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Becoming a pretty good high-performance driver, part two: seat time

Part two of a five-part series in which I explain how I became a pretty good high-performance driver.

Now that I’ve appropriated a suitable track car—in my case, the cheap and tossable FR-S—the next step is procuring large doses of “seat time.”

Seat time refers to the hours spent behind the wheel on a track. Obtaining such you come to know the strengths and weaknesses of your car. My stock Bimmer plowed through corners as if its name were Jethro, yet the erotic thrust of the turbo six and the unflappableness of the car at triple digit speed did make me feel as if I were in the pocket of the Almighty. In contrast, the FR-S attacks corners like jungle cat who has eaten in a week. Owing to the modest engine, however, there’s no heady and heroic rush of speed as I redline out of slow corners—just a gradual buildup of momentum (wait for it, wait for it) that I have to learn to maintain, if I want to be quick.

Seat time helps shed the fear of going fast. You acclimatize to speed. For instance, hitting 102 mph at the end of the straight becomes sort of normal the tenth time you do it, especially when you recall the Bimmer could hit 125. Of course, there are still many pucker situations—a faster car coming out of nowhere and overtaking you just as you are about to turn into a corner; the inexperienced driver whom you nigh sodomize because he unexpectedly lays on the brakes as you are looking ahead for a place to pass. Given enough seat time these situations are little bubbles of stress that rise up and pop in about as much time. On track, there’s little space for thinking.

Which is why, if you want to be fast, most of your inputs to the car need to be automatic, not the result of conscious effort. The same is true of any high-performance athlete. If you have to think much about when to brake or driving the right line, you won’t be fast for long. Things happen too quickly. And that’s the main purpose of seat time: to make high-performance driving behaviors automatic. I know this is true, because I have NOT made all the basics automatic, not yet anyway, and so am quick on certain sections of the track, langorous on others—for example, sharp corners following a straight. I still pretty much puss out on those. But I’m committed to learning.

Reading has helped, and is a cheap way to make track days more efficient. Ross Bentley’s Ultimate Speed Secrets provides a lifetime of tips. Also, Carl Lopez’s Going Faster, though less concise and geared more toward the burgeoning race car driver, has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Procuring large and consistent doses of seat time makes plain that high-performance driving is a serious hobby. You need a car you can afford to track on a consistent basis. This alone may demand months of research and a re-arranging of priorities. You need to prep the car for the full days on track during which you are essentially incommunicado from all other meaningful relationships in your life. And then there’s the track fees and tires and expensive fluids you gleefully burn through.

These are the prereqs for becoming a pretty good high-performance driver. Good thing for me is that I’ve completed them. I’ve procured seat time, and a result know the strengths and weaknesses of car and driver. Now I need some professional help. Now I need some instruction.

Image Credit: Michael Nera

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Becoming a pretty good high-performance driver, part one: Get the right car

Part one of a five-part series in which I explain how became a pretty good high-performance driver.

The first step in becoming a competent driver is getting the right car.

Until recently, I had a 2008 BMW 335i (manual, sport package) which I thought would’ve happily performed double-duty as family hauler and track companion, and perhaps could have. It had a backseat with room for Princess and glided across town and country with aplomb (and my Lord, didn’t its turbo six make me swoon), but there were reasons, all related, as to why it couldn’t serve as my ambassador to apex hunting mayhem. Girth, being the primary one. It was too damned heavy, which, along with muting its aliveness on-track, caused my Direzzas to wear at an alarming rate. True, I could’ve spent five grand on exhaust, suspension, and wheel upgrades and had quite the Gentlemanly Beast, yet that substantial outlay wouldn’t have made me a better driver. No. You need seat time for that.

I needed a car more reasonable to track. Something lithe and tossable, with a backseat for Princess. Were I rich man, my next words would have a cluster of 9s in them, as in “997 911” in Artic Silver with black leather interior. Alas, I am not a rich man. And so write, “Scion FR-S.”

Unimpressive, I know. Not even the Subaru version of the car. Still, it’s a gruff and tough little machine built for scooting around a racetrack. AND it’s cheap. A car that helps me become a better driver.

Image credit: Nate Stevens

Image credit: Brian Stalter

Becoming a pretty good high-performance driver

A five-part series during which I learn how NOT to embarrass myself at the racetrack. In other words, how I became a pretty good high-performance driver.

For the last few years, I’ve wanted to get to the racetrack regularly. Up to now, that Strong Man money stood in my way. No longer. Not that I have stacks of Benjamins littering the back hall, but enough to get to my local track, High Plains Raceway, if I keep modifications to a minimum, do my own maintenance, and run tires that have decent longevity.

It’s not just that I want to get to the track more, though — I want to become a competent high-performance driver.

What does that mean? For me, anyway, it means that during open lap days at High Plains, I want to be one of the quicker cars in the slow group. (If you’ve never been to an open lap day, cars are often split into two groups: fast and slow. 911s, Corvettes, exotics, and the like making up the former — Miatas, FR-Ss, sporty daily drivers making up the latter.)

You may be asking, “Why do you want to be the fastest of the slow?” Mostly because I have a yen for lightweight, low horsepower scoots, a proclivity I explore in the next segment, “Finding the Right Car.”

Image credit: Brian Stalter

Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns

The joy of a morning drive in winter

To the car that inspired this piece: 2008 BMW 335i

Like other stick shift junkies, I take the majority of my soul-percolating spins in spring and summer when faith in adhesion allows me to carve deep in the bends. Yet winter drives when the roads are clear and temperature reasonable have their own charms. For one, they are a lot things that summer drives are not.  Continue reading

Warning: your car may be trashing up the neighborhood

Austin, TX

I’m a suburban middle class guy, which along with a penchant for Hondas and Toyotas, requires that I have a two-car garage. All my neighbors do, too. Yet as I look down my street I see that many of them have one of their cars parked out on the curb, as if it’s the holidays and all their families are in town. Now, I’m not a big fan of homeowners’ associations and their clumsy, paint-by-the-numbers aesthetics, but they are dead right about one thing: cars parked on the street trash up a neighborhood.

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The first time I smelled a girl

When I was in eighth grade and living in the seaside and preppy hamlet of Duxbury, MA, the local sporting goods store chartered a ski bus for a day trip to Loon Mountain, NH. My friend Tim and I signed up, as did many of our classmates. Like many outings of the “field trip” variety the most interesting happenings occurred on the bus to and from the main event – e.g., on the way, the bus overheated, and the 90 minutes we had to wait for another afforded one philosophically inclined sophomore the opportunity to expatiate on the reasons why we enjoy smelling our own flatulence.  Continue reading