It's a Wednesday evening. I'm working late, with no customers in sight. A last minute decision to check my phone and message my dad sees me ask him to bring my camera to me. He obliges, glad to see that I'm not working the next day, so staying out late won't be an issue. I had been discussing going to a West-Enders MINI Club meeting in Ancaster, Ontario. I knew I'd be late. I didn't know how late. I felt particularly inspired by the nice weather and the sunset. A golden sun cast a sun-kissed glow on the world, a nice, clear blue sky reflecting the perfect antidote to the excess gold. The weather was a photographer's dream. Or, well, it would have been, if I had a tripod. My father had forgotten that key piece of kit to take the photos from a "decent" level to an expert level. "Oh well, look at this weather. It'd almost be a sin to worry about a minor detail."
It was 8:13 when I left Cambridge. Camera in-car, I decided to take the "scenic" way; actually, Google Maps told me to take the scenic way. I wasn't complaining. And, so, it was in this way that I ended up going to a MINI meet in full Honda attire, having just left the Honda dealership.
This was the view that greeted me upon arrival into Ancaster. The gold and blue fought a battle of pastel tone sky and vibrant yellow buildings. The mountains cast an ominous shadow across the downtown Ancaster area, while Hamilton glistened in beautiful radiance. Night was approaching, quickly. And, so were the MINIs, driving the back roads of Ancaster at "spirited pace." It would have been a sight to behold, for sure, seeing brightly coloured hatches driving around the city, reportedly on three wheels.
The destination was a hip, possibly English-inspired pub, aptly known as the "West End House & Pub." The decor screamed MINI Cooper. Upon arriving, you knew that you had arrived in the right place. But, it wasn't just old music playing, and it wasn't all old themed. It had a nice mix of modernity and class, somewhat akin to the cars themselves. I'm still trying to figure out if this was entirely coincidental, or whether the club was named after the pub.
Driving along Emerson St., in Hamilton, you could easily miss the pub. It doesn't particularly stand out... Except when a German flag themed parking lot, stuffed full of MINI Coopers (now made by BMW, making the German flag remarkably relevant,) on the side of the road. When you see a parking lot full of MINI Coopers, you know you're in a cool neighbourhood.
Upon arrival, I got to work. I got the camera out and immediately lengthened the exposure. We were in the shadow of the mountain. The shadow now covered the entire city. It wouldn't be possible to take acceptable golden hour photos for much longer. I had to work fast. So, I stayed outside and used as much of the time as I could, to get photos that would do justice to how awesome, and incredibly clean the MINIs were.
I chatted with the outdoor patio attendant bartender; a cute, gently freckled, and extremely friendly girl named Rachel, while taking some photos, discussing the car culture and what I was doing, among a few other things. We agreed that MINI is one of the manufacturers with the most personality of any car.
After taking some photos, I went in for my nachos and drinks (non-alcoholic, in my case, as I was driving home) and enjoyed a great chat with some of the members of the club. They answered questions that I had about the cars and definitely made me feel like getting a MINI would be fun. I mean, I should drive a Cooper with a manual transmission before really deciding for sure that it's right for me, but they left me really considering it. But, the maintenance costs are a little worrying; maybe they're not that bad, I would need to research before deciding.
After some discussion of Liverpool, Manchester and Northern Ireland, sounding more like a Barclay's Premier League game preview than a Canadian evening with nachos, most of us had heard bits about family, friends, financial/banking advice, driving techniques, suspension setups, brake rotor sizing, limited slip differentials and more. Make no mistake, they might be friendly, but they do enjoy competition. Their competition, though? It's themselves. They seem to be interested in bettering themselves and enjoying their life. The MINI seems to be a fun toy, one which has seen some years of friendship-building and great fun.
We gradually strolled outside, one-by-one, meeting a dark street on our way out. We said our goodbyes and headed on our way. I stopped, though, at the Hamilton escarpment harbour overlook of my choice to take more photos. This is where the post takes a slight detour from the usual world of just photos of cars, and delves into the world of scenery and art photos. Hamilton is always such a beautiful place to take photos... It was a nice treat to top off a great night. I even spotted a deer, but she ran into the forest far too quickly to pose for a photo.
Check out the West-Enders MINI Club on Facebook here:
Directions to the West-End House:
The Miata, Mazda's most popular sports car, sold in huge quantities. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's the best sports car Mazda has made, since it sells so well. Well, popularity doesn't always indicate a fantastic actual experience. Instead, sometimes the driving experience of some of the best cars ever made has been prioritized over the comfort, reliability and practicality. The rotary engine is known for having prioritized the driver experience over the reliability and practicality of it. Thus, some people assume that the RX-8 is not the Mazda sports car to buy. Those people might just be wrong. Very wrong.
You see, on April 16th, I went to a track day at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (Seriously, can we go back to calling it Mosport yet? There's a sign just outside the track that still says Mosport. Oh, and it's located on Mosport Rd.) Upon arrival, I met a gentleman with a Mazda RX-8. He wanted me to show him the best lines through the track, and I could tell that this client was familiar with the limits of his car as I rode with him, showing him the lines around the new track he had never visited before.
