Student Drivers

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Apr 21, 2008 | Mazda | Posted in Shop Work | From the Aug. 2007 issue | Never miss an article

When you’re young, you have a lot on your mind. School, friends, sports, exams, glee club, and courting that prom date can take up a lot of time. As a result, any education involving cars or driving is often pushed to the back burner. That’s a shame, since auto accidents are the biggest killer of American teens, outpacing disease, suicide and everything else.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. A little experience behind the wheel—like learning how to recognize and avoid hazards—can pay huge dividends out on the open road. It can be the difference between becoming a sobering statistic and gracefully growing old.

That doesn’t mean all experience is equal, however. Although some people see safe street driving and involvement in motorsports as polar opposites, we strongly disagree. The lessons learned on an autocross course can quickly improve the skills needed to survive on the street. When you look at the basic actions involved, dodging a cone at an autocross and setting up for the next gate aren’t much different than quickly finding an escape route to avoid a distracted driver who just rolled through a stop sign.

So we set out to develop a course of study that would pay immediate dividends in terms of automotive life lessons. The U.S. Navy claims that the experience one gains in its service can accelerate a life, and we had a similar plan—although it didn’t involve ships or crisp, white uniforms. We wanted to put two young enthusiasts through a high-performance driving boot camp. In the end, would they see how lessons learned on track translated to the street?

Hot for Teacher

While it’s possible to learn by trial and error, following a knowledgeable professor can greatly shorten the learning process. It’s partly what separates man from the monkeys down at the zoo.

Our head instructor for the day would be GRM Tech Editor Per Schroeder. Per has been autocrossing at the national level for more than a decade, and before coming to the magazine he was an instructor for the Evolution Performance Driving School, one of the country’s most popular autocross schools.

Car setup assistance would be provided by Geoff Thompson. When he’s not spinning wrenches at Andre’s Auto, a full-service repair shop located in Ormond Beach, Fla., Geoff can be found track-side. He specializes in chassis setup on all kinds of cars, from IMSA GTP ground-pounders to Spec Miatas.

Roe Racing was our host for the day, and company owner Sean Roe ran the dyno for us. Sean started his professional motorsports career more than 20 years ago as a technician for Brumos Racing, and eventually moved into the driver’s seat. He has campaigned cars in IMSA and SCCA professional racing.

Our two students would be in good hands.

Homeroom Jitters

No matter how old you get, it’s hard to forget those first-day-of-school jitters as the mind wrestles with one question after another: Will the other kids like me? Will I be able to find my classroom? My “Donny & Marie” lunch box is still considered cool, right?

Our students were no different. “My biggest fear was that I’d look like a total idiot out there,” Kara admitted. “The worst-case scenario that kept going through my head was that I’d perform so poorly that my instructor would simply give up in exasperation. I know that very few women venture into autocrossing, and I didn’t want to be that stereotypical panicked female driver who just couldn’t handle it.”

Mitchell also entered the day with a little performance anxiety: “I would say that my greatest fear was not making much improvement throughout the day. I was also worried that my car was not adequately prepared.”

School Physicals

Before we could allow our two students onto the playing field, we had to make sure their mounts were ready for a strenuous day on the autocross course. We’d rather uncover any mechanical problems in a controlled environment than let them go unnoticed, only to show up during a run through the slalom. A trip across Roe Racing’s chassis dyno would be our equivalent of the “turn your head and cough” exam.

Both cars emerged with flying colors—and some nice horsepower numbers, too. Kara’s Mazda put down 93.77 horsepower at the rear wheels—not bad for a 200,000-mile, nearly bone-stock Miata—while Mitchell’s Focus posted 144.95 horsepower at the front wheels. Since the dyno runs didn’t uncover any hiccups, we could move to the next period.

Walking to Class

There’s an old saying that you need to learn to walk before you can run. Okay, so it’s a stupid saying we have all heard a million times, but it’s still ever so true. Before letting anyone turn a wheel in anger, Per walked our two students through our autocross course.

