Until today, my Falcon’s temperature gauge had never so much as crossed the halfway point. But there we were just outside of scalding hot coolant explosion range, listening to it percolate coolant through my cracked overflow bottle. This might turn into a very short day, I thought.
We were in the paddock at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, taking advantage of the open test and tune track day before the 24 Hours of LeMons Arse-Sweat-apalooza, particularly the “open” part. I’m all for personal responsibility, but was a little surprised when the staff ok’ed my bench seats, lap belts and complete absence of crash engineering for track use. Certainly not complaining, though.
To make things interesting, I’d proposed to Jack Baruth of The Truth About Cars that he come give me some driving instruction in my antiquated machine. The goal was to see just how great or lousy a 48 year old car with a little modern augmentation could be on the track. More importantly, to see if it’s inherent flaws would help or hurt my attempts to become a better driver.
Having spent a characteristically Baruthian evening the night before, Jack was still en route when the first session began. I went out solo, figuring it’d be a great chance to get a feel for the car and track.
I’m semi-proficient when it comes to go-fast driving. Were it a foreign language, I’d know plenty of vocab and proper conjugations, but regularly flub my pronunciation and stumble in conversation. The knowledge is there, the precision execution is lacking. To that end, Jack wasn’t there to teach a whole new language, just to drill in some pronunciation rules. “Lay Maahn”, “Ver-sigh”, “Shamps El-lee-say”.
As such, I spent 15 of that first solo session’s 30 minutes doing the hard-drivin’ I’d learned 11 years ago at a 2-day Skip Barber course: threshold braking, heel-toe down to 2nd, power on past the apex up to 5,000rpm, eyes up to the next corner. The remaining 15 minutes? Parked in the paddock while the car overheated.
In our first session together, Jack just let me drive. When the temp gauge climbed again, we pulled into the paddock to cool off the car and get some instruction. “You’ve got aggression, which is good, because I can’t teach that” Don’t be a wuss: Check. “But you’re beating the shit out of your car and not really getting any faster for it.” Noted. “I want you to run the whole track in 4th”. Surely not the whole–“The whole track”.
There are two ways to highlight a bad line through a corner: go fast and over/understeer your way into the dirt, or drive two gears too high and nearly stall the car if you fail to unwind the wheel. At like 18mph, there’s no concern of careening off the track by straightening the wheel on a corner exit. You’ve got a good 12 seconds before you even reach the curb, so straighten that baby out and give the motor one less thing to push against. The drill removed the adrenaline and split-second corrections from the learning process; did a great job of cooling off the car as well.
For the rest of the day, “Unwind the wheel” became the objective. However, one does not simply unwind the wheel. To maximize one’s unwinding on corner exit, one must properly set up the corner and take the right line into the apex. My inability to unwind the wheel was a symptom of a crappy corner entrance. Taking a less frenetic approach to corner entry by easing up on the heel-toe and not wringing out every last millisecond of straightaway helped set me up for success on the other end.
The key to entering and exiting well (no laughing) is to plan, rather than react. If you just look at the portion of corner you’re about to deal with, you’ve already blown it (which I regularly did). Our next exercise was an eyeball drill: notice something new on every corner. Signs, corner worker gender, skid marks, whatever. The point was to force me to move my eyes around and stimulate my visual cortex beyond tunnel vision on the approaching tarmac. The net result had me remembering to look up and through the corner exit, which had the biggest effect on my overall success.
By the end of the day, I’d shaved about 15 seconds off my lap, and managed to do so with a driving style that showed a bit more respect to the car. I knew the drills I needed to run, it was just a matter of repeating them. I wish I would’ve had more time and less traffic to keep practicing, but the car still couldn’t quite run a hard 30 minute session and things were getting crowded with LeMons cars.
Despite an online presence as a shit-talking agent provocateur, Jack’s an excellent coach. Regardless of how many things you’re screwing up, he keeps you working on only one or two at a time, providing relevant feedback without bombardment. A decade ago at Skip Barber, the instructors basically talked me around the track: “gasgasgasgasBRAKESmorewheelwmorewheelGASGASGAS”. The method can produce great real-time results, but doesn’t result in as much self-evaluation and learning as Jack’s more patient style. Spending the day talking blooger inside baseball with Jack and Jeff was just a bonus.
The Falcon itself was a great teaching tool. With nowhere near enough power to really get in trouble and a chassis that pretty much puked all over itself if treated roughly, it definitely wasn’t masking any of my deficiencies. With a good setup and slow hands, it rewarded with competent performance. Some decent low-back buckets and quicker (and less clapped out) steering would’ve made driving less like hanging from monkey bars. A bit more cooling for the motor and some brake ducts for the fronts would’ve let me wring all 30 minutes out of each 30 minute session. Aside from engineering complications, the next downside is the cost of failure. Namely, Falcon V. Any Solid Object at more than about 40mph = game over, while even lesser altercations with LeMons traffic are no big deal for them but quite big for me. There’s something to be said for a caged, semi-disposable track car.
[Images copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker]