I found myself using the “fingernails” quote on Instagram today, so here’s the first time I used it. This piece originally appeared on May 21, 2012. Stick around after the end for an ironic postscript — JB
In his uneven but interesting book Guitar: An American Life, Tim Brookes notes that acoustic players “pick up a guitar in order to meet college girls but wind up talking to other middle-aged men about their fingernails.” I started racing so I could put my merciless, Edward-Green-shod foot on the neck of other competitors in the twilight zone that separates victory from certain death, but I’ve wound up spending my weekends telling other middle-aged men to unwind their steering wheels at corner exit.
This past weekend at Summit Point’s Shenandoah course, I preached long sermons from the Book of Corner Exit to three of those middle-aged men: a novice in a Panamera Turbo, a prodigy in a C6 Vette, and my own crumbling self, piloting a Coyote-powered Mustang GT in an ultimately futile attempt to outpace a colleague in a new 991 Carrera S. Together we pursued the discipline of the Quality Exit, with varying results. To misquote the poet: “O you who turn the wheel and look to chiclets, Gentile or Jew, click the jump to find out how we did.”
Over the past five years, the TrackDAZE crew has come to set the gold standard for East Coast track events. They run on time, they have an extremely low rate of incidents, and they pay attention to the details. It’s part of the organization’s policy to give each student an instructor who is familiar with the type of car driven by that student. This is easily done for Civic and Corvette drivers, but when a fellow signs up for his first-ever trackday and he’s driving a Panamera Turbo… where do you find a club racer with wheel time in one of those?
My relationship with Porsche and its eleven-second hyper-hatch has been a bit fractious, but I do have wheel time in the car and I understand what’s required to get one around a racetrack. Other than a tendency to fade their dinner-plate brakes after a few fast laps, Panos don’t present much challenge to a reasonably experienced driver.
Instructing in one, however, is a different issue. In a perfect world, all driving students would have new Civics with ABS, stability control, and two sparkplug wires pulled to ensure that they can’t go fast enough to keep the instructor from properly coaching/criticizing/texting/sleeping/enduring a particularly vicious hangover. The Panamera, by contrast, typically combines three separate sets of known instructor phobias:
- The Car That Is So Big It Needs A Three-Point K-Turn To Negotiate Slow Corners
- The Car That Is So Fast It Will Simply Teleport Its Occupants Into A Concrete Wall If The Student Hits The Accelerator At The Wrong Time, Even For, Like, Just One Second
- The Car That Costs So Much Freakin’ Money That Each One Of Its Owners Is A Horribly Wealthy Person Who Is So Horribly Successful That They Are Horribly Disinclined To Take Orders From Some Random Dude Who Just Happens To Be Sitting Next To Them For Some Reason And Who Is Keeping Them From Setting The All-Time Racetrack Record For Going Fast And Stuff Which Is Why They Paid All This Money For The Car In The First Place And Hey I’m Gonna Just Hit The Gas And Teleport This Nagging Idiot Into A Concrete Wall Along With My Horribly Successful Self
I always ask new students what they do for a living, so I know what to expect on-track. Reassuring answers include: engineer, programmer, university professor. Mr. Panamera Turbo was a professor, so I knew he’d understand the learning process and have some concept of the idea that it takes time and effort to master a skill. Answers which slightly concern me: salesman, executive, small businessman, attorney. Those guys aren’t always used to taking direction, and they are habituated to learning things without external interference. The most terrifying answer, of course, and the one that causes instructors to vacate the premises under false pretenses ranging from stomach distress to deaths in the family, is “doctor”.
Physicians have been killing instructors of all kinds since long before Beechcraft invented the Bonanza in what many presumed was an attempt to even the score. We’re talking about a profession where simply admitting doubt often gets you hauled into court on a malpractice suit. It’s the only profession that becomes part of your name. Not even pimps get that kind of juice. The most terrifying kind of doctor, of course is any doctor who also gets to call himself a “surgeon”. Being a “surgeon”, I’m given to understand, is like being the doctor of doctors.
My Corvette-driving student is a surgeon, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. He is virtually egoless behind the wheel, quietly analytical, and very focused on going fast. He’s also pretty brave, as he proved at Summit Point this time last year when I had an engine failure on the “ski jump”. We worked on two issues: developing a single, smooth threshold braking motion on corner entry, and that old bugbear, unwinding the wheel.
If you don’t know why we have to concentrate on unwinding the wheel on corner exit, you can find the answer in a long-winded and self-indulgent column here. Short version: the car can’t accelerate properly when the steering wheel is cranked. Once we enter a corner, we need to immediately start looking to the straightest possible exit, and take that exit with a straight, or “open”, wheel. I referred to this as a “quality exit” during one session in the Corvette, and my perfectionist student immediately took this as a mantra. The quality exit. Let’s play Pirsig and capitalize the “q”. Quality Exit.
