I’ve got a friend named Steve who’s been a car nut as long as I’ve known him. He’s very relaxed and easygoing most of the time, but is something of a Jekyll-Hyde character, and shows a different side of himself when he gets behind the wheel. Fortunately, he’s been able to channel some of that on the circuit lately, and when he mentioned he was going to his first track day, my ears pricked up. Scheduling differences kept me from joining in on his first foray to Buttonwillow, but when he signed up for another Speed SF event at Laguna Seca two weeks later, I made sure my schedule was clear.
I awoke that morning at 4:30. A cup of overpriced coffee, a chocolate bar to keep me from being too crabby, and a taxi ride later, I met up with Steve at a gas station in foggy South San Francisco. I hopped in his E46 BMW, and, accompanied by a group of friends in Miatas, an Alfa 4C, and an AE86, we shot south towards Monterey. As Steve and I drove down Highway 101 and sipped liquid life support, our conversation inevitably turned towards cars and, suddenly, the coffee seemed superfluous.
Something about discussing driving, especially with someone you’ve known for years who shares the same obsession, heightens the senses and tickles the creases at the edges of the mouth. Once we all parked and peered out at the famous circuit, we may as well have slept for twelve hours; any feelings of fatigue had melted away.
I’ve coached for about five years now and been to Laguna dozens of times, but having a friend as your student is an entirely new experience. You know their habits, how well they take care of their car, and how it’s been modified—which are all reassuring facts when you put your life in their hands.
Steve’s BMW was optimized for a little canyon carving and has a benign handling balance that still allows for a little manipulation beyond the limit. Included in the short list of modifications are a set of Ground Control coilovers with 375-pound springs in front and 450-pounders in the rear, Powerflex rear camber arms, Hotchkis swaybars, and Powerflex control arm bushings. It’s not a wild machine by any stretch, but it has a sweet way of cornering that allows for a bit of roll and offers a sense of weight transfer—which, interestingly enough, would be the focus of my lesson.
Steve’s no slouch. He’s also totally fearless, and he laughs in situations that would bleach my remaining hair completely white. However, teaching him to drive cleanly would be a challenge on a fast track like Laguna Seca, where braking forces are heavy, corners are long, and effective weight transfer is paramount.
Once we’d acquainted ourselves with the run group, we set off with a couple of eager beginners who were driving Laguna for their first time. Our first session was unremarkable; he followed another instructor in an E36 M3, with the other two following closely in a Jaguar XKR and an E92 M3. This was more of a reconnaissance run to give him a gist of where the corners were, their surface texture, and the tricky sight lines over the circuit’s famous crests and dips.
It’s a picturesque track, and one that leaves first-timers a little awestruck. After the first-session jitters (“ohmygodwerehereicantbelieveitjesus”) wore off, we started addressing some of the issues with his approach that were slowing him and, occasionally, putting his car in an iffy situation. First, his braking technique needed some refining.
Top Five Tips For Beginners
1. Listen to your instructor. Not only do instructors teach you how to go faster, they can anticipate big mistakes before you make them. Stay receptive and listen to their critiques, and you’ll be much faster and safer by the end of the day.
2. Keep calm. This might seem obvious, but amateurs have a tendency to overdrive when they begin to get comfortable with the task at hand. Too much aggression is not only dangerous, but it makes you slower until you learn how to harness it. Use relaxed inputs and remember the car is traveling faster than it does on the street, so it won’t necessarily respond the same way.
3. Keep your eyes up. It’s easy to fixate on what’s directly in front of your car. Instead, look up and through the approaching corner. Speeds are higher on the track, and to deal effectively with the information coming at you, you need to give yourself ample time to process everything.
4. It’s not a race. I hate to mention this, but there are those who think they’re competing for prize money at their first HPDE. If they treat their first track day like the Monaco Grand Prix, the only payment made will be from the driver to the tow company hauling their car back home.
5. Push gradually. Charging hard into every corner is only going to wear out your tires and brakes. Instead, establish a braking point, and with every successive lap, brake a few feet later or with a few more pounds of pressure until the car begins to slide. By gradually approaching the limit, you’ll have a better sense of where it is and how to keep everything under control.
Degressive Braking with a Roll
Driving on the street, it’s useful to apply brake pedal pressure smoothly and progressively to keep a level platform and not upset Grandma on the way to church. On the track, it’s faster and safer to brake forcefully before tapering off pedal pressure, which is sometimes referred to as degressive braking. It gives the driver a decent shove towards the windshield, and sometimes makes the tires moan, but it also helps keep entry speeds under control and allows the driver to carefully shift weight around as they finish braking and begin cornering.
Trying to figure out the line, braking technique and everything else is a little overwhelming, so I decided to focus first on the middle pedal; hoping the rest would follow organically. On those first few laps, Steve would chuck the car into corners in daring style and lightly graze the brake while steering into the corner. While this felt fast and dramatic, he wasn’t keeping the car on-line and scrubbed too much speed off in the middle of the corner. It was a case of too little, too late.
Through gritted teeth, I would tell him when to brake and place my hand forcefully — at times desperately — to reinforce my message. At times, it felt like I was smacking the air conditioning vents, but within a few laps, we were entering the corners at reasonable speeds. His inputs were still slightly ragged, so once he was comfortable repeating that initial hit of the brake pedal, we moved onto the next phase: brake release.
