Advanced Driving School

From Blythe Unawareness to Decided Anxiousness

So forget tantric sex. Try learning how to drive! A 40-something virgin's testimonial.

By Nigel Etherington 11/1/2006

My corporate role had disappeared earlier in the year. Part of me was glad. I'd been traveling to Europe a dozen times a year, with responsibilities in two time zones. Now that was behind me and I had some downtime. I hooked up with some buddies who were in the same boat for the usual round of breakfasts and coffees. We played some tennis or golf. I was rusty.

Heading home from a day on the links, I saw a sign up ahead that recalled my first and only BMW Car Club meeting some 4 years earlier. I turned into Bavarian Motors. Inside was the paraphernalia of speed - helmets, brake rotors, R compound racing tires. John Dimoff, who with partner Steve Gailits runs the racing arm Raven Performance out of the same shop, came out to greet me.

I noted the picture of his blue M3 sedan, hunkered down as it raced through a corner. "I've got one of those too", I said, "but I've never had it out on the track".

There is a lapping day next weekend, he told me. "Why not?" I wondered. I'd owned my BMW M3 for 5 years and I'd never really learned to drive it the way the engineers had intended. Driving it to an underground parking garage every day was like having a Steinway grand in your home and using it to play chop sticks. Now John was offering up an opportunity - could I play Rachmaninoff behind the wheel ?

"OK, you're on", I declared. It was a decision I wouldn't regret: a summer of fantastic fun, a few fears and a new fraternity. It was the beginning of a summer school obsession but I didn't yet know it.

Dunnville Driving Addiction

A borrowed helmet and a quick technical inspection was all I needed to join John and Steve at one of their Raven Lapping Days at Dunnville track near St. Catherines. My instructor was Covell Brown, pilot of a race-prepped BMW 325i; he appeared much younger in spirit and looks than his nearly three score and ten years might suggest. He asked if I'd been on a track before. One skid pad course, I replied. We quickly stripped the car of my unrestrained belongings and jumped into the car. We hooked up the two-way intercom into our helmets, and then headed out for a few slow acclimatization laps with Covell at the wheel. He showed me braking points, apexes, and track-outs for each corner, plus designated passing areas. Then we came in to swap positions. I could hardly wait. My hands were perspiring and my heart racing - these are the first signs of addiction. I felt confident I'd be quick from the 'get go'.

Not the case. My untrained approach was not fast at all. With adrenalin pumping, I stomped on the gas, stabbed at the brakes, and popped the clutch as I rowed furiously up and down the gears. "Whoa, whoa", roared Covell, "Stop thrashing and destabilizing the car!" Fast driving was smooth driving, he explained. It had its own rhythm and apparently I was upsetting it. Then he burst into a melodic waltz, rendering the Blue Danube midway down the straight - "La, la, la, la, la ...La, la... La, la". That was followed by a lilt in the corners: "squeeze the brakes, gently, now feed the throttle, gradually". Then all too soon the checkered flag came out to end my inaugural session. It had been entertaining, but harder than I thought.

During lunch Covell gently inquired whether I could feel the pedals. At bit of strange question I thought, considering I'd been driving for thirty odd years. He explained "You know, you are a bit like an on-off switch out there". I had to admit that I couldn't feel very much wallowing around in my cross-trainers. I observed the experienced lappers were wearing laced driving slippers, so attempting a cure I put on slimmer dock shoes. Smoothness was obviously lesson number one. It became my sole focus.

After an inauspicious and humbling start, I started to hit the 'racing lines' with some regularity in the afternoon track sessions. The steering wheel and pedals were in constant motion, or so it seemed. As Covell said, "This is driving, not pointing!" Some corners were better than others as I strived to feel the car, using all my senses. My instructor made some approving comments, such as "nicely done" when I made a smooth turn-in or clipped an apex cone. Covell's parting words were not exactly a ringing endorsement. I appeared to have "some natural aptitude" but, as is not uncommon, needed more seat time to unlearn a few more driving habits. Everyday driving experience didn't count for much on the track, but I applied my 'born again' appreciation driving smoothly - and slowly - back to Toronto. I was hooked. Over the summer the BMW Car Club would have to satisfy my cravings three more times.

