Jim Russell (SimRaceway Performance Driving Center) – Highway Survival Course

Tragically, in the United States many teens in their first few years of driving become a statistic—either in terms of accident rates or fatalities on the road. Just because a driver can pass a written test and park a car doesn’t automatically mean they are fully capable of controlling a 3,000lb chunk of metal hustling down the freeway at 65mph (or faster). Thankfully, there are teen driving programs popping up across the country dedicated to keeping our young ones safe, and ultimately instill in them smart driving habits.

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The Jim Russell School (now becoming SimRaceway Performance Driving Center), with its robust history and outstanding lineup up of experienced coaches, not only teaches people how to race cars, but also offers a Highway Survival Course (HSC) specifically designed to help people become safer, more efficient drivers on the street.

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The HSC is a carefully orchestrated day-long program. Naturally, I was rather enthused to be a part of the experience as a new instructor. In this article I will discuss some of the key lessons and exercises that make up the HSC, instructor-inspired anecdotes that illustrate the importance of this program, and why it should be a part of basic driver education.


The Fleet

Utilizing the Mitsubishi line of vehicles, including the Lancer and Outlander, the program educates drivers (of all ages, not just teens) about the realities of road driving. It will instill a system that will make drivers significantly safer and more efficient on the road. It will enable them to navigate various road situations effectively, all while optimizing their fuel economy and decrease vehicle wear/tear.


Preparing to Drive

First and foremost, the program brings emphasis on being safe. How does one be safer on the street? One aspect of safe driving involves anticipation. By gaining a sense of how to “anticipate,” a driver can react to a variety of circumstances in an efficient manner. By scanning the road and maintaining constant awareness of everything around you, plus an understanding of vehicle dynamics, you’ll be far better off than the majority of people holding a drivers license in the United States.

The HSC provides an excellent foundation to becoming a good driver. Each instructor is dedicated to instilling “good driver habits,” eliminating negative tendencies behind the wheel on the spot. We begin with the most fundamental basics, such as seating position in the car.  As instructors we have to demonstrate that even something this rudimentary can and will affect safety and efficiency.

As silly as it may sound to the everyday driver, racers know different. How you sit in a car ultimately affects the way you control it. From the reach of the pedals and the steering wheel, to the range of motion and relational distance of our bodies to the wheel, all have an effect on how immediate and precise you can be with your inputs.

Most people don’t think about adjusting their seat to drive, they adjust it to whatever is most comfortable. Consequently, many people configure the car to the Lay-Z-Boy chair mode, reclined 110-degrees backward with one wrist resting on the wheel. Or perhaps not as extreme, people simply sit too far back to have optimum control over the vehicle.

This is where steering technique comes into play. Quite a few driving manuals often press for hand position to rest at 10 and 2. Over half the students instinctively took over the wheel leaning forward with a high grip. Look at the vast majority of steering wheels on modern cars today and you’ll find that the controls on the wheel (including paddle shifters) are specifically designed for your hands to rest at 9 and 3.  I don’t think this is a mistake. With our hands on equal sides of the wheel we can easily get over 180-degrees of steering without releasing our hands. Now unless you are a Drifter or Rally Car racer, hand-over-hand really won’t be something you’ll need (unless you are navigating a parking lot). Many racers drive with a 9 and 3 position—we always like to know where top-center is, and we get the best range of motion. It’s no less important in a street car.

I think it’s safe to say that much of good street driving principles can be derived from techniques used on a race track. Students were excited to be at a REAL race track (while not driving ON track, they were nonetheless in the facility) and had the chance to drive some decently quick cars adorned with vinyl stickers and shiny wheels. Contrary to traditional driving schools, they did not expect to learn about driving lines and vehicle balance—and it’s the term “balance” that becomes emphasized throughout the course.


Vehicle Balance

Without some experience in a high-performance driving environment, most drivers do not know how much steering and throttle can be used together. In many cases where an urgent correction is needed an excess of both is applied. This can be a recipe for disaster for new drivers on the freeway traveling at relatively high speeds, and then are forced to make a sudden decision to avoid a crash. 

