Saturday Morning Speedsters
At High Performance Driver's Ed events, everybody's an Earnhart, at least for the morning.
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Times Publications, January 2008
Marty Saltzman is running toward the starting gate of the Phoenix International Raceway's infield track, waving frantically at a middle-aged couple in a maroon PT Cruiser who are, in Marty's words, "about to get a really bad surprise."
"We're just looking for a place to park," says the woman in the driver's seat, as her husband fumbles with a map printed from a travel Web site. Saltzman motions upward at the pedestrian bridge they're passing under - the one marking the racers' entrance to PIR's infield course - and then points to the track about 100 feet in front of them, where nearly a dozen cars are now whipping by at over 110 miles per hour.
Suddenly the woman's jaw drops and the man looks up from his map with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. Slowly, cautiously, the Chrysler backs up and turns off to a safer spot, where Saltzman and a few fellow members of Club Racing Arizona are enjoying some sub sandwiches.
"This is the easiest place in town to get some track time," says Saltzman, a fifty-ish land-use attorney and member of the Carefree Town Council who, in his spare time, presides over a local BMW club. "But it's not quite that easy!"
Indeed, had the couple only been wearing racing helmets and holding up some signed waivers, even their stock family hatchback might have been waved onto the track. At Club Racing Arizona's annual Thanksgiving weekend rally, the year's biggest gathering of amateur race enthusiasts in the Valley, it's almost easier to get on the racetrack than to find a parking space on PIR's cluttered infield.
"Usually the only cars that get turned away are convertibles," says Jason Boles, director of the Arizona chapter of the National Auto Sport Association, or NASA, the country's largest organization of amateur racers. "But anything that comes from the factory with some sort of head protection is generally fine. I mean, we've had everything on the course from Toyota Tacoma trucks to Bentleys."
There's no experience necessary, either. At High Performance Drivers Education, or HPDE, events like this one, novices get instant training from on-site instructors, who lead them through four short classes right on the racetrack's grounds while accompanying them in high-speed rallies around the track itself. The student progresses through a series of skill levels (designated as HPDE-1 through -4) until ready to go the course on his own - sometimes later that same day.
"It's a little bit like going to a Bondurant or Skip Barber school, except you use your own car," Boles says. It's also a lot cheaper: the entry fee for a club racing event is usually $150 for a day and $250 for the whole weekend. Two days of high performance driving lessons at Bondurant, by contrast, start at $2,325.
Naturally, with such an egalitarian welcome mat, the HPDE events can draw a sometimes dangerously naēve hodgepodge of participants. During one of the first 20-minute rallies of the morning (the events start ludicrously early, especially during the hot Arizona summers), a driver whose prior racing experience was apparently limited to watching the Disney-Pixar film Cars was scolded for making a U-turn on the track to check on a friend who had fallen out of the race.
Right now, Saltzman is about to make another mad dash, this time for a couple nonchalantly pushing their baby in a stroller around a corner, oblivious of the rumbling Porsche about to head out onto the track.
"Silly things happen," Saltzman shrugs, as he turns back only to watch the intrepid family move out of the way of the Porsche and straight into the path of a team of Nissans. "It's definitely regular folks out here. But that's why there's such good camaraderie."
Bring the Family Sedan
"You wanna try it?" asks Jason Boles, polishing off a sugary donut and getting ready to greet the next batch of participants in the registration trailer at the center of the track, where the on-site classes are held. "What do you drive?"
Originally formed in 1991 to give owners of high-performance cars fantasy Le Mans time on the local racetrack, NASA has grown beyond the Porsche and RX-7 crowd to include such common compacts as the Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic and even the Volkswagen Golf, as automakers have improved the general performance capabilities and handling features of virtually all newer vehicles.
"Some cars do better than other cars, but it's definitely open to just about all cars now," says Boles. "It's not just BMWs and Alfa-Romeos any more."
"Cars are way better now," agrees Danny Bullock, a driving instructor at the respected Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, who's here today accompanying a student racing her Mini Cooper. "You're getting cars that are getting more power, with less fuel, and that handle better. You can take a standard mid-sized sedan of today, and it handles better than the sports cars of 30 years ago."
With so many speedy Mitsubishi Evolutions and Mazda Miatas teasing their owners with their tight handling capabilities around those video-monitored Loop 101 curves, it's no wonder amateur, or club, racing has been growing steadily.
"Over the last 10 years, the track driving industry has grown tremendously," says Bullock, now into his sixth year of teaching at Bondurant. "Because what was previously not available is now available, and affordable. And people watch motor sports on TV and want to do some track driving themselves."
