WOW!!!  First “Driver’s Education”.  Roebling Road


I spent this weekend participating in an event sponsored by the local chapter of the Porsche Club of America (PCA).  It was on a local 2mi race track characterized by a 1/2mi straight-away and 9 turns on the far side.  It was great fun and relatively safe and sane.  There’s a fair amount of grass runoff room if you go off of the track.  The only wall you could hit is on the inboard side of the track along some of the straightaway.  The wall protects the pit area.  So unless you do something dumb or have a lot of bad luck, going off of the track won’t bend any sheetmetal.


Ok, the organizer of the event did roll his shiny new Porsche Boxster in turn 8.


The month prior I’d done an event called “Solo2”, which is racing around a short very twisty course of cones.  But unlike last month,  I did not come in almost last this time.  As a matter of fact, I found that no skills and a little bit of balls beats some skills and no balls. 


Last month at Solo2 race around the twisty cones some middle-aged woman in an older Porsche 911 positively "schooled" me.  It goes without saying that it is painful for any American lad to be humbled as a driver by someone's middle-aged mom.  Well she was also at this track event this weekend.  But this time, I owned her.  I owned her keeping insane speed up deep into the turns and then standing on the brakes.  I owned her piling on the gas and diving into the each turn's apex.  I owned her rocketing out of the apex with the accelerator floored.  And I owned her at 125mph on the straight-away.  Mom was mine.


I would come to find later that speedometers overstate your speed.  125mph was probably more like 118mph.


Actually, it really wasn't a weekend of racing against mom, but if mom is going to show up I'd prefer to smoke her drawers then end up with: "Soccer-Mom kicks Ranger Gress's ass in her Porsche, the sequel".  Truth be told, mom wasn't that much of a player in this weekend's effort, but the previous paragraph started turning into a nice bit of visualization for what the weekend was all about, so I went with it.


There were maybe 60 folks all told, and there were a lot of great cars.  Maybe 2/3rds of them were Porsche's, this being an event put on by the local Porsche club an all.  We are not a big town so we rarely see auto-exotica.  But there were a half dozen Corvette Z06's, 4 Ferrari's, one Lotus Esprit, two Lotus Elise's and.......a Ford GT.


A guy down the street was responsible for getting me into this.  Dow has a Dodge Viper.  As in 505hp.  My 247hp ’91 911 Targa can’t possibly stay with Dow when he floors it on the straight-away.    The Ford GT could.  There was an AC Cobra kit car that could.  And there was a Ferrari set up for racing that could.  But that was about it.  500hp is twice what I have.


The whole thing was relatively safe and sane.  Each of us newbies had an instructor in the car, and the newbies were only allowed to pass on the straight-away, and every pass (for all ability groups, not just newbies) had to be signaled by the passee.  That is to say that the passer couldn't execute the pass unless the passee allowed it. 

Passing was limited to the straight-away for the novices because pushing the envelope around a turn is already pretty tricky.  In this context "tricky" means:


 "Once I got into the corner it was clear that I was going too damn fast.  My sphincter puckered up tight as I realized that I was probably one F**ked SOB here, I was staring the grim reaper dead in the face, somehow I held on and the outboard rear tire juuuuuust ticked the dirt, and I was thru the turn.  And for the grace of god go I.  Uh oh, here comes another turn."


  That is what "tricky" meant, in that context. 


It won't surprise you that attempting to pass while simultaneously "staring the grim reaper dead in the face" would be dicey.  I could get the same result by leaping off a bridge, and spare myself all the terror. 


Therefore we weren't allowed to pass in the turns.


I got it up to 125 pretty easily on the straight-away, and Dow was probably getting <140mph.  But that was no big deal, heck, that was the easy part.  The straight-away was pretty inconsequential in fact.  It was getting thru the turns, tires screeching, rear end sliding out, etc. that stood our hair on end.


Dow's instructor to Dow:  "This Viper is incredible.  It sticks like glue, and takes turns like it's on rails.  How much horsepower does it have again?"


Scott's instructor to Scott:  "You need bigger sway bars".


Also from Dow's instructor to Dow <visualize someone's grandfather, speaking in a tone so calm, slow and relaxed that it sounds almost bored>: "You've lost it.  Just put both feet on the floor". 


And that's when Dow's beautiful new black Viper slid off of the turn. 


No crisis.  Nothing a couple hours spent cleaning infield dirt out of the car couldn't fix. 


So stating the obvious, the trick is the turns. 