Our course was fairly simple to follow, although it featured a nice mix of technical turns and a few high-speed sections. The main goals here were reading the course, seeing the proper line and learning how to look ahead. “Emphasis should be placed on how the line affects speed, the proper level of aggression, and looking ahead,” Per explained.

Before hitting the field, our two students had to suit up. Thanks to Impact Racing, both Kara and Mitchell began their autocross careers properly attired in the company’s Velocity helmets. These open-face helmets meet Snell and FIA standards while allowing excellent visibility. They’re also priced well at an amateur-friendly $225 each—a very nice price for an American-made helmet.

Morning Warmups

After what had to feel like days of anticipation, finally the driving part of our boot camp could begin. Each student would take a couple of laps as a driver and a couple of laps as a passenger.

This exercise would accomplish several things. For one, it would get our students’ feet wet and hopefully banish their anxiety. These runs would also establish some baseline times for the day and allow Per to assess each car and driver.

Kara ran first, clicking off a pair of cautious laps in the 64-second range before performing a big spin on her third go. The wipeout helped to show her a few things, as the car didn’t blow up or flip over. It merely spun and came to a safe stop.

She giggled a lot the first time she spun the car, but the next run was much faster,” Per noted. “She had the basics down pretty well, but like most beginners was a little soft on the aggression side,” he continued. “She was afraid at first about bringing the car to the edge of adhesion and wasn’t familiar with what understeer and oversteer felt like.”

Per’s take-home message for Kara and other beginners: “A good autocrosser needs to get to the point where they are familiar with what the loss of adhesion feels like so that they can fix it.”

After a little instruction—mainly in the form of prodding to push the limits, especially when it came to braking—Kara’s times dropped into the 59-second bracket. “After I got those first few in, I thought you were going to have to drag me out of the car kicking and screaming at the end of the day,” Kara said. “I was totally hooked! I couldn’t wait to see how much better I could get.”

As for her car, it was okay, but definitely needed some new shoes. “This Miata, like most examples you see on the road, was a great car hampered by all-season tires that really don’t do the chassis justice,” Per explained. “Even the original Miata tires were eons better than most $50 tires you buy at your local tire shop.” (Per was able to hustle the car through the cones in about 54 seconds, by the way, showing how experience and skill still count for something.)

Once Kara had established a baseline, Mitchell was up. His times in his Focus quickly settled around 55 seconds. He had the aggression to properly attack the course, but he was making some errors, too. “He tended to take the car out of gear or put the clutch in while approaching a turn,” Per noted. “We also worked on some of his lines to get the car turned in and accelerating at the apex in a traditional late-apex form.”

Mitchell’s times also dropped after some instruction, as he gradually knocked a solid two seconds off his total. “After the first few runs, I was confident that I would make gradual improvements,” he explained. “I wanted to make sure that I applied Per’s advice as best as I could. After each run, I began setting individual goals in order to squeeze the best time and performance out of the car and myself. For example, in the beginning, I pushed myself to be more aggressive and, in the end, I wanted to focus on maintaining a good time while not running over any cones. Throughout the day, I also created problems that I had to find solutions to.”

The Focus was a little better on the tire front, but it, too, needed some better shoes for serious autocross work. Per still managed to knock off a few 51-second laps in it.

Shop Class

Since both of our cars needed help in the wheel and tire department, that’s where the work started. We wanted to put each student on fast-yet-civil tires—in other words, no R-compound tires, since these often sacrifice usable slip angle and daily manners for all-out grip. Edge Racing had perfect solutions for both vehicles.

The Focus received a set of 17x7-inch Enkei RSV wheels wrapped with ultrahigh-performance 205/45ZR17 Toyo Proxes T1R tires. The Enkeis check in at 17.5 pounds each, while the Proxes T1R has quickly become a favorite street tire among enthusiasts thanks to its capable manners, solid wet performance and wide range of sizes—available rim diameters start at 14 inches, a rarity these days for a tire so capable.

