How Track Driving Improves Street Driving

Driver’s Log
By Tom Swift

How Track Driving Improves Street Driving
Although I am writing this article in late December, you are reading it sometime in February. I could take a retrospective look at things that have not happened yet, but I would rather preview events that are at this time in both of our futures, review events that are complete as of the time I write, gloss over those events which occupy my immediate future and your immediate past, and address matters that are timeless. You are probably glad I sorted that out without a detour to the Special Theory of Relativity.

Let us start with our upcoming events:
Track dates for the year are now “locked and loaded.” See the table in this magazine or on the website. Dates and locations for tech inspections will be provided when finalized.
On February 21, we will hold our Instructor and Driver seminars. The morning session is limited to instructors only because the session focuses on how to teach drivers. For the afternoon session all NNJR drivers with DE experience are invited. We will focus not only on how to drive, but also on how to LEARN how to drive. This year we will discuss the use of video and data and how drivers benefit from it. It should be great! For details see the ad in this magazine or visit the website.
On March 5, our annual tech inspector track operations workshop will take place. Since we will cover the details of our tech inspections, including the latest vehicles and updated safety regulations, this event is mandatory for those wishing to volunteer as a tech inspector. However, it will also be interesting for anyone who plans to participate in DE events and wants to understand how NNJR evaluates track readiness. See the website for details.

Now for the timeless stuff:
Some find their way to track driving because they were born with the HOLA gene (hooked on lateral acceleration). Some discover it later in life, perhaps after their NTP (need to polish) gene mutates into the HOLA gene. Yet, many wonder why learning such a specialized skill is worth the effort. After all, we all know how to drive, right? Wrong.
I read in a recent Road & Track that there is a company that performs vehicle crash testing for safety research using live humans (dummies?) versus instrumented test mannequins. The founder of this company was asked about self-driving cars. His reply was that there has not been a computer invented yet that is smart enough to respond to the myriad of stupid stuff human drivers do on the road.
Despite the multitude of surveys indicating that nearly all participants think they are above average drivers, the average skill level of drivers in NJ is pretty poor. Why? Maybe the relevant portions of our brains were shrunken by the proximity to the country’s largest concentration of Superfund sites. (Yet, Janet Evanovich’s Detective Stephanie Plum contends that our atmosphere only makes us stronger and I believe her.)  Seriously, I think it is a function of culture, regulation and training. For example, I drive in Germany frequently and I assure you the average German is a much better and safer driver. That is largely due to the rigorous driver training and the chance to drive cars at high speeds frequently. Our training, by comparison is a joke. What is the hardest part of passing our driver test? Parallel parking. The state of NJ exercises great care in insuring that we do not have multiple fatalities when someone attempts to park in downtown Flemington.
What does this have to do with NNJR Driver Education? Our DE program will make you a better driver, even if you lack the HOLA gene. You will be better prepared to deal with the glorious panoply of dumb stuff that happens out there on the Turnpike or the Parkway, or…Here are four examples:

Follow the Bumper
The NJ adult version of “Follow the Leader” is “Follow the Bumper”, often at distances that NASCAR refers to as “slipstreaming.”  You pick a distance that seems appropriate – often measured in inches – and follow. Visibility does not extend beyond the rear headrests of the car you are following. If you follow someone like this on the track, you make the same mistakes, which may include going off track. We teach you to “drive your own line.” Furthermore, because things happen more rapidly at track speeds, we teach you to look as far down the track as possible. Once these become “habits,” you will use them all the time, on the track and on the street. You will become far more aware of the situation of your vehicle versus those around you, you will be actively determining your own speed and “line,” and you will be looking much further ahead, enabling you to react to situations before others do.

Situational awareness?  We don’t need no stinkin’ situational awareness!
Most street drivers are semi-conscious in the operation of their vehicles, the automotive equivalent of automatic pilot. Our brains are very good at running routine processes in the background. This allows us to concentrate on the important stuff:  texting, coffee, applying makeup, whatever. All that is fine as long as everything follows the established pattern. If not, by the time the autopilot sends a message to the frontal cortex – encoded as “Oh, S*&T,” it may be too late to react. On the track, you develop from necessity, the ability to deeply concentrate on your driving. Furthermore, because of the much higher speeds experienced on track, your mind adapts, enabling you to process much faster sensory inputs as routine. After a while, driving on the street seems like it is done in slow motion. The combination of increased concentration and increased ability to process sensory inputs means a major improvement in situational awareness, which you will find transfers naturally to the street.

The slump
It seems obvious that you cannot drive well if you cannot see out the windscreen and cannot operate the controls properly. Yet you see it all the time; seat far back and in “deep recline,” right shoulder right of the car’s centerline, in convenient proximity to the stereo – ready to increase bass response at a moment’s notice, eyes barely above the top of instrument panel, one hand – or wrist – loosely coupled to the steering wheel at the 12 o’clock position, left arm dangling out the window. You get the picture. One of the first things your instructors will do is ensure that you are properly seated and that your hands and feet are correctly positioned. Why? Because track driving requires timely, precise, and repeatable control inputs. Once you get accustomed to this you will find yourself automatically moving the seat closer, put the seatback in a more upright position and place your hands in the desired 9 and 3 position. You will soon be wondering how on earth people can drive as if sitting at home in their Barcalounger.

Ignorance is bliss
Imagine this cockpit conversation:
Pilot: “Deploy flaps to ten degrees.”
Co-Pilot: “Oh yeah, the flaps are those droopy thingeys that move when I yank this lever, right? I dunno. The plane feels sluggish and looks ugly when I use ’em, so usually I don’t bother.”
Inconceivable in a pilot, yes? But routine with drivers. How often do you see SUVs with all season tires being driven in snow as if it were mid-summer (see “Follow the Bumper” above). Four-wheel drive helps get you moving under low traction conditions, but it does nothing to stop you. Worse, the extra weight of the SUV requires longer stopping distances. Tire type, tire condition, tire pressure, coefficient of friction under varying weather conditions, engagement of anti-lock brakes, recovery from understeer or oversteer: none of this is properly taught to street drivers. At the track, you become very sensitive to mechanical and environmental details that can make a big difference in how your car behaves. This, too, becomes part of your routine as a driver, and you will find yourself checking tire pressures on your street cars more frequently and adapting your driving to suit conditions.
I invite those of you who have never considered NNJR DE in this way, to give this some thought and give our program a test drive. I guarantee that you will learn things useful on both the track and the street, and who knows, you just might cause a gene to mutate.
To learn more about the NNJR Driver Ed program and to keep up with all our events please check the website at www.nnjr-pca/drivers-ed/.
Tom Swift, NNJR Track Chair