Quality Exit has a mortal enemy: Hasty Entry. If you go into the corner too fast, you can’t get out of it quickly. This was my ‘Vette student’s problem: he is brave, so he naturally takes a lot of speed into every turn. We then spend a lot of time burning and scrubbing that speed in the midcorner with excessive steering angle. After what seems like an eternity of dicking around while the tires squeal and the nose of the car points nowhere productive, we manage to rotate the Vette around in the correct direction. Once that happens, we are supposed to unwind the steering wheel and accelerate in one smooth motion. Then we can hustle. Until that happens, hitting the gas just sends us off the track faster.
In a Panamera, this is particularly true, so my novice student and I discussed the idea of the “steering wheel string”. Imagine a string tied on the steering wheel’s center spoke on one end and the driver’s right foot on the other. As the steering wheel is turned at the entry to a corner, that string pulls on the right foot and lifts it off the brake pedal. While we are cornering, we use light throttle. At corner exit, we press the accelerator down, which pulls on the steering wheel and unwinds it properly. Get it?
The TrackDAZE folks won’t let me actually tie strings to the students — something about insurance and fatalities — so we just use this as a concept to guide steering behavior. Mr. Panamera and I spent three sessions imagining a string. It started to click. I will say this for the big Porker five-door: that thing can exit a turn. Time and time again we were crowded in midcorner by an Evo, STi, or M3, only to have them just disappear in the mirrors as my student unwound his wheel and called all five hundred horsepower into action. Bye-bye. On Saturday, we were the slowest car in the session; on Sunday, my student executed a flawless, hundred-mile-per-hour pass on a Corvette Z06. His four-year-old son stood on the bridge across the back straight and watched Dad thunder past with an absolutely serious face. Later on, the boy told me “Daddy is going fast.” It occurred to me that these are the kinds of things sons remember.
Meanwhile, my Corvette student was methodically pursuing the Quality Exit. He was close, but I sensed that he wasn’t completely convinced of the superiority of losing midcorner speed in order to gain it down the next straight. “Let’s take a ride,” I told him, and we hopped into a 2013 Mustang GT on P Zero Nero all-season tires. I had two goals in mind. The first was allowing my student to coach me through the turns and thus gain some better understanding of what he he needed to do on corner exit. The second was less admirable. A fellow journalist had brought a new 991 Carrera S to the track, and I had passengered with him earlier in the day and recorded a pretty decent lap time on my hand-held stopwatch. I tossed that same stopwatch to my student and told him to click it every time we passed the white line. Maybe we’d take a Stuttgart scalp in this American pony. It was all in fun, of course: any time set with a passenger on an open trackday is slow and cautious by default. Still, it would give us an idea of how the two cars stacked up.
After a Saturday of showboating and drifting, the Mustang’s P Zeros were smoked and the brakes were soggy. I figured we’d get maybe two laps to set a time, with a cooldown lap in-between, before the car simply became too sloppy to make it happen.
My first corner of the first lap was miserable. The car plowed and plowed on its
decomposed all-seasons. “Patience,” I said to my student, and I worked the throttle to bring the tail around. The Mustang is strong enough to do this kind of ad-hoc rotation but doing so just makes the back tires useless for the rest of the lap. Now we had front and rear tires that were too hot. It was time to be truly disciplined. I entered the next four or five corners at what I felt to be about one mile per hour too slowly and used that slack to focus on my exits. The five-liter did its melodious work and the front tires came back to me slowly.
Over the Shenandoah “ski jump” the Mustang briefly went four-wheels-up into the air before landing at a minor angle. We corkscrewed down to the entry for the mini-Carousel, the back tires and brakes too hot for the ABS to properly control. Into the concrete and out with a thump, but I was focused on “Big Bend” ahead of us. I didn’t think we’d be able to take it flat. Many students and instructors early-apex the Bend when faced with that situation, but I took a bit of a risk and left-foot-braked the Mustang just slightly sideways at the entry. Back on the throttle. The white line approached. Beyond that, there was traffic. This would be our only chance to do this.
“Line!” I yelled, and I couldn’t see the stopwatch. “What did we get?” My lap felt a lot slower than the 991’s had earlier in the day. In the second or so before my student called out the time, I regretted each and every corner jointly and severally, as they say.
We were four-tenths of a second slower than the 991.
I took two cooldown laps and tried again, but that lap was two-tenths slower still. Time to call a halt to the fun and come in. I still had a six hour drive home to do. From her perch in the passenger seat, my infamous companion Vodka McBigbra said, “I can see why you do these trips. The weather’s nice and everybody is very nice, too.” Of course, she’s wrong. None of us, from the cautious professor in the $150,000 sedan to the meticulous surgeon unwinding his steering with million-dollar hands, is here for the weather. What did Eliot say?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
The narrow victory of his press-loaner 991, mostly accomplished by bumping up against the bowling-lane-bumpers of PSM, convinced the young man in this story that he should compete in time trials. He also bought a new $45,000 “track rat”. About three years ago, he made a mistake, hit one of the Shenandoah course’s concrete walls very hard, totaled the car, and gave himself a vicious concussion that continues to haunt him. The moral of the story? I was wrong to encourage him, and wrong not to knock him off his pedestal immediately after our “race” was over. A trained monkey in a 991 C2S could smoke a Mustang GT around what’s basically an autocross course with one long straight. I thought I was being gallant by not pointing that out. Turns out I was doing him a disservice — JB