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A Breakneck Speed of 15 MPH

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Today I had the distinct pleasure of taking a Skid Car course from Pro Drive. What is a skid car course? It's a special class designed to teach driving in low traction conditions. The on-pavement part of the class is held in a 1994 Toyota Camry that's on a hydraulically lifted which is mounted on wheels. The contact the car has with the pavement is reduced, simulating driving on snow or ice.

There were three of us in this class: my adventure buddy, his 16-year old nephew, and me. We started with an hour in the classroom, covering the basics of traction, how control input can shift the weight around in a car, and how to recover from a front-wheel skid (understeer) or a rear-wheel skid (oversteer). The basics are this: in an understeer situation, reduce the steering angle while slowing slightly until the car starts to turn, and in an oversteer situation, countersteer and apply gentle throttle. What was most fascinating was that, aside from the actual skidding, the concepts I was hearing were almost exactly what I teach as a Team Oregon instructor. Turn your head to look toward where you want to go and you'll instinctively steer there, maintain a safe following distance in low-traction situations, brake before the turn, and remember to have smooth control inputs.

Me & the skid car

Getting in the car was a chance to apply what we'd learned. With three of us plus the instructor, I had roughly 30-45 minutes of actual driving time, all of which as awesome. We started with a simple figure-eight move around cones with low traction in the front. That is, every time we'd go around a turn, the car would naturally try to go straight and we'd have to work to get the front end of the vehicle around. I'll be honest and confess that I didn't do so well on this one. I was working on the habit of turning my head, which, while natural on my motorcycle, felt foreign in the car, and getting the feel for the vehicle. It could have gone better.

Second lesson was understeer. The front end was dropped, the rear of the car was raised, and now the back of the car would tend to swing around as we cornered. This was significantly more fun. While my unofficial "lap times" were still not very good (somehow my adventure buddy and I found ourselves competing on this point) I was having significantly more fun using the gas to recover. The back end would slip out and just the right amount of throttle would get the car pointed right back where I wanted it. This was where the fun started.


Finally, we switched to a more complicated course. We kept the figure-eight but added a exit into a larger-radius turn and a straightaway where speeds could reach up to - and possibly over - 20 mph. It may not sound fast, but it was the perfect speed for learning control. Additionally, the front and rear of the car were both lifted, so there wasn't a lot of traction to be had. My results, at first, weren't so great. I spent an inordinate amount of time with the car facing the wrong way. Part of this was, for me, the learning process. I was finding the boundaries, and, in a safe environment, figuring out what worked and what didn't. My speed was increasing and my lap times were coming down, but it still wasn't very smooth. We ran this set-up and the reverse of it for a majority of the outdoor time. Finally, by the end of the class, I got serious and my times improved to within a tenth of a second of the fastest time in the car and the ride was much smoother and more controlled. It felt awesome.

Skid Car Completion Certificate

What did I learn from this class? First, that low-traction driving doesn't have to be scary. Secondly, I learned to look more where I wanted the vehicle to go. Finally, I learned that I had some bad habits I needed to break to be a better driver. Am I glad I took this class? Absolutely, it was worth every dollar I paid. But more than that, I recommend that every parent out there with a driving-age child send them to this. It'll make them a much better, much safer driver - and who can place a value on that?

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