don’t even need to join a local Porsche club (although I highly recommend it). In fact, several clubs offer DEs, including BMW and Audi, and most of these are open to non-members. Depending on where you live, you may want to start by researching car clubs in your area. DE events generally run between May-November in northern states, while southern clubs go all year round.

Once you decide which event you’d like to attend, you’ll print out registration materials on the club website and mail it in with your check. Registration is fairly straightforward to complete (name, address, car make, model, etc). Note that when the form asks whether you are “novice, intermediate or advanced,” they are not asking for your opinion of your driving skills. You may think you rule the roadways, but if you’ve never done a DE before, you are a novice. And even if you have done a few DEs, you are probably still a novice. Once you arrive at the event and complete your first run, your instructor will know whether you need to be placed in a different run group. And once you consistently demonstrate your abilities, your instructor will promote you to the next level.

Before The Event

If you don’t own a helmet (and most novices don’t), you can ask the DE organizers to hold a “loaner” helmet for you when you register. Eventually, if you decide DEs are something you’d like to do often, you may consider purchasing a helmet (especially if you happen to borrow one with a masculine scent).

Before the event, you’ll need to complete the tech inspection form. The form covers key safety issues for the car you plan on using at the DE. Completing the form may initially seem like a headache, but you should consider it insurance. You’ll be pushing your car’s handling, brakes and tires to the limit, so take your car in to the mechanic or the dealership to have it thoroughly checked out. When you arrive at the track, your car will be inspected once again and if all things are not found to be up to par, you won’t be allowed to run.

If you can, chat with other folks who have attended DEs before. Getting a general idea of what goes on at the track will make you a more comfortable novice. You may also consider reading Going Faster! Mastering the Art of  Race Driving, by Carl Lopez.  The book is a simple and fantastic introduction to the techniques you will be learning at the track.

At the Track

Arriving at the track the first time is both exciting and intimidating. DE events usually ask that you show up early for setup, inspection, mandatory driver meetings and a classroom session prior to your time behind the wheel. When you arrive, drivers will be filing in. Some will be driving cars that look like yours, and others will arrive towing race-ready vehicles. In my last DE, cars ranged from a Lexus sedan to a Porsche Carrera GT. The parking lot was a beautiful showcase of Porsches old and new.

After you arrive at the track and park, you’ll register and receive your instructor assignment and event schedule. The schedule tells you when your “runs” (i.e., time on the track) and classroom sessions are.  Most people who attend DEs want to spend time behind the wheel, not in a classroom. But classroom sessions are beneficial and necessary to ensure safety.  The first time you attend a DE, the classroom setting will likely include an introduction to the track including turns and elevation. Teachers often provide special attention to difficult spots around the track and invite student questions. After each run, classroom sessions are a good place to share your experiences at the track. Don’t be shy – your questions can help others.

You will probably meet your instructor at the driver’s meeting first thing in the morning. Your instructor serves as your event guide, and as such, it is important that you feel comfortable with him/her. Instructors ride with you in the car and offer you level-appropriate feedback to help you become a better driver. If you do anything at your DE, it should be to listen to your teacher. The instructor will encourage you to go faster, brake later, turn later and be smoother; following his/her advice will yield surprising results and a thrilling experience.

On the subject of listening to your instructor, let me stress that the worst thing you can bring with you to a DE event, be it novice or advanced, is an ego.  If you’re there to hear praise for your driving skills, to drive aggressively, or to prove how fast you are, you won’t learn much. At best you’ll annoy those around you; at worst you could hurt your fellow drivers. Leave your ego behind and you’ll leave the track a better driver.

Time on the Track

A few minutes before you’re scheduled to go on, you will secure your helmet and line up along with others in your run group. Instructors generally have one student of each level, so you’ll have to wait for him/her to finish the previous run and hop in the car with you. Before you run, both the driver and passenger windows need to be down.  One of the track volunteers will give you the go ahead to speed up and enter the track, and off you’ll go!

The first time around the track, your instructor may drive your car or let you drive while he/she talks you through the track layout. Either way, it will seem as if turns esses are flying by. As you complete laps, the track will become more familiar and you’ll learn to anticipate what comes next, where to brake, and where to shift. Your instructor will probably have you focus on “the line” first, and add shifting and other techniques as you become more comfortable. You’ll get between three and four chances to go out on the track (per day), and each of your runs will most likely last 20 minutes.

