Fast & Furious Is Full Of It: 5 Racecar Driver Realities
Have you ever been sitting in traffic a few hours after watching a Fast & Furious movie and suddenly had the urge to just floor it? To go flying balls to the wall down residential streets, tires squealing around corners, daring the cops to catch you? Well, believe it or not, there are places you can go to get those urges out of your system. Race tracks will let people like you on the track -- in your own car, no less -- to work with an instructor who'll teach you how to drive like the proverbial bat out of Hell.
We talked to Jack McCauley, whose day job is teaching people like you how to drive a hundred miles an hour without killing themselves and everyone in the vicinity. He says ...
Yes, Hollywood Gets Everything Wrong
Before you show up at the track to get a lesson in dangerously fast driving from me, let's get this out of the way: Yes, everything Hollywood taught you about fast driving is wrong. And I mean they get everything wrong, often aggressively and with extreme prejudice. I understand why. The primary goal of the Fast & Furious movies is simply to look cool as all Hell. But pretty much everything you see Vin Diesel or Paul Walker do would be a mistake in real life.
Some moreso than others.
If you watch an actual fast driver, the first thing you notice is they often look deceptively slow. They're not drifting sideways, they're not sliding around, and their tires aren't squealing. It's like they're taking a leisurely cruise to Grandma's house and the background happens to be scrolling by really fast. Screeching tires are a sign that the limits of a car have been exceeded in a way that's wasting / misdirecting energy. So the next time you watch an action movie, listen for that and realize that all of these cool characters have no idea what they're doing.
The only reason to screech out of a gas station like that is if the pumps are on fire.
Then there's the gear shifting. If you shifted gears as frequently and as angrily as a movie character, I'd shudder to imagine the shape of your transmission. Having your hero grab the stick and slam it around is an easy way to show that he's angry and bent on vengeance, but in real life, you'd probably just crash, thanks to the amount of time you'd only have one hand on the wheel.
This GIF is longer than any of their races would be.
And while I hate to ruin this for you, there's a reason "drifting" (letting the rear tires slip all the way around corners) never caught on outside of Tokyo. It's a good skill to have, and it's certainly cool to watch, but it will slow you down more than driving through a swamp of molasses. Drifting is what you do to get a car that's gone out of control back into your hands. It's used to correct mistakes, but isn't something you'd ever want to do deliberately. Any cool shot of cars drifting around a corner is a bunch of racers fucking up together and desperately trying to fix it.
This would be like the Karate Kid and Johnny kicking themselves in the face repeatedly.
Pop culture doesn't always lie to you, though. Drafting -- the art of trailing behind another car to lower your air resistance -- is extremely important in certain kinds of races. That means Mario Kart is one of the most realistic teachers out there, although in real life, letting a monkey drive the car will get you disqualified from most races (and the ones that allow it really shouldn't).
You Take A Beating
If I had a dollar for every time someone joked that racing isn't a sport, I'd be able to buy an F1 car, shove doubters into it, and make them drive until they believed me (or until all the muscles in their arms seized up). First, there's the sheer physicality of it. Racers are on hot tracks, in hot cars, and in sweltering fireproof gear. You probably don't think of driving your car as a workout, because you've driven a car before and you didn't have to stop and guzzle Gatorade afterward. But if you race for just 90 minutes, you'll be spent.
"Little help? I ... I can't put my arm down."
The car you drove to work today has features like power steering which are designed specifically to give you a smooth ride with minimal effort. The roads you drove on were created with the same in mind. In a race, all of that is gone -- we're muscling cars around the track, fighting the laws of physics and a bunch of other drivers who may be crazier than we are. Our cars don't have things like power steering -- or at least, not like yours does -- because it prevents us from getting a good sense of the grip the tires have. We're constantly cranking the steering wheel, making quick adjustments while the wheel fights back.
So your arms get a workout, and so does your neck. Your head will always want to be tossed to one side thanks to the centrifugal force, and you can't let it if you want to see where you're going at 120 mph. At the end of a track day, I'm exhausted physically and mentally. In the documentary Senna, we watch a driver who has just won a race ask his father not to touch him because every part of his body aches. So it's a little more work than sitting down to play Forza.
The only reason you'd faint on your morning commute is if they raised the tolls overnight.
After all, have you ever seen a fat race car driver? There's no such thing, even though we sit for a living. Drivers have strict diet and exercise regimens for a very simple reason: Weight is the number-one enemy of a racing team, and if a team is trying to save five pounds by spending $10,000 to make the suspension thinner, well, can't you go on a diet instead? Seats are also sculpted specifically for the driver, so too many cheat days at McDonald's and you won't even fit anymore.
Right when Tony Stewart thought he was out, Ronald pulls him back in.
And if you're thinking of making a living out of this, I've got bad news: You're not going to make it. Your physical abilities peak at around 23, and the best in the world start training in karts when they're five. Of course, I'm all about people taking it up as a hobby -- that's my job, after all. But before you start, realize ...
All Of Your Instincts Will Work Against You
It's easy to assume that the big difference between race driving and regular old driving is that the former requires faster reaction times and less of a sense of self-preservation. What newcomers are always shocked to find out is that at certain speeds, physics start playing some very weird tricks on you. Regardless of how often you drive on the street, you will do literally everything wrong your first time on a track.
For example, let's say you're going into a corner too fast. Your first response would be to let off the gas and brake, right? That's a normal, natural reaction, and on a track will produce a spinout worse than if you had been nailed by a blue shell. What you should actually do is go a little faster. You still might not make it, but speeding up shifts the weight distribution of your car in a way that gives you that greatest chance of success.
