Think back to your first time hitting black ice. Remember that surge of adrenaline? That sensation of impending doom and the all-encompassing focus you seemed to gain as the world slowed around you? Now imagine that experience, and all the accompanying sensations, drawn out for 20 minutes. That's the feeling you get when sliding around the wet tarmac of a skid pad.
Exercise: Skid Pad
Vehicle: BMW E90 330i
On your daily slog behind the wheel, you're normally using between 20- and 40-percent of your tires' available grip. In order to reach into the upper range of your tires' road holding ability (9 to 10/10ths), you'd have to be traveling at a substantially higher rate of speed (60 TO 80 MPH). Thankfully, on the skid pad, you can reach those limits of adhesion at a much slower (read: safer) speed.
Behind the wheel of a BMW 330i – instructor to my right, two passengers in the rear – I accelerated up to about 25 MPH, lifted off the throttle and begin steering into a gentle bend to the left. Just as I turned the wheel, Mr. B yanks up on the parking brake handle between us, locking up the rear wheels and throwing me into a skid. Oversteer is the movement du jour and it's served up in copious quantities.
I begin to countersteer rapidly to the right in an attempt to catch the rear before I swap ends and cause the back-seat passengers undue neck injuries. Ideally, what should happen is that the car will gradually slow down, I'll regain control, calmly apply the brakes and stop the Bimmer facing my intended path of travel. Naturally, that's not what happens.
After countersteering almost all the way to lock, the front end bites into the pavement as the weight of the vehicle pushes down on the front tires. The car immediately grips and heads straight off course, about twenty feet and 90-degrees from where I was supposed to be. Mr. B asks me if I know what went wrong and I rattle off exactly what he wants to hear. I understand what happened and I know where I screwed up, but when it comes down to making these decisions with split second instictiveness, I obviously need to work on it some more. We straighten out and try it again.
Same reaction, but this time I almost flip the car a full 180-degrees.
Next attempt: it's closer, but my entry speed was too slow and didn't provide me with the necessary amount of oversteer.
Third time's the charm: the speed's good, the countersteer is spot on, but I'm used to trying to hold the skid, so on instinct I start modulating the throttle and powerslide around the cones, then lose it. Mr. B explains that the drifting part of the course is after lunch, but it's looking good so far.
After about my fifth attempt, I'm getting it down. The park brake goes up, I anticipate the skid, countersteer appropriately and let the car slide to a halt. My fellow students in the rear are having far too much fun as I consistently smash them into the door panels.
After a few more runs, the movements become more predictable and my consistency begins to show. The speed goes up and I'm back to square one. This time however, the learning curve isn't as steep and I'm back to my perceived rock star self again, at which point, I'm forced to relinquish the controls.
While watching the other students perform this exercise, I finally realize that one of my biggest difficulties was how fast the oversteer came on and how much more unpredictable the road surface is. When I'm bombing my favorite back road and I want to induce a little oversteer, it normally comes on smoothly and predictably, because a) I'm conscious of what I'm trying to do, and b) the grip offered by the pavement has a measure of consistency. Not the case on the skid pad. You're unsure of when the e-brake is going to be pulled and, because of the uneven surface, water pools up in certain areas, causing traction to come in and out. It's real world experience and it'll get more entertaining later in the day.
Exercise: Lane Change/Braking
Vehicle: Porsche 987 Boxster
After exiting the 330i only marginally worse for the wear, we're led back into the classroom for a brief tutorial on brake control. If you've attended any track day, advanced driving course or your Driver's Ed teacher was worth his salt, you know the routine. Brake in a straight line before the turn, release the pedal and then turn the wheel. However, unlike previous courses I've attended, there was less focus on smoothness and more on violently causing the weight to transfer; the idea being that you want to be close to the limits of adhesion, so you can get all the sensations necessary to understand what's taking place beneath you.
Once back onto the tarmac, we're instructed to pick a partner and a Porsche. We line up in the starting grid outlined in the parking lot and about 60 yards ahead of us we can see an intricate layout of cones. The little orange dunce caps are arranged to create three lanes, about 12 feet wide. Midway down the line, they break to create another set of lanes that are lined up with the first set. Look past that second set of lanes and you'll see three traffic lights that will display either a red or a green light.
The idea is for us to accelerate up to 50 MPH, pick one of the lanes in the first set, and then wait for one of the traffic lights to go from red to green, at which point you yank off the accelerator, whip the wheel towards the corresponding green-lighted lane and then come to a screeching halt just past the second set of cones.
Easy for some, hard for others, but well worth being able to feel both the amount of grip available and the difference in weight transfer with a mid-ship car.
From there, it's another braking exercise in a straight line in order to learn how to threshold brake just prior to locking up the wheels and/or engaging the ABS. Then a repeat of that exercise, with the addition of a curve in the cones that gets us used to trail braking.
That idea of holding onto the brakes while turning the wheel will be vital during our next session on the skid pad. However, that'll come after lunch. Which is what we're going to do right now.
Next Friday, the education continues, including plenty of powerslides, gaining an appreciation for an engine mounted in the trunk and realizing that the Viper is ten times more insane than you've been led to believe.
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