It has been said a car ultimately chooses its driver. I believe there is truth to this statement, but there is another one that rings true for me: a car takes on its driver’s personality. Believe or not, there is an interesting animated series which focuses on street racing and refers to this second phenomenon as the car giving off an “aura.” Both of these together, in my opinion, complete the marriage of “man and machine.” Two separate incidents in my racing school career exemplified this union.
While open lapping Laguna Seca, once again I caught a car going up to the Corkscrew. Generally, I am very fast through 6 and regularly catch cars on that corner’s exit going up the hill. Exit speed is critical coming out of that corner for several reasons, but tackling Turn 6 is a story for another day.
As I closed in on this particular car going uphill, I noticed how its movements were abrupt and jerky, instinctively I lifted. I knew there was nothing mechanically wrong with the car, but I wanted to give the driver a little space. He appeared to be pushing himself a little past his comfort zone, but that is racing school in a nutshell. An instructor once said, “The fastest driver is the one who is most comfortable being uncomfortable.” I decided to wait for a good passing opportunity between Turns 10 and 11 or down the main straightaway to make my move. I told myself there was no need to get impatient – that he had just as much right to the track and to learn at his own pace. I did not want to surprise him and possibly ruin his day if something went wrong. The chance to pass him, however, came sooner than I expected.
The class at racing school is traditionally broken up into two groups. This time the other group was composed of very young drivers coming out of karts and giving formula-style cars a try. They were using this school as a warm up for the “Karting Shootout” that weekend where they were to compete against each other for prizes – including a full-paid race season in the school’s formula car. Basically, most of those kids were trying to go pro and as such, throw caution to the wind when driving. An instructor commented that they are like “Wolverines with hand grenades in their mouths.” Well, the “Wolverines” were dropping tires off the track on the inside of the apex in Turn 9 – throwing sand all over the regular racing line. The sand was slowly building up that morning and I adjusted my line (basically did not go all the way to the apex) to avoid the majority of it without sacrificing too much speed through the corner. Turn 9 is a fast, fourth gear, downhill corner and I did not want to play catch with the rear-end. Being an advanced two day formula car school, many of the instructors were out there with us in formula cars as well – leading, following, passing, observing, etc. They would drive right over the sand to help disperse it and catch the rear end in a drift through the middle of the corner. They were somewhat disappointed most of us drivers in the session did not follow suit to develop quick hands. I personally felt my plate was full already with what I was focusing on and took a pass during this particular occasion.
Coming out of 8 and into 9 my opportunity came. The driver in front of me was taken by surprise by the amount of sand in the apex of 9 and did one of the worst things a driver can do mid-corner: he lifted right before entering the sand. As I saw the rear start to swing out, I started slowing and getting out of the way. I was fortunate not to have anyone behind me and I had plenty of room to slow down. He eventually spun 180 degrees and was facing me, but he was still rolling backwards at a fair rate of speed. He should have locked the wheels up so I could predict his trajectory. I think he feared if he slowed down too quickly I would hit him dead on, so I slowed as he slowed and only until I felt he had a handle on his car did I carefully go by with the assurance he was not going to back into my sidepod. All this happened in a matter of a few seconds, but things seem to move in slow motion during an incident.
As for me, the incident was not a surprise based on the car’s behavior prior to it. Right after I passed him, I could not have been more proud and pumped and finished out that session flying higher than ever. I live for these moments. I expect these things to happen to me at racing school and this was the third head-on collision I had avoided after having a car spin in front of me in a corner. Furthermore, what had happened in the world of professional open wheel racing just two weeks earlier in Las Vegas put it on a whole new level. For me, this is one of the most important aspects of becoming a great driver – to predict what is going to happen to your opponent before he does – to take care of each other out there – TO SEE THINGS HAPPENING.
When the session was over he approached me in the pits right after getting out of his car. He was visibly upset. He immediately told me his mistake of panicking and lifting and admitted that was his first ever spin. I could see he was quite angry with himself and I just listened. What really baffled me was he had made it this far without spinning. He admitted he felt like his mind was no longer in the right place for driving. I could not get myself to tell him the words I uttered to myself that helped me get back in the car after a harrowing experience in a previous racing school. Again, that is another story for another day. What I did tell him was that I would not hold him in any less regard for not driving the remainder of the day if that was his decision, but I knew deep down he needed to get back out there and break that accident-replay cycle going on in his head. As our group went into a van to go out and corner watch the “Wolverines,” he stayed behind on the pit wall. I felt bad for him, but the instructors came to his aid and helped him out, having more experience at that sort of thing. Later in the day I caught up with him in the pits. The instructors got him to get back in the car and finish the exercises and he was glad he did. I was relieved. His mental cycle was broken and he had gotten even with 9.
Now for the other extreme in car personality: me driving with one of the instructors in another formula car – ONE WITH OVER 20 YEARS OF PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE.
Instructors driving formula cars were pairing up with us students in sessions throughout the second day to observe our driving and help us get better right on the spot out on the track. One taciturn instructor approached me in the pits and said he would meet up with me on the track to help me out during the next session. I asked what car he would be in, but he did not even know which one he would be driving for that session yet. In the end, the number did not matter anyway.
I was entering Turn 4 when I “felt” him. I looked in my mirror to see this formula car coming at me with serious speed. The way he came out of 3 was terrifying. You see, most talented student drivers in the school, when they are driving at the limit, the cars are always a little nervous, sliding just a touch, tires slightly squealing, etc – but NOT THIS GUY. The car came out of that corner like it was on rails. HE CAME AT ME WITH AUTHORITY! I was so shaken with what was happening in the mirror I missed my turn-in for 4. I could not get down to the apex and missed it by several feet. As I started to exit the corner, I naturally did something that saved me from what seemed an inevitable 4-off. As stated in the previous article, lifting while coming out of 4 will mostly like result in spin, but I tried something I had discovered driving indoor go-karts – I purposely turned the wheel slightly too much – more than what the front tires’ grip would allow, inducing understeer. Scrubbing the front wheels slowed down the car enough for me to make the corner without going off at the exit and I got to experience one of the weirdest driving sensations – one which was told to me previously by an instructor. As I turned the steering wheel back after slowing the car enough through tire scrubbing, the car turned more the less steering wheel angle I gave it because I was no longer demanding more than 100 percent front-tire traction. This technique is one of two I have thought of, but the only one I have actually tried and had some success. It was not good for the tires and after purposely compromising my exit speed to avoid an off-road excursion, I did not dare look in my mirrors for I knew what was filling them. I took the straight between 4 and 5 to regain composure and I told myself “he is not here to pass you, but observe your line.” With that in mind, I completely blocked him out of my mind and did my own thing for the rest of the session.
After that session in the pits, he came up to me and only a few words were spoken. He said my driving was fine and that only one thing stood out for him: my early braking just prior to entering the Corkscrew. I gave him my reasons for it and he seemed to agree in silence. Since he did not bring up what happened in Turn 4 I did and provided the explanation. Being a pro, he knew what went down, knew that I knew what I did wrong, and had already dismissed it. The few words that he had spoken to me – that my driving overall was fine, was a huge compliment coming from a driver such as he to a kid with zero real karting experience who has never driven a sportscar. Five days of open wheel experience and getting a chance to drive with such an incredible driver is something I will never forget. His name also makes me wonder if he is related to a famous driver I know from my Indianapolis 500 knowledge bank, but I did not have the nerve to ask him. I will remember his name now too, that is for sure.
A car chooses its driver, but what is amazing is to see it take on its driver’s personality. Its aura can be weak or very strong and a car can be no more alive than when a real driver gets behind its wheel.