Mosport Taste Test

The Trillium Chapter was having one of its Advanced Driving Schools in mid June at Mosport International Raceway. It was a tax-deductible steal for only $400 (excluding GST), and perhaps the best 'insurance' you can buy. My apprehension about tackling Canada's world-famous road course was increased when the compulsory pre-school technical inspection confirmed the suspicions of my right foot. Unfortunately new brake rotors and pads couldn't be installed in time. While it passed I felt a reconnaissance was prudent to prepare me for the track's high speed and often dangerous corners - especially the notorious Turns 2 and 4. I motored to Bowmanville to observe the Friday session reserved for instructors and advanced students.

It was a memorable experience in more ways than one. I arrived to find the track quiet as a light rain shower had cancelled the prior session. Venturing into the paddock, I ran into Will Zaraska, the driving instructor/racer/entrepreneur who had sold me my silver M3 sedan with his Autotrader tagline: "Put the kids in the back and take 'em to the track". Five years later I was finally here, sans les enfants. He welcomed me to the car club fraternity and agreed to take me for a ride in his "tow-truck": a gold 1995 BMW 525i wagon with some big brakes, treadless R-compound tires - 'stickies' - and a trailer hitch.

With a few dry patches emerging, Will took me for my first excursion along the 'wet lines' at Mosport - loaded tires off the slippery concrete inserts. And several times he asked me to switch off the emergency flashers I had inadvertently (?) switched on grasping any available surface to hold. I recall one instance just after rain recommenced and Will held his four-wheel 'Tokyo' drift right the way through the Moss hairpin corner. I mean full opposite lock, power over-steer, up, around and back down onto the straight. There Will signaled the pass to his mate Dave's turbocharged BMW (E34) sedan with whom he was playing cat and mouse. Dave waved in a gentlemanly manner, acknowledging Will's masterful demonstration, and walked away with 380 HP unleashed on the Mario Andretti straight. I had quickly got a sense of the club's camaraderie and skill level. And I suspected no tow-truck had negotiated this track with such panache. The session concluded safely prior to lunch. Given the 'butterflies' I'd experienced in my first rolling taste test through Mosport countryside, I decided to eat lightly.

By late afternoon the sun had broken through, the track had dried and proceedings resumed at the regular pace. Meaning fast. My personal highlight was a lift I snagged with John Dimoff, whose silver M3 race car carries the Raven badge with distinction at BMW club races in North America. As we set off, John indicated that he would check-in with me after a few laps to see if I was 'OK'. Even without a speedometer, I knew I'd never traveled faster in a car, and that was just the warm-up lap. Each successive lap got faster as tires and engine came up to operating temperature. And it wasn't the spectacular acceleration - e.g. 400 HP in a 2500 lb chassis! - or the roller coaster cornering that made the impression. It was the prodigious braking. The first time we came downhill to the Moss Hairpin 'flat in fifth'- and probably close to 200 Km/h - I was fully expecting to land on the roof of the refreshment stand perched atop the slope ahead. Suddenly an thunderous brake squeal accompanied the 5-point harness' python-like embrace of my torso. Takeoff aborted. Apparently several G's of massive deceleration - maybe 3 times peak acceleration - had brought us back down to a safe cornering speed. After a few more laps of this terrorizing experience, John calmly took one hand off the wheel on the back straight to give me a thumbs up sign. I responded with two to be sure that he didn't mistake my white knuckles on the rollcage as submission. It was a case of living on the edge of adhesion where, after a few laps of lapping at 160 Km/h, the sheer exhilaration trumps any scary thoughts of misadventure.

Having learned what 'quick' really meant, I now realized I'd be driving in relative slow motion over the next two days at the BMW club's school. On the road home, I had to face the 'racers' weaving in and out of the traffic. How much safer we'd all be, I thought, if drivers on public roads demonstrated the same skill and consideration required of those attending advanced driving schools.

