Getting On Track

Thompson Int'l Speedway

And now for something completely different! A story of a man, his car and a race track full of tight, twisty turns. The challenge? Drive as fast as you dare without spinning off into the weeds.

Technically, it’s a High Performance Driver Education event, or HPDE for short. It is not a race – there is no timing involved and no passing is allowed except in designated zones. And it is not an autocross where you skitter through a series of orange cones for a minute or two, only to go to the back of the line and wait a half hour for your next run.

An HPDE features an experienced instructor who sits next to you and talks you through the on-track experience, giving advice on when to brake, when to hit the gas, how to negotiate the turns properly and what gear to use. On-track sessions last 20 minutes, which means 12 -15 continuous laps at most locations.

It gets busy out there. Every turn has its own ideal line and it’s hard to remember everything you need to know to get each one just right every time. Plus you need to process the information your instructor is giving while being aware of any cars behind you waiting to pass. And don’t forget to look at the course workers waving various color flags at several points around the track.

Why would anyone do this? Quite simply, because it’s fun! Bearing down on a right angle turn at the end of a long straight going 95 miles an hour will definitely get your adrenaline pumping. Making the back end of the car slide a little helps you hustle through a turn. Getting it right is exhilarating. Getting it wrong and spinning off track in a cloud of dust is embarrassing.

I had a dashboard mount for my camera so I could record my adventures. In the first video, you will see I am quite tentative. No surprise there, since I had never driven this track before. Around the 10 minute mark, I actually lost control of the car approaching one of the tighter turns but managed to keep from spinning. Have a look for yourself.

As the day went on, I got smoother. Anyone who has any track experience  will tell you that smooth is fast. The quick way around is not going sideways through the corners with the tires howling and smoke pouring from the brakes. The fastest drivers are the ones who don’t look like they are trying hard at all.

Although no lap times are kept, at the beginning of the day I arrived at the 90 degree corner at the end of the only long straight travelling at 83 mph. By the end, my speed has risen to 96 mph. It doesn’t matter that the other cars on track were much faster. Most of them had twice the horsepower of my faithful Miata. What matters is that I found a way to be 13 mph faster by the time I was into my fourth on-track session. You may be able to see the difference in the second video I took.

Carolyn made it a point to visit with me during the day. She doesn’t have much interest in this stuff personally but wanted to support me in my on-track adventure. She was kind enough to say there were other drivers out there who looked even less skillful than I did. Thank you, my dear! It meant a lot to me that you were there.

The lessons you learn from doing stuff like this make anyone a better driver in normal conditions. You learn you can turn more sharply and brake much harder than you ever thought possible. You also learn how to control the car when it starts to get squirrely. That’s a skill that gives a driver the confidence needed to handle any emergency situation safely.

You don’t need a race car to get out on track. Any vehicle is OK as long as it is in good mechanical condition. Taking part in an HPDE event is a great way to learn how to be a better driver while having the most fun you’ve ever had behind the wheel.




About Steve Hanley

Totally enamored with my family, my grandkids, and seeing the world.
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