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Physics and grip limitations dictate what we can and cannot do in a car—simply put, you can’t take a U-turn at 100mph and experience 50-g’s without some sort of problem. New drivers often fail to recognize that the amount of steering is relative to how much speed you can carry without loosing control. If an everyday driver on the street induces a slide, there is a high probability that a crash will occur. New drivers tend to steer at a radius that is only physically possible at 30mph, but insist on traveling at 50pmh. At this rate the car has no other option but to start sliding (understeer). When people realize the car is going straight (off track or off road) their first reaction is often the worst reaction… to steer even MORE.

Because of these tendencies, we ask students to think about how much space they actually need to miss something. Say for example, if something fell into the road and you’re traveling at 50mph straight for it, what do you do? Hit the brake and swerve? A lot of people panic and over-correct. Our goal as instructors is to train students how to drive a good line—utilizing the width of their lane and the radius of a given corner or area, ultimately making it habit. As race drivers do on the track, the idea is to steer the least amount possible, encouraging smooth, less abrupt inputs. Aside from developing good driver habits, you also use up less tire, travel more comfortably, and you’ll be doing less work.

Scenarios like the ones I described here can all be brought back to what is termed… you guessed it… “vehicle balance.”  There is balance moving the car side to side, and front to back. Our steering affects the former, with the gas and brake effecting the latter.  I am amazed that this is not covered in general driving tests to obtain a license, as it is one of the most significant relational forces that effects steering and control over the entire vehicle. 


Skid Circle - Understeer vs. Oversteer
We explain to students that with acceleration and deceleration, we can load and unload either end of the car. True, this is racing-101 for many of you who might be reading this, but for many young/new drivers it is a relatively unfamiliar concept (read my blog “Student vs Teacher” ). To explain this aspect of car balance we can break it down simply as follows:

Load = Grip

Simple, yet critical. The hard part for new drivers is learning when to transfer the load (aka grip) to the front or rear at a given instance. Under an extreme braking threshold, we can only ask the front tires to carry a certain percentage of the overall max weight of the vehicle, and consequently we have almost zero weight in the rear. Likewise, when we get on the throttle we encourage more load to be transferred to the rear of the car. While there are all sorts of discrepancies between vehicle makes, engine placement, and tire tread rating, etc., these principles generally remain the same.  To demystify this equation and make this entire ramble make practical sense, students were able to experience what load transfer actually feels like first hand… on the skid pad!

Bringing us back to the principles of understeer, students more often than not will want to steer more because the car isn’t turning. Or put another way, the limits of the tires are beyond what they can do. Not only do we want students to know how to compensate for understeer, but also encourage them to realize the importance of car balance. In the case of understeer, it would be a matter of easing off the gas, bringing more grip to the front.

The Skid Circle was a perfect place to demonstrate the relationship between steering and throttle. With one cone in the center of large ring of cones, students were asked to drive in a constant circle, look ahead through the side window(s), with a certain percentage of fixed steering input, using only throttle to control car placement. Going around in circles like this is not for people with weak stomachs. However, for the students they are forced to break reactionary habits of steering too much for the amount of throttle given, and ultimately learn throttle modulation skills.

Most cars straight from the manufacturer will be setup for understeer and will push before it begins to oversteer. The Skid Circle exercise not only demonstrates what it’s like to exceed the grip of the front tires encouraging a constant push, (with more throttle the car plows wider and wider around the circle), it teaches students to look further ahead and plan what they can and cannot do.

Being ahead of the car is beneficial for planning and driver inputs—one of many principles to live by on the race track. Situations can transpire so fast, good drivers know you have to be constantly aware of what is around you. The further ahead you look, the sooner you can make adjustments to your inputs, and the smaller the adjustment has to be.

After a few passes, students are asked to drive within 1-foot of the outer cones, creating a wider radius of turning. Small adjustments along the way (accelerate to encourage push, lift to encourage turn-in) helping them maintain a relatively high average speed. This teaches students about the limitations of tire grip, and how to resist the temptation to turn harder with the first instance of understeer. And of course, as instructors we want to discourage any instances of too much understeer… where the tires are begin to bark and beg for forgiveness!


Straight Line braking
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Many new drivers never experience ABS systems in a car before an incident on the road. This exercise invites the use of the brake pedal, and a lot of it. Students are enabled to drive full-throttle along a predetermined path, then are instructed to apply full brake pressure at certain markers each pass. Students have the opportunity to work on their driving lines, car control while braking, and practice transferring their foot from the throttle to the bake, as quickly as possible.


