We all want to believe that our driving skills are superior, and that if we want to drive faster, compete on the track or shine on the street, we’ve got those skills. But truthfully, most of us don’t have what it takes to really operate a two ton piece of machinery with skill on the track. Putting ego aside, why not go to the pros to learn how to drive better? I’ve been lucky enough to experience nearly every racing school on the West Coast. From Bondurant to Skip Barber to Spring Mountain and even Allen Berg Racing School. While each provides different cars and programs with occasional teaching differences, all provide one thing in common, fun! So whether it’s to truly maximize the abilities of your performance vehicle, compete during the weekends, or just gain valuable skills, here are five reasons why everyone from the newbie driver to the semi-pro should go to driving/race school. After all, even star athletes and performers still take a master class to keep their edge.
1. Defensive driving instruction for teenage (and new) drivers
Teen drivers get a pretty bad rap for being careless, distracted and simply inexperienced behind the wheel. But everyone’s got to start somewhere right? At least one in every two people reading this probably had their only or first of many accidents after getting their license [The Burnout Ed. –Full disclosure: I drove up onto the sidewalk and into, then through, a small tree three days after getting my license, thus proving Toni’s point.], not necessarily because they were texting but because they didn’t know what to do in that particular situation. That’s why every teen should go to a driving/racing school. It’s better to learn to drive well in a controlled environment before making mistakes on the road.
I took my first racing school the day I turned 16. Sure I was nervous, but the professionals at Bondurant taught me so many valuable lessons. I learned how to control the car in a slide on wet pavement, or at least I tried to. I learned how to make quick decisions when put in an accident avoidance simulation exercise. I learned how to use the ABS system and what that feels like. Most importantly I learned how to properly drive.
2. Accident avoidance and car control
It’s hard to say why so many people get into horrific and fatal accidents. For those that survive a common answer is “well that tree just came out of nowhere,” or “I was turning the wheel in all different directions and it just kept going straight.” For those of you who race or participate in schools you can probably name the issue in each of the above quotes. Many dismiss the idea of racing school because they don’t care about driving fast. But that’s only one aspect of race or driving school. There are courses specifically designed to help the average driver avoid accidents, control the car in dangerous situations and as a result, drive faster.
One of the most common difficulties for anyone coming through a school is vision. It seems strange to look far through a corner at your exit point when you’re currently turning the wheel. On the street we tend to look at the guy’s bumper in front of us. Looking far ahead not only results in seeing brake lights from cars ahead but also avoiding objects you don’t want to hit.
Another difficult practice is not looking at whatever object you might be heading towards but rather where you want the car to go. Sure, it may sound crazy to think that if you’re heading towards a tree that looking at the road would actually help, but trust me, it does. If you look where you want the car to go, it will follow. Stare at the tree and you will probably end up there.
A lot of people don’t know what to do in an over steer or under steer situation. A good way to differentiate between the two is this: over steer happens when the backend of the car slides to the left or the right and under steer occurs when turning the wheel left or right has no effect on the car’s direction. It is usually caused when pressure put on the car exceeds the tires’ grip. Over steer is probably the easier of the two to control with a simple movement of the wheel in the opposite direction counteracting the slide motion (all depending on the severity of the slide) and working the accelerator in concert with your steering input. Under steer is probably scarier and a little harder to control. There is no amount of steering that can control an under steer situation. Letting off the gas slowly and lightly applying brake pressure or simply no pressure at all and allowing the front tires to gain traction can work depending on the amount of distance in front of you and any other cars.
3. Getting into racing
You often hear of aspiring drivers who start in Go-Karts at the age of six and never stop until they reach professional levels. But not all of us have the financial resources or access to Go-Karts early on. Some of us start later in life but still have a passion for racing. That’s where racing school comes in.
There are a lot of schools out there and most offer programs geared towards those who aspire to obtain their SCCA license or join an organization like NASA. Finding out which program to take can be daunting but starting with a simple 1-day class is a great start. At my most recent school, I took a two-day Advanced Road Racing course and all I had to do at that point was to fill out some paperwork and apply for my race license. Building yourself up to that level may take a couple of schools and also depends on the instructor’s confidence in your capabilities.
4. Brushing up your skills
There is no shame in feeling the need to brush up your skills, even when you participate in professional level races year-round. Racing throughout the year will obviously make you a better driver, but the instructors at these schools also do this for a living and can teach you how to race more proficiently. And some of the time, these instructors are actually professional racing drivers who teach in the off-season.
At Bondurant, my instructor gave us grades at the end of the course. The numbers are based on a scale of one-five where five is the best. I got a pretty decent grade (3.6) but wondered why it wasn’t higher. He then explained that the highest grade ever given to a student (a professional driver in one of the most popular series in the USA) was a 4.1. I felt pretty darn accomplished in that moment. The point of all this is to say it doesn’t matter how great you think you are or how really great you actually are, it’s never a bad thing to learn and brush up on the skills you already have.
5. Having fun!
Racing school is just simply fun! You get to beat on someone else’s car and learn how to drive better at unrestricted speeds as long as you don’t go beyond your limits. I’m a very competitive person, so sometimes I get in my own way getting upset by not having the fastest time. But over the years I’ve learned to focus on what I’m good at and to be surprised when I surpass my own expectations. I look forward to these schools every year and am able to get out the majority of my need for speed on the track, where it’s safe, rather than on the street.
I’ve participated in 13 driving school experiences since my first, and am always looking for my next school. At the last course, the Advanced Road Racing Course at Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona (read the full article here), we drove the incredible Corvette Stingray as part of a killer two-day school.
The Advanced Road Racing Course helped us to brush up on our heal-toe downshifting skills before heading out on track. It also included some very important classroom time before heading out on track. Starting on the smaller of two tracks we were let loose to discover the limits and intense power of the Stingray.
Once we got onto the big track we were able to hone our skills with additional instructor feedback. While spending about six hours on track sounds exhilarating, it’s quite exhausting. Racing isn’t just about pressing as hard as you can on the go-pedal and braking in time for the next sharp corner, you have to constantly remind yourself to focus and hit the apex, turn-in and exit points the exact right way every time. I’ve fallen hard for the Stingray but I’ve already got my eyes on the next school.
In the meantime, check out this video taken with the instructor.