What took me back more than anything, was the agility of the platform we were riding in. The nose tucked in towards the apex with very little effort. It didn't need any of the weight transfer of the average FWD car, or even some RWD cars. The nose darted in so effortlessly, it kinda felt like a Porsche. That makes sense, given that the car has a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution, with only slightly more weight at the rear of the car, and a very low polar inertia, with the engine tucked far back in the engine bay behind the front axle, and the fuel tank tucked in ahead of the rear axle, the car's weight is largely centered between the axles, making it highly nimble. These are the same engineers who built the Miata, after all. Long held as the staple of "best handling car," the Miata is merely a good benchmark for a comparison for the RX-8.
The 13B-MSP Renesis screamed up to 8000 RPM, with the driver getting the engine up to temperature before really letting the revs scream. The noise is a remarkably smooth sound; a great indicator for the smoothness of the engine. This isn't an engine you can feel running. To ride in this car, you'd think it was propelled by magic. There is no vibration from the engine in the cabin. It barely even makes a noise until you get on the throttle hard. But, to reiterate the most noteworthy thing about the RX-8, is the smoothness of the engine's sound. It doesn't sound like a normal engine with a series of several controlled burns inside the cylinders. Instead, the combustion chamber is set alight permanently, with a permanent noise, which never seems to burble or anything of that sort, like a normal ICE. Instead, lifting off of the throttle is met with the burbles on off-throttle only, but the throttle sound is the sound of effortless acceleration. It just spins faster and makes more noise, without the quality of the noise largely differentiating itself from the lower end of the tachometer until the higher end of the tachometer. It's one distinct engine note across the entire powerband. Sorry, VTEC kids. This one doesn't change its power output randomly. It's a silken sound with a lovely predictability.
After some decently skillful laps of the client driving, and some discussion of ideal racing lines, I wanted to discuss the way that the fastest racing lap times will differentiate from the client's racing lines. So, we discussed ways to go slightly faster without risking the car too much. More emphasis on understanding the sacrifice corners and an attempt to make more speed on corner exits and vital corner entries was placed. So, the client asked me to drive the car to show him the faster lines.
The first thing to notice about driving the RX-8, is how gently the gearbox and transmission work together. Every shift is subtle. The spinning noise of the engine drops; that's how to tell that the RX-8 changed gear. There is no jerking, no matter how aggressive the gear change. The engine changes speed, not the entire car. The tires propelled me into Turn 1 as I gently set out to acclimatize with the car with minimal issue. I rolled onto the throttle. The revs climbed quickly up to 6000, I barely even noticed that we were approaching the redline on most of the other cars I've driven. The car let me know that there was more to have.
With the series of second-gear corners at the first sector of the DDC dispatched, the car brought me to the more high-speed sections of the track. I gently fed in throttle, curious about how much rear wheel traction I had. Plenty, was the answer I was greeted with. So, I fed in throttle until the throttle was at the floor. The buzz filled the cabin and the car began to accelerate towards its redline. At about 8500 RPM, there was a chime to remind you to shift. A red light came on, on the dash to further remind you to shift... You know, in case the chime, or the apocalyptic wailing of the engine weren't enough.
Approaching the corner, I brake hard, and the brake pads (aftermarket, as they are, the brakes were still impressive) oblige. I turn into the corner. I realize then, that I've slowed down way too much. The car had way more grip to offer for turn-in. I'm getting warmed up to the car, but the car's already ready for me. I gently accelerate out of the apex, through the full-throttle switchback chicane that forms the last corner, finding that the car's grip is way outperforming my expectations. The next lap, I note, I can carry 10 km/h through the corner without worry. I brake later into the fast-approaching turn one, and go for the heel-toe downshift. The pedals are placed perfectly and the engine revs up quickly - almost too quickly. I have to let the engine wind down a little before slotting into second gear. Dispatching the first corner sees me accelerating back into third gear. The shift is flawless. I stay in third gear, allowing the car to glide into the long sweeping corner where the remnants of the oval are still there. The steering neutrality in this corner is perfect, for a rear-wheel-drive car. It's just a slight hint of understeer which left the car predictable enough for a beginner to really drive spiritedly. The slight understeer is probably the best setup a beginning track day enthusiast could ask for.
We approach into the fairly sharp double-apex hairpin that follows the long banked corner. The nose responds beautifully to the turn-in there. The weight management of this car is impressive. Mazda's engineers did a great job of setting the car up. It is so responsive and agile that you can really carry a lot of speed through the apex, because the momentum of the car is maintained through the corner. The torque going up the hill after the corner left some to be desired; it didn't even feel like the car was able to accelerate up the slight bank. But, it did and the following left-hander is very tight. The car's poise over the curb on the inside (with fully independent suspension, front and rear, and multilink double wishbone setup) was remarkable. I had no doubts about the contact patch of the tires being maintained, despite the bumps that the car was faced with.
I built up pace until I was comfortable with the car. As I grew comfortable, I tried to get on the throttle sooner, and harder, on corner exits. Eventually, I found that I was getting close to the limit of adhesion of the rear tires. They didn't let go. I had to drive the car "stupidly" to spin the rear tires. And, only then would the traction control get involved to tell you to take it down a notch. There's barely any fuss. Smart throttle control will allow you the opportunity to steer the car with the right foot a little, but without any of the anxiety of other cars. (Like the Scion FR-S, with a review of the FR-S coming in the next few days.)
