Beyond The Redline: Test Driver (Actually Not As Sexy As It Sounds)

The title: Test Driver. It sounds like a cool job. On paper, it really sounds like a cool job.

Step One: You show up at a track.

Step Two: People bring awesome cars (cars you often can’t afford yourself).

Step Three: You drive those expensive cars around a race track very fast (entry fee, tires, and fuel are all paid for by someone else).

Step Four: Get out of the car and say something witty, “The ride on this car is rougher than a hand truck with a refrigerator on it going down a set of broken stairs in India.” And if you really want to sound like a professional add a little British accent to it like the boys at Top Gear, “This car is complete rubbish!”

The test driver is there to find that limit, right at the edge, without going over. If you want to lose your job rather quickly as a test driver, go out and crash a car somebody else owns.

I was lucky enough for the opportunity to be a test driver for the show Horsepower Wars: Pony Wars. I couldn’t wait for the chance to beat on somebody else’s car.

One afternoon I received that magical phone call most car dudes dream about: “Are you available to be a road course test driver for a show where we put a new Mustang and a new Camaro against each other?” The answer was a quick “YES! I’m available!”

Even if I actually wasn’t available, I was going to make myself available. If there was a work conflict then I was just going to have to call in sick, “Hello, I got this problem with my eye, I just can’t see myself coming into work today.” If it was my wedding anniversary then, “Sorry, Honey-baby, I’ll be at the track, I’ll make it up to you next year.”

Pushing my responsibilities as a husband and as an employee to the wayside, I headed to the racetrack to fulfill my dreams of being a test driver. What I found out was that it wasn’t quite as sexy as I hoped it would be. Don’t get me wrong, running brand new cars I didn’t pay for around a racetrack is always a good day to be alive. However, it isn’t as easy as you may think to do the job well.

Being a test driver may sound like a dream job for most car enthusiasts. The reality is though, the job behind the wheel isn’t as sexy as it appears. Just like any job, it is hard work with high expectations.

From my limited experience, it turns out the job of a test driver isn’t really all that glorious. Your day isn’t just sliding cars around corners and smoking the rear tires (that is only a very small part of the day – and admittedly the best part, of course). The fact is the job is much more demanding than most people realize.

There are schedules to meet, there are slim opportunities for good photographs, and people want the perfect lap out of you and the car every time. Can’t get it done in one lap? I’m sure somebody else will fill that seat for you.

One thing to recognize about test driving is the complete lack of racing level safety equipment. No five-point harnesses, no rollcages, and no fire systems. The tracks are the same and the speeds are just as fast as road racing (sometimes even faster in the case of the ProCharger-equipped Mustang and Camaro). Regardless of the speeds, the safety equipment simply isn’t there.

During any track test situation, some entity has spent a fair amount of money and resources to bring a car to a track for it to be test driven. It might be a video production, a magazine, a tire company, or an aftermarket parts manufacturer. Whoever it is, they are looking for some sort of result that can only be gathered from whipping a car around the track at the limit.

The test driver is there to find that limit, right at the edge, without going over. If you want to lose your job rather quickly as a test driver, go out and crash a car somebody else owns. You will never test another car again.

The goal is to run that car right up to the point where you might crash it, but ultimately don’t total the car. For a test driver, the pressure is on to run a car at its absolute maximum performance level without going over that level and bending any metal. You get to do all this and you’ve probably never even seen the car before, let alone driven it. That doesn’t matter, your job is to ring out as much performance as possible. And get it done quickly.

Not all test cars are created equal. Never mind running into something hard during a test drive and crashing a car, you also have to watch those gauges carefully to make sure you take care of the equipment. The smoke under the front of the Camaro is a clue things are way too hot.

What track you will drive as a test driver can be as fluid as which car you will drive next. You have a track record at Laguna Seca? Good for you. The test will be at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. You have never been to Chuckwalla before? Well, you better get on YouTube and learn every inch of that track before you show up. Nobody is paying for you to drive around for an hour to find the fast bits of every corner. You have to be ready to hit the track and run a smoking hot flyer lap as soon as the track goes green.

The life of a test driver: a crappy motel room and a laptop. No time for porn. Instead, it is time to study track maps and watch other hacks on YouTube drive around the course to ensure you are ready for the next day at the race track.

I found during a test at the track that there are always many people around the car — photographers, videographers, writers, directors, etc. — who have their own jobs to do. They are relying on you to do your job correctly so they can be successful in their own job. However, these people will generally start filling up the windshield with cameras, timing equipment, different view cameras, and backup timing equipment. I have sat in cars and literally couldn’t see out of the windshield. Nobody seemed to care. They just wanted me to drive the car as fast as possible without crashing and without disturbing their equipment.

Being able to see out of a windshield often helps a driver get a good lap out of a car. This car had all sorts of suction cups to the glass for Racepak Vantage CL1 data acquisition equipment, cameras, and backup timing gear. It didn’t really matter if it hindered my view. My job was just to drive, not have opinions about equipment placement. Hopefully, none of this crap falls off and ends up under the brake pedal.

One of the toughest things I found about test driving was the sanctioning body we were testing with. Not all entities can afford to rent an entire raceway for a day of testing. You may be interlinked with another group which means working with their schedule and managing traffic on the course. I was on a 17-turn course, working a hot lap in the Camaro with only two turns to go when I came upon slower cars in a run group. One pass on the wrong side of the track can completely blow a lap time.

By the time I was able to get around and set myself up for the next lap, I had put too much heat in the Toyo Tires and had to take a lap to cool them down. Then, when I got the tires where I wanted them and found a gap in traffic to get a solid time, some knucklehead in a 911 GT3 drove off the track causing a full course yellow. The whole session was blown. No lap time for the car. Who do you think was blamed for that? The driver, of course.

People want results, not excuses. Nobody wants to hear about how you “almost had a fast lap” they just want you to bring in a fast lap. Climb inside and get to work.

Anyone who has done any road racing or time trials can tell you that a “perfect lap” isn’t an easy thing to achieve. There is always some place where you could have carried a little more speed or braked a little later. When testing a car, especially if you are testing multiple cars with different handling issues, it is a challenge to bring in that “perfect lap” for the timers. Regardless of how hard it is, it is your job as the test driver to get it done . . .and get it done before the day is over.

My experience as a test driver for Horsepower Wars taught me a lot about being adaptable to different chassis, managing tires as well as engine heat, and putting it all out on the line for that one hot lap for a good time.

What I realized was that being a test driver was stressful. I was under the gun to make it happen and was fighting tire temperatures, traffic on the course, timing equipment issues, or engine computers. Everything seemed to be working against me to go “perfectly” fast in the Camaro and Mustang.

Eventually I cast all of that drama aside, clicked my visor down, and just drove the cars like there was no tomorrow. I planted my right foot deep into the throttle and just went for it. GoPro cameras were flying off of their suction cups, engines were getting warmer than they wanted to be, and tires were being shredded. It was zen.

Check it out at the end of the month!

How did it all turn out? Did I crash these cars while driving with complete reckless abandon? Which car wins? You can find out by watching the episode on November 29, 2018 on HorsepowerWars.com.

About the author

Rob Krider

Rob Krider’s mantra is “Race Anything, Win Everything” and is a multi-champion driver who currently competes in the NASA Honda Challenge series.
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