My First Driving School… or, what happens for the uninitiated

I had read the e-mails following previous driving schools filled with praise and appreciation for the instructors, volunteers and the event. I have worked corners at Second Creek and Pueblo during previous schools to check out these events. And yet, I hesitated. I had fallen prey to at least two of the “Lame Excuses” in the article by Matt Brod (pg 41, October 2006 Motorsport Report).

Worried that my driving would be so far off the mark that it be an embarrassment (no. 10 on the Matt’s list)
Worried that I’d damage the car (no. 4 on the Matt’s list).
Neither could be further from the truth. The instructors were supportive and encouraging, as was everyone. Further, I certainly should have had more faith in the car – a ’93 M5 (E34 style, Euro with the 3.8 L., shown in the photo) – that seemed completely unfazed by the event.

photo by Bill Schaefer

I was able to keep my schedule clear for the fall driving school date. The registration fee was a gift as an added incentive to actually do it. The first day our website registration opened, I was registered. I then downloaded all forms and information. Prior to driving school, the M5 thankfully cleared the technical inspection without any issues. A word of thanks to Art Kathe at Catalyst Racing for doing the inspection, for his encouragement about the school, and for his care of the M5. I spent Thursday evening before the event in the garage checking all the fluids, removing the hubcaps and floor mats, and cleaning out the car. This included pulling the six-disc changer from the trunk, which is not secured very well. I packed a box with what I would need at the track – straight off the lists provided on the website and in the Motorsport Report, plus window cleaner and paper towels to clean off whatever got on the windshield during the drive to track (this was a useful addition). Friday evening I found myself rechecking the weather, which turned out to be superb (how did Andrew Jordan plan that?), and early to bed to be rested for the early departure for Pueblo.

I was up early Saturday morning for the trip to Pueblo. To keep from making too much of a commotion at home, I stopped for breakfast in Colorado Springs, got back on I-25 and was able to tuck in behind two newer M3s for the final cruise to Pueblo. Exit I-25 in Pueblo; gassed up and headed to the track to be met at the gate by an awfully cheery for 6:30 in the morning, Darlene Doran. Sign the waiver form, got the wristband and off to the paddock I went. Parked the car and unload, which was very easy because of prior preparation. I’m there early enough to watch the sunrise, wander around and look at the other cars. I helped Fred Iacino unload his 3 series racecar, and answer a few questions about my car (no, it’s a ’93, before the 6 speed or floating rotors). Oh, do not forget to rent a helmet. The club now has rental helmets available, defeating one of my other previous concerns (no. 8 on Matt’s list, “it costs too much,” because I was figuring in the cost of a helmet).

Finally, it seems like a lot of people are around. The club van returns from setting up the track and an announcement is made to gather round. The Driving School Coordinator, Andrew Jordan and Chief Safety Steward John Fornarola are introduced and the mantra of safety is recited. There are other introductions made, volunteers are recognized and then a call for all those who are new to this to raise their hands. A lot of hands go up to a hearty round of welcoming applause. We, the new drivers, find out that we’re not alone.

Now it’s off to the first classroom session where we are met by a man wearing a bright pink instructor’s shirt, Bill Little. Bill tells us that real men wear pink (even former Formula 1 drivers); not all Formula 1 drivers are as good as we think they are (I think that’s what he meant), this is NOT racing school, and that the laws of physics cannot be broken and for which there is no court of appeal (but Bill, I have an M5?!). There are four classroom sessions for the novice drivers in the C and D groups, one before each track session. The classroom sessions are very well paced to match the driving sessions. The classes are informative, but not overwhelming. You start in the morning with some basic review and with the layout and rules of the track (such as corner 7 is tight and that you are absolutely not to yield to the wildlife), and end the day being introduced to the mystical and revered circle of traction. Also the final classroom session includes being given permission not to drive the fourth session if you’re too tired to focus. The emphasis on safety is readily apparent. The concerns about tired drivers at the end of the day remind me of the sayings about skiing injuries on the last run of the day. I wonder how many knees would be saved if the lift operators gave skiers permission to skip that last run….