Halfway around a lap, the car rang. The car's Bluetooth was informing us about a phone call that the client had gotten. He muted his phone. That was the first time I had ever had Bluetooth involved in a track day. It wasn't to be the last, either, but the stereo system's sound quality impressed me, even with the phone ring tone. It's important to mention that this is one of the most impressively comfortable performance cars I've ever experienced. The idea of piloting a car with this much precision, on track, with a Bluetooth system hooked up, chatting on the phone with your boss, grandma or roommates is an incredible thing. This car deserved more attention and more positive reviews.
Overall? If you can afford a new RX-8 (don't get one with high-mileage, the rotary engines like to let go with higher mileage), this would be one of the most ideal track cars to learn in. It's responsive, agile, but well-mannered and sophisticated.
Problems to look out for:
What we loved:
What we'd improve:
It's your dream. But, it's not all sunshine and roses. There are some complications that really suck about being a racing driver. Being a racing driver, as it turns out, is really not for the feint of heart. It takes courage and strength, as you'll find in this article.
1: The Stress, Anxiety and Struggles
I'm not going to sugar coat it. Leading a race towards the end of the race is terrifying. The heart rate of even the calmest driver will be approaching 180 BPM in some cases. Try leading the final lap of the Le Mans 24 hours - one of the most prestigious races in the world - with a small lead and some concerns about whether you have enough fuel to make it until the end, for example. Hopefully, your heart is strong enough to keep pumping - cardiac arrest becomes a major concern when your heart rate approaches 180 BPM. People with panic attacks and anxiety? They probably shouldn't be the closing driver of the 24 hour race at all. The panic attacks and anxiety will cause a mistake. You can't argue about the massive psychological factors in racing... That last lap is the scariest, most exhilarating thing in the entire world for a racing driver. Small wonder, some of the last laps are the best racing you'll ever see in your life. Bergmeister vs. Magnussen, I'm looking at you...
2: The "Crash" Hangover
Crashing sucks. One second you're battling for position in the race, and next thing you know, you get shunted off-track, and into a wall. Your safety equipment does its job and you end up surviving without injury, but, the next day sucks. The next day always sucks.
You wake up with the inevitable pain: eye sockets that are strained (causing photo-sensitivity and pain when focusing the eyes, just like an alcohol hangover), the hyper-extended muscles, bruised rib cage, the possible shame or guilt of having made a small mistake, and maybe even some really tender cuts and bruises from the seat belts or the seat itself.
It's the worst hangover you'll ever have. All of the pain without the party. No winning, no party. You get to deal with hospital nonsense for the mandatory concussion checkups - "do you feel pain? Can you look at this popsicle stick?" the doctors ask, while scanning the whites of your eyes for torn blood vessels and other signs of concussion.
Even in grassroots motorsports - even karting - it is possible to get light concussions. I've had more minor concussions than I can count on a single hand from nasty crashes. That's why I can explain what they feel like.
3: The Sponsor Targets and the Team Objectives
Win. Don't crash. Make the car look good while winning and not crashing. Bring the car home without damage. Oh, and do it all without getting in trouble from the organizers. Good luck.
Sponsors want air time - they have marketing goals. They need you to do well so that their product gets attention and seems like a quality product. DMACK tires want their tires to win. Well, they would want their tires to win, if they made an unstudded winter rally tire; they don't, so they can't win. But, you would never guess that this Subaru Rally Team USA car is equipped with Yokohama winter rally tires, since DMACK still puts their name on the car equipped with Yokohama tires. In the end, though, Travis Pastrana still has to win for DMACK to look really good... On Yokohama tires. Yeah. Marketing. They could have fooled you, too.
The stress that comes from trying to meet the marketing goals of the sponsors, in order to keep the team funding coming in, is incredible. You need to meet their objectives, but of course the team hates bodywork, so they don't want you to risk the car too much. Win without damage. Go on. Oh, and do it in style. That's how you'll get even more sponsors. Nail the interviews with the media, so that you can stay marketable. Thank the sponsors. Mention them. Don't mention an old sponsor. Mention every current sponsor. Talk about the car. Mention the benefit of having raced that model of car. "Oh, you know, the Toyota MR2 has traditional Toyota reliability. Of course we made it to the end, the car is great. I'm lucky to be on this team." you say, even though you and the team boss had a fight about the setup during practice and you're kinda mad at the team. Make the team look good if you want to keep your job.
Stress is a big problem.
4: The Internet Haters
"I could do better." - every internet troll, ever.
Your mom told you that you were a handsome boy, and that you could do anything, so you believed her and you assumed that you'd be the best at everything you'll ever try to do. Well, you're wrong. Sorry.
It kinda sucks to be an amateur racing driver, simply because we actually race. We know we suck at racing - at least, compared to the people who win Formula 1 and other world-class races - but we do it because we love it. But, every internet troll who has ever lined up against a pensioner in a Buick at a traffic light has "won a race," so claiming to be a racing driver - not even a professional racing driver - has lost some of its respect. It's no longer a genuine career - it's a mockery by those who think that racing drivers just push the pedal down further than the person next to them and they win every race. There's more to it than that, worldwide web users. Stop trying to make yourself look better. Your feces still stink, by the way.
