Why Your First Trackday Car Should Be FWD

Don't get a 911. Get a Civic.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Last month, on what can only be described as a completely idiotic whim, I bought a lightly-used Pirelli World Challenge race car. My plan is to run it in WC later on this year, but in the meantime it seemed like a good idea to enter it in a couple of club races right away so I could get an idea of what both the car and I need to do in order to be even vaguely competitive. So I signed up for the NASA Great Lakes race at NCM Motorsports Park just ten days before the event.

Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the Galaxy, so in order to prevent any of that I’ll tell you right up front that I had a great time in the race and was able to win by a twenty-one-second margin. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to discuss what I learned from watching the open-trackday sessions between my races.

NASA’s driver-education program is called HPDE. I’ve never actually driven in a NASA HPDE session myself. Nor have I ridden right seat in one, even though I’m also a certified NASA instructor. So when my wife, the infamous Danger Girl, announced her intention to participate in my race weekend as an HPDE student, I figured I would tag along and maybe learn something from watching the process.

Mrs. Baruth is a licensed SCCA racer who has taken the checkered flag in both SCCA and AER enduros, but she’s also the kind of person who believes in not taking shortcuts. She’s never driven with NASA before, so she signed up for HPDE 1 with her ex-Skip-Barber 2014 MX-5 Club. It turned out to be a solid decision, because she had the chance to work with two very highly qualified instructors, both of whom have considerable experience racing Miatas.

The weather on Saturday was monsoon-like, featuring sweeping sheets of heavy rain and temperatures in the low forties. As I expected, Danger Girl was considerably quicker than the vast majority of her fellow students. More interesting than that was the major gap in pace between the students in FWD cars and their RWD counterparts.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

“Well, duh,” I can hear you saying. “Everybody knows that FWD is faster in the rain.” Do you know why, though? There are two separate reasons. The first is that applying too much throttle in low-traction conditions results in understeer with an FWD car and oversteer in an RWD car. Most novice drivers are considerably better-equipped to recover from the former, particularly when it happens at 50mph or above. That would be the case with any kind of front-drive car, even one where you had the engine in the back and a driveshaft heading up front.

The vast majority of FWD cars, however, also have their engine ahead of the front wheels. That engine acts like the paperclip that we used to put on homemade paper airplanes in my childhood, or like a heavy broadhead on an arrow. It puts the inertia up front, so the default behavior of the car is to go straight. Furthermore, the fact that the engine is as far away as possible from the longitudinal center of the car increases the polar moment of that inertia. Think of an ice skater who starts a spin. If she keeps her arms out, she will spin slowly; that’s your FWD car with the motor perched out front. If she hugs her arms close, she will spin quickly; that’s your mid-engined car.

So a front-engined, front-wheel-drive car is slow to spin, because the polar moment of inertia is high, and it is easy to recover, because like a paper airplane with a clip on its nose it really “wants” to go straight. It also understeers in low-traction conditions because it’s the front wheels spinning, not the rear wheels. None of this is good news if you’re racing an FWD car against RWD cars, the way that, for example, somebody stupid enough to race a Honda Accord against a bunch of Honda S2000 roadsters would be. On the street, however, where safety is more important than raw “lap time,” front-wheel-drive makes a solid case for itself.

That much you probably know, even if you didn’t know exactly why. What I want to suggest, however, is that FWD is also better for novice trackday students. By “better,” I mean both safer and faster. I’ll explain.

It all comes down to bandwidth. Not computer bandwidth, but mental bandwidth. Human beings are not good at multi-tasking. We might be able to walk and chew gum, but we can’t walk, chew gum, repeat a song that we’ve just heard, and compose a poem on an iPad all at the same time. In fact, it’s generally accepted that people can only really do one new thing at any given moment. As an amateur musician, I experience this on a frequent basis, particularly on songs where I have to play bass and sing simultaneously. The only way I can get it done is to learn the bass part until it’s second nature, at which point I can start learning the words to the song. I cannot sight-read two parts at once.

The novice trackday driver has a lot to learn during his first few days on a road course. He (or she) has to learn the layout of the track, which may include blind corners or deliberately deceptive features. He has to remember the location of the flag stations and also remember to check each station as he goes by. He has to learn to manage traffic, passing cars and being passed at speeds that can occasionally reach 150mph even in novice sessions. He has to learn to pay attention to the condition of his brakes, the sound of his tires, and the mechanical condition of his car via temperature, oil, and fuel gauges.

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Dodge

That’s a lot of stuff to learn at once. In fact, it’s impossible to learn it all at once. So our brains economize. We forget the flag towers–it’s very common for novice drivers to “not see” a checkered flag, a yellow flag, or even a whole track’s worth of flaggers pointing and waving at them. We stop looking in our rearview mirror, or we look in the mirror constantly and run off track doing it. We let our cars overheat or run out of fuel during the session. It’s amazing how little bandwidth we really have to handle all these unfamiliar demands at once.

Given all of the above, it seems absolutely obvious that the car we’re driving during our novice sessions should intrude as little as possible on the experience. Don’t get me wrong–you’re absolutely free to show up for HPDE 1 in your handbuilt Cobra replica with its 600 horsepower and its light-switch throttle and its row of nervously quivering gauges, but it will cost you time and effort to do so. While you’re dealing with your machine, the driver in the DSG-equipped Golf GTI is going to lap you.

This was on my mind as I watched Danger Girl’s sessions. I watched the people in the FWD econoboxes make solid progress on that rainy Saturday, and I watched the people with high-power RWD sports cars suffer. Ah, but Sunday was dry and warm(er). Surely that turned the tables, right?

Not like you’d think. It was a parade of Civics lapping Porsches out there. There were a few people out there in Eighties sports cars who were particularly struggling, to the point that they had to be chastised about not being aware of their fellow drivers behind them. Danger Girl was making great time in her Miata, but she has hundreds of racetrack laps in a Miata under her belt. There’s no learning curve for her with that car any more. The genuine novice drivers weren’t so lucky.

In the classroom session on Sunday, a driver stood up to talk to the class and his instructor. He’d brought a $70,000 sports car to this event, a purist-approved German thoroughbred, the kind of car you associate with very cocky people. Yet the tone of his voice as he addressed the class was anything but cocky.

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Dodge

“I don’t think this is for me,” he said. “I have to drive this car home and I don’t like what’s happening out there.” It was clear that he was confident in his ability to operate his very rapid vehicle on the street. In his novice weekend, however, all of the things that made his car a “great track car”–high power, manual shift, mid-engined drivetrain–were actually working against him.

Danger Girl didn’t share this episode with me until we were having dinner on the way home, which was a shame. I know what I would have said to him, had I been there. I would have told him to simplify his task and cut the stakes. Instead of a $70,000 daily-driven wonder-wagon, I’d tell him to get a $5,000 FWD compact car out of the Craigslist classifieds. Spend another two grand putting tires and brakes on it. Then come back out to the track secure in the knowledge that the car won’t surprise him and that the maximum consequence for any mistakes wouldn’t be much more than a couple months’ worth of payments on his “real” car.

After five or six weekends in the Corolla or Civic or whatever, he would have committed most of the trackday routine to memory. Then he could bring out his sports car, knowing that the only “new” thing to learn that weekend would be the handling and power characteristics of that car. In the long run, he’d be better off for having done so. They say that “it’s better to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow,” but maybe what they should say is that it’s also better to drive a slow car slowly than it is to drive a fast car slowly. I don’t know. Maybe he’s doing himself a favor by giving up now. After all, this trackday hobby is hard to start, but once you get over those initial hurdles it’s even harder to quit. Just when you think you’re out… it will pull you back in.

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