Part three of a five-part series in which I explain how became a pretty good high-performance driver.
As with any sport, you can only get so good on your own. I’ve got the car and have procured enough seat time to know what I’m doing. Now I need instruction.
So I hired Chris Sarian, the resident instructor at High Plains Raceway, for half a day. We got four sessions in, which seemed just about right.
A quality instructor confirms what you already know. I’ve known for some time that I need to carry more speed into corners, the crux of which is braking later, harder, quicker. The basics of proper braking are easy enough: lay deep into the brakes till you feel the flutter of the ABS, then release. What’s tricky is knowing when to brake, as well as getting on and off the pedal quickly, yet smoothly. That was the biggest takeaway from the session: brake later, harder, and quicker. So key, especially in the lightweight, low-horsepower FR-S whose quickness depends on momentum.
Up to now, I’ve been pretty much pussy braking. All very gradual and within a braking zone that’s twice and perhaps even three times as long as it should be. Why? Mostly because I’ve been heel-toeing at every corner. Every car guy knows that real drivers heel-toe. Problem is, I can’t heel-toe AND brake late, hard, and quick. I don’t have the coordination, the feel necessary. So for now, when on the track I’m giving up heel-toeing until I get proper braking down.
Another helpful suggestion related to braking: “Keep your eyes up as you approach the corner. Look through the turn. Don’t just drive point to point.” This gestalt-sounding tip, Chris informs, will help me get off the brakes sooner, as well as prepare for completing the corner and launching onto the upcoming straight. Makes sense. Focus your eyes, not where you are, but where you want to go.
And where you want to go is around other cars. I need to be more aggressive. Always scheming as to where I can pass the slower car in front of me. Pressure the driver, so that he either makes a mistake or waves me by.
What I dug about Chris is that he didn’t talk a lot. He observed my driving and gave a few choice recommendations. For example:
“What’s the redline in this car?”
“You’re shifting early. Ideally, you want to shift at redline. But for now, let’s shift at 6500.”
A good teacher boosts your confidence—in your skills as a driver and the capabilities of the car. Quickness springs from confidence.
Many of us aspiring high-performance drivers know that we need professional instruction. But we put it off. As men, we don’t exactly relish feeling inferior. And then there’s cost, which makes a high-priced hobby, even more so. Though we feel good about paying $800 for new rubber, man, do we squirm when writing a check for half that amount for someone to teach us what we don’t know.
Here’s the paradox: quality instruction is expensive, yet pays for itself almost immediately. Good instructors, usually badged with some racing success, are the ones “Who Have Gone Before.” Sort of like Sherpas of motorsport. When you fork over that sizeable wad of cash you are able to mine the knowledge that took them years and tens of thousands dollars to obtain. For instance, before I even took my session, Chris’s recommendation about tires saved me about 300 bucks.
Becoming a competent high-performance driver doesn’t happen by accident. It takes large whacks of time and thousands of dollars, in addition to the cost of the car. It’s but one way to get more out a hobby. Some guys go the equipment route and troll online forums for the latest and greatest mod. Some guys go the aesthetic route, detailing their car with Q-Tips and an artist’s care. And some guys go the social route, spending Saturday mornings ensconced at Cars and Coffee or taking part in the car club get-together and group drive. But for me, my car is about going fast—as fast as the car was built to go. What I find most intriguing, as my favorite song puts it, is the limits of machine and man.
For me, that’s where the fun is.