But, hey, it's not the end of the world. If you're serious about racing and you really want to get into it, there are ways to go about it. In fact, Melons' Better Driving has a program in mind, to train drivers to go faster. For more information, email email@example.com. Or, we'll see you at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, on April 16th - we're going to a Touge.ca track day.
A lot of people argued with the Miata article, and a lot of people liked it. My mission to make a satirical article about how the slight truth that Miatas are overrated can make Miata fans react worked perfectly. The article was divisive. People agreed and disagreed. I wanted that. Here's why:
When I made that satirical Miata-hate article, I knew that it would be contentious. I knew that people would read it in large numbers, and that there would be some heated debate. I wanted there to be. After spending the past six years stepping on the toes of Miata owners, whenever they dared to tell me that I had to buy a Miata, I knew that I would not be the only person frustrated by some flagrant dickhead telling you that you should have bought a Miata, when you're celebrating your purchase of a Subaru.
But, that article made me question the automotive community, and wonder: who the hell cares? The Miata owners and enthusiasts who got up in arms over what one person jokingly said could not possibly have expected to change the opinion of someone with insults and hatred. By trying to push yourself towards the thing that hates you, you will only create contempt and disgust. Try to push yourself towards a member of the opposite sex that already declined, and you'll be issued a restraining order, or worse, charged with rape or sexual assault.
So, why do Miata owners feel as if they have to defend themselves and their car from a difference of opinion? While reading the comments that the article received, I was shocked to find that Miata owners were defending their car, that they feel insecure about, by insinuating that I myself am insecure about myself. If I were insecure about myself, I sure as fuck wouldn't be a journalist. I write opinions for a living, among various other things I do. People are going to dislike what I write sometimes.
And yet, the results were exactly as I expected. I knew that the Miata owners would defend their car - their beloved "answer to every question" - from the perceived attacks of one person daring to think outside the box and say "maybe Miata isn't always the answer. Maybe I want something else. Maybe I don't like Miata, and maybe I like FWD."
Fact is, I like FWD because of the efficiency of the design, the styling freedom, the aerodynamic benefit potential, the driving style (where the FWD platform matches my driving style perfectly), the ability to brake later due to left-foot-braking, and more. I'm okay with that. I tell people that I prefer FWD and I don't care if others like it or not. When I give out sponsorships to prospective sponsored racing drivers who will get discounts on racing schools or track day events, I don't mind if that person is driving a FWD, RWD, or AWD. I don't mind at all, if someone dislikes FWD, even though I quite like it.
The question is, then... Why do Miata owners - or car owners - feel like they have to defend their cars, and their opinions, and beliefs, from perceived attacks, even when the attacks are just a statement of a preference of something different than what they are used to?
I used to hate Volkswagen - only a company funded by Hitler would become synonymous with people punching each other and shouting "punch-buggy! No punch-backs!" I used to hate them, that is, until I started to chat with them and realized that VW is just like any other car these days. Honda is just like any other car these days. The only thing you're arguing about when you say that you hate a certain car, is the statistics of the car. Me? I'm not a huge fan of Chrysler right now. The cars are too heavy to have any real sporting potential, and I'm upset that they squashed the Viper - the one truly good performer the company had in the past 5 years. But, I don't avidly hate Chrysler owners, because I can say that Chrysler doesn't have an entry into the sports sub-compact class, without being torn to pieces by a legion of fanboys dedicated to serving their fictional ideology that some businessman created to make money off of.
You like Mitsubishi? Well, that's great. 40 years ago, Mitsubishi cars really were made differently than other cars. But, as car companies grow, they copy each other, until they become almost identical. The ones that don't become identical don't sell as well. Companies like TVR, Subaru, Volvo, Pagani, Saab, Koenigsegg, Tesla and more, they all either floated with the best technology around, or sank because they tried too hard to be different.
But, you might think that your car is somehow special or different or cool. That's fine! I love you for that! But... Maybe it's time for the average person to stop trying to tell others which car to buy, with a bias. It's my job to tell you which car to buy without a bias. If you're in the market for a luxury car that isn't in any way, shape or form a sports car, go buy a Chrysler 300C. They're not bad, just because I don't like that the company doesn't offer a Dodge Dart SRT with a big brake kit, improved power output, sports-inspired shifter bushings and refined handling. I put my bias aside and I told you that if you want a 300C, you should get a 300C.
Why then, does the average consumer feel disappointed, or bewildered, when someone dares to disagree with someone else? You disagreed with someone on the internet? Get over it. There's so much talk in the car scene about respecting each others' builds, but these are the same people who will beg you to buy the same car as them, and then get mad at you when you do the same mods to the same car that they told you to buy because they liked it. Ever seen how the "car guys" flock together in their massive meets, where not one single car from another manufacturer is respected or appreciated?
I'll always be that guy showing up to the Miata meet in an MR2, or a Porsche Boxster to the MR2 meet. That's who I am. It's time that the internet realized that you don't have to drive the same car as someone else, to respect and appreciate them, and you don't have to respect and appreciate someone just because they drive the same car as you. You don't have to beg your friends to buy the same car as you, and you don't have to tell others that they made the wrong choice when you find out that they did their own thing. The only thing you should tell your friends, is that life is too short for minivans.