Masters' Sermons and Teachable Moments

Saturday morning, at the first student classroom session, we were greeted by Chief Instructor Derek Hansen and Rob Foreman, ex-chapter President and co-author of the BMW club's student manual. Derek, with grey beard and treasured walking stick, treated us to an inspiring introductory lecture on the art and science of high performance driving. He was like Moses delivering a sermon from Mount Mosport. He began with a recitation of driving school commandments and an exhortation to follow each instructor's directions in car. "They are designed with safety as the paramount consideration" he intoned. Derek then followed up with the kicker that got your attention, "repeated infractions - for example, 4 wheels off the track more than once - would be result in expulsion from the school. Without refund! " This was clearly not the place where 'cowboys' could endanger themselves and others without sanction. Over the course of the weekend, however, more than one driver would find themselves approaching their limits and landing in a 'teachable moment'.

Hesitation - which could perhaps be defined as the opposite of firmness - was to furnish my teachable moment this weekend. I had finished braking and was entering the daunting turn 2, a corner which 3-times F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart had called one of top 10 toughest in motor sport. Over the brow and by the first of two apexes, I was still closing on the classmate several car lengths in front. Instinctively (for the average passenger car driver) I lifted my right foot off the accelerator to slow the car. The response from my instructor Will was clear and commanding: "Don't do that again! Stay on it or you'll be making an appointment with the concrete barrier". Point taken, but to this novice that exhortation seemed counter-intuitive, like playing a game of chicken from behind that could land me up the tailpipe of the car in front.

Rob Foreman provided an opportunity to explore my unsettling experience in the next classroom session. Aware of Manfred Winkelhock's fate, the Formula 1 driver killed negotiating turn 2 in the late 70's, I raised a question about what you do when you might be in over your head. Rob's answer was simple and instructive. There is no right answer ! Just degrees of situational awareness and control skill that you learn to apply. In essence, if you carry too much speed into a fast corner, such as Mosport Turn 2, you are committed. You cannot suddenly lift off the throttle - never mind brake! - or you will find yourself on the proverbial slippery slope in an instant. The only safe approach is to modulate both throttle and steering to balance the car. How much? Well that's the art of performance driving. The driver must feel when grip is recovered. Get it right, and you slingshot out of the corner with a 'banzai' rush. Get it wrong? Well, centrifugal forces will pull the backend out and, presto, you're in a spin. So how close to the edges of the friction circle had I been, I wondered. Car mastery was apparently more than acute awareness and deft motor control. It also seemed a delicate emotional balance between your desires and your fears.

Fortunately my first BMW advanced driving school was thrilling but comfortingly uneventful. I was truly exhausted, however, after the two long days of classroom, skid pad and in-car training. I'd practiced the holy trinity of smoothness, consistency and firmness. And loved every minute but with a decided anxiousness - not confidence- given the punishment this track can exact for sloppiness. So like the runner who finishes his first Boston Marathon, I was relieved to have just made it through the weekend. But with new awareness and appreciation of car control skills, advanced driving now appeared a lot further down the road! But it was a road that I was more than prepared to travel...

From Decided Anxiousness to Emerging Confidence

So forget tantric sex. Try learning how to drive! A 40-something virgin's testimonial.

Being my third event in under a month I had to get creative to secure a spot in my second BMW Club Advanced Driving School, the celebrated 'Est Fest' held at the sublime Le Circuit Mount Tremblant. I convinced my wife she wanted to go on a driving holiday in Quebec and Maine and would really be safer if she were to meet me in Montreal four days into the trip. That was the time it would take for my new brakes and adjustable coil-over suspension to bed in at L'est Fest. Le Circuit was to be even better than Mosport as I was to benefit from a better car and arguably among the best instructors. A request for a certain John Dimoff was viewed favorably by the Chief Driving Instructor, Cherif Gress, as John had also been Cherif's first instructor seven years prior. It was a fortuitous circumstance as, under Dimoff's direction, I was about to undergo a similar transformation in my driving to that experienced by my Raven modified car.

Mount Tremblant Meditations

John is a quietly confident man who lets results speak for themselves. As a former Chief Driving Instructor of the BMW Car Club, his track record (pun intended) was evident daily as club members sought his advice on car and driving matters. I hoped I wouldn't disappoint him, or myself, as I took to the track at St. Jovite. None other than the Villenueves, father Gilles and son Jacques, had their careers launched at Mt. Tremblant. As my speed crept up I was trying not to get us launched. John's coaching was calm-inducing, delivered in brief but timely snippets: "keep turning", "drift out", "touch brakes", "now throttle." It kept us on the racing line and served to acquaint me with my car's new capabilities.

