I like to drive fast. Unfortunately, my wife, co-workers and friends associate my driving style with being crazy, reckless and/or stupid. I completely disagree. While I do drive fast, I have no death wish and I don't get speeding tickets or into wrecks. That clean record is no accident; I've been through driver training with Team Continental half a dozen times at Portland International Raceway (PIR) over the years. That experience has given me many opportunities to explore my personal limits, as well push the limits of my car, lessons that have probably saved my life on more than one occasion.
My childhood was different than that of most of my friends. I didn't own my own car until my senior year in college. But I did have the opportunity to drive my father's various Porsches through my high school years. Luckily, I didn't do anything too stupid behind the wheel prior to driver training and track days at PIR. My first "track day" event was humbling. I was required to attend an evening "ground school" class prior to the event. We spent three hours reviewing the basic physics of driving, racetrack rules and lengthy liability forms. It was hard to stay focused with the anxiety of the next day's racing.
The next morning, I was out on the track in my 1995 Honda Civic Coupe. It was painfully slow compared to the other European and Japanese cars, but it was mine. My first lesson was that cars (even older Civics) have limits 99 percent of us never experience (or enjoy). After a few laps with my instructor in the passenger seat, I felt confident enough to ask her (yes, a female instructor) to take a few laps with me in the passenger seat, just to see what she could do. She admitted she'd never raced a Honda before (she drove Volvos), but you'd never have known. She raked through the gears flawlessly, and took turns much faster than I did. I learned that my Civic could corner much faster and brake much harder than I'd expected, and all without squealing the tires.
Since my first track day, I've fine-tuned my shifting, braking, cornering and passing. More importantly, I now have a solid grasp of the physics of driving. Before my first driver training class, I thought pitch and yaw was a show on PBS. Now I know how to anticipate what my car will do in a variety of conditions. That is largely because driving on a race track is like driving in rain or snow: any sudden, abrupt change, no matter how small, can send you into a spin or straight into a wall.
On more than one occasion, I've been able to apply my track experience in real life situations to avoid disaster. In one case, I was the passenger in a friend’s fancy new Volvo XC90 SUV. He was unfamiliar with snow driving, having grown up in the south. We'd gone snowboarding and on the way home he hit the brakes as he approached a stop sign and we started to slide. He turned the steering wheel hard to avoid another car, yet I knew that as long as he stood on the brakes physics dictated that he would continue heading straight for the car. So I told him to let off the brake, which enabled him to avoid a collision at the last minute. It wasn't a high-speed incident, but I saved him a few bucks in body work at the very least.
On another occasion, I was on a road trip with my wife heading to Boise, Idaho to visit friends. I'd been driving for eight hours straight and my mind was numbed by the monotonous highway travel. My rule of thumb is to never go more than 10 mph over the speed limit, and I held to that rule as I cruised down the highway at 85 mph. At one point, I noticed that up ahead cars were bunched up, blocking both lanes, and going very slowly. As my brain registered the rate of closure, I realized that the cars were going 40 mph in a 75 mph zone, and that I wasn't going to be able to slow down in time. I hit the brakes in our Subaru Outback firmly and aimed our car between the two groups of cars in each lane.
Even though the brakes were nearly at lockup, I threaded the needle between the cars in both lanes, with no more than a rearview mirror of space on each side. Had the opening not been there and I'd not stayed focused, I would have piled into one or both sets of cars at 60 mph, or tried to go around them, skidding off the road and maybe rolling the car. Instead, everyone involved got a major adrenaline rush and said a few "thank yous" to our gods of choice. My god was Team Continental.