We're a hunted few. Our passion for cars makes people believe that we drive dangerously, or that we are risk-takers while driving. Our passion doesn't have to bother other people. Even if we choose to carve corners, that doesn't mean that we're lawless. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rule #1: The Golden Rule of the Yellow Line
Seriously, this one is obvious. If you can't drive your car in only one lane, you should probably cut up your driver's license. Hitting an oncoming car at full speed is the single most deadly form of crash in most developed countries. The challenge of a brisk, spirited drive through the mountains isn't about a stopwatch. It's about an expertise level that everyone can do, but few can master. In this particular case, I'm talking about the idea of being the best driver; the one who enjoys driving, but still never crosses the yellow line, in order to carry more speed. That's unnecessary and risky. Even if you have to slow down more to stay on your side of the yellow line, that just gives you a chance to downshift, put the throttle down, get back up to speed, and shift back up. That's one of the best feelings, isn't it?
Rule #2: Seeing is Believing
Visibility is the difference between an ugly crash and a pleasant drive. If you're driving at night, don't overdrive the headlights, and don't go around a corner at full speed, if the corner is too sharp for the headlights to illuminate the road. Driving during the day? Maybe you should think twice about going full-attack through that tight, blind corner around the bridge, or maybe slow down a little extra for that blind crest. Crashes suck - poor visibility can be attributed to more crashes than you might expect.
Rule #3: Taking Some Time to Enjoy It All
I know what you're going to say when you read this: "yeah, but, they're sooooo low!" Nevertheless, I think speed limits do have their purpose. You can't go around expecting that things will always go perfectly because you're a perfect driver and would never make a mistake. The same day you assume that, is the same day you go around the corner you know is a fourth gear corner, and find a train crossing the road, and you can't slow down in time. Or, maybe it's a pedestrian, or a cyclist. Speed limits aren't there for the drivers. They're there for everything that has to cross the road. Speed limits are for pedestrians, cyclists, squirrels, dogs, children... Whatever.
Instead of ripping around at well above the speed limit (which is not flexible, contrary to belief, but the police are known to have varying degrees of leniency), why not slow down and enjoy the scenery while carving the roads? You can still carve roads at the speed limit. But, hey, maybe you take your time, savour the drive, and pull over to see the best scenery in the area.
Rule #4: Common Courtesy
We get it. You don't have to completely stop the car at a stop sign to avoid a crash. But, that 0 km/h "complete, legal stop" isn't for you to avoid a crash. It's a statement of intent to follow a principle of safe driving. It's not entirely about the act itself - giving yourself more time to think. You think you're too good to completely obey a metal sign? Well, that's great, glad that you've got an overconfident ego. But, if you don't stop for the stop sign, why should the other people? Why should the stop sign be erected? Why bother? Why not just drive as if you live in an almost lawless state, like Somalia, or Chechnya? Well, look up the statistics of countries where people don't follow law and order, on things like life expectancy, and reconsider.
Yeah, that stop sign is just a stop sign. It's just a metal post. But, it represents something more. It represents a willingness to demonstrate to others that the stop sign really does apply to you, and everyone else that stops at that stop sign. Especially as an auto enthusiast with a rare car with an expensive paint job, you should be the one who should be entrusted with stopping to show that you love your car, and you love that you live in a country where people stop at stop signs to honour the effort you put into building it. It only takes one person not obeying that sign to destroy your years of laborious love and craftsmanship. Your car is worth that full legal stop.
Rule #5: Road Familiarity
You know that road you've never seen before? Yeah. Don't drive at or above the speed limit on it. That giant sinkhole you didn't know about will destroy your wheels. The sharp corner you didn't know about? Goodbye, car. The flooding you didn't realize was happening? Your upholstery is ruined, your engine hydrolocked, and your wiring fried.
"Sorry," says the road's engineer. They do their best, but, sometimes the unthinkable happens, because someone went at a speed the road wasn't designed for. Remember how Rule #3 talked about how speed limits weren't designed for you, but rather for the pedestrians? Speed limits are also there for road engineers to cover their liability. Road engineers can't flatten every crest, nor smooth every bump. The budget is not high enough. So, roads with particularly steep crests and big bumps might be slower, even though they're otherwise simple at the speed limit. If you don't know where the bumps are, you won't know how to avoid them. That's a bad thing for your $4000 wheels and $2000 coilovers... And don't even get me started on snowy, icy roads.
Our friends at Racers' HQ posted a podcast about aggressive steering inputs, and how they believe that it's the key to racing. They're sorta right. Here's the full explanation of the theory behind aggressive steering, why it's better, and why you're never taught to use aggressive steering inputs at an amateur racing school.
Above is the URL of the podcast. In the podcast, Matt Covert discusses his opinion on "Smooth is Not Faster, Someone's Been Lying."