Being in D group, you get to see what’s going on by watching the 3 groups ahead of you. This lets us figure out where the grid area is and how we’re supposed to line up our cars in that sporty backed in at an angle way (actually it makes entering the track quite easy). It turns out that the D group was a pretty together crowd. We started gridding as soon as the C group was on the track. The cars get a spot check for loose items and tire wear, and we wait to meet up with an instructor. I am approached by a tall grinning instructor, Bill Schaefer, who will be my instructor for both morning sessions. I learn that Bill has a 1995 540i M Sport, so he’s familiar with the larger heavier cars. I later learn that Bill is a former racer and is known as “Wild Bill.” Anyhow, Bill slowly drives the first lap to show me the track, to point out the cones that mark the turn-in and apex, and to give me some tips on handling the car. He talks his way around the course, as we can easily communicate with an intercom system. I also think that Bill is sizing up how my nerves are. I admit that my goal for the day is not lofty. Simply put – not to get a black flag for my driving, for an off-road excursion, or worse, because the car was smoking, steaming, dripping or a blaze. I’m clearly a bit nervous, but this ride along in my car is the best remedy. Getting a look at the track and having calm, cool coaching makes this seem easy and doable. He even takes pictures to commemorate the day.

OK, finally behind the wheel to learn that it’s doable, not that easy, and certainly tremendous fun. We got through our first two 20 minutes sessions with lots of encouragement, praise for corners well done, suggestions for improvement, all the while taking in the sheer fun of it. The track can be driven in third, except for a downshift at corner 7 and going to fourth on the straight away leaving a new driver, like me, to concentrate on braking, power, the correct line, and simply enjoying it. I still smile when thinking about the large sweeping corner 10. It may just be me, but the amount of power that can applied in this big corner and on to the straightway seemed to make the M5 quite happy.

Lunchtime brings the ride-alongs. The instructors get some track time for their enjoyment. After which students can ride along in a variety of cars including racecars. I got to ride in an older, stock 3 series with Alain van der Heide. Alain apologies for the car, but no need, the ride is fun and really informative. It is also humbling; in that the first thing I learn is that I have a long way to go. But, I know what to look for – turn-in, apex, and shifts. I highly recommend the ride-alongs because you get the see and feel the track at higher speed, and you get to meet more people in the club. Ride-alongs occur again at the end of the day. I sneaked in a two at the end of day. The first was with Mark Weber in his beautiful M535i, which I really wanted to ride in being a fiver fan. The last ride was with Graeme Weston-Lewis in a newer race-prepped M3 that provided my fastest laps of the day. This ride gave me an education on corners 2 and 3, the feel of “tail-out” in seven, and the thought that there are some things the M5 cannot do (at least in its stock configuration).

My first afternoon drive session was with Dottie Bellinger, who drove the M5 at a higher speed than Bill had in the morning. This had the affect of getting me to want to do it. I ended up struggling in this session. Adding more shifting between some of the corners and greater speed was more to manage while trying to stay on the line. Dottie was very patient about the whole thing, and identified things to work on. Fortunately you don’t have to try to remember all of this; you are given a logbook which has all of your instructor comments. The final session of the day was with Lori Schmitt, a newer instructor with the chapter who has an affinity for the older cars. She was fine with me backing off a bit and concentrating on the line and on having fun. Lori and Dottie repeatedly pointed out that I still had pavement on their side of the car when coming out of corners. I will need to learn where that right side of the car is – another future goal.

The day ends with final announcements including the statement that this was another uneventful and safe driver’s school for a chapter with a long track record of safety. The volunteers and other workers are recognized. The awards – “most improved driver” and “car of the day” for an interesting or unusual model – both went to Andy Morris and his ’88 535is. It’s very nice to see a new D group driver get the award with a car on which he’s worked very hard. Finally heading home, I am very pleased with the whole day – with what I learned, with how helpful and supportive the instructors were, and with the sheer fun of it. I’m left wondering why I didn’t do this sooner.

So, that’s my recounting of a very fun day which was my first day of driving school. I hope I have made potential participants more aware of what happens and more willing to register for the next driving school. My rank amateur advice is: drive your car enough before driving school to be very comfortable with it, volunteer to work a corner and see what driving school is like, if need be have your mechanic tell you it’s going to be OK, and get on with getting registered. I’ll see you at the Spring Performance Driving School.

by Mark Winey