Getting the brunt of the braking done in the first half of the braking zone allows a driver to focus on downshifting before setting the car’s nose and getting the desired rotation towards the apex. Eager to charge the corner and find speed, Steve’s initial braking input was forceful, but so was his release of the brake pedal. This “hop” off of the brake didn’t give the BMW’s front tires the needed weight to trace a tight line into the corner, and though he got the majority of the necessary braking done before turning in, he was still struggling to hit his apexes and hold a tidy line.
When I felt the BMW buck backwards as he jumped off the middle pedal, I’d scold him like the fussy taskmaster I am. Sometimes he’d jump off the brake altogether, and sometimes just a hair earlier than he needed to. I did not want to feel the platform rock like a see-saw. So, since his car was prone to understeer, I urged him to slowly roll off the brake pedal and keep the weight over the front until he had more than a few degrees of steering lock on.
In tighter corners like Turn Two and The Corkscrew, I occasionally asked him to graze the brake all the way to the apex cone. This helped him bring the nose in sooner and more easily.
We might’ve take some of those corners slower than necessary, but it was in the name of illustrating the payoff good footwork brings, establishing strong habits, and getting a sense of where and how to transfer weight. This way, I hoped, Steve would develop a framework and have somewhere to work forwards from in the future.
Soon, I noticed his lines into the corners had tightened, he was brushing apex cones more frequently, and on several occasions, he trail-braked so much he hustled the car sideways towards the second apex of Turn Two while we both chuckled as we shared our “a-ha!” moment.
That little drift on entry justified all my nagging, since he was given a graphic demonstration of just how much rotation he could achieve if he timed his inputs right. Plus, he wasn’t fighting the car nearly as much; everything was happening with much less effort.
Softening the Steering Inputs
Once Steve aced the brake release and was getting the direction change we sought, we took a look at his total amount of steering lock and the rate at which he’d wind it on. From the get-go, it was apparent Steve was overwhelming the front tires. In an attempt to get everything done in one movement, he would wrench the steering wheel at the corner entry.
Hurrying the entry is normal. Because autocross and canyon carving — generally done at lower speeds — reward this kind of aggressive steering, and these were what made up most of Steve’s experience, it was totally understandable. However, as speeds increase and the forces acting on the car grow, a driver needs to treat their machine with a softer touch.
So, I encouraged him to start turning in a little earlier and at a more progressive rate. This, when combined with a smooth release of the brake pedal, would transfer weight smoothly onto the outside tires. It didn’t come naturally, so I tried pantomiming the steering inputs I wanted from him just within his field of vision to give him something to model his own steering after. Soon Steve was practicing tai chi with his steering wheel. This subtle style of steering allowed him to roll an additional ten mph into and through the middle of the corner, and he could feel it!
Timing it to Perfection
After the third run session that day, Steve had tightened up the first two thirds of the cornering process, and now he just tie it all together with a deliberate application of the throttle and a better line. It then seemed appropriate to expound on my theory regarding low-powered cars. Since his BMW’s six wasn’t the punchiest motor out there, and since he was wearing a set of Michelin Pilot Cup Sports, he wasn’t traction-limited at the corner exit. This meant he could benefit from steering in earlier to minimize the distance covered. As long as he was able to keep understeer to a minimum from the apex onward, he’d ensure strong corner-exit speeds and keep moving forward without any hesitation.
First, he had to start using the full width of the track. Getting the inside tire down onto the blue-and-white rumble strip at the apex would allow him to open his steering earlier and maximize his acceleration. The sight of an M3 rocketing away at the corner exit, despite Steve’s better entry speed, frustrated him and—quite naturally—he wanted to mash the throttle as early as possible. Once near the apex, he would stab at the loud pedal in hopes of keeping up.
Perhaps the idea of getting those inside tires on the rumble strip was a little intimidating, but I was insistent. “In, in, in, in, in,” I’d nag; pointing toward the apex curb when there was a good four feet of track between his inside tires and that blue-and-white strip. When he finally tightened his line enough to roll the inside tires down over the strip, he was able to use the full force of his motor just a little earlier.
It was an ongoing lesson, though. When the speed would increase, Steve would occasionally revert to his old habits and wrestle the car through the corner. This is completely normal when a driver can’t quite handle the amount of information coming at them, so when I noticed this behavior, I urged Steve to slow down slightly so he could process everything. As ever, I was trying to build some muscle memory and offer a general idea of car’s location and attitude throughout the cornering phases.
While I was concerned my constant barking and academic explanations might’ve soured his trip to a world-class racetrack, when I saw it all click, I was reassured I’d done the right thing. As a coach, all the critiquing can make you feel like a royal pain in the ass—but Steve reminded me the advice was appreciated and continued to ask me questions throughout the day. Most importantly, he was able to put those tips into practice, and made an incredible amount of improvement in little more than an hour of track time.
By the end of the fifth session, his cornering technique looked like that of an experienced track rat. His inputs were so much smoother, he kept his minimum speed up, rarely had to make any major corrections, and was kinder to the tires, brakes, and his instructor’s nerves. He might have referred to me as a slave driver once or twice, but what’s important is he established a foundation to build upon next time he takes his Beemer to the track—which, by the enthusiasm he showed afterwards, isn’t too far off.