High Performance Drivers Education events, driven by organizers dedicated to the conviction that it's the well-educated driver, not the car, that wins the race, offer a welcoming, snob-free entry into the seemingly rarified world of racing.
"A lot of these guys are just driving their street cars to the events, racing them around, and then driving them to work again on Monday," Bullock says, adding that such club-sponsored events, unlike the weekend drags at most race tracks, don't require NHRA-sanctioned harnesses and roll cages. Often just some decent tires, firm seat belts and a racing helmet (available on loan from just about any club member) are all you need.
"Look out on the track right now - that's a Chevy Caprice!" Bullock says, pointing to a converted police car squealing around turn four of the twisted track. "Automatic! There's nothing special about that car. But you know what? He's out there having a little fun, in a safe, controlled environment. That's all this is about."
In fact, when it comes to learning high performance techniques, often the more common factory models actually make the best starters.
"We tell people, 'The less car you bring to the track, the better driver you'll become,'" says Saltzman. "The truth is, a lot of these high-performance cars are so good now, if you make a mistake, the car will fix the problem for you. So you're better off learning in the family sedan. In the family sedan, if you don't do things right, you'll know it."
No Speed Limit
"Who here knows about the apex of a curve?" says Club Racing Arizona instructor Dave Riddle, leading a class of HPDE-1 level novices through their first "download," or debriefing and review session, in the registration trailer following their first run on the course.
"The normal apex is the geometric center of the corner. But there's also an early and late apex where you can safely make the turn."
An on-site HPDE class is like a surreal version of high school driver's ed, with a stern instructor droning on about physics and acceleration over a dragged-out PowerPoint slide show, while just outside the windows, the daydream of every young driver plays out for real, as another team of amateur Andrettis circle the makeshift classroom on a genuine NASCAR-level racetrack.
Unlike your high school driver's ed teacher, however, the HPDE instructor knows you're going to defy everything he says about staying within the speed limit, and thus schools you in how to take those wide-oval freeway turns without wiping out two lanes of SUVs.
"Tire smoke and noise may seem cool, but that's actually a sign the car is going slower than it could," Riddle says, slyly playing to the room's need for speed. "That means your tires have lost grip and are actually fighting any acceleration you're giving the car."
Riddle, whose own 17-year-old daughter recently completed standard driver's education at her school after going through dad's HPDE classes, feels all young drivers should be taught high performance techniques from the beginning.
"My daughter gets into the car with the high school football coach, who's teaching driver's ed," he says. "And she starts instantly adjusting the mirrors and the seat to cancel out the blind spots - because so many accidents happen when people are leaning over or turning around to compensate for badly adjusted mirrors. Coach is just looking at her like, 'What do you think you're doing?'"
Not surprisingly, Riddle, a former racecar driver now raising three daughters and one son, is a demanding dad when it comes to setting down rules for the road. "I've told my daughter, 'If I ever hear about you using the cell phone while driving, it's gone,'" he says.
Nevertheless, he's less worried about his daughters' driving than his 15-year-old son's, who's about to get his permit after seven years of go-kart racing. "Females don't have that testosterone and ego-driven thing," he says. "I'd much rather teach women than men."
Sarah Cattaneo, 21, Bullock's student today in her souped-up Mini Cooper and one of the few female drivers on the track this weekend, admits she's taken some ribbing from her friends for being such a gearhead.
"My guy friends don't believe I know so much about cars, so I'm always having to prove things to them," she says. Her girlfriends, on the other hand, annoy her by yawning through her discussions of anti-lock brake systems then freaking out when they have to make a fast stop.
"People get scared when the ABS hits, because they don't know what to do," Cattaneo says. "Honestly, I think everyone should go through some HPDE classes."
Bullock admits the HPDE classes can be the gateway drug that gets the average driver hooked on going fast. "This is where a lot of people get a feel for it, and discover whether or not this is something they like," he says. "And a lot of times they'll move on to a competition school or something more advanced."
But he counters the oft-lobbed criticism that learning to race leads to more reckless behavior on the city streets.
"Once somebody does this, they know driving on the track is way cooler than trying to race on the streets - not to mention a whole lot safer."
Saltzman agrees, adding that learning how to drive fast safely actually increases one's fear of all the freeway daredevils inadvertently doing little more than flaunting their ignorance of automotive physics.
"Your tolerance level for how other people drive goes way down," he explains. "I mean, after you try this, racing up the off ramp from the 101 to the 202 seems pretty stupid."