My enthusiasm at finding more pace was tempered by the apparently changing rhythm of the track. Everything was happening sooner and sooner - funny thing that! Carrying faster speeds into turns necessitated quicker and firmer actions. Yet they had to be linked together seamlessly in order to maintain smooth control on the racing line. It was unnerving and affected my consistency. A case in point was my entry to the Esses (Turns 3 & 4). At 120 plus km/h this student gave his instructor pause and himself a momentary scare, by braking while still exiting Turn 2. In an instant the M3's rear end stepped out, and, but for some quick reflexes, we would have pirouetted backwards into Turn 3. Calamity was avoided however a swift reminder from the coach was proffered: "Straighten the front wheels before braking, please"!

I really began to understand the concept of vision at this my third school. This was no slight on my previous instructors who had reinforced class room lectures on this important topic from the start. The basic idea was to lift your eyes and look continually, with a soft focus, far down the road. However this summation is equivalent to written instruction on the butterfly stroke. Everyone knows that you can't teach swimming from a book, and guess what, the same applies to driving. None the less I informed John after our second class session that I had learned a lot about driving Mt. Tremblant and couldn't wait to apply my new found knowledge.

"Really", John said, with mock incredulity and amused by my enthusiasm.

"Yes!" I exclaimed. Philippe Letourneau, our instructor, had walked us through each turn of Le Circuit - brake points, turn-in, apexes, everything - in great detail. The engineer in me had taken copious notes and committed them to memory, certain they would yield a great result.

And so out I went hunting for the marker's to drive by - the silver birch at the top of the hill in Turn 2, the two black divots near the outside of Turn 3, and so on. What unfolded after the warm-up lap was embarrassing, if not comical, as I turned a couple of the most erratic laps I'd driven in the summer schools. I missed turn-ins, clipped 'turtles' (curbs) and went off-line half a dozen times as my mind worked like a teleprompter on steroids. Narrow tunnel focus on information counteracted my attempts at smoothness and consistency.

"Hmmm", observed John wryly, "it seems that you have acquired some rust over lunchtime. Forget the facts and find your rhythm. You need to feel, not think, your way around a track. Now, let's try this again"!

A lap later I'd found the correct lines again. John hadn't spoken while I'd gone about my recovery, until, clearly pleased with his student's rebound, he piped up, "See that lap was 10% faster. And you weren't pushing, were you"?

"No....I can't believe it!" I enthused. Afterwards in my post-session debrief with John I commented on this puzzling contradiction. I'd actually attempted to slow down but somehow had gone quicker!

"Yessss", he said knowingly," because it's your subconscious that drives the car. With soft focus your brain blends all the sensory inputs - sight, sound and touch - together. The effect is to slow down your perceived speed and smooth your driving."

I recalled grand master Derek Hansen's words at my first Mosport school: "When you find the track's rhythm its like a Zen experience - you and the car become one with the road ." Apparently I didn't need to consciously think, or focus, on each or any one thing. I just needed to practice meditating. In the next session I relaxed and effortlessly chased the orange Lotus Elise that had slipped by me before my metaphorical Zen awakening. Perhaps chanting 'zoom, zoom' was to be the next stage of enlightenment.

By Day 2, my signature driving skill, 'heel-and-toe' braking, began to fall apart under the stresses of advanced tutelage. I was now rigid under cornering, bracing myself with the dead pedal and steering wheel to counter forward or laterally movement in the seat. This was increasingly problematic as the brake pedal was traveling further past the accelerator as I carried more speed and each session wore on. I was pushing the car far past the turn-in as the clutch engaged an over-revved engine. It was as if the pedals had moved, and an intended throttle blip became a soaring tachometer. It made a complete hash of my racing line. I felt I was regressing and, worse, sounding like a novice learning to drive standard. By Day 3, I was frustrated, and while some progress on my brake and accelerator control was made that day, my student evaluation set this as an objective for my next school. That remediation would have to wait but a couple of weeks.