At first, 20 minute runs may seem too short, but once you experience high speed driving and the amount of concentration it requires, you’ll agree that 20 minute sessions are plenty. In between your runs, relax, drink lots of water, meet like-minded people, ask questions and watch others at play. DE events generally have a great spirit of camaraderie, and most people are very glad to have newbies there.

One of the biggest treats of DE events are “hot laps,” where your instructor takes you in his/her car or yours at much higher speeds than you’re used to. It’s both exhilarating and  terrifying. For some, it’s akin to a rollercoaster ride.

My first time at Mid-Ohio, my instructor took me for warm-up laps early in the morning of day 2. Rain had begun to fall and students had complained that the track was slippery, but he confidently said, “we’ll see about that.”  He took off the 996’s PSM (Porsche Stability Management) and drove ‘round the keyhole uneventfully, then down the long straightaway picking up speed. If you’ve been to Mid-Ohio, you know at the end of that long straightaway is a right-hand turn that feels like 90 degrees. If you miss that turn, you are almost always guaranteed an agricultural excursion (in fact, the previous day there had been two serious ones, including a 996 that flew off the turn and managed to do quite a bit of damage). My instructor applied the brakes conservatively, took that turn and my 996 decided it was time to behave like a good ol’ 911. In seconds that felt like minutes, we were oversteering and sliding away from the apex. The instructor calmly corrected the oversteer by countersteering, allowing the car’s rear end to come back to neutral, and returning it to its path on the track. The experience was not frightening but exhilarating because it happened under controlled circumstances with an instructor whom I trusted. His sole comment was a calm, “that was a pretty big correction.”  My first reaction was, “I MUST learn to do that!” And the beauty of DE is that, with practice and an instructor’s feedback, you too can learn why your car behaves in a certain way and how to make corrections that can make you a better, faster, safer driver.

Last weekend I returned to Mid-Ohio and had the chance to learn more about driving in wet conditions. This time around (encouraged by the same instructor) I was able to explore just how differently the track and my car felt on wet pavement. The car slipped and slid quite a bit in some areas, offering the perfect learning experience. While some of the corrections that apply in wet conditions make perfect sense, some are counter-intuitive; this is where the counsel of a good instructor can come in very handy.

Enjoy Your Breaks (or Brakes, too)

During breaks, you will have the opportunity to observe other run groups at play. The first thing you’ll notice is how much faster and closer to other cars the more advanced folks drive. The sounds of matched revs while downshifting at turns is beautiful to hear. Unlike novices, advanced drivers are allowed to pass more often, not just on the straightaways. Spinouts and the occasional accident are also much more likely (though still rare).

Most DE events provide breakfast snacks, coffee and lunch. My local Porsche club, Rally Sport Region, is known for their love of food and generally offers a delicious lunch in between runs. If the clubs don’t serve lunch, there are usually concessions offering standard American faire.  If you like snacking, I suggest you pack your favorite treats to bring along with you. Most importantly, don’t forget the water—driving is more like a sport than you think. Drinking enough will keep you hydrated and help you avoid headaches later in the day.

HEAD OUT THIS SEASON!

Attending at least one DE with your Porsche (no matter what year or model) is highly recommended, even if you don’t aspire to become a race car driver. A DE will give you the opportunity to experience why, beyond their beautiful shape, Porsches are some of the most revered sports cars in the world.  You can spend a lifetime driving around town and on the highway and never quite experience the limits and cornering ability of your car. You can speed on a straight road, but never experience the car’s true braking power and acceleration out of corners. A DE won’t only make you a more confident driver, but an even more reverent Porsche lover.

Some of you may not yet own a Porsche, but don’t let that deter you from participating in a DE. I’ve seen many different cars at DEs, including Ford Focus, VW Jetta, BMW sedans and even a Honda Odyssey (being tested by engineers). The first time I attended a DE, I was the very proud owner of a new VW Golf. It still had my bike rack on it (guys there called it an “air brake”) and I had to take the plastic wheel covers off before my run. Everyone was nothing short of friendly and encouraging as I experienced driving faster for the first time. On my last event, a guy was driving his wife’s Lexus sedan because his own car was out of commission. Guys at the track ribbed him (“don’t forget to take the lipstick out of the car!”) but he held his own and had a great time.

The only negative aspect of attending a DE is that you’ll find yourself thinking about the line and a turn’s apex on your way to work. For days after, you’ll process what you’ve learned. And if you’re like most Porsche lovers, you’ll be back. See you at the track!

 

validated