Have you ever watched the Grand Tour and wondered what it would be like to drive some fabulous and exotic car around a racetrack? Do you imagine yourself being able to keep up with the boys? Or are you secretly afraid that Captain Slowly might lap you?
It is certainly nice to imagine oneself hurtling into the world-famous cork screw at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca at full speed while behind the wheel of Porsche 918 Spyder. But in reality, when every cell in your body is screaming at you, telling you that you are about to overshoot the turn and crash in a blaze of fire into that looming wall that seems to be flying towards you at speeds faster than you can wrap your head around… Certainly, the car can handle the turn, but could you really resist the urge to lift your foot off the throttle?
Just like many of you, I have wondered how my driving skills ranked in relation to a professional driver. So, I signed up for a 90 minute session at new The Porsche Experience Center – Los Angeles, and began a humbling and educational journey that I know will take a lifetime to master.
I arrived a half an hour early to my 9 am appointment, as instructed, to fill out the various liability waivers; it is a 53-Acre educational racetrack after all, and the occasional “off” must be expected. It was still cool outside, but the sun was already shining and it would be a perfect day for driving. If I’m honest, I was nervous, not overly so, but my stomach was definitely flipping and flopping around more than I would normally admit too.
The waiting area at The Porsche Experience Center was undoubtedly designed to impress. Numerous classic and modern Porsches sat around the edges of the room, sparkling in the sun; a sirens song seducing the weary driver with its call to speed. Sitting prominently in the very center is a 1962 Porsche 804, the same car Dan Gurney used to win the 1962 French Grand Prix, and the last F1 race car Porsche would produce until its return to the sport two-decades later in 1983. More historic Porsche’s lined the room, including a 70’s era Porsche-Gulf 917, a 24 Hours of Les Mans winner. But without out a doubt, the one that draws your eye the most, is a 2015 limited edition Porsche 918 Spyder Hypercar, one of only 918 in existence. What a waiting room!
A few minutes before nine, the driving coaches slowly emerged from the facilities offices and without fail, approached each of their students as if they already knew who they were. One by one the Porsche driving coaches shook the hands of their students, introduced themselves, started discussing the day’s events, and took their new disciples out to the track where a row of glistening Porsches awaited. I was still patiently sitting in the waiting room while the last of the students left for the track. After what seemed like an eternity, surely a full 30 seconds, my instructor arrived. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had won the golden ticket and pulled a senior driving coach, who had only gotten to me last due to his supervisory responsibilities to his fellow drivers.
After we introduced ourselves, we quickly moved out to the track and towards the car I would be driving for the day. And what a machine it was! A brand new 2017 Porsche 718 Cayman with the sports exhaust package. This 300 horse power, mid-engine, rear-wheel drive car was a master piece of performance. In the capable of hands of my instructor, it could wag its tail out on the low-friction circle and barely rev its engine above idle, crawling around the wetted polished concrete surface so calmly that one could get out of the car and walk around with it while its back end casually skidded around, gliding in a tight circle. I only realized later that my real car education started here, on this wet track, a true lesson I would never forget.
After my instructor took me on a quick lap around the track, we stopped at an area called the Dynamic Pad, a flat stretch of asphalt with a series of plastic orange cones stationed in strategic patterns across its surface. The goal was simple, move the car in and out of the cones at a constant speed. Turns out, maintaining a constant speed while rapidly and forcefully turning the wheel is not as simple a thing to do as one would imagine. My mentor explained to me that he knew when I was accelerating or decelerating because his head would move slightly back towards the seat or front towards the dash. I was controlling the balance of his body within the car by how I managed the throttle. His descriptions of how to properly drive a car immediately reminded me of a dance lesson I had with an Argentine Tango teacher. I had learned the same lessons in that dance class as I was learning here on the track: managing the balance of my partner (the car) is the key to a great dance around the track.
There are moments in one’s life where we are closed minded and not really open to learning, and other times when we are as receptive as one is humanly capable of being. Fortunately for me, this was one of those times where the latter was true. Unfortunately for me, despite being the best student I could possibly be, my ability to learn was far below my coach’s ability to teach. The entire 90 minute session was one where valuable nuggets of driving knowledge were carefully laid in front of me, given in such a way as to be as easily digestible as possible, and yet I seemed to somehow fail to grasp them and make them mine.
To say that my coach was driving expert would be an understatement. He is a world-class dance instructor, teaching his students the dance of driving by educating them in how to partner with their vehicles, and gracefully dance with it across the road.
As I muddled my way around the various courses, my coach would carefully guide me through my gaffes, explaining each issue with care and grace. After one exercise was finished, he would illuminate me on how accelerating in to the curve, the car is pushed back on its rear wheels causing the weigh balance to be shifted aft, lifting the front wheels, and thereby decreasing the ability of the car to steer. After another exercise, I would learn that by lifting off the gas I had inadvertently caused the weight of the vehicle to be transferred forward of center, making my steering overly heavy, thereby increasing my work load and decreasing the cars ability to respond to my commands. As my guru explained, maintaining the balance of my partner, the car, through the movements I ask it to do, is the key to the dance of driving.
The lesson of the day was that getting a car to go fast around the track has to do with weight management and balance, and just like how a great tango dancer is able to move his partner around the dance floor with grace and simplicity, a great driver can do the same with his car.
I am just starting my education in the dance of driving, and without doubt it will be a dance well worth learning. Happily, the good people at the Porsche Experience Center – Los Angeles take their jobs seriously and provide a world-class professional service, at a surprisingly affordable price. Keep driving my friends!
My thanks to Jim, Marco and Jimmy for all their help with this article.