The problem with taking a turn hot in a rear engine car is that the car's rear will slip right out.  One moment your zooming into the turn, pulling lateral g's and thinking that you are just the coolest thing on the road, and the next moment your rear end has whipped out and you are in a spin.  And then god knows what's going to happen, but it's likely to involve crumpled metal and a lifetime of shit from your wife.


But what is especially tricky is that the corrective measure for the 911's rear sliding out is to give it more gas.  Now consider how completely unintuitive this is.  You are screaming into a turn fast as all brake a bit, then get off the brake and start turning.  You're turning hard and you can feel the tires struggling at the limit of tire adhesion so your sliding a bit, but it is under control.  Which is to say that the car is generally pointed in the direction you want it to go, even if it's clearly a bit dicey.  It does look like you will live thru this turn.


Then with an icy spike of fear in your belly, you realize that the turn is a little trickier then you thought.  You are going to have to tighten it a bit or you are not going to make it.


So you turn the steering wheel a carefully calculated bit more.  But the car doesn't seem to respond.  I mean you realized that the turn is tighter then you thought so the car is going to have to turn tighter, even if you're going a little too fast for this new plan.  So you turn the steering wheel tighter.  But the car.....the car is.....not.......turning.......tighter.  The car is continuing the exact barely-holding-on-not-quite-going-to-make-it course that it was a heartbeat ago. 


Well, you got into this problem because of too much speed.  So you do the logical thing and ease up on the gas just a bit. 


And now you.....are......doomed. 


We all know that when you accelerate hard a rear wheel drive car rears back on to it's rear wheels.  Just visualize the way that a dragster rears back when coming off of the line. But the opposite is true too.  By letting off of the gas you "lighten" the rear wheels.  And the last thing that you want to happen when you are sliding thru a turn is to suddenly lose all that nice weight that is holding your rear wheels down on to the road.  Because that's when the rear end slides out from under you and you are history.  And spins are pretty much out of control.  And if you manage to stop your spin by resting your car against some immovable object, then it’ll be time to call your insurance agent.


The  corrective measure to the onset of your rear coming out from under you (oversteer) completely unintuitive.  The solution is to give it a bit more gas.  Of course, intuitively, if your car is going out of control you would tend to let up on the gas.  I mean, hello, you are in this problem because you tried to take the turn too damn fast.  So if the problem is "too damn fast" and you had two possible corrective measures "slow the heck down” or “go faster”, which would you chose?  But if you follow that intuition a-spinning you’ll go. 


Of course I'd read about all of this, but knowing it intellectually is not the same as your reactions knowing it automatically, without thought.


I think that I only actually got in trouble twice.  The first time I was stuck in some traffic and taking a turn good and hot.  I turned into the apex and attempted to smoothly give it gas.  I was hauling ass thru the turn so I had to give it a lot of gas turning into the apex to keep the rear end down.  But as I was coming out of the apex I started sneaking up on the guy in front of me.  Seeing no alternative I backed off the gas a little.  That lightened my rear end and it started to slide out. I could feel my instructor tense up. I pressed on a tad more gas and turned into the slide just a hair and everything came out.  Then I hit the brakes to get off of the guy's bumper.  No blood no foul.


My instructor said I'm out of the newby group.  That puts me in Dow's group.  He's probably going to lay awake tonight wondering how he's going to keep his 500hp Viper up with me on the straight-away.


What a weekend.


Authors note, several months later.  Looking back at this I see that my example of not getting sufficient turning from the car and the corrective measure, was not a good one.  If you are in an “understeer” situation where the front end is washing out and not turning as much as you need, the required correction is indeed to lift the throttle just a bit.  That will take weight off of the rear because being on the gas shifts weight to the rear just like being on the brakes shifts weight to the front.  A little more weight on the front will make the front tires grip better and they’ll be better able to hang on to the road.  But it has to be done with precision.  Back off the throttle a little too much and the rear will get unweighted too much and you’ll swap ends.


The really bad situation presents itself when you go into a turn a little too hot.  Then you are unable to give it throttle because you are already a bit too fast.  But you have to be on the throttle in order to keep the rear planted.  In a rear engine car the need to keep the rear planted is no joke.  About the only way to survive this scenario is to find some desperate way to straighten the car out, stand on the brakes to shed some speed, and then get back on the turn.  But, stating the obvious, “straightening the car out” right in the middle of turn where you are already going to fast, is a hellova trick.