Throttle Therapy; Spring 2021
My new ride, Brandy, delivers huge doses of throttle therapy every time we take to the track!
Throttle therapy is a real thing. It’s more commonly written about in reference to motorcyclists because they need to be more aware of all the things that can do them harm compared to car drivers belted into their protective metal shells with air bag pillows to catch them when they fall. If you do a search for Throttle Therapy it will come up as a way to help veterans deal with stress (see the Veteran Motocross Foundation’s explanation) and show how riding a motorcycle is good for your mental health (see this link to a Harley Davidson sponsored study.) Driving a car on a track is anything but mundane however so my challenge as a coach is to provide positive distractions that will help my students drive under control rather than over their heads.
We opened the 2021 season with a weekend near the Jersey shore. It was two days of great exhaust and petrol promises of recovery after the long Covid winter and year. My favorite comment of the weekend was, “Man, you drove the shit out of that car!” (Thanks Nico)
It was fantastic to see a garage full of students join us to have fun learning how to drive better and faster. I greeted our first class on Saturday morning with “It’s about time.”
Time speeds up and slows down in our heads all the time. I don’t think that this seeming elasticity is artificial. The fact that a second lasts a second has nothing to do with the way we experience the passage of time. For example, the agonizing “are we there yet” end of the pandemic finally looks to be becoming, “Yes, we are!” More immediately time feels like it is dragging on the mornings that I drive to the track.
I shared with my students that our goal for the weekend would be to slow time down while we went faster and used less of it per lap on the track. To help us achieve our goal as efficiently as possible I advised the group that in addition to working with their instructors in their cars we would need to also be cognizant of each other and be patient with each other as we worked together to get faster. To get a group of drivers with similar but different goals, and varied levels of experience and aggression in cars that have different amounts of power and handling capabilities, as well as individual instructors coaching them we have a very short list of communication tools:
1. The track safety communication tools are universally recognized racing track flags like the yellow one to alert drivers that something has happened ahead and they need to exercise caution, or the checkered flag to signal that the race or track session has ended.
2. We go over the hand signals we use to communicate to each other from car to car while on the track and where those signals should be deployed.
3. We discuss how to enter and how to exit the track surface safely.
Learning how to communicate driver to driver with hand signals is the source of most problems within a track day group of novices. An aggressive driver will be anxious to make passes and a cautious/overwhelmed driver may be unsure of when to allow a pass.
Lets mix in the fact that a road course track does not have lanes and is designed to be a challenge to the driver with a variety of corners, blind bends and changing elevation. Now think about trying to react to input from your car (which you don’t want to crash or harm) and directions from your instructor while remembering which way the track goes and looking out for other cars who want to pass you, all while driving as fast as you can. There is a lot going on and at first, it seems there isn’t enough time to do them all.
In the first of our four or five sessions on track during the day my goal for the students is to find the flag stations around the course and acknowledge the corner workers in the stations. To ease into the learning process we ask the students to let their instructors drive the first lap or two of the day so the student can see the track before driving it. In the classroom we do a vision exercise scanning from the horizon to the middle distance and up close to break the bad habit of looking just ahead of us instead of scanning to the horizon and taking in everything that lies between us and the horizon. It’s the difference between looking far enough ahead on the highway to see when a car is doing something dangerous and getting caught up in a wreck. Looking up and out to the horizon, or at least as far as you can see, one can feel the reduction in anxiety that comes about by knowing what is coming up instead of being surprised by changes in the surface and approach of the curves. Over the course of the day we work on expanding our vision so that the students are observing more than just what is in front of them. As their driving becomes less tentative their perception of time passing is slowing as they go more quickly around the track.
This expanding vision and sense of awareness should include recognizing when to give a point-by and when to take one. There is a technique to being passed not just safely, but so that you don’t lose efficiency. The place to give the signal to a following driver is at the beginning of a straight. You hold your line and point the car behind in the direction of the next corner. That is, if the turn at the end of the straight goes right then you need to point over your roof like so:
If the next corner goes left you point straight out your window like this:
In either case you must stay on the line (the path that is the fastest around the track) while the overtaking car goes off the line to make the pass. Although it can seem like some drivers are deliberately holding up the drivers behind, that isn’t the case. It’s just that the students are learning how to overcome their anxiety, learning the track, learning how to observe what is around them and how to deal with traffic. For the drivers following the slower driver that is not giving a point-by quickly enough it is possible for there to be the mis-perception that the faster driver is a better driver, but often it’s just a case of more horse power in the car behind. This is the situation in which patience is necessary. To help reinforce the need to be patient I explain to the students that being fast isn’t enough to move from a novice group to an advanced group. Along with being fast they need to demonstrate good car control and they need to display maturity in how they deal with traffic. At the highest level being able to control one’s aggression and make it work positively is called race craft. At the lowest level the object is to find space to practice the driving things – braking, accelerating, turning in and tracking out of a corner before they learn about being efficient in traffic. Typically we end up with trains (groups) of three or more cars going nose to tail because they can’t figure out how to break free from the traffic.
One way to break the train up is by coming off the track and rolling through the pit lane so the group can get far enough ahead of you before you head back onto the track. It works well when you wait long enough for the train to get far enough ahead so you don’t just catch back up to the train again in two turns. The better way to work traffic is to modulate your speed entering a corner after catching the car ahead on the straight or at the end of a straight and driving the corner so that you are accelerating up to the bumper of the car ahead as you are exiting the corner. Presenting yourself so that the driver ahead, even at a low level of sense of awareness and a high level of anxiety can’t help but see you will most often result in you getting the desired point-by as you enter the straight.
Although the car at front of the train seems like it is the one that cased the train to form that driver is not trying to hold anyone up. The second car in the train is really the one responsible for the train because its driver didn’t figure out how to manage their speed to create the point-by opportunity.
At this point the students don’t know what they don’t know…they’re unconsciously incompetent and that’s just fine. In the second class session we talk about how to react to what happens on track while increasing our sense of where we are and car control.
I’ll be back with that for the Summer edition of Throttle Therapy.