Speed Secrets: From HPDE to Racing

By Ross Bentley

September 13, 2016

Moving from High Performance Driving Education (HPDE) events or lapping days to racing is, well, exhilarating! I personally believe that it was one of the best things I ever did to embrace my passion for driving and for self-development. This is a follow up from last week’s article from another racer's point of view. 

I look back fondly now at the experience of moving into racing but, man, was it tough!

The transition from HPDE driver to racer is dramatic. In many sports there is a graduation of experience and discipline, giving the participant an ever-progressive experience that gets harder and tougher over time. While racing does have that gradual progression, the step up from lapping to racing is huge. It’s an adrenaline-pumping, anxiety-producing, nerve-racking experience that leaves most wanting more but with an almost sadistic desire for being frightened and humbled all at the same time!

Picture the scene. I’m driving around in my Porsche Cayman at Pacific Raceways, just outside Seattle, when the chief instructor of the local racing school (ProFormance Racing School) says “have a few laps in that PRO3 car, James.” I jump into a twenty-year-old BMW E30, stripped out and race-prepared, and I drove out on track not knowing what to expect. The lightness of the car gives a perception of rapid acceleration and the stripped-out interior, low seat, and huge tachometer makes me feel like I’m Michael Schumacher reborn in a real race car (which it was). I was awful in the car. Slow, awkward and putting so little cornering pressure that the tires don’t warm up and the suspension doesn’t work, so the car feels disconnected and I’m a passenger in this vehicle rather than the driver. At that point, the question was asked: "Is this for me?"

Needless to say, the answer was yes. I loved it, but my unconscious incompetence had no idea just how bad I was.

So, I enrolled in a racing class. Not a driving or lapping class, but a racing class with the goal to get my novice racing license. From the get-go, the instructor I had (a good friend of mine, Ted Anthony Jr.) pushed me harder than I’d ever driven before. Unlike lapping days in a comfortable Porsche where finding the limit meant impending doom, the Chevrolet Cobalt we buzzed around in moved around a lot, as we braked later, accelerated sooner, and carried speed through corners previously unheard of by a lapping driver. When a lapping HPDE driver says they’ve experienced a car moving around under them (understeer, oversteer, slip or drift) let me tell you, I don’t think they know quite what they mean. I didn’t and I lapped for years feeling mighty as I passed slower lappers in faster cars as I got more experienced. I might have been the exception more than the rule (only the driver will ever really know) but I was shocked, I was frightened and, above all, I was excited.  

With novice license in hand and a rented PRO3 E30, I headed out to Portland International Raceway for my first novice race weekend. I’m scared, I’m anxious and after about five visits to the restroom, my first session was up. First lap, OK, others are in the same boat as me, not as bad as I thought, second lap it pours with rain. Luckily I was on treaded tires (vs. slicks) but the car slid around under braking (no ABS) and in corners, and I was so consumed by what I didn’t know, I wasn’t having fun. Again, I questioned what I was doing. The transition from HPDE to racing was steep and I was in the middle of it. Pass anywhere, drive as fast as the car could go, rain, full race gear and an unfamiliar track. Madness.

Herein lies the most important aspect for me (and I’m sure many) of racing. I’d progressed from lapping and driving fast to really a journey of pushing myself and developing a skill set that I had no idea about. Racing at that point wasn’t about speed or exhilaration, it was about survival and pushing myself past the point of comfort. After all, racing is about being comfortable with being uncomfortable, right?

So, after three novice races and building up a little confidence, I entered my first actual race. Side-by-side with experienced ‘senior’ drivers who were so comfortable with their cars and fellow racers that their thrill was in the racing; the offense or defense of position handled with little thought as to what the car was doing, no matter how unruly it was being.

Lap 1, corner 2, I got hit. I got HIT! Nightmare, my race was over. Or was it? Turns out it didn't need to be, but the anxiety of a being bumped made my inexperience tell me that the car was broken and needed repair. After a pep talk from my coach (and owner of the car), I went back out... ten minutes in, faster cars approach at speed to lap me. Wow! That’s all I can say to that as they take no prisoners, passing me like I’m standing still. Another moment of reflection and anxiety. Should I be doing this? Push, push, I told myself and survived.

Things got easier. Here are the biggest things I can pass on to a driver who is contemplating the move from HPDE to racer.

               You will immediately feel like you have no idea how to drive. Truth is, you most likely don’t. But don’t despair; driving fast and racing aren’t the same. Know this and know it's going to test your resolve.

               Race cars aren’t comfortable. They rattle and clank and unless you use them how they were designed, they will be unforgiving beasts that will want to punish you. Rest assured that they day you move from being a passenger, scared of what the car will do, to taming the beast and making it do what you want it to will be one of the biggest moments of your racing career. Now you can focus on racing and not what they car is doing unless you make it do something. Instructors tell you all the time “make the car do something” but it takes more than you think to do this consciously!

               You’ll learn what will happen if you outbrake yourself or go to gas too soon or take a corner flat that you shouldn’t and what’s more, you won’t care. You will develop a car control skill set that will see you relish these scenarios as you’ll figure out how fast ‘fast’ really is in certain places on track.

               Racing is a new skill set on so many levels in relation to actual driving. A racer needs to know about the car, car setup, the track, perfect race line, alternative race lines, tires to use, weight management and more. Master these and you’ll be well on your way to finishing on the podium.

               School lines at tracks are exactly that, a school line. They aren’t always the racing line, so learn which works for the track. Talk to locals and racers. They’ll know. Interestingly, the school line is often the right line for racers too!

               Racecraft is an experience thing. You don’t get it overnight. You can be aware and safe - that’s quick to pick up (as it should be) - but knowing how to race against others, knowing their weaknesses, knowing your own, attacking, defending, managing the car while doing so, is something you will develop over time. Don’t rush it.

               You’ll question why you race if things don’t improve all of the time. In racing, typically progress comes in waves or steps. Like finally executing the perfect golf swing, the day you go flat through a corner you have hated for a long time will be a moment to remember. Don’t chase that progression, but always look for self-mprovement. It will come. Don’t be complacent, thinking it will come naturally. You’ll have to work at it, but don’t get too frustrated, as it might take some time.

               You’ll never be satisfied by HPDE days again. You’ll be itching to pass where you want, you’ll be frustrated with how slow other drivers are, but your bank balance will long for the HPDE entry fees being your racing expense!

               There will always be anxiety, you will always have parts of a track you fear a little, and you’ll never get comfortable because racing isn't about speed. It’s about competing and you can’t predict the outcome of every race lap, corner, or event.

I adore racing. It came from a love of HPDEs which came from a love of driving. I’m always learning, I’m always looking for improvement, and I’m always looking for ways to go faster, to race better, to develop my car differently and to compete better. It will never end, but if you like seeing tangible results, get that novice license, get scared, get frustrated, and get hooked!

- James Colborn

Web: www.jamescolborn.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/james.colborn

Twitter:  @jamescolborn