Well.... According to whom is smooth driving not faster? A beginner or an expert. That's the question Matt should have asked: who's the sort of driver who can drive at the ragged edge of performance and still nail down a flawless lap? I've seen two very distinct talent levels; the levels of the amateur racing driver, and the levels of the experts. The two distinct talent levels are very remarkably different. Telling both of these two groups to enter a corner at a certain speed, and at a certain braking point produces two results: the experts will tell you that the speed was too slow. The amateurs will crash. The best racing instructors will give the experts the absolute maximum speed through the corner that they can do, as a challenge. "Can you get through Turn 2 at an apex speed of 154 km/h?" which the expert will instinctively match or better, without conscious thought. The racing instructor will tell the amateur "I want you to try to make it through that corner without dropping below 130 km/h on this lap. Get accustomed to the corner and the track."
Neither the amateur, nor the expert crash, in this case. And, that's the true goal of a racing instructor. Following the advice Matt gives without proper practice and due diligence will result in a crash. Sorry, Matt, I'm going to be the first of your critics to mention that you're ENTIRELY wrong to suggest that everyone should focus on finding the ragged edge of their potential, without any idea of whom you're talking to, nor the experience level of the target audience.
Racing is not an overnight change. Racing changes overnight, but racing can not be taught overnight. It takes a lifetime to learn to race, and only an instant to win a race. Knowing the correct time for everything is the true key to winning races.
If you think that you're experienced enough to drive a car at the ragged edge limit of your potential, that's fine. Read below.
Before you go out and prove to everyone that driving at the ragged edge of adhesion, and being in a state of neutral steer as often as you can, during a race, you need to consider the following elements.
P.S., since Matt mentioned iRacing, I'll echo his thoughts here: If you're doing sim racing, yeah, you should be driving with aggressive steering inputs. Definitely! You don't pay for replacing tires in sim racing! You don't pay for crash damage. You don't pay for brake pads. You go out, win, and celebrate. But, real life is not like sim racing. Reconsider whether you *really* want to attack with the 10/10ths steering inputs - and whether you can afford the increased tire and brake wear.
As ever, good luck and good motoring!
Recently, a friend of mine was discussing window tint on a Facebook post he made. I warned of the downside of window tint, without really explaining what it is. Others went on to discuss the percentage of light that passes through the tint, and discussed the vision problems associated with it. I decided in that moment to post a few photos and a story about window tint's dangerous side.
You see, there's been a trend in my automotive career that I am not particularly fond of. That trend is upsetting and very dangerous. The trend is, I've been forced to drive with exceptionally dark, tinted windows, in an unlit area, at hours of the day where visibility becomes an issue. And - on two occasions - this has ended badly. I'll tell you the stories to go with the argument.
It was back in 2006, during my karting career's third full season. I was in third place, in a race that was scheduled to start a half hour earlier. The race had been delayed to allow for an ambulance to take my friend to the hospital; a bad omen, for sure. The sun was setting when we started the race. As the sun was setting, I remember asking myself "just how long is this race? The grip conditions will change with the sun going down. The track will get cold. How will this affect my race?" I realized that the tires would get cold if I didn't drive a little harder. I pushed pretty hard to keep the tire temperatures up, and it worked. My third position had stabilized. The sun kept sinking, further and further down upon the airport to the south of the track, until there was no sun to see. At this point, I realized the problem with having a shaded visor. My vision was worse than anyone else's, with the exceptionally dark shaded visor I had chosen to use to keep the glaring sun out of my eyes earlier in the race. The setting sun was blinding, before, but now the very thing I had done to protect my vision earlier in the race was coming back to haunt me. I tried lifting my visor, as kart drivers are allowed to lift their visor one click (anything higher than that is deemed unsafe, because the visor is dedicated to keeping debris, shrapnel and so on out of your eyes and to preventing the injury or death of participants (unlike Ayrton Senna's tragic death, helmet visors deflecting shrapnel can save lives).
So, I tried to see from the little sliver of dim light created by my visor's one-click-from-closed position. It had no effect. I was driving blind. I kept going based on the feel. I knew how many seconds long the straightaways and corners were, I knew where the bumps were, and some areas of the track were lit. I combined all of the elements of that as well as I could to keep going. I caught a rival driver. I heard the rival driver. I knew he was somewhere. But, I did not know where. Immediately after, I felt a shunt; I had hit the kart I was attempting to overtake; he was slowing down because he too could not see anything. He lacked the bravery to carry on at the same speeds I was racing at. I looked over, after I felt the shunt, and saw the faint outline of a kart hitting a tire wall.
I was overcome with guilt in that moment. In hindsight, how was I expected to know that he would choose to begin slowing down on the racing line, on the straightaway, with no other warning? I shouldn't have felt guilty about it, but i did. The race ended two laps later. Somehow, I miraculously finished mostly problem-free, and earned my second place trophy. At least, the officials think I finished second. No one knows where anyone finished. The timing & scoring team couldn't verify the results due to the darkness.
A little delay, a little shoddy organization, and a tinted helmet visor is all it took to toss an amateur karting race into massive disarray. Your window tint might help, during the day, but if you're running around in your car with 5% transparency/light transmission window tint, how do you reverse at night, safely, and without hitting something? How do you watch for pedestrians, animals, and other unlit road-side hazards?
