It’s a Sickness, and I Have It

Yesterday, I confirmed what I was afraid of: I really like motorsports. As in, I don’t just like it conceptually, I don’t just like being an observer. I like being a participant. I want in.


Rats, because racing is very time-consuming and probably one of the most expensive hobbies you can have.  And time and money are the two things I happen to have the least of. Oh well. I guess I’ll figure it out. Because I’ve been bitten by the bug full on.

Yesterday was my Foundations of Road Racing course at Driveway Austin. It was a full-day, hard-charging, data-overload class. It was loud, hot and dirty. I ended up with brake dust on my face, a crick in my neck, and sore palms. I sweated off about three pounds of body fat. I went home and collapsed into bed.

It was completely fantastic.

Observation #1: everyone should take a driving course. And I mean beyond any required driver’s ed or defensive driving course. Performance driving is obviously geared more towards enthusiasts, but the things I learned yesterday would be of extraordinary benefit to every driver on the road. Information like how to handle over- or under-steer. How to appropriately position your hands on, and use, the steering wheel. How to think about weight transfer, and the way your car reacts to various scenarios because of how its weight transfers in braking, accelerating, etc. How to, above all else, use your eyes and focus on points in front of you. How to plan and anticipate. It turns out, racing is not just, or even mostly, about speed; it’s about physics, focus, and how six or seven different things come together in one second or less. It is both an intense mind game and a physical endurance challenge.

Drop whatever you’re doing, and sign up for a driving course. It will change the way you drive, and the way you think about driving. You’ll be better for it.

Ok, stepping off soapbox.

I was really impressed with Driveway Austin. The instructors are very knowledgable, enthusiastic and positive. (And patient!) They are very safety-focused, and pay close attention to everything that is happening on the track, where we spent the majority of our time. The structure of the class makes a lot of sense. We started out in the classroom with an overview of what we would be learning throughout the day. Then we broke the topics down into a section at a time, with each section building on the next. After a lecture on a particular topic, we would go outside to practice that technique in our cars. We alternated between the classroom and the track throughout the day, but the course is definitely track-focused. Yes! There were seven people in our class, so we divided into two groups, with one group on the track while the other group watched (and hydrated).  The instructors alternated between riding with us, driving with us, and observing while we drove alone. Driving with an instructor helped me a lot, and I could really track my progress in a few areas over the course of the day.

Surprisingly, I was one of only two participants with a manual transmission, which brought me face-to-face with my new bugbear: heel-toe downshifting. Heel-toe, which I had heard of without really understanding, is a nifty foot technique that few non-professional drivers ever master. Essentially, it involves operating three pedals with two feet, and is intended to produce a very quick and smooth downshift while braking into a turn. You brake with the ball of your right foot, while blipping the throttle with the other half of your right foot, at the same time that you depress the clutch with your left foot and then downshift. While preparing to enter a turn. Holy crap. Suffice it to say, I mastered heel-toe in concept only, and have already been driving around today practicing. And cursing.

Please meet the newest MOTORista project: the heel-toe downshift. I will master this technique and, with it, Turn 5 at Driveway Austin. Until then, prepare for griping. I don’t really like to learn things, I like to know them. And while heel-toe and I have been introduced, we neither know nor like each other yet. We’ll get there.

The course is designed for you to bring your own car, although you can rent a Spec Miata from Driveway if you prefer. I drove the Red MINI, who appeared to have a most delightful time. It was odd, like spending a full day with someone you thought you knew well, but coming away with the feeling that you are now so much closer. I could feel my car in ways I never had before, the way she reacted to different inputs, the way her weight shifted at different points in a turn. Today I feel like we know each other a lot better.

So what’s next on the racing agenda? Some heel-toe mastery and a lot of practice sessions on the track, then I will be ready for the next course, Advanced Road Racing Techniques. From there, a racing license, and then the moon.

Sorry for the lack of photos. I was a bit preoccupied yesterday. I did, however, make the acquaintance of someone I thought you might like. A slew of photos on that subject are on their way…