What skills do you need whether you're a race car driver or simply a driver on the street?
Car control technique over a variety of conditions and grip levels, including wet and dry pavement, snow, gravel, ice, and mud.
How can you develop these skills?
Now, that's a tough one: YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE. But how can you get practice time for this?
If you are only driving on the street, it can be very difficult to develop car control techniques because you typically only use them when you need them, and often by that point, it's too late. Car control techniques are only developed with a concerted effort to do so, learning from others who have mastered these skills. Furthermore, you need to work on these skills where you can experiment (and fail) in a controlled environment where the chances of hurting anyone (including other drivers) is greatly reduced. In other words, you need to go to school.
This past week, my road racing teammates Billy Johnson and Shelby Blackstock and I did just that. We headed up to the Team O'Neil Rally School in New Hampshire for a 3 day rally course to work on some areas of car control that we rarely get the chance to work on, namely driving in the gravel, mud, and snow. Most of our time was spent driving in Ford Fiestas. Up to that point, I've gotten very little performance driving in either the Fiesta or front wheel drive cars in general. As I found out, Ford has put together yet another wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to the performance and fun factor in this new platform.
The school was founded by five-time rally champion Tim O'Neil and is run by Tim, along with a team of expert event-winning rally instructors and mechanics. This crew has not only raced countless times themselves in these kinds of conditions, but they've developed their own skills by learning from the best from all over the world. The result is a school that culminates this knowledge all in one place and makes it easy for you to access and learn yourself.
Team O'Neil is located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on a 560 acre plot of land with over six miles of dirt roads. The land was a gravel pit before Tim took it over. Needless to say, there's no lack of gravel here. Also, unlike most driving schools, especially ones in the North, classes are run all year-round. Consequently, the snow that you would typically never get the chance to run on at a track event only made things more challenging and educational. Under these low levels of grip, the techniques for controlling a car can be quite different than what you would typically use on pavement.
Some of the muscle memory that we've developed over years of driving on dry pavement need to be tweaked for us in these conditions. That's not to say that these techniques aren't useful for driving on dry pavement. In fact, I expect that some of the techniques may prove useful on dry pavement for our road racing series. It's also the case that we run in the rain in our race series (low grip!). The way that I look at learning different techniques on driving is this: You don't have to use something that you've learned all of the time to be useful. By developing a new technique, you're putting a skill into your driving toolbox that you can take out whenever you need it.
Shelby, Billy, and I went to the school primarily to further our racecraft. However, the techniques that we learned are very applicable to driving on the street. I would strongly recommend to anyone who drives a car to consider going to this school no matter your driving background and experience, as it could very possibly save your life one day.
Here's what Billy Johnson said about the school: "As a racing driver, I pride myself and my car control abilities. I knew the Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center would be a great opportunity for me to practice, learn, and polish my car control skills and I went to the school with an open mind willing to learn. However I took away from the school far more than I ever anticipated. I have taught at some racing schools and been apart of or sat in many different classes and cirriculums. I feel that the Team O'Neil school provides one of the most unique and best program to practice car control and driving techniques that could ever be learned on wet asphalt alone. I highly recommend the school to anyone from my little sister to be a better, safer driver, to professional drivers alike to improve and polish their car control skills."
How Do You Further Your Driving Technique?
It's good to read ideas about driving. It's also good to watch videos of other people driving, but in order to further your own driving, these are simply not good enough in themselves. That again brings up the importance of going to school. Broken down a bit more, here are the three main requirements that I see for learning new skills in driving:
1. Understand the technique intellectually.
2. Develop the physical sensitivity needed to understand what the car is doing (and how you can apply the technique in a given moment in time). This takes seat time and a lot of it -- in other words, practice!
3. Develop the muscle memory so that you don't need to think about it. Once again, this is the result of plenty of practice.