I ask you this: did you make the right choice? When I chose my tinted helmet visor that night, I certainly didn't. And, to whomever it was that ended up in that tire wall, I sincerely hope that you'll accept my apologies. I would have apologized sooner, if I had known whom to apologize to! Strange things happen when you drive but can't see, and not even racing drivers can drive blind.
We've all seen them; the mountain roads where you can't carry more than 30 km/h through them. Lots of motorsports/driving enthusiasts swear by them. But, are they really right?
I use Facebook a lot. I'm well aware of the rubbish quality of the average viral media marketing page. They're great at finding things people want to see and tag their friends in, but they're horrible at actually giving credit/letting people see the content from its rightful owner. The reason I embed videos on my website, is that this way, the content creators (or, at least, the people who uploaded the stuff) can get their ad revenue money.
With that said, I won't be posting the exact photo of what I'm describing, but, rather, just a simple explanation. Any of the mountain roads you'd see in a place like Switzerland, Romania, France, Italy or Austria, with the limp spaghetti roads, layered down the mountain with perfect 180 degree hairpins all the way down are the roads I'm discussing. If you've watched Top Gear's episodes about trying to find the Best Driving Road in the World, you've seen the roads I'm talking about. If you've seen the Facebook content stealers' posts about picking a car, you've seen the roads I'm talking about. If you've seen an amateur skier going down a hill, doing that zig-zag to keep their speed down, you know what I'm talking about. Consecutive hairpins, really, are somehow associated with the best driving roads ever.
Well, that's where people are wrong. Sorry to say it, but, it's true.
These switchback hairpins might seem fun, but, all they really do is just wear out your brake pads, and permit you to run your engine and gearbox through the paces. But, outside of that, these sorts of roads aren't particularly exciting. (Unless it's closed-course, and there is no oncoming traffic.) If there is any oncoming traffic, you really shouldn't even be going as fast as 10 km/h around the hairpins. That's simply not fun. It's like a parking lot, only, with giant cliffs that punish even the smallest mistakes.
Instead of trying to go quickly on these exceptionally dangerous roads, where visibility of oncoming traffic means bending your neck like an owl every minute, why not just slow down and enjoy the scenery? Roads like these just don't work for performance driving, sadly. Instead, here's the type of road I'd prefer:
You see, the thing I find interesting is the conservation of momentum. Those hairpin roads don't allow you to conserve momentum. They're a great workout for the car. The roads I like? They're mentally stimulating, because they're a workout for the drivers. Look at this glorious sweeper (above,) with its mixed surface of snow, gravel, and ice. The slip angles, the drifts, the acceptable width (in contrast to the unending hairpins described above, this road is three car-widths wide, meaning that there is some room for playing around, getting the car sideways and so forth. The constant sweepers with elevation changes going up and down, causing the car to lose and gain grip... This all leads to the ability of the driver to have incredible showmanship.
Slides like the one above just don't happen on the exceptionally twisty, tight, and narrow mountain passes of Italy. I'd prefer a Canadian road over the ones in Italy any day, and that's not because I haven't experienced the Italian alps style of road, but rather, because I have experienced both and I know my preference.
The best drive of my entire life was a mistake.
Many of my friends are always seeking the best experience they can find in a car. They will go very far and wide in search of the best driving roads, spend lots of money on their cars to make them just right, and otherwise will do a lot to experience the perfect "driving Nirvana."
Well, back in February, I did just that. I experienced that driving nirvana. But, the problem is, that it's a terrible idea. Bear with me, I've got some explaining to do.
The thing is, there's always a time and a place for everything, including driving Nirvana. Yes, I had more fun than I should have, during that weekend. No, I don't recommend it to anyone.
The problem was, I was volunteering at a rally. This meant, I needed to be where the rally was. I had access to the open roads, where the rally cars had driven, or would be driving. I didn't think much of the repercussions of driving the speed limit on the snowy/icy roads. I was following every road law, technically, except that the locals disagreed about whether my actions were safe or not.
It doesn't matter how much fun you're having, if it's a public road, you probably shouldn't be driving that way. The best answer to finding driving Nirvana is to actually enter the rally, not volunteer for it. But, even volunteering for the rally can be great fun, of course.
My suggestion, is to enter the rally if you want to drive the way I did, or volunteer at the rally, and just take things slower. Enjoy the scenery and the friendships you'll make at the rally.
But, just because sliding your car along on some icy and snowy roads seems fun, doesn't mean it's safe. Neither does being in complete control of your car (are you really?) and neither does the location matter. The laws still apply.
Instead of doing it the illegal and dangerous way, why not do it the legal and safe way? No matter how you want to drive, there's a motorsport for it. And, if your tastes in driving are so obscure that this form of motorsports doesn't exist yet, why don't you make it happen?
The fact is, this rally was the most fun I've ever had. Would I go again? I'd either volunteer, or participate as a driver. But, I wouldn't do what I did this year again. Even if the only thing you lose is your reputation as a good guy, it's too much to lose. And, even after that, you only stand to lose more, following that, like your life, freedom or car, driver's license or even car insurance. Think twice about how you will achieve driving Nirvana.
Most people seem to love hearing things like "Active Stability Management" and "Anti-Lock Braking System." But, do they actually work?