Genesee Valley Remedial Therapy

The Genesee Valley Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America was coming north to Mosport for its mid-week 'international' event and put out a call for local students. I obliged the organizers with my entry, 'eh', and myself with a present, as I returned to Mosport on my birthday. My mother was perplexed when I refused her invitation to a birthday dinner, purportedly to return to driving school. "What, again?" she enquired, "Are you having a mid-life crisis?" In a sense I was - I couldn't 'heel and toe' anymore - but I assured her that I would be all right in a couple of days. I was now suffering from a treatable addiction. I just had to return to ADS for remedial therapy.

And so summer school adventures continued with John Dimoff as my therapist for a second round at Mosport. Only this time I'd procured a handy device - a CG Lock for my seat-belt - to tightly secure me in the seat. With more practice and less in-car movement I was able to relax and make further strides in consistency. By day 2, I was 'signed off'. I'd completed eight track days and now, like taking away Lionus' comfort blanket, I was to lose my co-pilot. John said that he would be back in the car in the wet so it was a conditional loosening of the supervisory leash. He also sent me off with a proviso: "Have fun but don't make me look bad - I'm still responsible for you while you're out there". So with some trepidation, I made my way out onto the track to negotiate the ten turns and 4 kilometres of Mosport. I drove sensibly - at 95% - for were there to be any trouble I would have to get out of it on my own. I didn't have to wait long.

Solo was a brand new experience. I feathered the wheel and danced on the pedals, as my M3 sang to me in its throaty 4500 to 6500 rpm power band. I cavorted with a Ferrari 348 and frolicked with a Cadillac CTS-V. Tracking out of Turn 3, the real excitement came. Pedal to the metal after completing a pass, I pressed on to Turn 4, the blind downhill sweeper. Touching the brakes before the pedestrian overpass, I turned in unaware of assorted 'cow pies' - grass, earth and stones - strewn around the apex. Coming over the brow I strained to comprehend what was now blotting the track ahead. I had to take evasive action. I couldn't brake mid-curve so I drifted out wide. Changing my line into Moss Corner I missed the apex and sailed past the braking point at over 130 Km/hr. I was running out of road quickly. I straightened the front wheels (yes, John, I remembered!) and stood on the brakes. I avoided lock-up but rode deep into the hairpin corner rise before easing off and turning in. It was only then that I saw a marshal holding a Black Flag. Something had clearly happened here and the session was now over. Later I was to learn that a classmate had an agricultural excursion - including a 720 degree spin, a 'double sow cow' if you will - and had fled the scene prior to my arrival. As I crawled back to the pits, I wondered what I'd have done if a car had still been on the track or I'd driven through the debris? I figured I must have missed the Black Flag shown at Turn 4 entry, and a visit to the tire barriers could have been the consequence. I made a mental note to be more aware. With broader peripheral vision a drama needn't become a crisis.

After most of the school crowd had slipped off back to New York State, and as I was packing up, I heard a last call for my novice run group over the loud speaker. Bonus! I hastily donned my helmet and jumped back into the driver's seat for an unscheduled fling. But all too soon, as I crested the rise on the Andretti Straight at over 180 km/hr, the chequered flag came out. It was then I realized I'd passed no cars, in fact seen none, in the prior twenty minutes. I'd been driving Mosport International Raceway alone, except for the volunteer track marshals who watched over my progress. I saluted them as I slowed down to cool my brakes and engine. They waved back. I was calm, confident and contented as I came into the pits. I'd finally done it. I'd seized an opportunity and made a dream - and a birthday wish - come true. And it was the most fun you could imagine. Perhaps better than tantric sex, whatever that is.

Summer school nirvana was now over and I'd experienced a personal transformation. I'd begun confidently, challenging myself to become a better driver, perhaps even an advanced driver. But in the discovery process I soon lost that hubris. What I found surprised and humbled me - I was unaware of what my car could do, or how I was driving it! And then I learned, to both my joy and frustration, that skill development was non-linear and unpredictable. While track time sharpens awareness and reprograms instincts, it is a bit of a snakes and ladders game. You move ahead in one area and slide back in another. But there can be no stopping now. Like a reformed addict, I now knew I needed ongoing treatment for my cravings. Now the only question for someone waking up at 5 am turning imaginary laps is - what's the cure? I resolved to speak to my therapist about my next session as soon as possible!