We went with 15x7-inch Sport Max 503 wheels and 205/50ZR15 Hankook Ventus R-S2 Z212 tires for the Miata. Each wheel weighs a respectable 14.5 pounds, and the tires seemed an ideal choice because this model was designed for street tire autocross competition.

Our wheels and tires all came mounted and balanced from Edge Racing. Want a similar setup? The SVT bundle retails for $1019, while the package we used on the Miata goes for an even more budget-friendly price of $659.

In addition to reshoeing each car, Geoff performed an alignment. No sense in running top-shelf tires if they’re not pointed in the right direction. The goal for both the Miata and Focus was to increase negative camber to help maximize front end grip while letting a little rear toe-in help rotate the back of the car.

The Miata received a full degree of negative camber up front—remember, its double A-arm suspension will add camber during cornering—along with 13/4 degrees of caster. Toe was set at zero. The rear alignment included 11/2 degrees of negative camber and 1/16 of an inch of total toe-in.

The Focus’s strut front suspension isn’t as adjustable and isn’t blessed with dynamic camber gain, but Geoff still managed to get 11/8 degrees of front negative camber and 15/8 degrees of rear negative camber. Front toe was set at zero, while the rear was put at 1/16 of an inch of total toe-in.

Before we could consider the work done, the Miata got one little bonus: a pair of Flyin’ Miata anti-roll bars to help keep the chassis flat. (Remember, we’re working with 17-year-old shocks here and needed a quick, inexpensive fix.)

Second Period

Once we had the cars upgraded and our drivers’ minds full of useful information, we could head back to the track for our second session.

Since both drivers coasted a lot, I tried to show them that the car should either be going as fast as possible forward, braking as hard as possible or cornering as hard as possible—or some combination where they are accelerating and cornering or braking and cornering where the tires are at their limits,” Per explained. “The point is that there should be no point where the car is coasting. If you need to brake, brake. Why coast up to a corner when you can accelerate to the last possible second and then brake as hard as the car will allow?”

Right off the bat, both drivers posted much better times in this session: Kara dropped from her earlier 59-second average into the mid-54s, while Mitchell shaved two seconds off his previous 54-second average. Not only were our students posting better times, but their confidence was up and they were starting to look like real drivers. A small bobble no longer became a major issue, as a little mid-corner correction kept the car on track and the time loss to a minimum.

Kara’s Miata had originally shown up on budget-minded, all-season rubber with a worn-out suspension and a wonky alignment, so the work in the pits really transformed it. “The car setup definitely helped, and the tires made a huge difference,” she noted.

Mitchell saw how the instruction allowed him to maximize the new tires and alignment: “The most helpful tool from the session was the instruction. Without Per’s advice, the car setup and tires would have still improved my time, but ultimately I would not have had the proper understanding of how they affected my driving.”

He also realized how looking ahead is paramount: “Instead of looking at the next gate, I need to consider the second and third and what’s beyond.” Looking ahead and maximizing the course—not reacting to it—are fundamental to strong lap times. This is just as true on the street, where looking ahead can uncover problems before they’re in the driver’s lap.

Report Cards

How well did our students come up to speed? “Very well,” Per said. “It’s amazing what an autocross will do to a driver’s confidence level and respect for physics. Both drivers were cutting some respectable times, despite their inexperience.”

The big responsibility, however, comes with realizing how to use these newfound powers for good and not evil. Ideally, our drivers would keep the racing on the track, yet realize that the knowledge gained there can help avoid problems on the street.

I urged them to keep their aggressive driving to just the track,” Per explained. “It’s pretty tempting to flash that newfound driving skill out in public where it’s unnecessary, illegal and downright dangerous. Sure, you’ll now know how to avoid that deer, but wouldn’t it be better to slow down and drive the speed limit so you don’t have to do a last-minute emergency maneuver?”

