“You might want to check this out.” The e-mail, which arrived in my inbox a couple of days after I wrote a column about why novice trackday drivers should start with a front-wheel-drive car, included a link to a discussion in an online forum where people were arguing about the article. I learned a long time ago that both my blood pressure and my general stress level benefit greatly from not reading arguments on the Internet—but one of the comments chilled my blood when I saw it.
The commenter in question had some unusual ideas about how front-drive cars behave at the limit, and he made about 30 posts in one topic thread attempting to "explain" his ideas. I’ve put a few of those "explanations" together in paraphrased form below:
Front-drive cars are not easier to recover when they lose control ... In fact, they are often impossible to recover. When you are understeering (sliding the front wheels), there is nothing you can do outside of brake in a straight line—dropping throttle will just cause more understeer ... as will adding throttle or steering input … All you can do is steer into the corner, possibly brake if you are sure you won't have room, and then attempt a wider line on neutral throttle. If you lift throttle when a rear-drive car shows understeer, it will slow the vehicle slightly and tend to return some steering control ... but in a front-drive car you have the opposite effect. This is part of why so few people do well in rain or snow when driving. The same principles apply but at higher speeds on dry pavement.
In other words, this fellow thinks that reducing throttle when the front tires of a front-drive car are sliding causes the front end to slide more. He says that your best course is to brake in a straight line and then attempt to pick up a wider line afterwards. He then goes on to claim that lifting throttle in a FWD car will make the car go faster and remove steering control.
Alright, so he’s a crazy man on the Internet and I’m a crazier man for wasting time reading his arguments. Except. He also discloses that he has been coaching drivers off and on for 20 years at various racetracks. He also claims to have competed in a variety of events such as One Lap Of America. I looked the guy up, and if he’s lying about all of that, he’s certainly very good at creating supporting documentation.
The question then becomes: How many novice drivers learned car control tips from this fellow? How many of them had a seriously negative thing happen to them because they paid attention to him and tried to put his coaching into practice, the way all novice drivers are supposed to? How many people gave up on the idea of racing or even running further trackdays because they couldn’t satisfy this fellow’s wacky demands to handle mild understeer by straightening the wheel and engaging full ABS?
I know that some of you are probably chucking as you read this, but it’s not a laughing matter. I’ve seen the effect that low-quality instructors can have on novice students. The best case scenario is that the students waste some time and money before finding another coach. More often, however, they just give up and don’t come back. Once in a while, they crash, sometimes badly, with or without their misguided instructor riding shotgun.
A good coach, by contrast, can have the same kind of far-reaching effect that a competent and engaged high-school teacher can have on his or her students. Consider my first coach, a fellow named Brian Makse. Plenty of people know him from his insane YouTube racing video where he avoids a dozen spinning and rolling cars.
He was my driving instructor 15 years before he became Internet famous. Because he was a patient coach who explained his methods, I went on to become an instructor myself, and to teach hundreds of drivers, many of whom are now actively engaged in various levels of motorsports. Because he was the kind of coach who focused on results, I ended up racing in a variety of amateur and professional series, taking podiums everywhere from a local circle track to the NASA National Championships. And because he stressed the fundamentals of instructor safety, I became interested in that topic almost immediately, which led to numerous articles in this magazine. That, in turn, inspired some of the people who would go on to run the Motorsports Safety Foundation instructor-safety program.
If I’d gotten somebody like Mr. Brake To Avoid Understeer as my first coach, I probably would have almost immediately crashed my brand-new BMW 330i into a wall at Mosport, at which point I would have returned to disgracing myself as a less-than-competitive professional BMX racer. And then this weekly column would be written by Sam Smith instead of me. Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Too bad.
The truth of the matter is that I can’t blame that particular instructor for being dead-nuts wrong about how cars operate on a racetrack. Somebody should have set him straight a long time ago. He probably had a bad coach himself when he started, and absorbed faulty advice the same way we all tend to learn our bad habits from our parents. Over the years, there were probably plenty of opportunities for a fellow coach to evaluate his behavior. At the very least, some event’s chief instructor might have gotten wind of a problem in his ranks. The fact that nobody ever corrected his misconceptions is all the proof I need that we need proper instructor training and certification if our hobby is going to survive.
Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving
If you are just starting your career as a trackday driver, don’t be shy about getting the best instructor you can. Ask for a certified coach, whether that certification is from MSF or NASA or something else. Ask for your instructor’s resume, and try to talk to another one of his or her students if possible. If your event doesn’t give you the chance to do any of the above, then it is your responsibility to show up having read some preparatory material (such as ) ahead of time. That way you’ll have some ability to detect misinformation when it’s presented to you.
Last but not least, just in case you have your first trackday tomorrow: In the event that your FWD car experiences understeer, gradually dial back the throttle while making sure that you don’t turn the wheel any further. This is highly unlikely to cause more understeer. You can trust me on this. I read it on the Internet somewhere.