What was it, 10, 20 years since you took a driver’s education class? You passed your exam, got your license and school’s been out ever since. Shame. You could use a little help behind the wheel.
Learn to be smoother, to pay more attention and look further up the road than you’re accustomed. Find out what to do when you hit ice and your car slides toward the embankment. (Answer: Turn into the skid, then counter-correct -- quickly! -- and repeat, if necessary, until the fish-tailing is under control.)
The only way to learn is practice, in a closed-off, safe place. Because when it happens in the real world, it’s too late.
Sorry to lecture, but I’ve just spent hours on a Catskills racetrack coated in snow and ice, and I got my butt handed to me.
Every one of my bad habits was magnified in these slippery conditions. Coming off the brake too abruptly, usually not a big deal, resulted in unwanted trajectories toward tire walls and metal barricades.
And I do this for a living.
It’s time to go back to school. There are courses around the world that will teach even seasoned drivers better car control techniques, for daily use on regular roads. Unlike school days of yore, you can have the time of your life, piloting Cadillacs, Lamborghinis and Porsches, often on world-famous racetracks.
Cadillac on Ice
In my case, I was on a winter-driving course run jointly by Cadillac and Monticello Motor Club, two hours from Manhattan. For $695, you spend a half day with private instructors in CTS sedans and SRX crossovers, snow willing.
I broke fresh tracks around the road course in an all-wheel-drive, 270-horsepower CTS. The car isn’t light, so getting around the course is a question of finesse, not muscle.
Chief instructor Matt Sklarz rode in the right seat, gently chiding me when I screwed up. “A bit too aggressive,” he said, as I hurled sideways into a turn and spun 180 degrees.
I often drive this track fast and safely. But at 20 mph in the slick stuff, my “wrecks” were slow motion, and small errors came into sharp focus in a way they don’t at 110 mph. Normally I’m trying to slice seconds off my lap time; now I was able to focus on the errors which make that difficult
Regaining control of a wayward automobile is often counter-intuitive. In some conditions like driving in snow, you may turn the steering wheel and find that the car itself isn’t turning. This is a phenomenon called understeer and one of the ways to fix it is to uncork the wheel, not turn it more.
“Undo the thing that got you into the situation in the first place,” says Sklarz. “You have to practice. Muscle memory is the only way.”
I could have been teaching my muscles the same techniques in a $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador on an ice track outside of Cortina, Italy.
The Italian carmaker teaches customers to drift its latest, high-powered flagship and various Gallardo coupes. Good thing they’re all-wheel-drive. The price is 5,950 euro ($7,870) and various track and “extreme” courses are offered throughout the year.
Perhaps you’re already over the snow and would prefer dry tarmac. One of the most venerable U.S. driving schools is Skip Barber, which offers both car-control and racing classes around the country, on legendary road courses like Connecticut’s Lime Rock and Monterey’s Laguna Seca. Cars include open-wheeled racers, Porsches, Lotuses and Mazda Miatas.
If you’ve got a new teen driver or want a taste of basic car control techniques (like managing that skid), the Mazda Driving School is an excellent bet. At prices starting at $1,000, every driver would benefit.
My first taste of performance driving was at a Skip Barber event. I couldn’t believe just how hard you could hurl a Porsche Boxster into a tight curve, brakes burning and tires singing. I’ve suffered from track madness ever since.
This year I’ll take a three-day Skip Barber race school, which includes advanced stuff like racing in the rain.
Still, I’ve learned more from Porsche instructors than anyone else. The company offers a full range of beginner to advanced classes at Barber Motorsports in Birmingham, Alabama. (It’s not affiliated with Skip Barber.)
The track itself is manicured like a golf course, with blind hills and jarringly fast straightaways. There are women’s only days, one-day classes and even an advanced course driving GT3 Cup race cars (which I’m so going to do).
Instructors include the likes of Hurley Haywood, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times and 24 Hours of Daytona five. I’ve known him for around a dozen years and he’s a great instructor, but he doesn’t mince words.
“You’re a student who’s really come a long way,” he told me recently. “Because when we first met, you were a terrible driver.”
Cadillac Winter Driving Experience, $695; racing schools also offered. Information: +1-877-578-7223, extension 293; http://www.monticellomotorclub.com/winter.
Lamborghini Academy, winter and track events, prices vary. Information: +39-051-681-7728; http://www.lamborghiniacademy.com.
Skip Barber Racing School, courses from $800. Information: +1-866-932-1949; http://www.skipbarber.com.
Porsche Sport Driving School, courses from $1,800. Information: +1-888-204-7474; http://www.porschedriving.com.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)