Sometimes a little maturity helps on the journey to wisdom, and our two drivers seemed to get it. “Well, I’m not going to go out there and start powering through my U-turns, but I’m definitely more confident about my daily driving,” Kara said a few days after our test session. “After you’ve spun out your own car several times, you can really appreciate what it can and cannot do. I feel I am more prepared in the event of an emergency situation. I also feel like my reflexes would be better in situations such as inclement weather.”

Mitchell also saw how the things he’d learned on the track would pay off during his daily travels: “The lessons helped me to be more comfortable with my car at the limits of acceleration, adhesion and braking. I am now more confident that I could evade an accident if I have to think quickly.”

Perhaps Mitchell’s mind state after leaving our test best proves our original point: “On my drive home, I also drove a little more gingerly than usual; not necessarily because I had a full load [of tires] in the back, but because I had already driven with gusto during the day. By getting my driving adrenaline out on the track, I think that it will make me less likely to drive with such enthusiasm out on the road.”

10 Top Reasons Why Young Adults Should Attend a Defensive Driving School

As a former professional driver, father of a current pro race driver, and new grandfather, I know the ropes regarding kids and cars. I put my son through Bondurant’s school when he first started driving. I will put my granddaughters through when they reach driving age—about 10 years from now. For starters, get onto the Driver’s Edge Web site and sign up for one of their free teen programs. If you want to go a step further, contact one of the pro schools. Do not wait until something bad happens. Do it now. Teen drivers without car control skill are at very high risk. Unsure that a teen driving school will actually help? Here are 10 good reasons to attend one.

10: It doesn’t have to cost much to participate. There is no charge to attend the Driver’s Edge one-day teen driving clinics. The Street Survival teen driving school costs a nominal $60 per student. Both programs offer participants car control education from real pro racers. Check out their national schedules at and (Corporate America, here are some programs that need your support.)

9: There’s more to driving instruction than just teaching someone which pedal does what, and Ricky Bobby is no longer available for precision driving lessons. He has moved on from the high banks of Talladega to the glorious world of pairs ice skating; that means you’ll need to find a real driving instructor.

8: The Bob Bondurant, Skip Barber, Jim Russell, Go 4 It and other performance driving schools offer driving programs tailored to teen drivers. Ask mom and dad if they will pop for one. They are a great deal and the lessons will last a lifetime.

7: After you graduate from an accredited teen driving program, feel free to ask your parents if you can take their good car to the homecoming dance. Hey, it could work once you have demonstrated competence and maturity behind the wheel.

6: If No. 7 above fails, show them that you have the maturity required to handle the family car. Become a spokesperson for driver safety and always practice what you preach.

5: Beautiful people dig Bimmers, Porsches and Lexuses. You dig beautiful people. Do whatever it takes to retain your rights to your parents’ car keys—and that means using what you learned at the teen driving course.

4: When picking up a new date, you will probably be grilled by their parental units. Produce a copy of your teen driving certificate and a small plastic vial. Offer to duck into the nearest bathroom and get them a specimen for a drug test. Then you are home free to talk about sports.

3: Once you have completed a teen driving course, you might not be comfortable riding with some of your buddies. That is a good thing. If your friend Bubba’s car has 427 cubic inches, but his I.Q. is barely a fifth of that, offer to be the designated driver from now on.

2: Here’s a sobering statistic: 20 young drivers—ages 16 to 20—are involved in a fatal collision every day. Traffic accidents are the number one killer of teens. It’s no laughing matter, but very true.

1: Most teen driving programs teach the same basic skills that are necessary to become a race driver. Good car control skills transfer over from the street to the track. You want an edge over the competition? Stop playing video games and get into the real world of precision driving. — tim sharp

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Mazda articles.
More like this
View comments on the GRM forums
10/21/08 9:31 p.m.

Stop playing video games? Gran Turismo's (the first 1 anyway) manual taught about late apexing, the friction circle and weight transfer!! To be good at Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsports, means u have a strong theoretical background as well as good hand eye coordination that can be easily transferred to the real world (especially if u have a good force feedback wheel)!!!

Our Preferred Partners