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Track and Traffic

by Per Schroeder

Can Experience on the Race Track Make You a Safer Driver in Real-World Traffic?

The Tire Rack Street Survival School uses many of the skills and techniques used in autocross to teach new drivers how to properly control their car. The physics of vehicle dynamics, and how they can be applied safely, has made Street Survival the Ivy League of young driver education. The program has made thousands of teens better drivers—and saved more than a few lives.

 

Modern traffic can suck—it's made worse by not paying attention and being overly aggressive. Sure, I could weave through there, but ultimately, my racing skills are best used to keep me safe, not get to my destination 25 seconds sooner. 

But hardcore car people already knew that. While cool as heck, the premise is old news. For some extra credit, can we move that concept up a grade—could we apply the same concept to racing on the track? Would track events or road racing make you—an adult car enthusiast—a better, safer driver on your daily commute? To get a seasoned perspective, I asked a long time friend (and the driving instructor I had way back at my first racing school) his thoughts on the matter.

Peter Krause has been a race coach for nearly three decades, focusing on strategy as well as driver performance. When Peter changes from his signature tweed sports jacket into an OMP race suit, he makes the metamorphosis from Ben Kenobi into Obi Wan of the club racing world. He’s a master on track and can teach his students—both novice and veteran—a trick or two about any track situation.

 

Peter Krause (on left) with one of his (now winning) race students. 

Peter teaches skills that are highly prized on the racetrack such as vision, estimation of closing rates both in front and from behind, recognition of potential threats to safe passage and the confidence in the capability of the vehicle. These all play a part in successful travel on public roads. The best drivers scan for dangers everywhere—they look through the windows of not only the car in front of them but also the car in front of that car. The track day driver often recognizes and deals with surprises, stopped cars and wandering drivers in adjacent lanes with aplomb.

Peter adds, "I rarely get surprised on the road, because many of the skills that I teach to ensure safe passage on the track are etched into my brain. Recognizing cars drifting into my lane before they're a danger, plotting my path around a corner so I don't inadvertently drop a wheel off the edge of the road and looking through the cars in front of me to determine what will influence the car in front of me are all situational awareness tools used to help track day and club racing drivers be safe on the track."

Drivers with track-day and competition experience are generally driving enthusiasts, avid students of the sport and the discipline. Not so for most street-only drivers. Sometimes the lack of knowledge and confidence is enough to cause a street driver to be dangerously indecisive, causing hazards where none need exist. The startling rise in distracted driving, with entertainment systems, phones and GPS tools vying for a young driver's limited experience has been a major goal of many teen schools, including Street Survival.

Peter continues, "On the track, everyone is on the same page. All traveling in the same direction, no cross streets, nobody talking on the phone, just a high level of concentration and a fair bit of self-preservation going on. On the track, it's an avocation—a wanted, desired recreation. On the street, that's just not the case, except for some professional drivers. But no one is immune. It's easy to drop food or spill a drink and divert your attention from the road, until it's too late. Even pros are capable of that.”

 

A view from Peter's Sports2000 cockpit—He's hanging back watching the drama unfold ahead of him before charging. 

On the track, if drivers can't see around them due to dust, dirt or debris or the conditions are compromised by rain or darkness, they slow down and leave more of a margin. On the street, people often don't respect that conditions can rapidly deteriorate. Again, track drivers tend to have a much higher awareness of the danger and likelihood of getting caught out and surprised, so they cultivate skills and behaviors that make sure they stay safe.

 

 

 

 

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Comments
SubieNate
SubieNatelink
Friday, August 01, 2014 10:45 AM
Good article.

The last photo of the middle lane-generally a good practice. I will point out that sometimes, and especially in construction areas where lanes are narrower, I sometimes stick to the far left (as long as I'm not impeding anyone else's desired progress) because although I have one less escape route, the concrete barrier will never do anything stupid. It's one less variable to have to worry about.

I'm not sure if my logic here is totally flawed but it sometimes feels safer to know that the only real danger can come from one side, and that it's the side with a smaller blindspot.
Supercharged111
Supercharged111link
Friday, August 01, 2014 9:43 PM
I find that my track experience has massively desensitized me to speed, so an evasive maneuver even at 80mph with the trailer will at worst just piss me off, but my hands won't be jittery afterward and I have a lot more vision, control, and much better judgment in the heat of the moment because I know exactly how much time and room I have.
ginsu
ginsulink
Saturday, August 02, 2014 9:20 PM
Autocross cone dodging definitely helps with driving on the street and highways. Knowing where your tires are, your turning radius, and just how wide your car is imperative to good driving. I know I'm a much better driver from racing purely from pushing the limits of traction, I 'know' how it feels to understeer or oversteer and how to instantaneously correct such conditions in my car. Without the track, I would've found these limits and crossed them and, most certainly, destroyed the car in the process. There is no substitute for track experience, you simply cannot gain the required knowledge and be safe on the road. From experience gained racing, I often find myself listening to classical or jazz on the road simply to calm my mind and stay focused on the road. It's amazing how much you can see happening before it happens. Cars telegraph their motions far ahead of time, you only need to have the right frame of mind to be aware of it. It amazes me how bad people drive and are simply not aware of any thing. If I was teaching a teen to drive, I think I would first take them to an autocross with an underpowered car to emphasize car control.
Stephen Ingram
Stephen Ingramlink
Monday, August 04, 2014 12:23 PM
Great article again, Per...

Don't forget about SCCA's Starting Line school too..
Per Schroeder
Per Schroederlink
Monday, August 04, 2014 12:27 PM
Of course! This article was slanted towards the track end of things--separate from the advantages that an autocrossed-based vehicle dynamics education can bring. Glad you folks liked it!
Rockwood
Rockwoodlink
Tuesday, August 05, 2014 12:34 PM
@ SubieNate: I once came across a disabled car (spindle failure, put him right against the barrier) in the slow lane of a construction zone while hauling my toy hauler behind my Dodge (little over 20k lbs gross). All of the construction equipment, activity, barriers and a kink in the road (as is common in construction zones) hid the poor bastard until the last second. Luckily, I had kept track of what was around me and was able to abruptly move over and dodge the guy with barely any room to spare. Had it been someone with less experience in vehicle control (who generally throw out a prayer and attempt to stop in time instead of dodge), a semi, or someone who doesn't maintain their shit, this guy (and possibly the truck driver) would've been pushing up daisies. I always stay in the middle lane (when possible) when coming up on construction zones now. No way I'm gonna deal with another ass-pucker moment like that again.
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