The Navigator/August 2020
By Dave Farnsworth
Risk Avoidance Part Two

In my last column I addressed the idea of controlling risks at a track event. I pointed out that those risks are readily apparent and fairly easily minimized compared to the risks we’ve all been forced to consider over the past many months. Hopefully by the time this sees print we’ll all be able to head to a track somewhere and get in some serious driving.

Okay, so now you’ve followed the suggestions from two months ago and have a suitable and thoroughly inspected vehicle to drive, fresh brake fluid, correctly torqued lug nuts and the proper amount of air in your tires. Congratulations, you have eliminated some significant negative variables, now let’s consider a few more things you have control over.

Arrive at the event as early as possible. Feeling rushed is a guaranteed way to overlook something critical. You’ll have to empty out your car of everything that isn’t permanently affixed. Always a good idea to bring a large water tight container for all the flotsam and jetsam we tend to accumulate over time, as well as your driver’s side floor mat (Just leave the passenger ones at home in the garage—you won’t be needing them so why tote them? They usually end up at the start finish line like a sad puppy awaiting your return.)

Be sure your helmet is up to date, or confirm the availability of a loaner/rental helmet—unfortunately unlikely this year for obvious reasons. You won’t be able to drive without one.
Comfortable closed toes shoes are also a must. Avoid shoes with a very stiff sole, the softer the better. You would be surprised how much more in control you feel just being able to really feel the pedal pressure accurately through the sole of your foot. Check to be sure you won’t be required to wear a long sleeve shirt. Some tracks still require this even though it doesn’t provide any additionally protection (unless it’s made out of Nomex.) It’s kind of a pointless but enduring tradition—and does help the gift shop get rid of last year’s left over commemorative race shirts.
While none of the above directly affects your risk on the track it can affect your sense of preparedness which in turn can reduce your sense of being in over your head—a clear impediment to an open mind, receptive learning and non-panicky decision making.

If you have a chance to ride around the track in the passenger’s seat at a relaxed pace take that opportunity. All the track videos you watch cannot totally prepare you for the reality of the track surface, bends, elevation changes and camber. Seeing the track for the first time in an instructor’s car at speed is not ideal. It can be detrimental in a few diametrically opposed ways. The most common is being intimidating to the point of convincing you you’d rather be somewhere else—right now. It may also create the notion that this is the level of driving your instructor is going to expect of you-like being dropped in the deep end on your first swimming lesson—not comforting, and certainly not fun. Finally, and certainly more dangerously, this can backfire by convincing the more daring among you that this is the level you will be able to drive out of the box. Speaking on behalf of your first instructor, ”NO!—please don’t do that.”

Now you’re strapped in, helmet on and buckled down, remembering to breath and waiting for the starter’s signal to enter the track. No need to drop the clutch, activate launch control or otherwise nail the gas when you get the go ahead. Do accelerate briskly but 3/4s is just fine. The first lap or two carry the highest risk of spinning or otherwise leaving the paved surface because both you and your tires are cold. Take the time to warm both up—this isn’t leaving the pitstop at Le Mans, no need to hammer it.

Use your, hopefully, finely tuned sense of self-preservation to keep risk at a minimum. If you’re getting scared there’s probably a very good reason—slow down and trust your gut.
Feel the pavement, get a sense of traction. A rainy day, while depressing for a lot of first timers, is actually a great opportunity to begin to develop that feeling. Avoid a death grip on the wheel, the harder you squeeze the poorer your sense of fine touch becomes and the easier it becomes to miss critical clues as to what your tire patches are doing.

As you progress and begin to feel more comfortable with increasing speed there is another very important thing to remember. Your car should feel no different at speed than it does during the warm up or cool down laps. The steering wheel should feel just as steady, the brake pedal just as firm—no weird jiggles, no tactile clunks, no slow fading of pedal feel, nothing different. This is no place for “I wonder what that was?—oh well maybe it’ll just go away.” If you feel anything the least bit unusual, slow down and tell your instructor. In fact returning to the pits is probably a great idea, and will never be criticized by anyone, least of all the person in your right seat. Those of us who’ve been to a lot of these all have stories of drivers who had a big moment and when interviewed for the incident report said something like, “Gee the brake pedal felt a little spongy but I figured it would get better.”
The keys to minimize risk in track driving are actually pretty basic: Prepare both yourself and your equipment, avoid stress, don’t drive scared and pay constant and close attention to what your car is trying to tell you. Do all this and you’ll significantly minimize the risk you might initially thought of as high, enjoy your day, and learn a lot. The track awaits.

Callout: Use your…finely tuned sense of self-preservation to keep risk at a minimum.

Printed with permission.

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