by Jim Kerr
Do you remember your driver training? Shoulder checking for traffic, operating the signal lights, and performing lane changes? Turning corners and stopping at stop signs was easy, but the dreaded start up a hill from a stop and performing a parallel park made my pulse rise rapidly. For the beginning driver, these are all essential skills that are soon mastered. Only the signaling before changing lanes seems to require re-education for some drivers. As important as these skills are, their inappropriate application seldom causes more damage than a bent fender or hurt pride. Perhaps, to prevent accidents that are more serious, more advanced driver training is needed. I know just the place – a high performance driving school.
My first experience attending a performance driving school was at Shannonville, Ontario, about 200 kilometres east of Toronto. The day was wet! Rain water poured across the pavement as I walked towards a large concrete building. It was 8:00 a.m., and although I am just awake, I was eager to start my driver training.
For the next nine hours, I was immersed in the Pontiac Performance Driving School operated by Mr. Brett Goodman at the Shannonville racing facility. Mr. Goodman has now moved closer to Toronto, to the Mossport racetrack, but you can find driving schools offered at many racetrack facilities.
Eight members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, including myself, were there to improve our driving skills and learn what happens when driving beyond the limits. The driving school is operated 8 months of the year and consists of two parts: the Performance Driving School uses regular front and rear wheel drive cars to show drivers how to respond to emergency situations. The Bridgestone Racing School is the second part of Mr. Goodman’s enterprise.
The Bridgestone Racing School is recognized as one of the best in North America and allows students to progress to competing in both closed wheel and open wheel racecars. Well-known Canadian racers Dave Empringham and Jacques Villeneuve are but two examples of world class racers who took training at the racing school. But we were not there to become racing drivers. We were there to become better street drivers.
A short classroom session on safety and driving position started the day. Both hands on the wheel in the 3 and 9 o’clock position, the arms slightly bent at the elbows, and the seat adjusted so the feet could press firmly on the carpet beneath the brake pedal was the recommended position. The legs should have a slight bend at the knee and the left foot should be braced against the footwell. Cinch up the seatbelt and we were ready to drive. A Sunfire, Grand Am, Grand Prix, and Bonneville made up the front wheel drive contingent at the Shannonville track. Firebirds were used to teach us rear wheel drive handling.
Our first test was to accelerate to 55 kph and step on the brake pedal as hard as we could. The antilock brakes had been disabled in these vehicles and the cars slid badly out of control. The testing was done on a skidpad; a circle of flat asphalt about 50 metres in diameter so the danger level was low. Normally, the instructors soak the skidpad with water to increase the slip of the asphalt but the constant rain made that task unnecessary.
The next test was to lock the brakes and turn the steering wheel as fast and as far as it would go. Again, the cars slid out of control. Now that we knew how an out of control car felt, we were told to brake hard, release the brakes and turn the steering 1/4 to 1/2 turn only. The car responded to our steering inputs and turned the corner as if on rails! Now on to accident avoidance.
Again we accelerated to 55 kph, braked hard, released the brakes, and turned the steering 1/2 turn maximum, but this time the instructors had set up pylons to represent an object in our path and an opening to one side. This could represent a child darting out from the curb, or someone pulling out from a stop sign. Sometimes we missed the pylons, sometimes we didn’t! The key to driving around the object is to look where you want to go, not at what you want to miss. This feels unnatural, but looking at where you want the car to go is a must. After several practice attempts, all eight drivers were using the brakes and steering to avoid the accident with ease. Practice is a must.
A short classroom session allowed the technicians time to reconnect the antilock brakes and we were driving again. This time we did not have to release the brakes to turn the steering. The antilock controlled the slipping of the tires. What amazed me was how little I was able to turn the steering and still maintain control. Any more than 1/2 turn of the steering while braking hard and the vehicle just slid right through the pylons! Here is a case where a little goes a long way. Usually turning the steering wheel only 1/4 turn was more than enough to drive around the pylon obstacle.
The afternoon found us driving circles on the skidpad to experience what happens when the front or rear tires slide sideways during cornering. When the front tires slide sideways, the tendency is to turn the steering more. To remain in control you usually have to turn it less. Then the tires can regain their grip. Slowing slightly with the gas pedal will also help.
Font wheel drive and rear wheel drive cars require different response when the back tires slide sideways. Front wheel drive car drivers need to look where they want to go, turn the steering wheel to that position, and accelerate on the gas. This will pull the car into control. Rear wheel drive owners need to again look where they want to go, release the gas pedal slightly, and then steer where they want to go. The front wheel drive cars were much easier to control but required concentration to step harder on the gas pedal!
The last part of our day found us on the racetrack learning how to brake, accelerate, and corner properly. The highlight of the day for me was a ride around the track as a passenger in a Firebird driven by Ugo Provencher, one of our instructors, and a skilled race car driver. The rain soaked track seemed to act like glue as his skills piloted the car around at breathtaking speeds.
If only all driving training could permit students to experience vehicle handling at the limits and teach them how to control it, then our streets and roads would be a much safer place to drive. An advanced performance driving course is worth every dollar spent. It probably won’t make you a race driver, but it will definitely make you a better and safer driver.