By VJ Bolton
Back in April I had a car accident. Aside from being embarrassing, it became contentious at home. Over the last 20 years I’ve had 4 big accidents, this one being the fourth.
I talked about it with my car clubs and sought advice. Several people, including my husband, recommended getting a car with electronic “nannies.” One of the critical things I realized is that very little of what was covered in my original Driver’s Ed related to accident avoidance. I started to dig around looking for adult driver improvement education, and there was very little out there. Each racetrack seems to have a minor racing school and may offer some driving improvement classes, but they’re focused on earning a racing license first and foremost.
My brother-in-law is a car nut and lives with my sister in Scottsdale, Arizona. They had come up to Seattle for a weekend and my next car came up in conversation. I mentioned my desire to improve my driving skills first with a driving school. After some discussion, they decided that it would be a good thing to have all of us go, and made it a Christmas gift — an incredibly generous Christmas gift. Myself, my husband, my brother in law and their two boys were all on the roster. My sister took one for the team and stayed at home that day with my aunt.
By late July our Christmas plan was set, and my brother-in-law had booked us into a full-day Charger Hellcat High Performance Driving course at Bob Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, AZ.
The list of what to bring was short – athletic footwear or driving shoes, appropriate clothing for December in Phoenix, and a GoPro and helmet of your own if you have them.
The big day arrived and we drove down from my sister’s house in Scottsdale to arrive 30 minutes before our scheduled start time. We settled into the classroom and took over the entire front row. There were three other students in the class with us that day, including a family from New York that had come in just for the school.
In The Classroom
Our classroom instructor was Danny Bullock, the assistant chief instructor. He walked us through the basic theory of apexes and planning how to go through curves with a series of diagrams. After theory, we discussed the various exercises for the day.
The most important part of the instruction here was understanding the dynamics of car control. When you’re accelerating, the weight of the car shifts towards the rear tires and lightens the load on the front, creating a tendency to understeer. Under braking, the reverse is true, so you can feel the impact in the shifting weight of the car on your ability to control it. This was critical knowledge for our time on the skidpad later.
Following classroom time, we went out to meet our Hellcat Chargers – yellow for manuals and white for automatics (gasp!). They pair you with what you drive daily, so I was given an automatic.
Our instructors took us through the basics of setting the driving position: knees slightly bent, wheel gripped at 9 and 3 with roughly a 90 degree bend for your arms.
Last-Minute Lane Changes
Once we were comfortable in the cars, we went through the series of slalom cones with the instructors to show us how it should feel, with the weight of the car shifting depending on brake or throttle inputs. After a couple practice runs riding with the instructor, they put us into the Hellcats and had us run the slalom at various speeds, starting at 25 mph, then 30, 40, and finally 45. We did two additional runs at 45 once we got the hang of it – making sure to keep our eyes up and ahead. Proudly, all of my “cone puppies” survived, but my nephew murdered a few.
After the slalom, we moved on to accident avoidance. With a single lane set up to split into three, with lights, our first exercise was to dodge into whichever lane was clear, first at a lower speed and then again at 45 mph. After that, we moved on to hard braking, followed by hard braking + avoidance.
Our critical lesson here is that you can brake a LOT harder than you might think, and that even a very large vehicle can be stopped very rapidly. We were expected to accelerate toward the targets the same as earlier, and if ALL lights were red, brake hard and stop. If one was clear, we would dodge into that lane, also under full braking to show how a modern ABS-equipped car can still maneuver under hard braking.
Finally, it was time to combine all of the smaller exercises into a randomized exercise where we may have to dodge or stop but didn’t know which. I realized that dodging into the next lane while braking was probably a better idea than my futile attempt to stop short had been in my accident earlier in the year.
Staying In Control
After the avoidance exercises, we moved on to the handling loop. Our instructor in the #10 car, Tyler, drove us around the track for two laps – one at a slow speed to show where things were and one at speed. Each of us took to our own cars to practice, going around as fast as we felt we could trying to get more precise. We had Tyler ride along in each car to review our braking and turn-in points. Eventually it became more natural to look where the car is supposed to go, then adjust braking and throttle based on the signals in your peripheral vision. Look out the side window when you need to. Smoother. Slow in, fast out. Brake hard here, ease off, now roll onto the throttle gently and build to full throttle. Practice.
After the handling exercise, we moved on to autocross. We went through in rapid succession and were graded on our times dropping or getting worse. My brother-in-law did the best of our group, but the race aficionado in the other family won the time trial that day. The autocross was fairly standard, but with the Hellcat’s 707 horsepower available, you needed to choose throttle application wisely. Power oversteer was readily available.
Getting Loose, And Recovering
After lunch, we moved on to the skidpad in the “caster cars” – and this was easily the most important lesson of the day. The school had Chargers outfitted with casters at all four corners to counteract the normal balance of the car and allow them to induce understeer or oversteer at will. The objective was to do a figure-eight around the skidpad, apexing across the top of two cones and then targeting the far side of the 8 and repeating. Our instructor showed us how, then we did a few turns with the neutral setting of the Charger.
Following the practice runs, we worked on inducing understeer and recovering the skid, something completely expected in most passenger cars: dab the brake just a little to shift weight onto the steering wheels and increase the contact patch slightly, and look where you want to go. Muscle memory would adjust the steering inputs so you would straighten out the skid and then go towards the destination cone. If you looked at the close cone the impact was immediate, because there wasn’t enough time for your body to sort everything out and you continued to skid until facing the wrong way instead of a gentle recovery. A couple rounds of understeer, and then it was time to face the monster of oversteer.
Now the rules were reversed. A little power to shift the weight backwards onto the driven wheels, making their contact patch larger, and now they catch. Not too much or they’ll keep slipping and you won’t be able to recover. Practice the gentlest feathering of the throttle and look where you want to go, to avoid a lurid powerslide into the tire barrier. A couple more times around, now with a random selection of over- or understeer depending on the instructor’s whim.
Post-skidpad, it was time for the “big track.” It had a decent amount of height variation and a variety of corners to keep things interesting. We followed our instructors in our cars and tried to keep up. The closer we could follow, the faster we could get. The lead-follow exercise is a great way to learn about dynamics, because you can get a feel for the racing line in a way that you can’t otherwise experience. The instructor’s balance shows you where to go for your corner. Brake about here, smooth, get on the throttle now, clip that curb but don’t clip that one. All too soon, the laps were over and we headed back to the building.
While we did our laps, their local photographer, Clutch Photos, had come out and captured our experience. They had a few photo packages available and they turned out great. They’ll even do an awesome poster if you want to spend the cash.
We talked about the experience on the drive home and realized the skid pad, looking 7-8 car lengths ahead, and the avoidance maneuvers would immediately help on the street. Apexing was exciting, because it showed the physics of how weight shifts and what the car can do, which gives a sense of what your choices are when making that split-second accident avoidance decision. I definitely came away from the school as a better driver, more able to make the right call when I need to.