Except in traffic court. Don't expect success there.
Oh, and you'll gain an appreciation for how incredibly forgiving your car is during your commute. Maybe your eyes will wander for a few seconds to glance at a billboard or something, and you still catch yourself with plenty of time to avoid those schoolchildren in the crosswalk. Well, that same lapse of concentration would be disastrous on a track, and to the schoolchildren inexplicably trying to cross it. You always want to be looking where you want to go. Always. And when you're going this fast, "Where you want to go" is quite a ways ahead on the track -- my mind's always a few turns ahead. New drivers take the track as it comes, which means they're waiting until the last moment to do anything. That's fine when you're trying not to miss the turnoff into Safeway. On a track, you're going to hit the wall.
Oh, and keep both hands on the wheel. It sounds obvious, but many new drivers keep one hand on the gear shift. You want to treat your stick like it's been sitting in the sun all day. Touch it just long enough to make a good, clean shift, and then get back to the same ten-and-two position you learned in driver's ed.
And speaking of student drivers ...
You Don't Need A Race Car To Learn This Stuff -- And It's Better Without One
So let's get into my specific line of work a bit. First, you'll be bringing your own car. If you're embarrassed that you'll be showing up in a 2005 Honda Civic instead of an Italian sports car, don't be. Not only will we welcome newbies driving lemons, but they are in fact preferable. Trying to start high-performance driving in a Ferrari is like trying to learn calculus before you've mastered arithmetic, if miscalculating a derivative could send you to a fiery death. Show up in a used Miata, easily the most underrated car in existence, and you'll learn far more than you would have if you spent two decades scrimping and saving to buy a Porsche.
You'll get far fewer "overcompensation" jokes flung your way, too.
I could beat that Porsche in a race with a rusted SUV. I'm not trying to brag; I simply have the experience. Your car is a tool, and the biggest thing you'll do wrong is not know how to use it. You may have been on the street with it a thousand times, but that's like going on a thousand first dates. Taking it on the track is a hardcore tantric sex marathon, followed by five hours of intimate conversation that will revitalize your flagging relationship.
One gentleman showed up to his lesson with a heavily modified Lamborghini. He wasn't looking for an instructor so much as a hype man -- all he wanted me to do was tell him that he was perfect in every way. I'll try to be polite and say only that he was doing more things wrong than right. Nothing bad happened, but it was a constant reminder that I was merely along for a 170 mph ride. At that speed, if anything bad happens, it's going to be quick and catastrophic. When you're seeing someone make the same mistakes as your other students, but at twice the speed, well ... no matter who you are, you're going to find God for a few moments.
Still, I want to reassure you that accidents are rare, and it's the advanced students who tend to suffer them. They're the ones pushing themselves. And that's good for you, because if you crash on the track, your insurance agent will probably react with the same disdain as when you tried to claim your Pogs as priceless family heirlooms. This is why my students happen to attend a "driver's safety course" instead of a "race school" -- a change in terminology can make all the difference to an insurance company. I still wouldn't look forward to having that conversation with them, though.
"I was racing here to come buy more insurance!"
Still, if you can avoid an accident, you might find your insurance rates improving off the track ...
You Can Use Race Techniques In Daily Life
While you'd think the guy zooming by you in a school zone spends his weekends racing, I've found that people who go to the track stop taking risks on the streets. I did some irresponsible street racing in my youth, but that wouldn't be fun anymore. You're too aware that it's not a question of if you'll hurt someone, but when. The track is safe and controlled, and it just feels better. So if you have a friend who takes your life into their hands every time you get into their car, take them to the track for your own sake.
Grandma can finally do her sick donuts in a safe place, and not the mall parking lot.
And even if you couldn't possibly care less about racing, you can learn techniques that will make you a safer street driver. No one truly understands what their car is capable of until they take it on the track. And that's bad news if you wind up in a situation on the streets where you have to test those limits.
For example, given the choice between taking a corner at more than 0.5g (that is, having more than half your weight pushed to the side) or slamming into a tree, most drivers will take the tree with the assumption that trying to turn that hard would send the car spinning out of control and into some even worse fate. On the track, you learn otherwise. I've lost count of the number of students I've taken into corners, asked for more steering, and after being told it was impossible, casually reached over and turned for them. With practice, you'll find yourself capable of making turns you never dreamed of. God forbid you ever need it, but if a kid runs in front of your car or giant robots start rampaging through the streets, you'll be prepared.
"Yeah yeah, whatever, assholes. I got a pizza to pick up."
Or let's say you swerve to avoid a collision and find yourself starting to spin out. You're taught to counter-steer, and that's accurate, but what you're not taught is to also add a little more gas. It's the same as the lesson earlier about going around turns: That acceleration shifts weight to the back of your car and straightens you out. But you have to recognize that you're in a spin quickly -- once your car has gone horizontal, you have to brake and ride it out. If that sounds complicated, it is ... unless you've done it a few times. That's the point.
So the best thing you can do to prevent accidents is learn to keep your head about you when the unexpected happens. People don't react the right away to skids and swerves because they don't have a lot of experience doing either, so they panic. Go out on a track and make those mistakes in a controlled environment. Learn what it feels like when your car gets a bit out of control. Learn what it takes to get it under control again. It's the most fun you'll have learning how to not die.
Jack instructs for Edge Addicts and is the co-founder of Petrol Lounge, a premium car storage and concierge service for people whose collections have outgrown their garage. Mark has a story collection and a website.
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Horrifying Things I Learned Drunk At Work As A Stunt Man and 5 Reasons Doing Movie Stunts Is Harder Than You Think.
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