Low-Speed Lane Change

Starting each student at 25mph, we gradually build them up to speed. With one car on course at a time, students work on keeping the throttle balanced while always looking a head. As students make their way down a single lane, they are quickly directed via radio to change lanes and come to a complete stop. This is a simple yet necessary exercise to warm-up students for the high-speed lane change exercise.


High-Speed Lane Change

In addition to building student confidence and helping them drive faster on the course, they also learn how to balance the car at speed. Because slamming on the brakes doesn’t always save you from hitting something, being able to maneuver the car around an obstacle is critical skill. In this exercise, we help students understand how to swerve the car while staying on the gas.

As stated earlier, in many cases where people combine throttle and steering they induce the car to slide. However, taking a proper line through a corner without excessive input a driver can keep the car under control, all while bettering your chances of missing said obstacle. As simple as this may sound, it’s imperative that drivers continuously plan as they drive—expect to be cut off, learn to manage traffic, and compromise as others merge on the freeway at a variant speed. If everyone did this, many common accidents could be avoided. Practicing good driving habits while staying keenly aware of your surroundings, a driver can better understand on-road behavior, and predict situations long before they happen.

Many people are in the habit of finding maximum brake pressure just before entering a corner or coming to a stop.  When we drive on a race track, we want people to apply more initial brake then release it, balancing the car through the center of the corner and apply power on corner-exit. Experienced drivers know that this technique works best when a car is driven at the limit. With each pass though the course, students exhibited much improvement in not only how they changed lanes (randomly right or left), but how they managed speed while changing lanes.

As instructors we emphasize the importance of being smooth. The tricky part is teaching each student how to do this in ways that makes sense to them, so it’s natural and not mechanical. Plus, contrary to what people think about driving on a race track, it’s not all about being aggressive. Likewise, the same principles apply when driving on the street. Not only does smooth driving keep your passengers from being bobble-heads inside the car, it can help other drivers around you make better decisions as well.


Slalom Course

Much like the driver introduction for the Audi Sportscar Experience, in the slalom course HSC students are able to work on both driving lines and car balance—minimizing their steering input, aligning the car properly for the apexes, all while carrying a smooth, balanced throttle and gradually increasing their minimum speed. It is amazing to me how many students begin to exhibit a fair amount of car control during this exercise. Considering how little experience they have behind the wheel, it’s exciting to see such marked improvements.


Distracted / Undistracted Driver Challenge

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Quite possibly my favorite exercise of the day, is the Distracted Driver Challenge. At very slow speeds students are sent through a maze of cones; 90-degree angle turns, a skid circle, slalom, and carousel turn, all much like an autocross course.  Timed and points assessed (to add fun-factor), students are able to compare their times being “distracted” in the car vs. “undistracted.”

Hitting a Cone – 2 Second Penalty Per Cone
Missing Turns / Cutting the Course – 2 Second Penalty Per Cone
Overshoot Course – 5 Second Penalty

Instructors participate by riding along right-seat with each driver, distracting them with basic conversation, random questions, rolling windows up and down, asking them to find/open the glove boxes, or turn on the emergency flashers—all while they navigate the course.

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Students discover the grim reality of how simple distractions in the car effect driver cognition, decision making, and accuracy behind the wheel. This clearly correlates to what could happen on the street—and none of it’s positive. Instead of hitting cones, it could be a small child, another car, or fixed objects alongside the road. This is not to say that we cannot talk to someone or enjoy music in the car.However,  I am saying that driving should never be second priority.


Investment in the Driver
As I’m sure you can gather by now, the HSC program helps build driver confidence and knowhow by encouraging students to make good decisions behind the wheel. We expose them to controlled, extreme circumstances, then ask students to utilize the knowledge we shared with them in real-time situations. A car is a fairly consistent tool; the driver however is much less so. It’s the task of the instructor to demystify the vehicle, help students develop a better sense of what a car can and cannot do, all while making it fun and understandable. From the basics of car balance, thresholds of grip, throttle and steering management, driving lines, to anticipating on-road situations—students will leave the HSC program with an excellent foundation to become better drivers for life.

Invest in what is still the single best safety feature of any vehicle … the driver.

For more information visit Jim Russell online at http://www.jimrussellusa.com and the SimRaceway Performance Driving Center website at http://www.simraceway.com.

Posted on 08/31

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