We've all seen it; a video shows a mother buckling her kids up, then she buckles herself up, and a tree falls onto the road, she swerves and barely stops. The pedalbox footage shows her jamming on the brakes very hard, while wearing some type of footwear unsuitable for driving, and then some Hollywood voice actor style voice says "this and that car os 2017 is now equipped with Falling Tree Detection System, designed to keep your family safe."
Yeah, right. So, the car knows that a tree is going to fall before it does? The car should have told us to go a different way, then, to save time! If a tree is going to fall, and block the road, surely we don't want to drive down that road.
The interesting thing about this situation, is that this is all too staged, too perfect, to be useful in the real world. Not every driver aid actually helps, in real world testing.
Most people only know that their car has a certain driver aid, and don't really have any clue about what it does, nor how it does it, or even what the end result is, to the vehicle's controls. The only people who seem to know what ABS does, are the people who have researched and studied this system.
"What does ABS do, then? Surely it must help, right?"
The simple answer about whether it helps or not, is only answered by the question: how talented are you, and how slippery is the surface you're driving on?
ABS, otherwise called Anti-Lock Braking System, prevents tires from stopping their rotation, while the chassis of the car is still moving. It prevents the brakes from stopping the tires from turning under a still-moving chassis. This doesn't always permit shorter stopping distances. Sometimes, it can actually lengthen them. But, it allows the driver to continue to steer. The problem, however, is that any decent driver should be able to steer, regardless of brake pedal input, because any good driver is a human anti-lock braking system. In rain, snow, ice, gravel, mud and wet grass, ABS is not helpful for stopping distances. It just means that the now-longer stopping distance is controlled, so you don't lose control of steering, while you slide helplessly into whichever thing you couldn't stop in time for. If it happens to be a cat or a small child, well, that's too bad. At least the car was under control when it hurt the obstacle it smashed into... RIght?
The better solution is driver training. I don't just mean teaching people how to do one single lane change after braking hard. I mean, you put someone in the driver's seat, put them on a frozen lake, put some pylons out, and tell that person to swerve around every pylon. Every time that they lock up the brakes, they will hit a pylon. For any pylon that they hit, they get sprayed in the eyes with lemon juice. Wait, that's kinda cruel. Cucumber juice?
This whole frozen lake, pylon-dodging winter driving safety crash course is way more fun than you realize... As long as the frozen lake is actually an abandoned airport runway in Northern Ontario, and the lemon juice is just clean snow... This is a photo of the author sliding a 2005 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS.
But, the most worrying thing, is that, if ABS sucks so badly on snow and ice, that it can actually extend your stopping distances by several buslengths, what does that mean for autonomous cars? Indeed, autonomous cars can, in fact, drive themselves to and from work in the middle of a nice, sunny, summer day, where the worst thing that might happen is a touch of rain. But, if even a bird defecates in the wrong spot, the camera loses its ability to see the road ahead and the car attempts to make a safe, controlled stop. The readiness of autonomous cars to deal with full-on winters, then, is dubious. The willingness of the lawmakers to allow autonomous cars to drive in the winter will also be dubious. We'll be stuck with less experience driving our cars in the summer, and we'll be thrown into the depths of the worst snow storms with limited experience, if autonomous cars are only permitted to work in the summer time. That can't be good. And if you want to call my bluff on this stuff, Ford is the only manufacturer that has done any winter testing, and the results weren't that great... The cars didn't know where to stop for red lights, couldn't safely go above ~20 km/h, and definitely couldn't regain control if they started to skid at a higher speed than that.
And, that doesn't even touch on the idea that TCS (traction control system) causes drivers to be more likely to become stuck in deep snow, or the fact that EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution) can cause cars to be unpredictable. And, then there's the idea of a car without ABS using brake lock to regain control of the car, which is something that many racing drivers will know about. When a race car starts to slide and nearly spin, many racing drivers will lock the front brakes, to prevent the car from sliding further sideways and spinning entirely around. If the back of your car starts to slide, you can induce understeer (make the front tires slide) with some brake lock, in order to make the back end stop sliding. You can use brake lock to regain control of a car. Trying that with ABS turned on yields horrifying results.
For now, then, winter driving doesn't seem to be going anywhere. ABS alone will really limit the autonomous car's function in snow and ice, given that autonomous cars will not function without all of the electronic nannies, such as TCS, ABS, EBD and so on. Maybe some day, the day will come, where you can safely allow your car to drive you to your work. That day is not upon us, and you should, instead of putting your life in the hands of some manufacturer's attempt to get lower insurance rates, know how to drive your own car as safely as possible.
Note: I do not wish to discredit actually valid safety features like frontal-collision warning and avoidance systems. Distracted driving is a major concern, and the frontal-collision warning and avoidance systems actually work very frequently. However, I am noting that any good driver should be able to outperform ABS in less-than-optimal conditions. High-performance driving lessons go much, much farther towards saving lives, than ABS or traction control systems. And, high-performance driving lessons are more fun, and are more valuable.
Drew Geier is a Canadian petrolhead whose main mission is to make motoring accessible, enjoyable, and affordable well into the future, by improving the art, hobby and lifestyle of motoring. He builds cars, and he writes about other builds. He's built a Subaru WRX and is building a Honda Civic EK.